We all know that users of media platforms tend to “discover” affordances that the creators and distributors never intended. The students in my Culture and Social Media Technologies course last spring discovered a great use for the Twitter accounts I required them to have — collectively prepping for the midterm! I hadn’t envisioned the students using it this way, but I ended up being really impressed and nerdily delighted that they arrived at this affordance, so much so that I think it provides justification in itself for integrating Twitter into any college course. Because, as I will explain, it’s important to get students rolling on Twitter well in advance of any exams in order to create the class culture that might facilitate Twitter-based exam review, people who are planning their Fall classes will want to think about integrating Twitter into their course structure now, rather than right before midterms. Hence my posting it in mid-August! I’ll offer the context and results of our experience using Twitter in this way, along with some pedagogical reflections and student feedback (which I obtained via a voluntary, anonymous survey, after returning the graded exam to the students).
I require all 47 students in my course (on the topic of Culture and Social Media Technologies) to be active on Twitter. Each student is required to post at least two course-relevant tweets per week, using the class hashtag (#csmt12). Knowing that students differ in levels of comfort with social media technologies, I spent the first few weeks of the course getting them familiar with the Twitter platform, teaching them how to use the class hashtag, and making classroom time for them to interact with each other in person and exchange usernames. After getting acquainted with the norms and expectations of the class Twitter stream, many students went beyond the required number of tweets, replying to me and to each other, and posing thoughtful questions about the reading and lecture material. After six weeks of collective tweeting, they had come to expect that I and their fellow students would read and sometimes respond to their tweets.
Emergent uses of the class Twitter stream for exam preparation
On the night before the midterm exam, the class stream had a near constant flow of exam-related tweets. Unprompted by me, several students coordinated the exchange of study guides and arranged in-person study sessions. Some students tweeted questions about the course material, which other students would answer, sometimes immediately. I tried to monitor the question/answer exchanges and jump in when necessary to provide clarification. Some students tweeted at me directly to ask questions about material or the exam format. Overall, I sensed a mood of camaraderie, as if we were all in this exam preparation boat together. One student confirmed this afterward, observing that Twitter “brought the whole class together in a unified study group outside of the classroom.” Throughout the evening, several students shared jokes to lighten the shared exam anxiety, further contributing to the sense of unity and goodwill.
One of the most advantageous aspects of the Twitter review was that all students could see the questions that other students were asking and answering, as well as my replies. Some students reported that this alerted them to topics and details they hadn’t realized they should be reviewing. Had these questions been asked over email, my responses would have been useful only to the student who directly asked. The response time may have been much longer, and I would have had to respond to redundant questions. Thirty-one out of 35 respondents to my post-exam survey said they had monitored the #csmt12 feed, using it like a FAQ or “Frequently Asked Questions” page on a website. This “lurking” method saves face, because it allows students to receive clarification without having to admit to me what they don’t know. Indeed, one student described Twitter in this context as “a much more comfortable, open forum” than email. One student also reported that answering others’ questions ensured that they “knew and could explain the logic behind some concepts more clearly.”
So one of the major advantages of the Twitter exam review was the transparency it lent to the studying process. On my end, I could see what students were doing to prepare as well as their level of confidence going into the exam (sometimes expressed through humorous tweets like “I think I’ve got this #csmt12 midterm in the bag. #FamousLastWords.” After the exam, several tweeted to express satisfaction with their performance and with the level of difficulty of the exam questions.
Student feedback about using Twitter for exam preparation
The feedback from the students about the experience itself was largely positive. Some pointed out that the 140-character limit helped keep the material clear and concise. One shared that the Twitter stream helped “keep topics on my mind even when not directly ‘studying.’”
But not everyone found Twitter a useful tool in this instance. Three of the 35 students surveyed said they did not utilize Twitter to study (12 students didn’t respond to the survey at all). One said that they did not find Twitter helpful because they were still “not familiar enough with how to use the platform.” One student “didn’t think reading 140 character posts would be helpful,” and another pointed out that sometimes students gave incorrect answers to each other’s questions, so they had to wait for these to be corrected. Even some students who found Twitter helpful overall did express being overwhelmed by the number and frequency of exam-related tweets. One student suggested that a Facebook group may have been more conducive to cultivating conversation among students. These are all points to consider.
While several students expressed the wish that all their classes would conduct exam review sessions via Twitter, I do think that, for it to work, the class must establish a culture of regular Twitter exchanges well in advance of the exam. My takeaway from the experience is that, even in classes where the subject matter isn’t directly related to social media involvement (as mine is), it could still be worth cultivating a Twitter backchannel from week one, for purposes like this!