Keeping college students off social media sites and focused on the course material is a daily challenge for many of today’s college faculty. But what if you could harness the power of today’s technologies and students’ proclivity toward social networking to enhance the learning experience rather than distract from it?
That’s the intention of a number of forward-thinking professors — from Professor Monica Rankin’s in-class Twitter experiment in 2009 with her history students at the University of Texas at Dallas (reported here) to Professor Reynol Junco’s recent study which saw students in a first-year seminar course who used Twitter for educationally relevant activities outside of class achieve a higher GPA than the control group.
In the article The Effect of Twitter on College Student Engagement and Grades, published in November 2010 by the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, Junco revealed the findings of the 14-week study by concluding that it “provides the first piece of controlled experimental evidence that using Twitter in educationally relevant ways can increase student engagement and improve grades, and thus, that social media can be used as an educational tool to help students reach desired college outcomes.”
Junco, an associate professor of academic development and counseling at Lock Haven University, has been using Twitter for about two years. Like many people, including this author, he admits that he didn’t “get” Twitter at first.
“I didn’t realize Twitter’s potential for connection, communication, and scholarly exchanges for at least six months,” Junco says. “Then, I became active in a number of Twitter-based educational chats and communities and developed connections with other researchers and educators. It was only then that I realized the educational and interpersonal potential of Twitter.”
Setting up the Twitter study
Junco and study co-author Greg Heiberger conducted the study across seven sections of a one-credit course for first-year pre-health professional majors. The 70 students in the experimental group used Twitter as part of the class and the 55 students in the control group did not. Participation was voluntary.
Interestingly, while Facebook is wildly popular among college students, none of the students in the study had used Twitter before the study began and had to be taught the basics of setting up an account, tweeting, retweeting and replying to messages, using hashtags, and managing privacy settings.
Using Twitter for educationally relevant activities
With the experimental group, Twitter was used for various types of course-related communication and collaboration activities, including: continuing class discussions, book discussions, class and campus event reminders, academic and personal support, and organizing study groups and service learning projects.
The researchers selected 19 questions from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to measure student engagement before and after their participation in the study and found a much greater difference in the engagement scores of the group using Twitter —a 5.12 difference for the experimental group’s score compared to the 2.29 difference for the control group.
In addition, students gave the researchers permission to access their academic records to record their GPAs for that semester and the students in the Twitter group achieved an overall GPA of 2.79, compared to 2.28 for the control group.
Junco says he was surprised by the effect on grades, and by how well students used Twitter – often continuing their conversation well beyond what was required and in more depth than in-class discussions. Shy students in particular reported feeling more comfortable communicating their ideas via Twitter than talking in class. Another big surprise, Junco says, was how Twitter “helped break down barriers between cliques that carry over from high school,” citing as an example a friendship between an extroverted athlete and an introverted fan of comic books.
“In our experience working with first year students, these kinds of connections between students from diverse backgrounds don’t happen so quickly and easily,” he says.
Advice for using Twitter in your teaching
If you’re considering using Twitter with your students, Junco offers the following advice:
“I think the most important thing is to focus on how you will use the technology in the classroom and not on the technology itself,” he says.” While we found interesting results using Twitter, we believe that the pivotal factor was how we used it in educationally-relevant ways. Our research team is currently looking at how we can expand our study to come up with materials to help professors use social technologies in educationally-relevant ways.”
In this video, Junco and some of the students who participated in the study share their thoughts on the experiment:
Junco, R., Heiberger, G. and Loken, E. The effect of Twitter on college student engagement and grades. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2010.00387. Access the PDF of the article »
At the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, Professor Junco talks about some of his early findings from the study. View the video »