Context: academic medical centres may adopt new learning technologies with little data on their effectiveness or on how they compare with traditional methodologies. We conducted a comparative study of student reflective writings produced using either an electronic (blog) format or a traditional written (essay) format to assess differences in content, depth of reflection and student preference.
Methods: students in internal medicine clerkships at two US medical schools during the 2008-2009 academic year were quasi-randomly assigned to one of two study arms according to which they were asked to either write a traditional reflective essay and subsequently join in faculty-moderated, small-group discussion (n = 45), or post two writings to a faculty-moderated group blog and provide at least one comment on a peer's posts (n = 50). Examples from a pilot block were used to refine coding methods and determine inter-rater reliability. Writings were coded for theme and level of reflection by two blinded authors; these coding processes reached inter-rater reliabilities of 91% and 80%, respectively. Anonymous pre- and post-clerkship surveys assessed student perceptions and preferences.
Results: student writing addressed seven main themes: (i) being humanistic; (ii) professional behaviour; (iii) understanding caregiving relationships; (iv) being a student; (v) clinical learning; (vi) dealing with death and dying, and (vii) the health care system, quality, safety and public health. The distribution of themes was similar across institutions and study arms. The level of reflection did not differ between study arms. Post-clerkship surveys showed that student preferences for blogging or essay writing were predicted by experience, with the majority favouring the method they had used.
Conclusions: our study suggests there is no significant difference in themes addressed or levels of reflection achieved when students complete a similar assignment via online blogging or traditional essay writing. Given this, faculty staff should feel comfortable in utilising the blog format for reflective exercises. Faculty members could consider the option of using either format to address different learning styles of students.