Innovative Practices Spotlight

CAE Innovative Practices Spotlight


Dr. Amber Nicole Pfannenstiel, Assistant Professor, English

The Center for Academic Excellence is recognizing a faculty member every month in the CAE Innovative Practices Spotlight to highlight his or her innovative classroom practices and outstanding contribution to Millersville University.

Dr. Amber Nicole Pfannenstiel is being recognized in March for her exceptional use of Twitter in her English courses!

Please continue reading to learn more about Dr. Pfannenstiel's exciting experience and to learn ways to incorporate innovative practices into your classroom…

1. What innovative practice did you incorporate into your classroom?

I use Twitter in my classes. I’ve used the social media space in online, face-to-face, and hybrid courses to support learning and community building.

I use Twitter to meet a few different pedagogical goals. First, I require students to post a specific number of initial tweets using our course hashtag, and respond to a certain number of peer posts. At a basic level, this encourages students to write about writing – a critical thought process that helps develop stronger writing practices. This also encourages student engagement with each other. They communicate about the readings and the course through short bursts of writing and gifs. During various classes, I’ll ask students to respond during class in specific ways to specific questions (sometimes they’ll respond in text, sometimes with a gif, sometimes with both). When responding in class, I pull up our course hashtag and go through the tweets asking students to discuss their tweet further. This then generates additional comments and peer interaction. Students join the discussion and support each other in class. Additionally, students post follow-up questions and comments in the Twitter feed. Occasionally groups of students will try to out-gif each other (who can find the best image to represent writing joy!), but generally students willingly engage with a large quantity of writing. I go through the course feed every few days and like and comment on posts. I comment more frequently in the Twitter feed for hybrid and online courses since I see them with less frequency.  

I have a lot of students who love the openness of the ‘required’ posts as they can discuss how composition theory helped them in another class, or they can share an article that they really want to discuss. In both cases, they have a peer group who views their post. My Junior level writing course has been amazing at sharing articles and then discussing them. This course tells me each week which tweet they consider their “Tweet of the Week”. In so many cases the students report a tweet that resulted in a lot of discussion. They tell me how an article they circulated generated peer comments, how they joined an ongoing conversation. Their engagement with writing and conversation is amazing.

Second, in my lower division courses I use Twitter to check reading comprehension. Students are required to post a summary tweet (we use ST: to differentiate this post) about the reading before class starts. In these composition courses, this has provided students with lots of practice writing summaries – an important writing approach for all research papers. When we begin discussing disciplinary approaches to secondary research, I emphasize the need for summarizing and paraphrasing. Students begin to notice the rhetorical moves made by authors of disciplinary articles, and how they integrate source materials. Then we discuss how our practice with summary tweets has prepared students for that style of writing. Students begin reading secondary sources differently – instead of reading for the perfect quote, they read for the overall idea.

Finally, Twitter posts support good writing. With the required character limit (I don’t allow 1 of 2 posts, students must communicate their point and purpose in 1), students become very skilled at clear, concise, purposeful writing. Students often have the misconception that English is fluffy writing – a notion dispelled the first time they respond to a class Twitter post question. They struggle to clearly communicate their point in less than 140 characters (because they must use the course hashtag). We discuss, at length, the benefits of this ability to communicate, the implications for short answer and long essay writing across disciplines. Students see the most immediate application in their resume and cover letter writing – but I notice the most improvement in thesis and topic sentences.

For someone discussing Twitter I feel incredibly bad at representing the brevity I’m discussing.

2. When did you implement the new practice into your classroom?

I started using Twitter a few years ago when I was teaching online only grad classes. Students didn’t know to purchase books in advance, and these courses ran for about 8 weeks. I needed to include Online Educational Resources (OER) for the first couple weeks to ensure everyone had appropriate access to the course material while they waited for books to arrive. Students struggled with how to take notes and use digital resources for a graduate level course. Many of these grad students were public school teachers used to having hard copy texts. They were new to online schooling, and they were new to Rhetoric and Composition (especially Digital Rhetoric) theory. To help students adjust, I asked them to post questions, comments, notes, ideas, analysis, summary, anything about the reading to Twitter. I really encouraged questions, pointing out the areas they understood and the areas they needed further guidance. I gave them a purpose for reading so they could determine their approach to meet the goals.

