Using Social Media to Develop Students’ Critical Thinking Skills

By Wanda Reyes, Sam Houston State University

I use YouTube and Facebook in Principles of Public Relations to help my students develop critical thinking skills. This course introduces students to theories and their applications in public relations. The main goal is to have students learn to analyze and critically evaluate ideas, arguments, and point of views related to the public relations practice.

Since public relations practitioners operate under a wide range of environmental influences, there are no cookie cutters in the public relations practice (Guth & March, 2005). Communication strategies or programs that may work in one situation, may not work in another. Hence, public relations practitioners must think critically before making decisions. To encourage my students to develop critical thinking skills so they can apply course content to public relations situations, I designed different assignments and exercises that use both traditional and social media.

On the first day of class, I tell students that they must watch the news or read news stories before every class period. I give them a handout with questions that will help them analyze the content. For example, they have to identify the purpose of the story, figure out the key question in the mind of the author when he or she wrote the story, and suggest what the implications would be if they took the author’s line of reasoning seriously.

I start most class periods by having students discuss situations presented on the media. Then, as the semester progresses, I have them apply related concepts and theories covered in class to situations discussed in these news stories. Once the students learn how to analyze the information, I use content posted on YouTube as I explain course material. In addition to being a tool I use during class so students learn how to apply information, this outlet allows me to foster student participation by applying collaborative learning. YouTube allows me to create a student-centered and task-oriented environment that facilitates the discussion of theories and course content. Following are three examples of my class exercises that use YouTube.
  1. Writing a problem statement – When I start discussing the public relations process, I have students watch YouTube news stories about an organization. Before the video, I explain to students how to identify whether a situation represents a problem or an obstacle for an organization. I also give them a handout with questions that will help them analyze the content. Then, I have them watch the video. After they watch it, I give them about 10 minutes to answer the questions and write a problem statement. Once the students finish writing the problem statement, I have them read it to class. Then, I have the students discuss their peers’ work.

  2. Public opinion – To help students learn how media content can set the agenda for discussion, I have them analyze news stories about the same issue posted on YouTube. Then, I show content related to the news story posted by video bloggers or cybercitizens and have students write an analysis of both the situation and the statements posted on the medium. Students then present their analyses to class and they engage in class discussion. At that point, I become a moderator and students lead the discussion.

  3. Look what I found online! – After students understand how to apply course material to either traditional or social media content, some of them bring examples to class. When this happens, I let them browse YouTube to find the video and I again become a moderator as the students discuss the concepts I was presenting.

In addition to YouTube, I have also used Facebook. Usually, at the end of the semester, I have students design a campaign applying the public relations process. In Fall 2008, students designed an electronic type 2 diabetes prevention campaign for college students using Facebook.

They applied the ROPE model and placed particular emphasis on message design. This assignment was difficult for the students to handle because, in addition to applying the public relations process, they had to apply health communication theory and learn how to effectively create messages for dissemination through Facebook.

Using social media in the classroom has many advantages, but, in my experience, it is challenging to integrate in the curriculum because there are already many topics to cover. However, I strongly believe that public relations students need to learn to use social media from a communication standpoint. Based on my experience, I believe that instructors must introduce the use of social media with small exercises and assess students’ reactions. I learned that it is more effective to introduce exercises that require the use of YouTube and then move to something bigger like designing an electronic campaign. After mastering how to use social media as a learning tool, the satisfactions are great and having students engage in class discussion is easier to accomplish. To get ideas about in-class exercises that can be designed to utilize social media, I suggest Matthews (1996) and Safko and Brake (2009).


Guth, D.W. & Marsh, C. (2005). Adventures in Public Relations: Case Studies and Critical Thinking. Boston: Pearson.

Matthews, R. (1996). Collaborative learning: Creating Knowledge with students. In Menges, R.J., Weimer, M. & Associates (Eds), Teaching on solid ground: Using scholarship to improve practice (pp. 101-124). San Francisco: Joseey-Bass Publishers.

Safko, L., & Brake, D. (2009). The social media bible: Tactics, tools, and strategies for business success. John Wiley & Sons.

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