About two weeks ago, Claire Thompson, upon finding that I didn't allow comments initially was "aghast" and wrote,

On my blog comments were my riason d’etre. What was wrong with this guy? If only I could give him a piece of my mind…"

I'm glad that I wasn't close at hand then. :)

She then went on to a brief but thoughtful consideration of the pros and cons of having comments. One point she made that I hadn't given much thought to before was that many readers are not likely to follow trackbacks. Comments have a time advantage by having the entire conversation in one place.

I'm not sure why readers don't follow trackbacks, but I believe that many want to skim something quickly, and if it attracts them enough, they will slow down to think about it. Going after trackbacks simply doesn't have a sufficient level of catalytic attraction to get them to click. That applies to me, too, because often all trackbacks do is quote part of a post from which I can't determine if it's worth my time to click on it. Trackbacks need to have a few words that indicate the value/substance of the reply sufficiently so that I want to see what they have to say. As Christine Martell, one of the commenters on Claire's post, stated,

I don’t check out trackbacks on others posts unless the blogger points them out in a subsequent post. I’m even clicking on less and less links in a post unless the blogger gives me a sense of why I should. I’ve just gone down too many paths of check out this post only to find out it doesn’t add a lot of value for me.

Similarly, the large majority of readers do not want to expend the time and energy in writing a lenghty and thoughtful comment. In the two years since I initially gave my rationale for no comments, not one reader has taken me up on my invitation to send me by email a thoughtful and measured response to anything I've written for posting on my blog. (Before that time, two individuals did post lengthy responses on my blog, one, a colleague whose response I invited.)

Now I do think that some blogs are meant for comments. Technical ones are a good example, in which a large number of people can bring together isolated pieces of information, giving readers a much better grasp of possibilities for resolving some problem. And some blogs seem to encourage good comments, such as the Becker-Posner Blog.

But many blogs (I would say most), for whatever the reason, have too many comments that add nothing but feelings. As Claire noted, this post

by Will Richardson has garnered 68 blog reactions and 166 comments to date. What could someone possibly add to the conversation at comment 166? I don’t know, but they must feel pretty stongly to add their 2 cents worth.

For these reasons, I don't think comments are best for students because they often take the path of least resistance due to time pressures, such as work, family, and so on. The goal for blogs used in classes has to be learning, but the instantaneous nature of comments inhibit reflection. Then, again, as Mary Hillis wrote,

commenting is a skill that students need some guidance on.

From this perspective, with guidance, perhaps commenting can be a learning endeavor. Before assuming that comments or no comments are better, we should be able to answer questions like these:

  • Is commenting as effective for learning as writing a post on one's own blog and trackbacking to the initial post.
  • Does posting on one's own blog reduce the tendency of confirmation bias that is found in comments?
  • Does the social nature of commenting (compared to trackbacks) motivate students more to continue their learning via blogs after the class ends?

Each of these questions would make for a good study, and at the least require some thought before assuming that comments are important for learning.

Although I lean against commenting, I do not see it as black and white. There's no research along these lines that I am aware of that can give definitive answers according to type of blog, context, and so on. But for those of us who are educators, I would say that we need to be careful about being sidetracked by the social contagion of commenting and instead keep the goal of learning in the foreground of our blogging and of our students' blogging.

Related posts can be found at Why I don't have comments.

Collaborative learning can aid the ESL learner tremendously, which was discussed at length in a recent study by Johnson & Wales University. Luckily, the advent of the Internet has fostered global communiqué between both ESL students and teachers. There are scores of growing online communities that offer support to new students, many of which provide much-needed multilingual support. Below are five such communities, all of which serve as useful resources for both students and teachers.  

  1. The ESL Café – This comprehensive site is friendly to ESL newcomers and provides countless online learning materials. Here, students and teachers can communicate on forums and gain access to ESL-related job leads.

  3. John's ESL – This site is divided into two communities: one for students and one for teachers. Both areas are interactive and informative, offering guidance to those within the ESL world.

  5. English Club – Serving as an online "clubhouse" for ESL learners, this vast community provides welcome lessons and an inviting forum for teachers and students to communicate.

  7. English, Baby! – One of the largest online ESL communities, this site offers free English lessons, as well as live chats and English language forums. Here, fellow ESL learners can meet and help one another.

