University students who used a Facebook group as part of a large sociology class did better on course assignments and felt a stronger sense of belonging, researchers found.
The study by Baylor University has implications for the challenge of teaching large classes, a matter of growing concern for higher education, researchers said.
"Although some teachers may worry that social media distracts students from legitimate learning, we found that our Facebook group helped transform students from anonymous spectators into a community of active learners and this has important consequences for student performance," said Kevin Dougherty, associate professor of sociology in Baylor's College of Arts and Sciences.
The research focused on a class of 218 students in an introductory sociology class.
Students who participated in the Facebook group scored higher on quizzes, wrote stronger papers and did better on exams than classmates who did not take part, the study found.
Researchers noted that participation in the group was voluntary and set up as a "closed group" as defined by Facebook. Only those enrolled in the class were permitted to join.
They had to request to do so and be accepted by a faculty administrator. Two-thirds of students in the class ended up joining the group.
Both students and teaching staff provided a steady stream of content to the Facebook group, researchers said.
Teaching staff posted discussion questions, links to relevant online material and photos and videos of in-class events such as guest lectures and themed skits.
Students, meanwhile, posted their own photos and videos related to course concepts, engaged in discussions and sought solutions to questions and problems.
Students' posts attracted comments and "like" responses from classmates.
"Again and again, we saw students helping one another on the Facebook group," Dougherty said.
As final exams approached, students were especially helpful to each other, swapping definitions and examples and organising informal study sessions.
Because the majority of students access Facebook through a mobile device such as a cellphone or iPad, "the class Facebook Group was almost always with them. No student in our class needed assistance using Facebook," researchers said.
"A Facebook group extends the classroom in time and space. It allows students to interact with one another and with the subject matter wherever and whenever they choose. It makes them more active learners," Dougherty said.
The study was published in Teaching Sociology, a journal of the American Sociological Association.