I chose to use Twitter, instead of a formal discussion board to provide space for informal writing in class. Since the courses were online, the discussion boards carried a lot of weight in the course, if comprehension was lacking student grades were immediately affected. While students could email me (and I provided video overviews) what they needed was space to write to think. To provide that space, I required posts for each assigned reading (usually 1-2 original posts per assigned reading) and I required peer interactions so students could work with each other. The amazing thing was comprehension improved quickly. Students could work through ideas before posting in the formal discussion board. I was able to supplement difficult theory areas, engaging students with areas they struggled. This benefitted the entire class as peers would join the conversation. Additionally, students developed connections. They developed ongoing group Direct Message discussions about course – they think I don’t know these exist. They developed peer groups to support each other in the program, and continued to trade papers every semester as they progressed through their programs. Because Twitter exists outside their enrolled student activities, students continue to support each other in their courses and careers, and they can reach out to me when they have questions.

After two successful uses in online-only grad courses, I started using Twitter in my upper-division undergraduate composition courses. I developed most of my current in class practices based on how I saw students engaging thoughtfully with the medium – and when engagement/posts seemed forced.

3. Did the students willingly accept the use of the new practice? What were the reactions of the students?

Initially I usually have push back from students. Holding class in a social media application is outside their traditional conception of what happens in college so they need an adjustment period. By the end of the second or third week, especially if I ask for in-class Twitter responses (that count toward the required minimum) students see the benefits of writing in Twitter.

I like the initial confusion students have about using Twitter. The initial push back helps students reconsider what it means to be a student – which is especially important in a composition course. My goal with composition courses is to teach students to recognize writing situations rhetorically, to consider text, context, audience, and purpose as they read and write for a specific situation. Forcing students to leave their comfort zone helps them see how a writing course helps them as a student. 

4. How has the use of the new practice positively affected the classroom learning environment?

Students engage with writing about writing! I’m still compiling the data to support how Twitter can positively impact the transfer of writing practices to other situations, but from my observations students are more willing to reflect on their writing and learning in informal writing space. Students come to class prepared to post tweets, to actively engage with the content during class time!

5. How has the use of the new practice affected student engagement in the classroom and the level of participation?

I’ve stopped using traditional ‘participation’ points because I award points for required tweets instead. Twitter offers students a back channel to participate in the conversation in many different ways. Students who love to join conversation can still join conversation in class, or they can choose to join online – or both. Students who need time to think, can still respond to the discussion online when they have their thoughts in order. The multiple ways of entering a course conversation increase overall participation.

Additionally, when students struggle to respond to an in-class discussion question, I can modify the question and have them respond on Twitter. Students then think through their ideas as they write, so when I call on them to explain their response they respond with an even more prepared, thoughtful answer. I’m also able to discuss ideas with all the students, as they were all required to post to Twitter. This increases the quality of the in-class discussion by offering all students a chance to reflect and write. By asking follow-up questions of all the posts, this also draws all students into the discussion!

6. What challenges did you encounter when you were implementing the new practice?

Grading! While I don’t grade the content of each individual post, I look for minimum posts with engaged content (I have a rubric to explain this to students). Counting posts in a Twitter feed is a pain. So, I explored better ways to accomplish this. Through a MOOC I completed through FutureLearn I was given access to a Google Spreadsheet coded to pull tweets from the Twitter API. As long as students use the course hashtag (and a bad grade on early weeks teaches this), I have scheduled spreadsheets pulling the data. I can then easily sort by user handle and date for speedy grading.

This semester my course feeds have been trolled. My students have discussed the intersections of writing, higher education and technology. With these discussions, they’ve shared many different articles, some discussing national appointments of education positions. Since individual Twitter users and Twitter bots follow certain publications, they’ve seen our discussion and joined in using our course hashtag. We ignored their posts and continued our discussion, so it didn’t interrupt curriculum, and students continue to share articles so it didn’t negatively affect the choices they make in the medium. It’s a discussion I have when I introduce the assignment, while our course hashtag seems private, we are holding a portion of our class in public space. They need to consider what they post when they write publicly, and the occasional Twitter bot/troll helps remind us that we’re not in a bubble.

7. How did attending Camp IDEA or a CAE Professional Development session contribute to, or what other campus collaborations helped your practice be a success?

Camp IDEA helped me develop a widget to display my Twitter feed in my D2L shell! It has been the most amazing modification to how I use D2L. Students RARELY tell me they ‘forgot’ to post tweets – D2L reminds them by displaying the ongoing conversation. Additionally, the ability to display the Twitter feed in D2L demonstrates the importance of writing in the medium within the course, it demonstrates how I value their discussions because it pulls the entire course feed.