Using TikTok for Your Academic Papers? Make Sure to Consult Other Sources

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By Kate Sitarz
Published on April 25, 2023

Information on TikTok is more interactive than what you find from a Google search. But ensuring the accuracy of that information is crucial to using TikTok to support your studies.

Two international students browsing TikTok together

Currently, more than 50% of four-year college students in the United States use TikTok videos for help with their homework. Students responding to the survey noted they use TikTok mostly for help with math, English, and art (compared to other subjects). More than 34% of the survey’s respondents said they also used the platform to help complete their college application essays.

TikTok has become the go-to search engine for Gen Z. The content is interactive and, as a result, often more engaging than traditional web articles. For many students, this makes what they learn on TikTok stick more than, say, reading from a textbook with outdated stock images.

However, while there is space for TikTok in academia, it should not be the only source — or even the first source — you turn to for research. Here are some tips on how to use TikTok for academics in ways that support (instead of skewing) your learning.

Viral TikTok Videos as One Part of the Research Process

Like Wikipedia, TikTok makes it easier to find information. But while Wikipedia articles often cite sources, TikTok creators are not in the habit of including references.

That means it is on you to fact-check the information you find on TikTok to ensure its accuracy. This can be tricky, as TikTok is designed to keep you consuming content on the platform. You need to leave TikTok and consult other sources — a key part of the research process.

Viral TikTok videos can certainly be one part of your research process. For example, you may use TikTok as your first step in the process to get more information about a particular topic. Watching videos on TikTok may give you context for which additional questions to ask and the information you need to fact-check via other means, whether that is using a traditional search engine and consulting articles on Google or visiting the library.

The number of likes or views on a video or the number of followers a creator has is not an indicator of trustworthiness. Misinformation and disinformation are rampant across social media, including TikTok. Part of your job as a student is to gain the skills needed to analyze a source and verify information with other sources.

You also need to know what your professors expect and understand your university’s policies.  There continue to be privacy concerns around the use of the app within the United States. In fact, Dr. Casey Fiesler, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, has discussed the topic on her TikTok channel.

Some universities, including Auburn University and the University of Mississippi, among others, have banned access to the app on their networks. You can still, of course, access the app on campus, but not via on-campus Wi-Fi.

Expanding Your TikTok Videos Search

The TikTok algorithm is wildly effective — if you like being shown more of the same type of content that you want to see. Videos are curated to your interests and, very quickly, it knows exactly what you like.

While that makes for a seemingly great user experience, it also means you are only seeing the world through a very small frame. Take a step back, and there is an entire world you are missing. 

While the TikTok creator community is diverse, it does not mean that the videos you are served are diverse.

Scott Helfgott, vice president of academic affairs at Shorelight, recommends searching for opposing views to see what comes up. There are multiple perspectives to any event, and Helfgott encourages students to gather as many perspectives as they can.

This ensures that you are exposed to different cultures, perspectives, and experiences you might not see if you do not break out of the algorithm and what the algorithm is programmed to show you.

“You cannot rely on one TikTok video as a source of truth,” he says. “The video appears on your page because the algorithm knows you want to see specific content based on your history. There is another side of it.”

Understanding TikTok’s limitations and potential pitfalls will help you know when it is appropriate to use TikTok for academic purposes and when it is not. “Do your research before you accept what a person is telling you as truth — you do not know if the source is qualified,” stresses Helfgott. 

According to a recent survey, 65% of students believe the information on TikTok is “somewhat” accurate, while 17% believe it is “very accurate.”

Knowing whether the information is accurate or not will not come from research on the platform. It requires getting off TikTok and verifying the facts: go to the person’s LinkedIn profile, verify their bio, and confirm that this is a real person who is qualified to speak on the topic. 

When Is it Appropriate to Cite TikTok Videos? 

You may have certain classes where it is appropriate to use and cite TikTok videos as part of your assignment.

Ask your professors whether it is appropriate to use both traditional and new sources. “I have not heard of many professors accepting TikTok in isolation, without another source,” shares Helfgott. “It is up to the professor to decide whether they accept TikTok as a source, and this is evolving all the time.”

Helfgott recommends using TikTok to help develop writing and research skills, but not necessarily citing TikTok videos as a source unless doing so is appropriate for your assignment. “There typically needs to be something that you cite in addition to the TikTok video,” he says.

For example, a marketing course may have you look at how businesses are using TikTok to reach their customers. Are they connecting with their target audience? Are they selling too much in a way that turns their audience off? You can evaluate whether their TikTok advertising efforts are effective or not.

