The effects of Twitter on student engagement and learning

There are lots of ‘feel good’ stories about using Twitter in teaching, and I’ve long been a supporting of using social media in undergraduate classes. But does it work…? What effects does Twitter have on learning?

An example of a student Tweet, used to promote their blog post.

An example of a student Tweet, used to promote their blog post.

This was a question we decided to tackle in my field biology class, and recently, in a collaboration with Lauren Soluk (as part of her graduate work), we surveyed students about using Twitter in the classroom*. Here are the take-home messages from the work:

  • Students Tweeted over 200% more than what was required as part of the course work
  • Students used Twitter in many different ways, from informal communication, to promoting their own blogs, to asking questions of each other or of the course instructors and TA.
  • Students used Twitter to communicate with their instructor or TA 56% of the time, with their peers 27% of the time, and with people external to the course 17% of the time.
  • 94% of students felt that among-group communication was beneficial (i.e., either ‘yes” or ‘somewhat’) to their learning, and 78% of students surveyed felt Twitter increased this among-group communication.
  • When asked whether Twitter had an impact on how they engaged with the course content, 67% of the students answered ‘yes’ or ‘somewhat’.
  • When asked whether Twitter is a good tool to help student learn in the classroom,  78% of the students answered ‘yes’ or ‘somewhat’.
A learning community: One student group Tweeting at another student group, to ask them a question.

A learning community: One student group Tweeting at another student group, to ask them a question.

Interesting, most students surveyed said they wouldn’t continue to use Twitter after the class was over. They certainly preferred other tools (e.g., Facebook) to Twitter. Despite this, the students felt Twitter useful in the context of the field biology class, and could see its value independent of their own personal views.

Overall, the results are impressive, and suggests there are good reasons to consider using social media tools such as Twitter, in a University class. It’s certainly not a tool for everyone (and there are important guidelines to consider), nor would it be useful in all contexts, but it clearly serves an important role in my field biology class. Twitter allows students to engage with different audiences, and helps create a rather novel learning community: a community that can include experts from around the world.

A question asked by students, over Twitter

A question asked by students, over Twitter

The answer... from an expert from a different country.

The answer… from an expert from a different country.

Reference:

*Soluk, L & CM Buddle Tweets from the forest: using Twitter to increase student engagement in an undergraduate field biology course [v1; ref status: awaiting peer review]

Note: this paper is currently awaiting peer review – please consider reading the full paper and providing a review! 

 

Student for a day (Part 3): operation dissection

This is the third and final post about going back to the classroom: you can find the first post here and the second one here.

We rushed from the lecture hall to the basement of the main teaching complex on campus. I walked down the hall towards the lab, that old familiar smell was in the air: it was the “face-muscle dissection day” in Comparative Anatomy. This took me immediately back to my undergraduate days at the University of Guelph.  There were just over a dozen students in the lab, and the ‘specimens’ (I shall NOT mention what they were!) were sitting on stainless steel lab tables, with the dissection gear at the ready. Scalpel? CHECK. Forceps? CHECK. Scissors? CHECK. It was operation: dissection. I was nervous…. then I was handed rubber gloves and a labcoat. I was WAY out of my element…

The instructor started with an extremely detailed 45 minute lecture, providing an excellent overview of the game-plan for the dissections: the expectations of the students was exceedingly clear, and the instructor’s own deep expertise was obvious.

Checking the notes before the dissection commences...

Checking the notes before the dissection commences…

And then the music went on (yes, music! One of the TAs always picks a lovely selection to work to) and the clang of forceps, scalpels scissors started: the students were off, peeling skin and searching for ever-elusive face muscles. It was hard and tedious work: after 30+ minutes our team had only just begun to expose the first layer of muscles. The students expressed how tough the class was, and how it took an incredible amount of time to study their notes after labs. In addition to their own notes, the textbook, and the laboratory notes, my team was taking photos with their smartphones, and taking some videos to use as future study aids. They have a test coming up soon, and were working hard to remember the content and link the ‘thing’ to the ‘name’. I asked the students why they were taking such a challenging course… surely it was required for their program? It turns out that the course wasn’t required, and the students were taking it because they wanted to. It was one of their favourite classes because it involved ‘doing’ things and involved experiential learning on a topic they were deeply interested in (animal biology). The act of dissecting was how they were learning, and the act of dissecting allowed them to really understand how animals work: from the shape and size of salivary glands, to why certain muscles were more developed than others, or how whiskers are embedded deep under the skin surface.

