Challenging students to break down complex theories into a single 140-character tweet, sociology professor Matthew Atherton embraces Twitter as an innovative tool to engage and enhance student learning in his Criminological Theory 325 class.

A required upper-division course for criminology and justice studies majors, Criminological Theory 325 explores over 20 sociological theories during the 16-week semester. Keeping track of the complicated and sometimes abstract theories and delineating between them can be challenging for students, said Atherton.

To help students better interpret the nuances of the theories, Atherton asks his students to summarize each theory into a single tweet, which is comprised of 140 characters or less, and post it on Twitter.

“Given the complex nature of criminological theories, it may seem like reductionism to simplify it,” said Atherton. “However, the exercise is not about presenting theories in the most simplistic manner, rather it is an exercise in being able to synthesize the numerous aspects of the theory into a succinct statement.”

Initially, he explained, students see the task as deceptively simple, but quickly discover that the Twitter character limit requires several rewrites and a purposeful choice of words, and even characters, in order to present the fundamentals of the theory.

“In the process students gain a greater understanding of the theory,” he said.

One of the theories students are introduced to in the course is Robert Merton’s strain theory. His theory suggests that when people are prevented from achieving culturally approved goals through institutional means, they experience strain or frustration that can lead to criminal behavior.

Take the American Dream, for example. The American Dream is a shared goal in the U.S. that defines what people should strive for and what constitutes success. The institutional means suggests that people must work hard, go to school and get a good job in order to achieve the American Dream. Deviance occurs when the institutional means don’t permit all who are striving for the goal to obtain it. The result, according to Merton, leads individuals to turn to crime, like fraud or theft, as a way to achieve success.

Tasked with summarizing Merton’s theory, Atherton’s students tweet:

“Inequality & the goal to achieve wealth causes tension within society’s members. People respond by conforming or improvising #soc325”

“Social inequalities put a strain on normally, socially compliant humans to achieve goals at any, usually deviant, cost #soc325”

Using the course’s abbreviation as a hash tag, which is a word or phrase prefixed with the "#" sign in Twitter, students share their posts with their classmates. Reading the iterations posted by their peers gives students a different perspective or variation of the same theory.

In addition to students tweeting about the theories, Atherton uses Twitter to share timely news articles that relate to classroom discussions.

“Using technology that is culturally relevant outside of the classroom and integrating it into a course can be a powerful teaching tool to engage and deepen student learning,” Atherton said.

“Given the complex nature of criminological theories, it may seem like reductionism to simplify it,” said Atherton. “However, the exercise is not about presenting theories in the most simplistic manner, rather it is an exercise in being able to synthesize the numerous aspects of the theory into a succinct statement.”