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Can Facebook Make Better Students?

Characteristics of the Class Facebook Group

Voluntary membership: students were not required to join. In this case, most did by the end of the term.

Closed group: Membership is by invitation only, with approvals handled by an instructor.

Participation: Both faculty and students participated by posting information and media, asking questions, commenting on posts and "liking" posts.

Content: There should be content waiting for the students when they first join the group, according to the researchers. Content should be updated regularly. Students should also be directed to add their own content.

Seeding: Seed the online discussion in class by asking students to post pictures or videos related to a concept.

Involvement: Polling and voting was seem to encourage passive users to become more involved.

Advertising: Participation was strongly encouraged in class, and the URL for the group was e-mailed to students and posted in the LMS (Blackboard).

Does Facebook have the potential to produce better students? It might seem like a silly question, but a new study out of Baylor University's College of Arts and Sciences suggests the social network can actually improve some aspects of students' academic performance and, in large classes, create a sense of connectedness that promotes active learning.

According to the researchers, larger class sizes can stymie efforts to facilitate active learning among students, as discussion and debate are sidelined in favor of lecture. But active learning — which involves reflection and affective dimensions of learning — can promote, among other things, improved academic performance. So the question is: Given the the way large lectures hamper active learning inside the classroom, can outside tools — social media outlets, Facebook in particular — be brought into the mix to facilitate interaction between and among students and faculty and promote active learning outside the classroom? And, if so, will such an experience result in improved academic performance?

The study, "Using Facebook to Engage Learners in a Large Introductory Course," published in this quarter's issue of the American Sociological Association's journal Teaching Sociology, examined 218 students who were part of a large introductory sociology course and who were given the option of participating in a course-related Facebook group. (Facebook groups do not require members to be friends; they can freely communicate without revealing personal details they don't want to share with classmates.)

The researchers found that, among those students in the study, the ones who participated in a course-related Facebook group did indeed reap academic benefits.

The researchers reported that those students wrote stronger papers and performed better on quizzes and on the final exam than those who did not participate in the group.

There were also positive correlations between participation and overall experience in the course, according to self-evaluations submitted by those students. Those positives included conceptual understanding of the subject, understanding of theory and demonstration of critical thinking.

In addition, there was a positive correlation between Facebook group membership and a sense of belonging in the course. And among those who reported having a sense of belonging, those positives were amplified two- to three-fold.

"Although some teachers may worry that social media distracts students from legitimate learning, we found that our Facebook group helped transform students from anonymous spectators into a community of active learners — and this has important consequences for student performance," according to Kevin Dougherty, associate professor of sociology, in a prepared statement. Dougherty authored the report with sociology doctoral candidate Brita Andercheck. "A Facebook group extends the classroom in time and space. It allows students to interact with one another and with the subject matter wherever and whenever they choose. It makes them more active learners."

The researchers noted, however that the study is far from conclusive. Nevertheless, it is suggestive and warrants further research. "Our experiences using a Facebook Group in a large section of Introduction to Sociology convince us of the learning potential in social media. A Facebook Group is an arena for students to interact with each other, to gain experience with course material, and to reflect," according to the study. "Students involved with the Facebook Group reported learning more from the course. Facebook Group participation was positively correlated with students' self-reported accomplishment of three course objectives.... In support of these opinions, students involved with the Facebook Group seemed to learn more as measured by course assignments [including quizzes, papers and the comprehensive final exam].... Thus, the Facebook Group was related to both lower-level thinking skills of remembering and understanding as measured by quizzes as well as higher-level thinking skills of analysis, evaluation, and creation assessed by papers and the final exam. Not surprisingly, Facebook Group members finished the course with more total points than did classmates who did not join the Facebook Group."

The complete study can be accessed in the April issue of Teaching Sociology.

Baylor University is a private institution based in Texas that serves some 15,000 students.


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