June 17, 2009

Using Twitter to Facilitate Classroom Discussions

By: in Effective Teaching Strategies

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As a history major I usually found most of my history courses pretty interesting. Certainly some were more interesting than others but I think that had more to do with the instructor than the content. Of course not every student who takes a history class course plans to major in it, which is why I love it when I hear about a history professor (or any educator for that matter) doing innovative things to engage students in one of those “core courses” many students often dread.

Take, for example, Monica Rankin PhD., an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who was looking to incorporate more student-centered learning activities in her U.S. History course this past spring. How she accomplished this goal is what makes it so intriguing. She used Twitter, the micro-blogging site that limits posts (known as “tweets”) to just 140 characters.

The course met Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for 50 minutes. With about 90 students in the class, Dr. Rankin delivered traditional lectures on Mondays and Wednesdays, with time set aside on Fridays for the “Twitter experiment” where students would tweet about what they learned from that week’s reading assignment.

After some trial and error, Dr. Rankin found that the most effective way to use Twitter to facilitate classroom discussions was to break students into small groups to first discuss the reading, and then have one person in each group tweet the most relevant comments from the group. The comments were projected on a screen for the rest of the class to see what others groups were discussing. Toward the end of the class, Rankin would bring all the students together to re-emphasize some of the key points brought forth by the different groups.

Students, even those who had never used Twitter before, liked the format because it made participating in class discussions less intimidating and allowed even quiet students to have their voice heard. This You Tube video has some great interviews with students, as well as Dr. Rankin.

“Twitter did not replace more conventional discussion formats; instead it enhanced the discussions and brought more student interaction,” Rankin concluded. “Overall, I think the Twitter experiment was successful primarily because it encouraged students to engage who otherwise would not.

“Even in smaller classes, only a small number of students actively participate in class discussions. Students knew that their class participation grade would be partially determined by their involvement in these discussions and most of them seemed comfortable with using the technology to engage with the reading materials.”

To read more about the Twitter experiment, go here.

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