At one point I looked at the clock and was amazed that a full hour had already passed. I looked up from our specimen (and yes, my lab partners had given it a name…) and did a scan of the laboratory: everyone was hunched over, smiling, and now and then you heard ‘COOL’ and ‘WOW’. They were learning together, learning by doing, and loving it. They loved the challenge of the class and they weren’t watching the clock.

I had to leave and get back to my office, and the instructor came up afterwards to say thanks. I was told that never before had another instructor or Prof stepped into the classroom to see what they were doing. That’s a shame.

With my lab partners.

With my lab partners.

I come away from my “student for a day” experience with some vivid memories, new perspectives, and the following take-home messages:

  • There’s a lot of material! Wow, there was a lot of material! The students are learning a very high volume of content, and this happens day after day after day. No wonder they are sometimes stressed and fall behind. As Profs, we need to perhaps better recognize and respect work loads.
  • Different teaching styles are valuable: from lectures to discussions to hands-on laboratories, the variation was much appreciated. It would be tough sitting through six straight hours of lecture, but varying it between different formats works very well. Education is not, and should not *ever* be uniform. One shoe doesn’t fit all, and there is incredible value to ensuring our students get the variation in educational styles.
  • Spaces are important, perhaps more so than I appreciated before: the physical space itself had a great influence on my time as a student, from the angle of the screen to the placement of the door. The little things matter and the space is a key partner in learning. Variation in available spaces must match variation in different types of courses and instructors. We need big and small lecture halls, well-equipped laboratories, and collaborative learning spaces.
  • Students are bright, motivated, serious, and have high expectations: this is good to recognize. I already felt this about students on my campus, but seeing this first hand in three different classes confirmed my suspicions. We should maintain rigor and approach each course with an expectation that the audience is ready to learn and ready to be engaged.
  • Instructors always rush around from class to class and meeting to meeting, but we sometimes forget that students need to rush around too! There isn’t always time in their schedule to eat, line up for the washroom, or physically get from one classroom to another. This is a reminder for me to end class when it’s supposed to end, and be a little more forgiving when students come in a little bit late.

In sum, I will do this again, and would urge my colleagues to do the same. It’s important to see what students see, learn about different approaches to the classroom, and be sensitive to a full timetable and to the high workload that students experience.

A very special thanks to the students who allowed me to tag along: you were patient, kind, and made the experience extra-special.

Student for a day (Part 2): the lecture hall

This is the second of a three-part series on going back to the classroom: check out the first part here.

So far I was enjoying shadowing students for a day: I was excited after my exposure to the research project course, and was fuelled up on coffee as I checked the schedule, wolfed down my lunch and met my next chaperone. We walked together to a different building and to a more traditional setting: a lecture hall. The class was about animal health, and the content was about a retained placenta in cows, and how this affects bovine health and how the retained placenta might lead to other uterine diseases. The instructor, after setting up the Powerpoint, first took 5-10 minutes to ask the class questions from the last lecture. It was clear that this was a normal start to each lecture as the students had dutifully prepared questions for the instructor, and time and care was taken to address each student. This is a great approach, and although I sometimes do this with my own lectures, I don’t do this consistently at the start of each class. I think the students really appreciated devoting this time to discussion at the start of each of their lectures.

The instructor had carefully prepared slides, and had a very nice pace for the entire 90 minutes lecture. I learned a great deal, from Freemartins, to how to treat a cow with a suspected uterine infection. I was deeply impressed by the depth of knowledge of the instructor: research from peer-reviewed papers was used throughout the lecture, and many anecdotes were used to ground the content. There was a lot of content, and it was also clear that the instructor has high expectations of the students. The instructor was also passionate about the material, and this helped keep my interest.

The view from my seat in the lecture hall.

The view from my seat in the lecture hall.

