This semester I have formally incorporated a civic engagement project into one of my courses — students have partnered with local business owners to learn about the production and consumption of global commodities. I am new to community partnerships, and I have already learned some useful lessons about communication, expectations, and pedagogical design:
- While you might think that your first step is to define what students should get from a civic engagement project, both sides need to benefit. Students hypothetically develop the knowledge, skills, and motivation needed for participating productively in civic life, but what are the immediate benefits for community partners? Dumping a herd of untrained college students on a small and unsuspecting non-profit organization isn’t a worthwhile experience for either party. It’s better to contact potential partners beforehand to ask “What are your needs?”
- Provide community partners with specifics about the academic aspects of students’ civic engagement experience. What are the learning outcomes that students are supposed to achieve? What relevant assignments will students be working on? How will those assignments be assessed? For my project, I condensed the assignment directions down to a two-page handout. Business owners received the handout along with a copy of the course syllabus.
- Logistics matter. If students will be working in teams, make the teams large and diverse. I let students in my course choose from among six businesses, assuming that they would sort fairly randomly. One team ended up with three students, one of whom dropped the course. Another team ended up with all first-year students, who are prohibited from having cars on campus, and that team’s business is located a significant distance away.
- On the other side of the equation, the community partner needs to be operating, available, and in communication with students. Is the liaison with students going to disappear for a month-long vacation? Does the non-profit organization have enough funding to last it through the end of the semester? Is the business about to relocate or go bankrupt? If at all possible, students should meet personally with community partners before the project gets underway so that everyone has some awareness of the personalities involved. Invite partners to class to speak with students.
- Set aside a substantial amount of classroom time. Don’t force students into a commitment that is over and above the workload of a standard course. This is where familiarity with a flipped classroom pedagogy really comes in useful, and to be completely honest, setting aside thirty minutes of class twice a week for project work is a lot less taxing than always being responsible for everything that happens in the classroom.
- Use social conformity to your advantage by making students think about the quality of their work in comparison to that of their peers. Students in my course will first submit an individual version of each assignment, do peer reviews of each other’s work, and then members of each team will collaborate to produce a joint version. Teammates will evaluate the quality of each other’s contributions to the project at the end of the semester, and these rankings count toward a portion of the course grade. (Examples of different evaluation methods are here and here.) All of this is designed to nudge students toward better performance.
We are only a few weeks into the spring semester, so I’ll post an update in another month or so.