Initial Publication Date: September 1, 2011

The Metatweet: Using Twitter to Foster Self Reflection in the First College Course

Cornell College, Tony de Laubenfels


Research question: Are daily metacognitive tweets from each student an effective activity to promote self awareness and self regulation and overall enhanced learning processes for students beginning college? Do students view this attention to learning to learn valuable?

The motivation for using Twitter to foster metacognition comes from "7 Things you should know about Twitter" Educause Learning Initiative, 2007: "Metacognition—the practice of thinking about and reflecting on your learning—has been shown to benefit comprehension and retention. As a tool for students or professional colleagues to compare thoughts about a topic, Twitter can be a viable platform for metacognition, forcing users to be brief and to the point—an important skill in thinking clearly and communicating effectively."


As planned, I incorporated an almost daily reflective Twitter activity into my CSC131 Privacy, Piracy and the Public Good course both in September 2009 and September 2010. In 2009 this was a First Year Only and a W (Introduction to Writing) course with 18 students (the cap) and in 2010 this was a First Year Seminar with 12 students. Both met for the standard 18 days.

Teaching Practice

I chose Twitter as a "writing to learn" tool because it is "light weight"—trivially easy to learn and takes just seconds to post (including texting from cell phones) and easy for me to read and organize responses. This is important because we want the self-reflective components not to take away (time) from regular course contents.

I decided to incorporate several pedagogical approaches, borrowed from Karl Wirth's Metacurriculum on Metacognition. Here I give some sample prompts, by "genre": Learning about learning, Exam wrapper, and Paper wrapper. All prompts were provided via Moodle which was heavily used in the course.

My learning about learning prompts are something like a "push poll"—they sneak ideas about learning into the question.

Prompt 3. Metacognition is broadly defined as "thinking about thinking". One aspect of metacognition that aids learning is for students to complete the following process: 1. Plan their learning strategies followed by 2. Monitor whether they actually did what they planned, and 3. Assess how effective their plan was.
In this tweet, I would like you to choose one of: 1. Your first essay, 2. Your reading and homework this week, or 3. Your first exam. Tell me what your plan is for completing one of these learning projects successfully. Later I'll ask you to assess how well you kept to the plan (this will require self-reflection).
Important: Plan realistically and be truthful.
Also, a Plan is more than just a certain number of hours you will work.

Prompt 2. A key to effective learning is to connect new things you learn to your prior knowledge. In what way have you connected the material on ethical theories that you read about and we discussed to subjects you have previously studied?

The following are examples of my "Exam wrapper" prompts

Please self-reflect on this:
Prompt 5. Among the topics we discussed this week (these should be in your head as you prepare for Exam 1) which one are you relatively most comfortable with your knowledge of and which one needs more work? (Answer in a sentence or two, not just two words).

Prompt 6. This is a prompt about Exam 1. I won't read your tweets until I have graded and returned Exam 1. Predict a problem you did well on (by subject, not number) e.g. I think I did well on the problem about CALEA. Predict a problem you could have done better on. What do you think you scored on the exam, out of 75? You will want to compare your actual results to your predictions on Wednesday.

The following is an example of my "Writing wrapper" prompt

Prompt 10. Here is what I have told you I will be looking for when grading your papers:

  1. Clarity of writing
  2. Presentation of issues or information
  3. Quality of argument and analysis (principles, examples, counterexamples)
  4. Structure/organization (!)
  5. References (!)
  6. Sufficient length
  7. Originality

Prompt: This one is simple to write but requires you to critically evaluate your work. For each of the 7 areas above, give your self a - (needs work) or a 0 (OK) or a + (good). So your tweet will be simply 7 -'s, 0's, or +'s.

I found the July 2009 Chicago sessions extremely helpful in guiding my work in writing prompts.

Reading my student's metatweets gave me an insight into their thinking that I have not commonly had in the past. I liked the breadth of learning settings that were addressable by my prompts and their tweets—not just exams. I speculated that using Twitter was a low-overhead and high appeal endeavor and it was.

