Blogging: brain imaging for the mind

It’s 1995, and a student is moving flats for the fifth time in three years. She finds – again – the shoebox of diaries from her teenage years; curiosity forces the box open. Instead of packing, the student spends half the weekend re-reading the diaries and re-living her teens.

Then she shreds the lot and throws them out with the rest of the trash.

Re-encountering your 15-year-old self in writing is right up there with watching yourself on video as an exercise in mortification. But both represent great ways of kick-starting some metacognition: wow, did I really used to be/think/dress like that?

Thinking about your own thinking, learning, or understanding is one of the most valuable things you can take from education. Writing it all down makes it easier: when you can see your thoughts on paper, it’s much easier to critically evaluate them than when they’re all sloshing around inside your head. We are a very visual species, which is why we’ve developed so many ways of visualising abstract concepts. (That link, courtesy of @scottabel, is a beauty: mouse over each element and marvel.) Journalling or blogging is just one more way of visualising information; it’s useful both for understanding your own thought processes, and for reviewing your own progress over time.

At the APS conference in San Francisco, the poster next to mine was about how blogging can help students understand their own learning process. Then at the University Conference the other day, I got to listen to Jenni Barrett talking about how she asked final year students to blog regularly, and how this not only gave them space in which to reflect on their own learning, but also enabled part-time students to build a more cohesive community among themselves. Perhaps most critically, blogging may promote better academic performance by encouraging active, student-centred learning.

I’m going to start encouraging students – especially final year project students – to blog or keep a diary/lab-book about their studies, so they have another visualisation tool at their disposal, one that will promote metacognition. If you write/draw/create authentically, blogging or journalling of any kind can be a superb diagnostic tool, allowing you to visualise and evaluate what’s going on in your own head.

My favourite advice about blogging comes from Merlin Mann: good blogs are weird, and reflect focused obsessions. Be yourself, in all your nerdy, quirky glory. The more you you are, the stronger your connection to your own thought processes will become, and the more you will be able to develop your ideas – which, incidentally, is why it’s so important to choose research projects that speak to your interests.

(As usual, this post is not the one I sat down to write; I never know until I see it in front of me what needs to be added or removed. Visualisation tools are brilliant.)

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