One of the most interesting experiences for me was being able to view the students’ computer screens from the vantage point of a student! I could see about 6-7 screens, and I had some expectation that Facebook or cruising on web-browsers would occur. To my surprise and delight, students were using their computers largely to take notes: some students had the lecture slides (provided by the instructor before class started) on half their screens and a word processer on another part of their screen and they were moving with ease between the two. This was the definition of effective multitasking. My chaperone had a different approach, and was writing in a spiral-bound notebook. She told me that later on she looks at the lecture slides and cross-references with her hand-written notes as an effective way to study. I was impressed: these students are serious, and have given a lot of thought to the best way to take lecture notes and study. I have previously offered some rather strong opinions about instructors posting Powerpoint slides on-line, but what I was seeing in the classroom was certainly causing me to reflect and reconsider my opinions.

There were three important take-home message for me during this lecture:

  • start each class with questions and answers from the previous lecture
  • bring examples from peer-reviewed literature into lectures
  • recognize that students with laptops in class are using these laptops for class.

After lecture we had to rush (10 minutes between classes is not much time!) through melting snow and mud-puddles to get to the basement of another building for the final adventure for the day…

Student for a day (Part 1): spaces for discussion

Yesterday I went back to the classroom and shadowed undergraduate students for the day. I did this because I just don’t really know what happens in classrooms. As an Associate Dean, I feel a responsibility to be aware of what students face throughout their day. I think this will help me gain perspective in my administrative role, and allow me insights into other instructional styles and approaches to teaching and learning in different contexts. After all, I really only know my way of teaching: I’ve not been an undergraduate student for a very long time.

Due to a bit of poor planning on my part, and since we are nearing the ‘end of term madness’, I wasn’t able to get a schedule for the whole day, and instead attended only three classes, with two different students. These students were my chaperones, and took me under their wing as they went to lecture or lab. By pure chance, I ended up seeing three different kinds of classes during my day, and have reflections about each of these experiences. In the first of this three-part blog series, I will share my experience taking part in an independent research project course.

The first classroom: a conference room

The first classroom: a conference room

This was a very small class in which a few students were working on an independent project: their supervising Professor had recently given the group feedback on their written work, but was not present for this meeting. Instead, it was just the students and me (as a passive observer). Their project was centered on re-thinking environmental education with a goal of developing a framework or plan for teaching 9-12 year old kids about sustainability. The students were taking a very interesting approach in which their framework was focused on facilitating discussion around the values associated with teaching about sustainability: values such as respect, self-worth, respect and compassion. During our time together, the students edited a Google-doc together, and had deep and meaningful conversations about pedagogical principles. This was a wide-ranging discussion that was insightful, thoughtful and fascinating. To be honest, these students knew more about educational principles than most of my colleagues! They were in a science-based program, yet were reading literature from education journals, and were applying high-level thinking to a practical problem about how to create a learning opportunity based not on silos of knowledge, but on ways to approach sustainability from truly interdisciplinary perspectives.

The discussion also moved into a conversation about teaching spaces: for this class, we were actually situated in a conference room, with a couple of chairs, a computer and one of the students was attending virtually, over SKYPE. This learning space was important to them, and at one point one of the students said “You get the most learning outside of the classroom”. Their ideal University is not one of lecture halls, but one of open spaces, whiteboards and WIFI: spaces for debate and discussion about big projects and problems that rely on multiple disciplines. The students expressed frustration that very few of their classes approach problems from interdisciplinary perspectives (or if they do, it barely moves beyond lip service) yet this is what they want from their education. They want a learning community that draws upon all the silos of knowledge at the same time, and they want spaces to facilitate this kind of learning.

A learning space for discussion and collaboration: computer, SKYPE, coffee & notebooks.

A learning space for discussion and collaboration: computer, SKYPE, coffee & notebooks.

These students amazed me with their insights, thoughtful commentary, and clear ideas about education, learning spaces, and expectations from a University experience. ­

My “Student for a day” project was off to a great start. Next up, a traditional lecture hall…

Ephemeral art

It’s a difficult time of year for many people: Instructors are looking at how many lectures are left before final exams, and starting to panic about how much material hasn’t yet been covered! We are planning field seasons, applying for research permits, juggling meetings, and starting to think about how the summer’s work-life balance will play out. As we approach the end of term, stress levels in the classroom are also building. Students are working madly on term papers, scrambling to get things organized for summer jobs or internships, and looking ahead to final exams.

