Teaching with Twitter: Engaging Students in Large Lectures

This guest post was written by Corey Ryan Earle, a staff member and visiting lecturer at Cornell University.

AMST - Pano
AMST 2001: The First American University. Photo: Margaux Neiderbach

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Lecturing to a large classroom can offer significant challenges to instructors. For the past three years, I taught a lecture-based history course at Cornell University that has grown from just over 100 students to nearly 400. In a packed auditorium, engaging students with the material during lectures can be difficult. Slides, images, and videos are helpful when used appropriately, but they leave students as passive observers. An added challenge is the ubiquitous distraction of smartphones, and enforcing a ban on devices in a class of 400 students is nearly impossible.

Fortunately, a number of recent technologies have been developed to address student engagement. The i>clicker student response system has become commonplace in college classrooms, assisting with quizzes, attendance, polling, and other methods of in-lecture feedback. But clicker-based systems also require the students (or instructor) to purchase hardware, which isn’t always feasible. With most students constantly connected through smartphones, how can we leverage the technology to increase classroom engagement?

I decided to experiment with Twitter in the classroom during my second year teaching this course. Beginning in the first week, a Twitter hashtag of the course’s catalog abbreviation (#AMST2001) was included in the corner of every lecture slide. Students were encouraged (not required) to live-tweet each lecture, using their smartphones to engage with the lecture instead of texting friends or browsing Facebook. No limits were placed on the types of tweets; they could be informative, observational, humorous, or inquisitive.

Thanks to a Google Drive spreadsheet and a helpful macro by “EdTech explorer” Martin Hawksey, each week’s tweets were automatically archived. A stream of the tweets was also embedded in the course’s Blackboard page. These technologies made it easy for me to review tweets after lectures, and also made them more accessible to non-Twitter users in the class. To further incentivize tweeting, I would recognize the five “top tweets” from the previous week at the start of each lecture, which became a coveted honor for students (and a fun way of reviewing the previous week’s material).

By the end of the semester (spring 2012), the course hashtag had generated over 1,350 tweets from approximately 150 different individuals, or about 3.9 tweets per enrolled students and 96 per lecture. The next year (spring 2013), the numbers increased to over 2,150 tweets from approximately 260 individuals (5.5 tweets per enrolled student and 154 per lecture). Although only a fraction of the class actively tweeted (in year two, about 7% of students averaged at least one tweet per lecture), many more followed the hashtag. Some students created Twitter accounts just for the course.

It quickly became evident that Twitter facilitated a number of valuable outcomes:

  • Encouraged active engagement during lectures – Students now could interact with lecture material instead of being expected to sit back and absorb it. The tweets encouraged active listening from more than just those who actively participated; witty observations from the tweets were meaningless to students who didn’t pay attention in class.
  • Redirected smartphone distractions – Instead of attempting to control or limit smartphone use during lectures, Twitter allowed students to use their phones more productively.
  • Provided instant feedback – A glance at the tweets after lecture each week made it easy to see what resonated with students or what may have been boring or unclear. This type of candid and immediate feedback is often difficult to receive in a large classroom.
  • Facilitated student-instructor interaction – With hundreds of students in one course, the instructor can struggle to get to know students on an individual basis. Twitter offered a relatively informal forum for me to answer questions, clarify content, and directly interact with students. I could also tweet out reminders about assignments or teasers of upcoming content.
  • Distributed supplemental course material – Outside of class, I could easily distribute additional course material via Twitter. A reference to a relevant article in class could be followed up with a tweet linking to that article. Media used in class could easily be shared afterward.
  • Helped students catch up on missed material – I’m reluctant to post my full presentations online, so students who missed an occasional lecture could instead read the tweets for a glimpse of what content was covered. One particular student actually used Storify to create a summary of each lecture he missed and then shared it with others via Twitter.
  • Disseminated course content widely – A primary goal of any course is to educate. Twitter brought my course’s content to thousands of people. Fascinating facts from lectures would be tweeted and retweeted by students, sometimes spreading across networks for days. The course hashtag also allowed those not enrolled in the course (other students, alumni, faculty, parents, etc.) to follow along from afar. Alumni of the course would occasionally chime in with their own memories from class. Tweets spread awareness of course content and the course itself, leading to increased enrollment.

Of course, using Twitter is not without its problems. A course hashtag means encouraging students to be on their smartphones during lecture, and it can be difficult to differentiate between who is live-tweeting and who is playing Angry Birds. The instant feedback is also a double-edged sword – as soon as the instructor misspeaks, it gets echoed to the world via Twitter. The tweets would also occasionally perpetuate factual errors; if an overzealous tweeter misheard a fact from class, the misinformation could spread. However, most students refrained from tweeting straight facts altogether, instead competing with their peers to make the cleverest jokes about lecture material. The ability to create anonymous Twitter accounts was also enticing to class jokesters, who would chime in with inappropriate commentary, but such incidents were rare.

In my opinion, the experiment was a success. After two years of teaching with Twitter, I plan to continue incorporating it into class. Twitter offers a fun way for students to connect with course material, each other, and the instructor – all of which are common challenges in most large lecture-format classes. But perhaps the best testament to using Twitter in class came from a student interview in The Cornell Daily Sun student newspaper. When asked about his favorite class, the student offered the following thoughts on the Twitter experiment:

“If you told me I could tweet all class and that I was learning, I’d think you’re ridiculous. But then try doing it; … the truth is you’ll always remember what you said and what you were talking about.”

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Teaching with Twitter: Engaging Students in Large Lectures by Corey Ryan Earle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.


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