  9. English Forums – People from all over the world visit the forums on this site to meet others who are transitioning to an English-speaking culture. It can be comforting to speak with other people from your native country who are just learning English.

The sites above provide a comfortable environment for those who are new to the ESL society. With free online communities and online ESL lessons, the Internet offers many wonderful opportunities to those who are new to the language.  



This post was contributed by Heather Johnson, who is an industry critic on the subject of university reviews. She invites your feedback at heatherjohnson2323 at gmail dot com.

Abstract is better than concrete for transfer, according to the New York Times reporting of recent research in mathematics:

In the experiment, the college students learned a simple but unfamiliar mathematical system, essentially a set of rules. Some learned the system through purely abstract symbols, and others learned it through concrete examples like combining liquids in measuring cups and tennis balls in a container.

Then the students were tested on a different situation — what they were told was a children’s game — that used the same math. “We told students you can use the knowledge you just acquired to figure out these rules of the game,” Dr. Kaminski said.

The students who learned the math abstractly did well with figuring out the rules of the game. Those who had learned through examples using measuring cups or tennis balls performed little better than might be expected if they were simply guessing. Students who were presented the abstract symbols after the concrete examples did better than those who learned only through cups or balls, but not as well as those who learned only the abstract symbols.

The problem with the real-world examples, Dr. Kaminski said, was that they obscured the underlying math, and students were not able to transfer their knowledge to new problems.

“They tend to remember the superficial, the two trains passing in the night,” Dr. Kaminski said. “It’s really a problem of our attention getting pulled to superficial information.”

The explanation of examples clouding up the concepts reminds me somewhat of the research on reading about seductive details diminishing recall of information. (There are many articles on this phenomenon, but see, for example, Processing and recall of seductive details in scientific text.)

Transfer is also a major problem in writing: Students often don't transfer what they know about writing in one situation to new situations. Somehow, the situations are compartmentalized so that the concepts don't transfer, which remains me of the research on students learning physics. David Hammer's research showed that students could compartmentalize and keep their every day notions about motion from the physics concepts they were learning.

So, although this was a small study (and one that needs to be replicated), it does fit in with what we know of transfer, that learning that is bound to a particular context doesn't transfer well--which explains why students who have learned the five-paragraph essay structure in high school continue to use it in college even when an assignment requires them not to.

What would be the abstract set of rules for writing? I've looked at that before, except I called them "building blocks." But although I can see the need for knowing the building blocks abstractly, I think mastering them abstractly is achieved through much practice of remixing these building blocks across contexts. (See Learning by Remixing and also this review/synopsis of Spiro's Cognitive Flexibility Theory.)

The problem remains determining what those building blocks are. Although they likely differ across genre (just as math concepts differ from geometry to algebra to calculus and so on), they must also have elements in common. At a basic level, there's always writer, audience, text, and purpose. For persuasion, it may come down to the formula in Graff and Birkenstein's book "They Say / I Say", in which writers join into a conversation with others and position themselves with respect to those others. It's a small book with three parts and ten chapters:

Part 1. "They say"

ONE: "They say" (Starting with What Others Are Saying)

TWO: "Her Point Is" (The Art of Summarizing)

THREE: "As He Himself Puts It" (The Art of Quoting)

Part 2. "I Say"

FOUR: "Yes / No / Okay, But" (Three Ways to Respond)

FIVE: "And Yet" (Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say)

SIX: "Skeptics May Object" (Planting a Naysayer in Your Text)

SEVEN: "So What? Who Cares?" (Saying Why It Matters)

Part 3: Tying It All Together

EIGHT: "As a Result" (Connecting the Parts)

NINE: "Ain't So / Is Not" (Academic Writing Doesn't Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice)

TEN: "In Other Words" (The Art of Metacommentary)

As you can see, despite having only two building blocks--"they say" and "I say"--students are led into a variety of ways of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating what "they say," along with generating their own understanding and position among others in a conversation. And treating persuasive writing like a conversation has many connections to students' lives: They argue about their sports, clothes, cars, majors, professors, and so on.

I imagine that different sets of building blocks are possible, just as different sets of rules can be found in different fields of math. The key seems to be helping students practice using one coherent set of building blocks (i.e., abstract principles) across contexts.

Related posts:
The Five-Paragraph Essay and Building Blocks of Writing
The Five-Paragraph Essay (continued)
Learning by Remixing