It’s busy. Everyone is too busy. The days are too full and it’s not easy.

Then this happens:

A gift on the chalkboard

A gift on the chalkboard

I teach with chalk, and in my lecture hall there’s a vertical sliding chalkboard. When I enter the room, the front, upper board is where I start the lecture and as that board fills up, I slide it up. Last week I was surprised by a beautiful woodpecker that someone had drawn. I was “art-bombed”: this drawing was ‘revealed’ about a third of the way into the lecture. It happened on #taxonomyday, which was fitting.

The woodpecker disappeared sometime after my lecture last week. Then this piece of ephemeral art appeared on Monday:

Another gift: this bird is an island.

Another gift: this bird is an island.

This is no longer a one-hit wonder! An unnamed student is taking time before lecture to leave some art for all of us. I don’t know who the student is, but this art brings joy to all of us, and provides a smile at a difficult time of year. It also allows me to modify the lecture and link the art to whatever I might be teaching. For example, lecturing about island biogeography on Monday, with a drawing of a sparrow on the chalkboard, allowed us to consider the bird as an island, and its fauna (feather mites, lice) colonize that island, and perhaps follow the predictions of MacArthur and Wilson’s equilibrium theory of island biogeography.

Dear unnamed student: know that you are doing something very special. You are taking time and energy out of your busy life to simply bring joy to others. Thank you for the ephemeral art.

Mushroom

Mushroom in chalk.

 

An ode to graduate students

Last week I saw two of my graduate students successfully defend their PhDs. This is wonderful and exciting, and I am delighted that they are both moving on to post-doctoral research positions in other places. I am also saddened by their departures: seeing good students leave the lab creates a vacuum. This has caused me to reflect about the effect graduate students have on their supervisors:

I write, teach, research.

I see classrooms, computers, forests and fields.

I use keyboards, iPads, PowerPoint, and pipettes.

I publish or perish.

LOIs, RFPs, IFs, and h-factors.

Grants, emails, to-do lists and budgets.

Learning?

Always.

Literature and libraries can start the process,

But books and blogs barely break the silence.

It’s the tangible human that makes the difference.

My colleagues, my friends:

You are the Academy.

Do you have the answers?

How to avoid wandering alone in ivory towers?

How to slow the withering on tenured vines?

How to grasp frail tendrils of discovery?

How to find that perfect chorus of voices, words, arguments and insights?

Search again.

Find hope and optimism in our laboratories.

Open the door to the greatest discovery of all:

It’s their keen intellect, smiles, kind words or questions.

It’s crafted by their company.

Caffeine-fuelled conversations critique, criticize, challenge.

(Coffee is never bitter with graduate students)

Embracing curiosity, creativity and collaboration.

Wrangling words together: perform, propose, predict.

Execute, explain, engage.

Fieldwork, funding, fellowship.

Null hypothesis, clear objectives, conceptual frameworks.

Significance and broader impact,

Contributions to knowledge.

Contributions for humanity.

I hope I did enough; I wish for more.

Fleeting moments are now warm memories:

Catching spiders on the tundra, or caterpillars in the canopy.

Thank you, students: you teach me.

We move beyond metrics and money.

We write, we study, we learn.

We discover.

We grow.

Crystal Ernst successfully defended her PhD on 23 Feb.

Crystal Ernst successfully defended her PhD on 23 Feb.

Dorothy Maguire (middle) successfully defended her PhD on 27

Dorothy Maguire (middle) successfully defended her PhD on 27 Feb. Elena Bennett was Dorothy’s co-supervisor.

Take the active learning challenge

Dear Instructors,

Here’s your challenge: Include active learning activities in every lecture.

Just do it.

Active learning is a philosophy and approach in which teaching moves beyond the ‘podium-style’ lecture and directly includes students in the learning process. There is certainly a big movement out there to include active learning in the classroom, there is evidence that it works, and active learning strategies have been around for a long time. Active learning can make learning experience more interactive, inclusive, and help embrace different learning styles. Active learning places the student in a more central role in a classroom, and allows students to engage with the course and course content in a different way.

