Connecting Classrooms with Communities: Guidance for U-M Instructors

How and why might you work with community partners to enhance student learning in your courses and build valuable connections beyond the university -- whatever your discipline? In this guest post, CRLT campus partners Denise Galarza Sepúlveda of LSA’s Office of Community-Engaged Academic Learning (CEAL) and Neeraja Aravamudan of the Ginsberg Center offer key insights for planning courses that build productive, equitable relationships with community partners.

Community-engaged learning, also referred to as community-based learning or service-learning, has been recognized as a high impact educational practice that promotes deeper understanding of course concepts while advancing connections between the university and communities. Community partners bring valuable knowledge and expertise to contribute to students’ learning, and those students in turn--and the broader partnership with the university--can expand community partners’ capacity to address their priorities.

Integrating community-engaged pedagogies into your courses allows students to learn by engaging with communities and social issues, while preparing students for a lifelong commitment to civic engagement. Reflecting on their experiences across a range of disciplines, students describe community-engaged courses as transformative because they help them build highly transferable skills. Since students are increasingly seeking out such opportunities, offering more community-engaged courses can serve as a strategy to attract students to a major or discipline.

But how do you make these learning experiences both transformative for students and equitable for our community partners? Below we highlight specific strategies.

Working with Community Partners

  • To identify potential community partners
    • Explore your existing personal and professional networks since existing relationships can lead to authentic and fruitful partnerships.
    • Discover new potential partners by reviewing existing databases of volunteer opportunities or reaching out to the Ginsberg Center, which works with community partners in the social sector to identify community-defined priorities for addressing pressing social challenges.
  • To establish effective campus-community partnerships
    • Before solidifying your course design, work with community partners to align their interests and priorities with your goals, expectations for student learning, partnership-related outcomes, and course timeline.
    • Ask community partners for additional history and context about the issues they are addressing and who else in the community is working on the issues.
    • Have honest and direct conversations about both the parameters and the limitations of the partnership. Be conscious of not promising more than you can deliver.
    • Lay out your expectations for your partnership in writing (shared goals, expectations, concrete deliverables, communication and conflict resolution plans, and how to conclude the partnership). You can create a joint Summary of expectations or project charter.

Designing Your Course

  • To ensure purposeful design
    • What do you (and your community partner) want your students to have learned or accomplished by the end of the term? Let this vision guide your course design.
    • Give students structured time to reflect on their thoughts prior to engaging with communities and address their collective assumptions and expectations.
    • Integrate the community-based experience into the course by dedicating time to necessary training like intercultural competency, interviewing skills, and task management strategies.
    • Count the time at community sites as part of the “preparation time for class” and balance reading and homework assignment accordingly.
    • LSA Faculty can request a dedicated graduate consultant to assist with course development through CEAL’s CBL Consultants Program and one-on-one consultations. Ginsberg Center staff offer course consultation and resources to faculty outside of LSA.
  • To integrate substantive reflection
    • Provide strategically timed opportunities for your students to reflect on their experiences throughout the term.
    • Promote inclusive teaching by using varied platforms for reflection like journaling, class discussion, digital storytelling, or different types of artistic expression.
    • Design a “culminating project,” with community partner input, that will give students an opportunity to showcase and reflect on what they have learned.
    • Make time to reflect on your own teaching and talk to your partners and students about what could be changed or enhanced.

For additional course design funding and support, contact:

References and Additional Reading

Ash, S. L., & Clayton, P. H. (2009). Learning through Critical Reflection: A Tutorial for Service-Learning Students (Instructor Version). Raleigh, N.C.: Ash, Clayton & Moses.

Fitzgerald, H. E., Bruns, K., Sonka, S. T., & Furco, A. (2012). The Centrality of Engagement in Higher Education. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 16(3), 7–27.

Fink, Dee L. (2013) Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Howe, C. W., Coleman, K., Hamshaw, K., & Westdijk, K. (2014). Student Development and Service-Learning: A Three-Phased Model for Course Design. The International Journal of Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement, 2(1), 44-62.

Jacoby, B. (2014). Service-learning essentials questions, answers, and lessons learned. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kuh, G. D.  (2008). High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter.  Association of American Colleges & Universities. (High-Impact Educational Practices: A Brief Overview)

Mitchell, T. D. (2008). Traditional vs. critical service-learning: engaging the literature to differentiate two models. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 14(2), 50-65.

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