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Meet Cliff Stroop, a teaching assistant who administers a Facebook page for psychology 101 courses at Phoenix College in Phoenix. He posts spirited study tips for students — dubbed "Cliff Notes" — such as avoiding 11th-hour cramming for an exam, and "Cliff Hangers," or teasers about what's coming up in class, such as, "Is it possible to die of fear? Find out in class on Wednesday!" He's on Facebook all night before a test to answer students' last-minute questions. Students adore him. Freshman Rafael Rosales posted on his timeline, "Cliff, you're cool."

Dr. Amy Marin’s Facebook persona is “Cliff Stroop,” pictured here relaxing, graduating and with his girlfriend “Ruby Skinner.” Cliff is a faux graduate student Marin devised as a way to better engage her students.If Cliff sounds like a dream teaching assistant, he is. Phoenix College psychology professor Amy Marin, PhD, conjured him up as her school Facebook persona in hopes of engaging her students in a more playful way.

Her students know she's Cliff, but they don't care. They gush about how his advice helped them study and say his posts make them eager to come to class, says Marin.

For Marin, it's simply an effort to "do whatever I can to go where the students are."

Increasingly, other instructors agree. While some begrudge the ubiquitous distraction of social media, others are using Facebook to build community in their classes. Hosting a class page, they say, promotes solidarity in large classes in particular, by providing a place where students who might not otherwise connect outside of class share digital flash cards and encourage each other to study harder.

"They're not competing, they seem to be saying, ‘Look, we are in this together,'" says University of Kentucky psychology professor Jonathan Golding, PhD. He uses Facebook to answer questions about labs and assignments, highlight deadlines and post psychology humor and YouTube videos that reinforce course concepts for his classes. "As an instructor, that's a very gratifying feeling."

Engaging with psychology at a new level

It's equally satisfying to see students connect course concepts to their lives or to news events when they're not in class, says Regan A.R. Gurung, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay. He posts links to articles from The New York Times and other publications that highlight new psychology research and videos he doesn't have time to screen during class.

At first, he and his teaching assistants posted all the content. But he found that, after a few weeks, students were the ones keeping the news feed fresh with their own news links and comments. "These students are using [Facebook] to engage with psychology at a level I had never seen when I used course management systems" such as Desire2Learn, he says.

To find out whether the Facebook content affected his students' learning, Gurung surveyed them at the semester's end. He found that those who had joined the class's Facebook discussion (65 percent of the class "liked" his page) had developed a deeper appreciation for psychology as a science compared with those who had never joined. Even when he controlled his findings for grade point average to make sure high performers weren't the same ones embracing the Facebook page, he found that all levels of students were reaping its benefits. "We weren't getting just the slackers or just the smart students" on the Facebook page, he says.

His class surveys echo recent findings that show that reinforcing course content via social media can boost learning. In one 2012 study, published in Teaching of Psychology, Stephen Blessing, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Tampa found that using Twitter to reinforce concepts introduced in class via daily tweets helped students remember information better on a test than those who didn't get the tweets.

More work, more reward

Depending on how you look at it, creating a class community on Facebook also brings another benefit: feedback for teachers. Students who frequent Facebook tend to comment daily on what they find most compelling from lectures.

"Students rarely make a special trip to my office to tell me they found class interesting that day, but a quick posting on Facebook is giving me a glimpse into how my classes are being received," says Marin.

Such feedback also helps professors with huge lecture-hall classes feel more connected to students.

"It is frustrating to stand on a stage in a huge auditorium," says University of Massachusetts–Amherst professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, who has 440 students in her intro to psychology course. Her Facebook dialogues with students "help bring the course into their lives a little more."

For Marin, "Cliff" has also allowed her to maintain professional boundaries, all while having fun with her students. "I tend to be formal in the classroom. I don't have lunch with students or chat after," she says. "This is a way for me to connect with them differently."

How to start your own page

For those who may want to create a class Facebook page, Marin and others share this advice:

  • Promote it. Tell the class about the page, highlight it on the syllabus and post at least two or three times per week at the beginning of the semester. "Give it time, they have to see the value," says Golding. Like Gurung, he posts frequently early in the semester. "That gets them going, then the students take it from there." Golding collected data on the amount of postings and comments students made during his fall 2011 class and found that students contributed 90 percent of the content.
  • Have a separate personal account. Gurung has zero personal information on the account he uses to manage the class page. "My personal account is completely off the grid, no one can even search and find it, and my academic account is all academic," he says. Faculty should also familiarize themselves with any policies their university has regarding students and social media, says Stephen Behnke, PhD, JD, who addressed Facebook etiquette for faculty in the July/August 2010 Monitor.
  • Post in moderation. Update your page no more than two or three times per week to avoid overwhelming students with one course's add-ons and reminders, says Whitbourne. "It's important to be unobtrusive and not in their face all the time," she says.
  • Repeat yourself in class. Use the page to remind students of assignment deadlines and test dates, but if you've made the page optional, recap those deadlines and reminders in class for students who choose not to join.
  • Fact check. Students tend to answer each other's questions, which can be a timesaver for teachers, but they can also lead each other astray. Be vigilant about correcting misinformation, instructors say.
  • Value criticism. While trawling for such errors, Golding discovered that many students were confused by the wording of one test question. Their comments helped him fine-tune it for the following semester's students.

"It's a way to improve on the class and experiment in ways you couldn't in the past," he says. "Students know how to use Facebook well, so why not take advantage?"