Community-Based Research for Youth Development
June 30, 2008
I designed and taught a two-semester course called “Community-Based Research for Youth Development.” The purpose of the course was for students to learn research skills grounded in the ethics and practice of community-based research (CBR). CBR blurs conventional boundaries between “researcher” and “participant” in order to develop an authentic collaboration guided by reciprocity and mutual respect (Ansley & Gaventa, 1997). In addition to learning the practice of CBR, a second purpose was for students to learn about the discipline of positive youth development with a particular focus on the experiences of linguistic and cultural minority youth (e.g., Dimitriades, 2005; Valenzuela, 2005). The third purpose of the course, consistent with the ethics of CBR, was for students to deliver high quality reports to our community partners.
Course revolved around the design and implementation of CBR projects. The fall semester was devoted to students gaining a common vocabulary and deep understanding necessary for conducting action research in community settings. During this time students broke into three teams, met representatives from community agencies, and agreed on a meaningful but realistic research project for the spring semester. In the spring semester students devoted more time to fieldwork. In weekly class meetings we discussed observations and readings, reflected on what we are learning, and developed students’ data analysis and writing skills. Students developed a final product that addressed questions agreed upon by students and their partner organizations. The course culminated in a meeting where students reflected publicly about their experiences. One week after the open house we delivered written reports to community partners.
In addition to teaching the course, I sought to document the process through systematic research methods. Money was allocated to support a 15% Graduate Research Assistantship for Kristen Pozzoboni, a doctoral student in education. Kristen supported the course throughout the year both in terms of help with instruction (she served as “coach” for one of the student teams) and carrying out research about student learning (e.g., she interviewed all of the students at the beginning and end of the year).
At the conclusion of both semesters students were asked to reflect on their learning and ground their reflections in examples from the course. The content of these reflections ranged in topic, including, but not limited to: the importance of relationships when doing community work (and the challenges of sustaining them); the power of applying academic knowledge/skills to the “real world,” the value of “low-inference” observation and description, and methods for contributing to social change. In my judgment, students also learned something about the writing process, as each team completed at least three drafts of their final reports. More confident claims about student learning await systematic data analysis, which I plan to conduct in fall 2009. These claims will be based on analysis of student interviews, student written reflections, instructor written reflections, and other assignments completed by students. My hunch is that students learned more about the CBR aspect of the course than the youth development aspect of the course. This is because the CBR skills were reinforced by all of the spring assignments, whereas youth development theory was a greater focus in the fall.
Here are some excerpts from students’ reflections at the end of the year:
Sustainable Partnerships with Youth-Serving Organizations
I feel good about the relationships we developed with community partners (Boulder I Have a Dream, Project YES, and Access Colorado’s Public Achievement). I made an extra effort to maintain clear lines of communication with partners and sought to guarantee that student projects met the goals or needs of partners. Kristen and I worked on several drafts with students to meet a threshold of quality that we felt was important for community partners. My impression from final meetings was that partners were satisfied with what our partnership had produced and were open to working again, although I have not had the opportunity to ask if partners had any additional feedback on the quality or content of the reports. Fortunately, I was invited to participate in an evaluation of service-learning programs conducted by Debra Flanders and Ian Bates from the Center for Children Youth Environments Center for Research and Design. Debbie and Ian interviewed one staff member representative from each of our three partner organizations and recorded those interviews. I am eager to see their report to hear what worked and what needs to be improved in terms of community partnerships for future iterations of the course.
Insights about Teaching and Learning CBR
Teaching and researching this course deepened my knowledge about how to facilitate experiential learning – especially in regards to experiences with CBR. Kristen and I met every two weeks to discuss research questions related to student learning and instructional methods. These conversations yielded valuable insights about how to structure experiential learning, students’ strengths and interests, and where we needed to support them more. We submitted a research paper proposal to the peer-reviewed American Evaluation Association annual meeting to discuss some of our lessons learned. (We will find out by the end of July if the proposal was accepted. Kristen was first author).
