Catherine Rawn’s course with a hashtag

Catherine Rawn

Catherine Rawn

To create a course about the psychology of social media it was only natural that Dr. Catherine Rawn, Senior Instructor in UBC’s Department of Psychology, turned to social media to source ideas and develop content. The result is Psychology of Self in Social Media (PSYC 325).

Rawn, an early adopter of social media, started chronicling her adventures teaching and learning on her blog and through Twitter (@cdrawn) before many academics heard of these platforms. She was first attracted to Twitter as a means to find and connect with colleagues at a Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) conference. “I started tweeting at the conference–not only to archive and share what I was learning–but to network and find colleagues who were also there,” says Rawn. “Then we would meet up face-to-face and be able to pick up where we left off. Since then, professional networking continues to be my greatest and most successful use of Twitter.”

#ubcpsych325Twitter was also a key channel used in the course to share ideas and to connect with other classmates. The class participated in real-time group discussions and if you follow the hashtag #ubcpsyc325 you’ll find a treasure trove of articles and conversations from the class.

In this Q & A, Rawn reflects on how using social media helped her develop the course, the social psychological perspective of the course, and what she learned from her students.

Q: When you were first imagining this course you turned to social media to source ideas. How did using social media help you conceptualize and construct this course?
Social media is an important part of my everyday life—most of the time for good effect! It connects me across space and time to family and friends I don’t see often, and it helps me initiate, build, and maintain a rich professional network. It’s becoming natural to me to toss out an idea on social media and get feedback or reaction (or not, which is also interesting). When I started posting my nascent ideas for this course on a GoogleDoc, many people dropped in to see what was happening, and about a dozen or so people made a contribution, usually a link to a relevant article they saw. I learned about some really interesting resources that way. It was also useful to be able to send it to students who were curious about the course so they could evaluate whether it was something they wanted to dive in to. Before the course even began some students were already helping me build it. That was extremely useful and fun.

Q: The idea of Self is strongly emphasized in this course. How has your research background as a social psychologist influenced the way you developed this course?
I have always been interested in the Self. My dissertation research focused on the process of exerting self-control, and I’ve also spent a great deal of time with literature on the self-concept, self-esteem, self-enhancement, motivation and goal setting, and so on. When I was developing this course on psychology of social media, I knew I was going to emphasize a social psychological perspective, but I was expecting a broad definition (e.g., group dynamics, prejudice, emotion, etc). The more I worked on the course, the more I came back to themes of Self, so eventually I formally adopted that lens.

Q: What surprised you most about this course?
I was most surprised by the number of students who were *not* active social media users. Many self-identified as “lurkers”—people who don’t post (often), but who use social media to keep up to date on what other people are doing. Many people also seemed quite reluctant to try out Twitter, which surprised me. But then again, put me on Instagram or Snapchat and I’d feel rather awkward and unsure too because I don’t know the social norms.

Q: How have you learned from your students?
I learned so many things from and about my students this term it’s difficult to summarize! I really enjoyed learning about students’ first-hand experiences growing up with social media. There was a wide variety. For example, some students viewed social media engagement as a passing phase of their youth, whereas others currently and fiercely view their most vital interpersonal relationships as seamlessly facilitated by social media. For the latter, being without tech (and the socially-mediated communication it allowed) was socially isolating and felt uncomfortable, maybe even painful. In part because of the insights they shared, I’m reframing how I think about technology in the classroom.

But you actually asked about how I learned from my students. To me, that’s a question about teaching/learning technique. How I learned these things was by facilitating communication with my students every chance I could. Students posted a summary and/or reflection on Piazza before most classes, and I used those contributions to inform our in-class lessons. In my view, in almost every single class students spoke more than I did. We alternated from small group discussions with their neighbours to whole class discussions (~100 students) with the occasional mini-lesson by me, as needed. Most of the time there were also backchannels happening among the students who were engaged on Twitter—and I could follow up with them during and/or after class (#ubcpsyc325). My teaching in this course was mainly to set up a structure and a series of engaging questions that facilitated student contributions. From those contributions I learned a great deal.

Q: As this was a pilot course, do you envision any changes to it or has the foundation been set?
In my view, a course is never fully “done,” and if it was, that state would be too boring for me to want to teach! In this course, there’s a strong foundation of an integrated course design that meaningfully challenges students, as well as day-to-day classroom techniques that generally worked well to scaffold learning. What I’ll work most on changing for next time involves clarifying expectations from the start. I had a hard time communicating expectations well this time around because we were building the course as we went, and we made many changes as the course unfolded in response to student feedback. Next time I’ll be able to do things like firm up grading rubrics in advance of the course and provide examples of past work, to help ease students into exploring new ways of learning.


Catherine Rawn is a Senior Instructor in the Department of Psychology at UBC. She specializes in teaching and learning and this includes peer-based learning methods, the use of clickers in the classroom, student evaluations of teaching, program evaluation of TA Teaching Training, self-control, and social psychology broadly.