Heart and mind: Student Facebook groups emphasise that learning is emotional as well as cerebral

Tony Coughlan @tjcoughlan and Leigh-Anne Perryman @laperryman – The Open University

Student participation in Facebook groups related to their studies has become ubiquitous. To understand the reasons for this, we analysed 10 open/public student-led Facebook groups related to courses provided by The Open University, investigating the quantity and content of activity over a one month period. The groups span undergraduate levels 1, 2 and 3 and four disciplines: law, education, social science and science.

Our data collection for these open groups comprised quantitative analysis of participation levels and types within the studied groups and qualitative directed content analysis of the educational practices evident in group participants’ posts, the latter informed by Galley et al’s (2012) Community Indicators Framework.  Researching in open/public Facebook groups raised some ethics-related challenges regarding informed consent, navigating online disinhibition, ensuring confidentiality and data protection, as traditional ethics guidelines for educational research (e.g. BERA, 2010) do not typically cover open research. Our management of these ethical considerations is discussed in detail elsewhere (Perryman and Coughlan, 2015).

We found a diverse range of practices in the 10 groups, including:

  • Emotional support;
  • Peer-support focused on academic practices and study skills;
  • Advice-giving around navigating institutional processes;
  • Content-related learning;
  • Technical help.

On the whole, group participation appears rule-abiding and respectful. We found frequent evidence of a two-way dynamic between Facebook groups, formal tuition and the VLE; for example group members directing others to tutorial notes and sections of the module materials, and also sharing tips about university processes.

Of particular interest was the balance between heart and mind – emotional and cerebral support – in the studied groups, as this has implications for the impact of Facebook on the student experience in higher education. For example, our study suggests student-led Facebook groups can improve student retention. Extensive emotional support is evident across the studied groups and appears to help group members learn to manage emotional reactions, anxieties and stress levels. It follows that students who are part of a thriving Facebook community might feel particularly well-supported and consequently less likely to withdraw from their studies when struggling.  Facebook groups are also providing ‘just-in-time’ academic guidance for less experienced students, for example around workload and time-management.

Our research shows that a combination of peer-provided guidance around academic practices and study skills, extensive emotional support, and discussion of course content in these student-led Facebook groups can be a powerful complement to formal tuition.

BERA (2011) Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research. Available from http://www.bera.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/BERA-Ethical-Guidelines-2011.pdf.  [Accessed 27 October 2015]

Galley, R, Conole, G & Alevizou, P (2012): Community indicators: a framework for observing and supporting community activity on Cloudworks. Interactive Learning Environments, Vol. 22, Issue 3, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10494820.2012.680965 [Accessed 27 October 2015]

Perryman, L and Coughlan, T (2015). Morality, social media and the educational researcher. Paper presented at SocMedHE2015 Conference, Sheffield Hallam University, 18 December 2015.