Rachael Houston, Texas Christian University
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I taught a hybrid version of an introductory American politics course last year. The class met in-person on Fridays for an hour and a half, but was otherwise online. This format made it particularly difficult to keep the course in a lecture style. Who wants to listen to a lecture on a Friday afternoon, or remember a Friday lecture to complete course material for the following week? Because of this, I restructured the course and made Fridays more “hands on” for the students. I wanted them to apply concepts they learned through the online lectures for in-class activities. This meant that the semester included many fun assignments: deliberative dialogues, Twitter fights, movie screenings, letters to representatives, and—my personal favorite—TikTok videos.
My course dedicated a week to discussing political participation, campaigns, and elections. Oftentimes, students think of political participation only as voting, so I spent this week really trying to convince them that they could participate through other means as well. I thought an assignment that reinforced this point would be perfect. Before our Friday class, I anonymously polled students through our online learning portal about their access to a cell phone and TikTok. I did this to ensure that I would not exclude any student who lacked access. I placed students randomly into groups of two to three, ensuring that at least one person in each group had a cell phone and access to TikTok.
Once I placed students into these groups, I delivered a quick 5-minute lecture highlighting what I had emphasized in the online lecture that week: That participation does not mean voting exclusively. We then spent 15 minutes going through The New York Times’ “How to Participate in Politics” article, which highlights several ways students can make their voices heard outside of voting. Once we reviewed and discussed the article, I presented the assignment instructions. I asked students to record a quick video (2 minutes maximum) on TikTok. The video had to: (1) include a message about why everyone should participate in politics, (2) identify one form of participation, and (3) explain a set of “best practices” to maximize the effectiveness of the form of participation they chose with their partner(s). Additionally, students were tasked within their groups with assigning at least one person to film and one person to be on camera. Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (2014) refer to this as positive interdependence and argue that this type of cooperative learning tends to result in learners promoting each other’s success.
I also let them know that we would have a movie screening of all their TikTok videos once they returned to the classroom. The movie screening had a contest element to it: Students could anonymously vote through a Google Form I created for their favorite Tik Tok video (but couldn’t vote for themselves) and the winners got bragging rights for the rest of the semester. This contest structure motivated them, as they knew that their small group members needed them to win the votes of the class (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith 2014).
After I explained the instructions and contest, I told students to leave the classroom and record their videos outside. The catch, however, is that they only had 30 minutes to record the videos from start to finish with their partners. This is one of the many reasons why I decided to use TikTok. TikTok videos are very quick– about 50% of TikTok users said they found videos longer than one minute to be “stressful.”10 By using a platform that demands quick videos in combination with 30 minutes running down on the clock, students had to quickly think about the most efficient way to respond to all three prompts.
When the students came back into class, each group emailed me their TikTok video. The platform is convenient because users do not have to post their content to the platform itself. TikTok has a draft function where users download videos that they make to their phone without uploading the videos to TikTok. It was very easy for students to download their videos to their phones and send them to me via email, especially because they were only a couple minutes long at most.
While we were watching the videos in random order, I was pleasantly surprised to see how excited the students were to watch each other’s videos – and their own. They were laughing, clapping, and full of life. This was a great way to switch the classroom structure to one centered around the students. It was highly important for them to see each other’s work, as peer-to-peer learning in the classroom improves students’ conceptual understanding of a topic (Duncan 2005; Mazur 1997), bolsters student engagement (Lucas 2009), and encourages civic engagement in younger populations (Shea and Harris 2006).
The students covered many forms of political participation in their videos, including voting, writing letters to their representatives, protesting, and donating. Students heard from their peers about how to engage with these different methods of participation and how to do so effectively. This is particularly important, as many natural and field experiments have found that political participation is contagious within social circles (Gerber et al. 2008; Nickerson 2008; Klofstad 2010; Panagopoulos 2010). These videos were a way for students to hear from each other about these forms of participation, rather than hearing them from me (the teacher) exclusively.
As a teaching tool, TikTok was a perfect way to get many students interested in the course material. The platform itself allows students to connect pop culture to politics – and in this case pop culture to political participation. It might feel silly or out of place, but I found the benefits of TikTok’s educational use too great to ignore. As an example, in a trend this past year on TikTok, Gen Zers “canceled” Millennials’ sense of style in the form of skinny jeans. A group in my class took this trend and instead “canceled” people who did not feel the need to vote. Another trend was #fetapasta where a TikTok user showed themselves making a feta pasta using a few simple ingredients. A group in my class used this trend and instead showed how volunteering for a campaign only takes a few “simple ingredients.”
At the end of the movie screening, I pulled up the results of the Google Form and we all saw together which video won the votes of the class. I had the winners stand up and we gave them a round of applause. Once class ended, students were more lively than usual, with many of them sticking around to talk to each other. The assignment helped form new friendships in the classroom.
While the pandemic forced all of us to adjust our teaching, often for the worse, this experience was an outlier. The hybrid format forced me to try new hands-on approaches to teaching – and this included using TikTok. TikTok let me capture the attention of many students who were otherwise not interested in the course material, meet them where their interests lie, and enter their worlds. If you are on the fence about using TikTok or social media more broadly in your courses, I suggest you try it! The excitement I felt from my students during this assignment was contagious.
Duncan, D. (2005). Clickers in the classroom: How to enhance science teaching using classroom response systems. San Francisco: Pearson/Addison-Wesley.
Gerber, A. S., Green, D. P., & Larimer, C. W. (2008). Social pressure and voter turnout: Evidence from a large-scale field experiment. American political Science review, 102(1), 33-48.
Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal on Excellence in University Teaching, 25(4), 1-26.
Klofstad, C. A. (2010). The lasting effect of civic talk on civic participation: Evidence from a panel study. Social Forces, 88(5), 2353-2375.
Lucas, A. (2009). Using peer instruction and i-clickers to enhance student participation in calculus. Primus, 19(3), 219–231.
Mazur, E. (1997). Peer instruction: A user’s manual. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.
Nickerson, D. W. (2008). Is voting contagious? Evidence from two field experiments. American Political Science review, 102(1), 49-57.
Panagopoulos, C. (2010). Affect, social pressure and prosocial motivation: Field experimental evidence of the mobilizing effects of pride, shame and publicizing voting behavior. Political Behavior, 32(3), 369-386.
Shea, D. M., & Harris, R. (2006). Why bother? Because peer-to-peer programs can mobilize young voters. PS: Political Science & Politics, 39(2), 341-345.
Rachael Houston received her Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Minnesota in 2022 and is an incoming assistant professor of American judicial politics at Texas Christian University.
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