Promoting learning with TikTok: 10 tips for engaging students

Leverage TikTok for learning at the university level by using pop culture, investing time in production and encouraging discussions, writes Chris Clarke

Chris Clarke's avatar
Washington State University
19 Dec 2023
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What I learned from spending three years researching TikTok
4 minute read
TikTok can be a great instructional tool for engaged educators

Among college-age youth, TikTok stands out as the most popular social media and information platform. I teach a large introduction to macroeconomics course and a smaller history of economic thought course, and, since 2021, I’ve progressively integrated it into my pedagogical practice. Based on my successes, here are some tips for fellow academics looking to integrate it into their college courses.

Answer questions via video

Want to know what kind of content to create? Listen to your students. When they ask questions in class or in online discussions, answer them on TikTok. This way, you can also expand your reach; it’s likely they’re not the only ones who need to know. The phrase “someone asked me” is a great hook for an introduction. If you get permission from whoever asked the question, you can reference the scenario to make your content more authentic.

Keep it short and snappy 

While TikTok can support longer content, the magic lies in 60- to 90-second videos. Create concise content that distils the most salient points. This short form forces you to identify the key assumptions and data your idea relies on. This discipline also improves your in-class communication.

Use pop culture to bring complex ideas home

Finding real-world applications of our academic tools demonstrates why students should learn them. Plus, it’s fun! One effective way of doing this is to connect academic concepts to trending topics or celebrities. One of my recent TikToks was about the “Taylor Swift macroeconomy”, for example. In this short video, I answered the question about the singer’s impact on inflation and the economy. 

Create engaging content

Well-performing educational TikTok videos include academic insights into current events, “stitches” where you combine someone else’s TikTok video with one you’re creating, new peer review research explained in an accessible way and opportunities to address misinformation politely and directly. Other interesting content simply asks the questions on everyone’s minds (and answers them). For example, I posted a very successful video that asked the question (and delved into the complexities behind the answer) of what US city is most affordable. Hint – there’s more to consider than the low prices.

Be prepared for a time investment 

A fast-moving, snappy TikTok video gets to the point in a minute or two but can easily take 60 to 90 minutes to produce when you factor in script writing, image finding, recording and editing. Also, be aware of the long-term commitment involved with producing videos regularly to grow your channel. After three years of using TikTok in my classes, I still invest 10 to 20 hours a week. However, it goes quickly if you sit down after lectures and briefly summarise them. For those who want to post less frequently, simply do a couple of candid conversational recordings a week while walking across campus to get coffee.

Spend time watching content

Being a content creator also means being a content consumer. I like to feature TikTok videos during lectures and riff off the latest sound or visual trends to encourage class discussions. There is a growing community of academics on the platform, such as PhD candidate @Chem.Thug@ProfessorCasey, an expert on tech ethics, environmental economist @IguanaLow and liberal arts professor @PoliSciOnTheFly.

Technical logistics matter 

A well-lit set, dynamic framing and clear audio are necessary for producing professional-looking content. Vary focal points and increase the dynamism of shots by either moving your face to the left or right side of the frame. Turn on more lights; whether cheap or expensive, every camera picks up a better shot with more light. And most importantly, invest in a quality microphone. Finally, use the platform’s automatic captions generator.

Balance opinions with academic rigour

Social media thrives on sensationalism, anger and division. Point out if the topic you are discussing in your video is an active controversy. If you’re presenting yourself as a credentialed academic, you must fairly present the continuing disagreement, even if you have strong feelings for one side. We need to balance creating a viral hook without compromising academic integrity.

Be polite and encouraging in comment sections

Asking viewers to comment with their experiences is a great way to increase engagement and expose yourself and your viewers to diverse viewpoints. Depending on the quantity, reply to as many as possible. Viewers often go to the comments section for further questions and insights. Disagreements can sometimes turn ugly, so blocking can be a necessary tool. Nevertheless, keep in mind that everyone knows something we do not. Graciousness goes a long way to improving receptiveness in the audience we are teaching.

Be aware of your institution’s policies on TikTok

Some universities may forbid the use of TikTok on their campus computers. If this is the case, you might end up producing short-form videos on your personal device or via other editing software such as CapCutOBSCanva or the paid PowerDirector. If you require that students watch certain videos on TikTok for learning purposes, make sure to cross-post them on other platforms such as Instagram, YouTube or X. Or, if you want to avoid specific social media platforms for the classroom, host your videos on Creative Commons, which specialises in open-access content.

TikTok presents a unique opportunity to break down complex academic concepts into digestible, relatable content. As you navigate the terrain, stay adaptable, humble and ever-willing to evolve your approach. With a bit of creativity and time, you, too, can effectively leverage TikTok as a dynamic and interactive learning tool.

Chris Clarke is an assistant professor of economics at Washington State University.

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