Conclusions and Evidence

There were several data gathering elements associated with this project. I began the course with a clicker-based survey of students backgrounds; I focused on technology topics. This showed heavy use of texting and Facebook, but fewer than 1/3 had user Twitter.

I administered the metacognitive elements of MSLQ, the "Quick MSLQ", during the first day and the last day of the course. MSLQ shows pretest vs. posttest shows slight improvement in metacognitive habits. The MSLQ uses a seven point scale with 7 being most metacognitive. For my class, the mean pretest (adjusted) was 4.680556 while the mean posttest (adjusted) was 5.05303. The mean metacognitive improvement was 0.372475 per item.

MSLQ Responses Item 13 is Item 1 reversed; Item 14 is item 8 reversed.

Two MSLQ items showed less rather than more metacognitive tendencies in the posttest.

3. When I become confused about something I'm reading, I go back and try to figure it out.
6. I ask myself questions to make sure I understand the material I have been studying.

The latter is puzzling because one of the prompts was designed to elicit exactly this behavior.

The students tweets themselves provided evidence for the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of this approach.

Prompt 11 A prompt is a question (or a statement with a direction to solicit a reaction). These self reflective prompts are designed to have students think about their own learning and then summarize those thoughts. It is your turn now. Tweet a prompt to have students in our course think about their own learning. You can't directly copy ones I have used, but those might a good starting point. This is the penultimate (that means next to last) prompt.

A full one third of the students gave prompts that were content related reading reflections rather than self-reflective.

On the other hand, some tweets reflected metacognitive growth.

Prompt 13. Predict a reflective learning technique you will use in a future class (next block, or later).

Students reported that would self-evaluate using a writing rubric, self-question after reading, and general be "more metacognitive". One student tweeted:"I believe the 10th reflective tweet is an excellent way to gauge how well I'm doing on a paper."

Finally, an end of course survey addressed the second research question. All students selected either: I enjoyed it, It was valuable, or It should remain part of the course for this activity. 50% of students indicated that this activity should remain part of the course (second to Refworks/research). FYSs in general and Privacy, Piracy, and the Public Good in particular, incorporate many activities; Refworks/research, mentor, writing sessions, and joint class were all popular.

There are several limitations in this work. First, the sample size is small. In year 1, n = 18 (the course cap) and in year 2, n = 12. This limitation would not be easy to overcome in the current setting. The MSLQ instrument is aimed primarily at reading and lecture classes. Tests, paper writing, and more active learning activities would only be measured indirectly. The MSLQ will clearly be influenced by other factors than just the Metatweets, for example the pretest and time at college.


Hopefully this work will inform future teaching practices. I can recommend light weight technology assisted course activities designed to foster metacognition. The ultimate goal of this activity in an FYS is to help students internalize these (metacognitive) habits of mind.

Looking Ahead

I expect to repeat this activity whenever I teach a Cornell First Year Seminar course, since it proved effective at developing learning skills at a crucial time in student's learning careers.

Much of work associated with changing a teaching experiment into a scholarship of teaching and learning project was accomplished during the first run-through of the project, for example learning survey construction and dealing with consent. I expect the second round of SoTL work will be much easier. I have tried to be outspoken in the context of Cornell's Conversation About Teaching sessions both towards metacognition and SoTL.


Isaacson, R.M., and Fujita, F., (2006). Metacognitive knowledge monitoring and self-regulated learning: Academic success and reflections on learning: Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, v. 6, p., 39-55.

Pintrich, P.R., Smith, D., Garcia, T., & McKeachie, W. (1991). A manual for the use of the motivated strategies for learning questionnaire (MSLQ). National Center for the Research to Improve Postsecondary Teaching and Learning, Ann Arbor, MI.

Wirth, K. (November 2008) Metacurriculum on Metacognition, from the his presentation at the initial meeting of the Collegium at Monmouth College.

I also benefited from the series of articles in the Chronicle over the last year related to Teaching with Twitter.