Engaging large student lecture groups using Facebook by Dr Alastair Culham

Facebook can be a distraction to learning but it can also be an aid. I believe strongly that lecturers should do their best to make their subject interesting to students.  It can be an uphill battle.  However, this year’s experiment in using Facebook as a student engagement technology with a first year Photosynthesis class of 300 was a great success (measured by student response) and this is how I did it.

1) Set up a closed and secret Facebook group

For this you need a Facebook account and a Facebook friend who is willing to be signed up to the group.  Log in to Facebook, select ‘Groups’ and then click the +Create Group button.  Choose a sensible name for the group.  You will need to add one friend to allow the group to be created.

2) Add some content

To help the students understand what is needed add a short welcome message – “This closed Facebook group is to allow me to run quick quizzes during the photosynthesis teaching. Sign up now but there is nothing you need to do in this group until the lectures are due.”

3) Invite the class the join

The initial Facebook group setup is simple to complete and people can easily join following a request.

The initial Facebook group setup is simple to complete and people can easily join following a request.

You can invite students by inputting their email addresses: click on the ‘Invite by email’ link then paste in the comma separated list of addresses.  You can also email the link to the group via Blackboard and ask them to request to join.  It is important in the covering email to explain the purpose of the request and that you are not asking, or needing, them to become a Facebook ‘friend’.  Many students use Facebook for their private lives and it’s not appropriate for staff to have access to that in most circumstances.  Also ask that they bring an internet enabled device to the lecture – phone, tablet or portable – it doesn’t matter which.

4) Monitor the joining requests

Make sure you add people quickly once they have requested to join.  You should check at least once per day.  If the proportion of the class joining is small to start with you will need to send a reminder round, however once some people are signed up it’s likely their classmates will get on with it.  Don’t expect to get 100% sign up – some students don’t have a Facebook account.

 5) Prepare your question and answer set

Think carefully about which points are important in your lecture, which are amenable to simple question and answer, and which issues can be chosen to give a spread of questions over the whole 50 minutes.  Facebook surveys allow a question and then any number of answers but it’s best to keep the choice simple – anything from 2-6 works well.  Don’t put the questions in Facebook yet – once they are there they are visible to the students and they can start answering them.  Prepare a simple text document (I use Notepad but any text editor will do) and save the question and the answer set.

6) One day before the lecture

Remind students to bring internet devices.  Explain to those without them that you will use a show of hands for them when voting is happening.  Remind them that there is still time to join the group if they haven’t yet got round to it.

7) The lecture begins

A simple question to allow the students to adjust to this approach and check they are technically able to interact with Facebook.

A simple question to allow the students to adjust to this approach and check they are technically able to interact with Facebook.

Welcome the students, put Facebook on the screen and post a simple question related to the lecture topic.  This gives those signed up a chance to vote and also encourages those that haven’t joined to join.  This also gets the students used to the idea they are going to be interacting with you and the information you provide.

8) Question breaks

Over a double lecture period I posted 5 series of questions, roughly one set every 15-20 minutes.  Interspersing the standard lecture delivery with these short changes of style and a request to think about what has been taught helps all the students to keep up and gives chance for peer learning via the Q&A exercises.  In a class of almost 300 students it took 2-5 minutes to deal with each Facebook question and the accompanying discussion.  While those with IT chose their answers I did a show of hands for the rest of the class.  If you have only a maximum of 50 hands to cope with out of a class of 300 it’s quicker and easier to count.

9) After the lecture

The Facebook group is set up so students can use it for post lecture Q&A.  Do let them know how long you will monitor it on a regular basis.  If you are a regular Facebook user you will see if there have been any new posts.  If you are using Facebook just for this, do make sure you log in periodically in case any questions crop up.  Any questions that come up can be dealt with and the record is there for all students to see again at revision time.

Is it a good idea to encourage students to log on to Facebook during a lecture?

Student feedback on the experiment was favourable both during and after the lecture.

Student feedback on the experiment was favourable both during and after the lecture.

There is an obvious risk that encouraging students to log in to Facebook will simply distract them into checking their timeline.  However, if the student has bothered to turn up for the lecture there is the opportunity to keep them engaged with the content through the mini lectures followed by highly interactive Q&A sessions.  Experience this year suggests to me that the students find the approach engaging and highly educational.  Certainly the module feedback from several students picked out this lecture from the rest of term as a successful approach to teaching.

Students can ask questions about the quiz as well as simply selecting from the given answers.

Students can ask questions about the quiz as well as simply selecting from the given answers.

Large first year classes can be difficult to engage during lectures.  Students are new to University, often unwilling to stand out from the crowd and feel hidden amongst a large group.  This is challenging for the lecturer who is trying to judge whether their lecture message is hitting home, whether they have paced their lecture at the right speed and whether the content of the lecture complements the background knowledge of the students.  It is also challenging for the students who will become bored if the teaching material is pitched at the wrong level, delivered at the wrong pace or just find the content irrelevant.  Interaction with the Facebook quizzes allowed the students to see the answers their peers were giving, allowed me to identify and discuss areas of misunderstanding and even to challenge the depth and confidence of understanding by setting the occasional question with no correct, or multiple correct, answers.  In the case of no correct answers the students could query the options and offer a correct one.  In the case of multiple correct answers the class could soon see that it was split over more than one option.

At approximately 6 million tonnes The Great Pyramid is often cited as the heaviest man-made object. [By Nina (Nina) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons]

At approximately 6 million tonnes The Great Pyramid is often cited as the heaviest man-made object. [By Nina (Nina) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons]

There are plenty of amazing facts to throw at students about photosynthesis – plants produce 42000 times the weight of the great pyramid in sugar every year, half our drugs are based on products of plant chemistry and the oxygen we breathe is a waste product of photosynthesis.  However, this does not necessarily impress 200 first year students – available oxygen, food and medicines don’t seem to engage the imagination – they are just things that are there.  The challenge was to find something interactive, that would work at this scale, that was not stupidly expensive to run, that didn’t need lots of equipment to be carted around campus and that the maximum proportion of students could relate to.  That ruled out PRS systems (heavy to carry around and unfamiliar to students), twitter needed commercial software to gather data in a useful way live and the dominant demographic of those on Twitter is a rather older age range than our first year students.  The obvious choice was to engage with Facebook.  Student responses suggest this was a worthwhile experiment but I will only be sure when I have this year’s exam results to compare with last year’s.

It’s quick, easy and free to set up.  I realise it’s not for everyone and will not suit all styles of lecture however there’s little lost by trying this approach once, it may suit your teaching and deepen student engagement.

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