Writing courses, particularly courses like writing for the web or humor writing, may also have you spending time on TikTok for class. Part of the appeal of TikTok — and why some videos do so well — is because it is far more entertaining than content on other mediums. 

Screenwriting and film courses may have you practicing writing scripts for TikTok videos. How can you tell a story in just a few seconds? (The sweet spot for TikTok videos is currently between 15 and 60 seconds.) Can you keep people engaged for a 10-minute story (the longest length currently allowed on TikTok)?

Even when it is appropriate to use TikTok videos for research, Helfgott stresses the importance of fact-checking. He points out that as artificial intelligence continues to improve, almost everything can be fake. Helfgott mentioned a video that combined footage of US President Biden with a completely fake speech that he never made. The video matched the speech to his mouth movements in a way that was hard to tell whether it was fake.

“With any research, including TikTok, you need to go to a lot of sources,” Helfgott explains. “You cannot rely on one individual or one type of source. You need multiple sources, multiple perspectives.”

If you are using TikTok as part of a course, you need to know how to cite the source and give credit to the creator. Both the Modern Language Association (MLA) and American Psychological Association (APA) have updated their style guides to include a format for citing TikTok.

Using TikTok to Support Your Learning

Rather than being a source you cite for classwork, TikTok instead can be a great way to supplement your learning. It combines visuals, audio, and text all in one place. And you may even find your professors are sharing content on the platform, too!

You can find videos on how to manage your time, how to write different types of essays, how to write a thesis statement, and more. It can be a great way to refresh what you learned in class. There are also videos that dig into specific math problems and English-language nuances.

For example, Andrea Holm has a master’s in technology in education and has spent years as an English teacher and English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. Her videos offer bite-sized tips on one specific element of the English language, such as explaining the word “the” and how to use it.

For math, there are channels like Free GCSE Maths Teacher that break down algebra problems and other math concepts into quick videos, such as solving algebraic fractions. Watching how a problem is broken down step-by-step can be a great way to reinforce math concepts you are learning in the classroom.

There are even celebrity academics on TikTok, like Neil deGrasse Tyson who explains concepts like energy and how stars are born on his channel.

Helfgott also points out that you can use TikTok to find out about certain classes and majors, too. For example, you can search things like “What does a data analytics major do” and find videos on data analytics. You can also use it to find opportunities for things like summer internships or top firms for internships in a particular location. 

When to Move from TikTok to In-Person Support

While TikTok can help offer quick tips that help you improve study habits, time management, and productivity, you can also receive that same support in person. 

In-person support gives you a deeper, more comprehensive experience for improving study habits or getting the academic support you need. Plus, programs are tailored to your specific needs so you can ensure you are getting the right support. 

Helfgott urges students to take advantage of professors’ office hours. Office hours are designed to give you answers to questions or additional help, whether you run out of time in class or feel more comfortable talking with your professor one-on-one.

Similarly, Stanford professor Tom Mullaney, who posts on TikTok as firstgenprofessor, regularly shares videos about navigating college courses and campus life overall — reinforcing the idea that while it’s great to begin on screen, nothing compares to in-person connections. 

On TikTok, you can certainly find tons of videos on topics like resume writing and elevator pitches. That is a great way to get information before you take a first pass at writing your own resume, cover letter, and more. But you can also get one-on-one support on these materials. Experts can review your resume, help you with interview practice questions, and offer networking tips so that you are putting your best foot forward. (Shorelight’s career development services do just that, with resume and interview preparation help, assistance with internship and job searches, and more.)

Advisors can also help you navigate course selection and connect you with on-campus resources that can further support you. For example, Shorelight’s Accelerator programs offer both academic support and career development services. You can get English-language support, along with tutoring and mentoring. 

Whichever university you decide to attend in the US will also have tutoring centers for writing, math, and languages. These centers can give you the one-on-one support you need from both experts and peer mentors who can help you review specific math problems or work with you on key elements of essay writing, for example.

Career centers are another great resource. Here, you can have confidence in the counselors’ credentials, Helfgott points out. These professionals have a master’s degree and are qualified to support your career search. “You can interact with them personally and build a relationship,” says Helfgott. “That is not going to happen when you are watching three- to five-minute videos from a stranger who may be unqualified to give advice.”

The advantage of working with experts on campus is that the university has vetted the person who is working with you.

Lastly, Helfgott offers one additional word of caution: “You may start on TikTok for academic reasons, but then you might go down a rabbit hole of non-academic content a few minutes later.” Set a timer for yourself so, if you find yourself watching cat videos, you can get back on track.

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