Challenges and Barriers
Trying to Do Too Much
My biggest criticism of the course is that I tried to do too much in the curriculum. For example, in the fall I assigned more readings than we had time to discuss; without the opportunity to discuss readings some students lost motivation or experienced frustration. A second example is in the spring – students reported feeling overwhelmed at times with the numerous demands of the course, ranging from fieldwork requirements to writing requirements. These concerns raised by students do not necessarily mean across the board that I would lessen the course requirements in future iterations. For example, I would not lower the fieldwork requirements. However, I do feel that if we had a couple fewer or shorter writing assignments than we could have paid better attention to the quality of analysis and writing. The time spent on data analysis was inconsistent across the groups, and in the case of at least one project contributed to a weaker final report.
Not Enough Students
There were eight students in the fall and seven students in the spring. This had its advantages: it enabled me to get to know students on a personal level and contributed to a wonderful sense of community in the classroom. The principal disadvantage was that the small number forced me to adjust my expectations for student commitments in both semesters. A preferred situation would be to have 15-20 students show up for the first class and articulate high expectations for the year, leading to some attrition and a final number of 12 who enroll in the course. There were times when I tolerated lack of work or attendance because I did not want to lose students.
Reporting Constructive Criticism to Partners
In all three sites students observed practices or situations that did not reflect high quality youth development practice. (They also observed exemplary practices in all three sites – but this was much easier to report). Discovering problems is normal in any kind of research in youth organizations – few organizations are so exemplary that there are no problems or frustrations among participants. Despite the fact that this was to be expected, we still found it difficult to strike the right tone in our reports to partners. This stemmed partly from the philosophy of CBR, which is not meant to be judgmental or adversarial. We wanted to be fair to our partners and see things from their perspective. At the same time, for a report to be useful it should accurately convey data describing how people experience the site being studied. Moreover, constructive criticism, if delivered effectively, can be a wonderful tool for programs that are trying to continuously improve and meet the needs of their participants. After some collective reflection, we decided to report themes as accurately as possible and not edit ourselves if some themes revealed tensions or challenges at the sites. One lesson learned from this process would be to have a more explicit and transparent discussion with community partners about how they would like to receive constructive criticism.
On balance I feel that the course achieved most of its primary goals. Students learned skills relevant to CBR, they gained experiential knowledge of youth development, and we developed strong relationships with community partners. Furthermore, because this was a pilot course, some of the mistakes in the curriculum design were to be expected. I believe that most of those who participated in the course (whether students, campus sponsors, or community partners) felt that the experience was worthwhile – this is an important outcome of a new project like this.
At the same time, there are several ways the course could be improved, ranging from initial recruitment, to the organization of readings, to how we support students’ skill development. In particular, now that I have taught this course once, I feel that I have a better sense of how to coach students in data analysis and report writing. I was disappointed with the unevenness of the rigor of data analysis across reports. In addition, we await further confidential feedback from our community partners, which will surely contribute lessons learned for future iterations of the course.
Reflections and Future Plans
The successes of this pilot course far outweighed the disappointments and challenges. Most importantly, teaching the course re-inspired me about the possibilities of undergraduate instruction at a major 4-year university. Prior to this class, I had begun to feel like a provider of a commodity to students. My spouse and I even began drafting an article to write about the commodification of higher education called, “Do you want fries with that?” But teaching this course challenged my creeping cynicism. I learned a great deal about CU students – what their daily lives are like, their multiple commitments, and their desire for authentic relationships with the faculty. I learned about the power of experiential learning, in which students read about a topic, go out in the field and put those ideas into action, and then have a chance to reflect, with each other, about what they learned. I am now inspired to develop more experiential learning courses and/or revise existing courses to have a stronger experiential base, especially for undergraduates. This desire, of course, conflicts with my desire to protect time for writing and publishing, which is necessary for tenure. So I still have some balancing to figure out. But I do intend to work with colleagues in my department to find ways to make outreach and experiential education a bigger part of what we do. More specifically, I would like to work with IECE, my School, and the course sponsors to make it possible to offer a second iteration of this course in 2009-2010 that builds on lessons learned from this year.