#URWhatUTweat: Exploring the use of social media as a tool to engage students in a public health course

Grant recipients and project team: 

Sharon Kirkpatrick, School of Public Health and Health Systems

Karla Boluk, Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies

Elena Neiterman, School of Public Health and Health Systems

Miriam Price, Research Assistant

UW Health 355

(Project timeline: September 2017 - August 2018)


Our objective was to examine whether a Twitter assignment fostered learning and engagement in an undergraduate public health nutrition course. In fall 2016, 146 students participated in the course and assignment and 115 provided consent for their data to be used for this study. Thematic analysis of students’ reflections on the assignment revealed that some felt it encouraged them to revisit course materials. Students also indicated they interacted with one another via Twitter in ways that helped make concepts, such as the cultural aspects of food, 'real'. However, other students indicated that the assignment did not make a meaningful contribution to their learning, for example, because they felt unable to demonstrate critical thinking in 140 characters. From the instructor perspective, gathered via a semi-structured interview, the assignment enhanced feelings of connectedness with students, but significant participation and ongoing feedback was critical to foster meaningful engagement.   

Questions Investigated

The intended purpose of this project was to explore the role of a Twitter assignment as a platform for fostering engagement in and application of concepts in a large undergraduate public health nutrition course, held in fall 2016. We initially focused on data from reflections completed by students (115 provided consent) and semi-structured interviews with the instructor and teaching assistants (conducted by the other members of the team in spring 2017). Thematic analysis was conducted to examine perceptions regarding the value of the assignment in terms of engaging students in the course material, as well as any challenges in its implementation. These analyses yielded insights into the value of the assignment that are described below. Based on these insights and other experiences (see implications, below), the tweets themselves have not been analyzed (e.g., to examine critical thinking evolution across the term) because it is not clear this will add significant value to our findings. 


Students: Some students reported that the Twitter assignment encouraged them to delve more deeply into course material, allowed them to apply course concepts to the ‘real-world’ and become more aware of how course materials applied to themselves:  

  • “It’s not often that I comb through course content looking for connections to myself but this activity fostered an active and engaged mindset with the concepts we covered…”
  • “Whether I was making food, buying groceries, purchasing a meal on campus, or even thinking about what I was going to eat next, I started to integrate themes from course material into my decisions”. 

It was also noted that the online platform served as a learning community through which students shared information. However, other students noted that some tweets were ‘superficial’ or lacked depth, and so did not challenge them in terms of critical thinking regarding the food system. Students also flagged social desirability biases in that when representing their own consumption, they and their peers would post photos of predominantly healthy and/or appealing foods. Some students indicated that they found that the character limit of 140 words imposed by Twitter made it difficult to critically reflect on the learned material.  

Instructor and teaching assistants: The instructor and teaching assistants conveyed that the assignment created a sense of connectedness with students. Teaching assistants expressed that the assignment provided the opportunity for students to gain hands-on experience with course concepts:

  • “[…] it allowed them to get a little more hands on with the content and even pull it out of like a typical educational or academic frame so […] they were experiencing food availability within their own environment and tweeting about that".

The instructor noted that developing a rubric for the provision of feedback was challenging and some students struggled with the notion of demonstrating critical thinking in 140 characters. Teaching assistants likewise noted the important of clear expectations for students and guidance for grading. 

Overall, it appears that the Twitter assignment helped to build connection among the class and encouraged at least some students to apply concepts they were learning. However, the focus on students’ own interactions with the food system may have fostered unintended consequences in terms of superficiality and the posting of images and captions perceived as socially desirable.  

Dissemination and Impact

  • At the individual level: The instructor participated in the Waterloo Assessment Institute in April 2018 and shared the assignment with her peers. Please see Impact of the Project, below.
  • At the Department/School and/or Faculty/Unit levels: The instructor has shared the assignment with colleagues within SPHHS and within Environment as well. The research team plans to create a factsheet (or toolkit, to be determined with consultation with CTE) on the use of Twitter in the classroom for wider dissemination.
  • At the institutional (uWaterloo) level: The research findings were presented at the 2018 UW Teaching and Learning Conference (“Can assignments using social media outside of the classroom enhance student learning and instructor engagement?”).
  • At the provincial, national and/or international levels: Research findings were presented at the 2018 Canadian Public Health Association conference in Montreal, QC (“#URWhatUTwEat: The potential for social media to enhance higher education in public health”). An attendee tweeted the poster!  
    We are currently drafting a manuscript, which we plan to submit to a special issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour that is focused on the Scholarship of Learning.

Impact of the Project

  • Teaching: The instructor attended the Waterloo Assessment Institute in April 2018 and described this assignment and some of the challenges with her small group. As a result, she has implemented an assignment that requires students to follow an ‘influencer’ on Twitter and to conduct a ‘rhetorical analysis’, reflecting on the messages that the influencer is attempting to convey to audiences and why. This revised assignment does not address the intended goals of the initial Twitter assignment in terms of creating a feeling of community; however, the class is smaller than it was when this assignment was first implemented and in-class debates are being used to build connection. Additionally, the instructor has gained experience in teaching and is better equipped in terms of developing rubrics; nonetheless, sorting how to grade a social media-oriented assignment can be a challenge. An assignment that requires posting to social media may be trialed again in the future, but with less of a focus on the individual’s own interactions with the food system.


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