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Social Communications May Boost STEM Success

closeup of hands on laptop with social media icons

A small study out of the University of Texas, El Paso recently explored whether social communications can help boost the outcomes of students in particularly challenging STEM courses. The study was reported by members of the teaching staff at the university during the annual conference of the American Society for Engineering Education. The bottom line: There was a link between heavy usage of social software and better grades.

The experiment took place in one of the most difficult courses for undergraduates, which has a large failure rate: Thermodynamics, a first-term junior course in the mechanical engineering department.

The university has a majority-Hispanic student body (81 percent), and the number of minority women in its engineering program is about 20 percent, most of them Hispanic.

Instructors and teaching assistants introduced students to the use of social media software — specifically Campuswire — as a means of communicating with fellow students and helping each other through the course. Campuswire offers a combination of discussion forum, anonymous reporting, multi-user chat rooms, an upvote system for scoring student responses and the ability of faculty to track student participation.

As described in a research paper about the project, during the first half of the semester, instructors saw little student activity on the site. Over that period, students took two "major" exams. After the second exam, the students were offered a "very minor grade incentive" — 2 extra points out of 100 — for using the software in a big way (though they were never told what that meant precisely), particularly to answer other students' questions. This small incentive was enough to goad some students into using Campuswire "very significantly." Over the latter half of the semester, the students were given two more major exams. Data was collected afterwards and analyzed to find out "how much and how effectively" the communication influenced student performance in the course.

When students answered questions, they could be up-voted by other students as well as the faculty. The idea was that students could use those up votes "to produce portfolio evidence they can be proud to show potential employers and graduate schools," the researchers wrote. "This can provide a quantifiable measure of student performance independent of grades."

Of 95 students enrolled in the class, 77 joined the software platform, but 18 of those never asked or answered questions. (The report noted that they might have viewed others' questions and answers; that wasn't tracked.) While the participating students were guided to ask questions related to the subject, other kinds of interactive posts were encouraged too, "to make the platform a friendly environment for communication to grow."

The study found that of the thermodynamics students who most heavily used the software (22 of them), 82 percent improved their grades over the course of the semester. Of the 55 students who used the software infrequently, just 44 percent improved their grades over the term.

"Our conclusion" the study reported, "is that the software helps students earn better grades if they use it in a significant way."

The paper is openly available through the American Society for Engineering Education website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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