Increasingly, students are looking for and benefiting from learning experiences connecting them with the community beyond textbooks and tests. Engaging students with communities outside the classroom can provide students with opportunities to learn more about what is immediately around them, help them understand why particular problems exist, and teach them how they can be active participants in communities. Depending on intent of the course, the community of focus can range in scale and scope from students’ own communities on campus to local and international communities that they may have never been engaged with before. Added benefits to students who participate in community-engaged courses include better performance on assessments, increased student retention, and increased political awareness and civic engagement (Reed, Rosenberg, Statham, & Rosing, 2015; Simons & Cleary, 2006; Strage, 2000). Representatives of community partner organizations have also indicated that under ideal conditions, engagement between students and communities can support client outcomes, organizational and community enrichment, and foster the growth of social justice (Sandy & Holland, 2006).
The Spectrum of Engagement
We visualize the types of community engagement on a spectrum, ranging from the least resource-intensive to the most resource-intensive activities (see image below). These resources include instructor, student, and community partner contribution. Course topic and learning objectives help determine the level of engagement and community settings appropriate for your class. As an instructor, you can even immerse students in community issues without leaving the classroom through articles and videos, or by bringing in a guest speaker who is a part of the topic being presented. More resource-intensive activities include asking students to do observations in their communities, interviewing community members, participating in aphotovoice project, or working with a community partner on a service learning project. Full immersion of students in a new community might include participating in a study abroad program.
Four Ways to Determine How Community Engagement Fits Into Your Course
The prospect of engaging students outside of traditional textbooks and classroom instruction can be exciting. But incorporating community engagement into a course can feel daunting and like a lot of extra work. But it doesn’t have to be.The following can help you through the process:
- Ask yourself why you want to engage students with the community. Reflecting on your own reasons for the importance of community engagement can help you prioritize and decide the amount of time and effort you are willing to put into incorporating community engagement.
- Decide on the amount of added time and resources you want to put into community engagement. Using the spectrum of community engagement, you may decide that for your first course you have minimal time and resources to commit to engaging students with the community, but can find meaningful articles and videos, enhanced by a knowledgeable speaker to engage students on a specific topic covered in the class.
- Assess the community’s ability & interest to be engaged. Connect with community members about the activities you would like to do and determine their willingness and ability to engage with students. Be prepared to modify your original plan in order to meet your community partners’ needs.
- Incorporate student and community feedback into the engagement activity. Consider doing a brief evaluation with students after the activity to find out the extent to which it was helpful to them. If your students are engaging directly with community members or organizations, seek feedback from individuals in those settings as well. You can close the feedback loop by reporting out to students and community members about what you learn and the aspects of the experience you plan to approach differently in the future.
Now that community engagement has your attention… stay tuned for the next two blog posts where we will describe the activities we’ve used in our own classrooms and how you can implement them too! In the meantime, tell us what you think: What factors do you take into account when incorporating community engagement into your course? For those of you considering community engagement, what are the challenges you foresee? Seasoned community engagers, what are your rock star success stories? Post in the comments below!
Jennifer Lawlor is a graduate student in MSU’s ecological-community psychology program, where she studies collaboration networks among community stakeholders. She has taught courses in community psychology and research methods, sparking her interest in working with undergraduates. When she’s not geeking out about communities and teaching, Jennifer enjoys figure skating, baking, and playing board games.
Katie Gregory is an ecological-community psychology graduate student at MSU. As a Michigander born and raised, she is passionate about mentoring students while keeping them engaged with local issues and policies through courses in community psychology and human services internships. Her research interests focus on gender-based violence, specifically on how multiple systems respond to survivors of intimate partner violence. Free time? What’s that? Katie is a parent to twin toddlers.