So, why doesn’t everyone embrace active learning?

Without a doubt, it can take a bit of extra work. This post by Meghan Duffy provides an excellent case study, and illustrates the benefits and drawbacks of embracing a ‘flipped classroom’ in a large biology class, and part of that involves heaps of active learning strategies.

Active learning also involves some risk-taking, and perhaps risks that pre-tenure instructors should avoid. The strategies can remove some of the control of the instructor, and this can be uncomfortable for some teachers. For any active learning strategies to work, the instructor, and students, need to be on board, and each strategy brings some challenges, takes time to prepare, and certainly takes time in the classroom.

This term, in my 70+ student ecology class, I decided to take the active learning challenge, and, every lecture, include active learning*. I want to share a few of the things I have done so far, and hopefully show that some ideas are easy and doable, for pretty much any teaching context (note: I do use this book to help generate ideas)

1) The teacher becomes the student: for the last five minutes of class, I pretended to be a student, and asked the students to become the teacher. I then asked them some questions about the course content, drawing upon material from the last couple of lectures. Because I have taught the course for many years, I had a good sense of where some ‘problem areas’ may be, and thus formulated questions that got to the more difficult material. Students then were able to respond to my questions, and share their own expertise with the whole class.

2) Clear and muddy: at the end of one lecture, I asked the students to write down one part of the content they really understood well (the clear), and one area that might be “the muddiest point” (i.e., what they are struggling with). Students handed in the pieces of paper, and I went through and sorted them, and then spent part of the next lecture re-explaining common muddy areas. This was a terrific way to get anonymous feedback, helped reinforce areas that I perceived to be going well, and allowed me to target problem areas in the course.

Here's a "muddy" - this student's comment reflects a common concern around how I teach some of the content.

Here’s a “muddy” – this student’s comment reflects a common concern around how I teach some of the content.

3) Gather in groups: many active learning strategies work best when students are in groups. To quickly set up groups during class, each student holds a ‘card’ with different symbols, letters, numbers, and drawings, and when I call out one of these, the students form groups. I made the cards so students get sorted into groups of different sizes, depending on the activity.

 

Cards given to students, for quick abilities to arrange into groups.

Cards given to students, for quick abilities to arrange into groups.

An easy and effective active learning strategy with groups is to have student discuss among themselves a particular problem or question. After a few minutes, a spokesperson can report back their findings to the whole class. I’ve also had some students come to the front and present the result to the class. This does depend on having ‘enthusiastic’ volunteers, but I have not found this a barrier.

4) IF-AT cards: this term, I am trying to use Instant-feedback assessment-techniques for multiple choice questions. These cards allow students to scratch off answers on a card, and they immediately know if they are right and wrong, and can scratch a second or third time to receive partial points. I have used these in the classroom, for group work, and then students can work on problems (presented by me on the blackboard or screen), debate and discuss the answers, and then scratch off to reveal the correct answer. This activity therefore includes group work, problem solving, discussion and debate, and instant feedback. It does take a little bit of time (20 minutes or so, for a few questions), but is an effective active learning strategy that combines learning with an instant-feedback style of assessment.

5) Pair and share: this is also a simple and effective way to get discussions happening in lecture. I pose a question or idea, and simply have students turn to their neighbour to discuss the answer. I then ask some of the pairs to share their answers or ideas, and I also divide the lecture hall into different sections and ask pairs from each section to report back. This allows full use of the space in the classroom and students at the backs, fronts, or sides are able to feel included.

All of the abovementioned strategies don’t actually take that long and do not require a major overhaul to the course or course content. I believe they are relatively risk-free and easy, and suitable for any instructor, pre-tenure or not. I see these kinds of active learning strategies more as ‘value added’ activities, and as small steps that can increase student engagement in the classroom.

I also teach with chalk, as I find that's a great way to make the classroom more active, for everyone.

I also teach with chalk, as I find that’s a great way to make the classroom more active, for everyone.

 

——–

* Full disclosure: so far I have succeeded in all but one lecture, and I’m eleven lectures in. I’ll post an update at the end of term, to let you know if I’m successful all term!