Can You Be a Pedagogical Influencer? Using Social Media to Increase Learning

Close-up of Instagram app icon on a smartphone screen

Look around you. Unless you are sequestered alone, there is a good chance a human around you is looking at their phone. If you are in a crowd, many people are probably scrolling through TikTok videos or Instagram reels, both short and often accompanied by catchy music. Social media is ubiquitous and designed to draw you in and keep you in. When I asked one of my students whether she had finished an assignment I knew she was working on, her response nicely captured a big issue we face: “I was working on it but took a break and got caught up watching reels. Soon it was two hours later, and I was too sleepy to continue.” Our students spend a lot of time on social media. Can we capitalize on this behavior and use it to help their learning?

Many years ago, I noticed that students were sending me friend requests via Facebook. Although I appreciated their efforts to connect and perhaps even took them as indicators of my success at building rapport, I was not comfortable inviting them into my social media. One reason was that my account featured pictures of my partner and children, and I wanted to respect their privacy. Another reason was that, as a young instructor, I felt that an important boundary would be crossed. It pained me to reject their invitations.

I devised a plan. I created a second account that was public and set the first one to private. In my public account, I let my nerd and geek tendencies go wild. My posts were all about my research, my discipline (psychology), my classes, and research related to learning and studying. In addition to accepting friend requests, I actively invited students in my class to friend me, and created a Facebook group for my class; one semester, I even provided extra credit points for students who shared articles and posted in the Facebook group. I compared engagement and learning between the students who voluntarily joined my Facebook group and those who did not and found that those in the group scored higher on a number of indicators of learning and interest.

That was then. This is now. Our students are no longer active on Facebook. Long before Twitter morphed into X, I tried using it in the same way. It did not catch. Students were not into Twitter, and the interface did not foster engagement. Enter Instagram (IG). A few years ago, I created an Instagram account and replicated my nerdy Facebook behaviors, posting material related to class. Three to four weeks before the start of class, I email all students in the class with an introduction to myself and the class and provide my IG address. A large number of students say hello on IG, then during the term, many of them use it to ask questions about the class. So far, so good. Having a social media presence seems to increase rapport and communication and make the class and the professor more accessible. Can we use social media for more?

I was intrigued by the growing presence of social influencers. These individuals amass thousands and sometimes, millions, of followers on platforms such as TikTok and IG. While many of them start by posting fun videos, accounts of their days, or rants, the absolute majority also push products. Given the appeal of social media, companies seeking to extend their reach over eyeballs and wallets approach influencers with large followings to endorse their products in return for a fee. Other influencers push themselves, sharing advice and information in return for monthly subscription charges. I’m not suggesting that academics monetize their efforts, but what if higher education used the same channel to help students learn better?

Welcome to the Pedagogical Influencer Project (PIP). If social influencers can get our students to mimic trends and buy merchandise, let’s see if we can use social media to get our students to study more effectively. As you prepare for the start of your next term or semester, you may want to take advantage of some of these free resources to help your students study better. Taking a page from the social influencer playbook, and actually involving a social influencer herself, the PIP group has compiled a set of resources for your use.

On PIP you will find a number of different aids to learning. Drawing on my and John Dunlosky’s recent publication that lays out cognitive science’s tips on effective learning, my PIP team thought of engaging ways to share material with students. One team member created a set of TikTok videos explaining different study techniques, such as retrieval practice and spacing. Another team member created eye-catching artwork to explain the key topics and motivate students. PIP also includes a range of self-assessments. Move over, magazine quizzes; these easy-to-use surveys are all peer-reviewed to be valid and reliable and help students get a sense of where they stand. For example, students can measure whether they are procrastinators, take good notes, or have adequate metacognitive skills. All this is free.

In a world where social media streams are distracting our students, it would be nice if we could go where they are and give them material that can help them grow. PIP is one option. If you are on social media, you can use any of the material available there. If you would rather not use your own social media in this way, PIP is set up so you can share what you want with your classes via your learning management systems or email. This approach may work. It may not be enough. We will not know until we try. This coming year, I am going to see what sort of difference it can make. Try it and let me know whether it works for you or what your ideas are to make it more effective.

Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is associate vice provost and executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of psychological science at Oregon State University. His latest book is Study Like a Champ. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.

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