Students know the drill in a traditional classroom: listen, take notes, contribute to discussion, write imaginative papers, and master the material for exams. In contrast, community-based learning often requires competencies—knowledge, understanding, and abilities—for which many students are initially unprepared.
Expectations and experiences. Jacob Schacht, a junior majoring in political science and minoring in public administration, had originally thought that his classroom learning would equip him with the knowledge he needed to work on fair housing issues in a low-income neighborhood. However, according to Schacht, “most of the project was spent on research, and the process of finding the information was more in-depth than I had expected.”
Abigail DeHart, a senior studying philosophy and classics, left for India to study educational systems feeling fully prepared to undertake her research project. After starting the project, she realized that her community-based research was of a different caliber than she had previously experienced. “I expected to come out with more answers and more of a finished product,” said DeHart. “The project was complicated, and I expected it to be more cut-and-dried.”
Community-based learning often requires that students organize and narrow their focus in the context of a messy real-world challenge. “One complication was the immensity of the project I took on,” said DeHart. “That’s the part that ended up feeling overwhelming. I had many pieces of information, but how would I put them into words?”
Schacht’s class struggled both to develop working teams and narrow the research project enough to produce results and recommendations for the community partner within the designated time period. Students were overwhelmed by the challenge of providing a useful report for a community partner in 12-15 weeks with a team that may or may not be working well together. “The course teaches you how to organize a group,” said Schacht. “Without a good one, you won’t be able to produce as much of a quality project. In that case, what will the community partner get from it?”
Benefits. In spite of or perhaps because of the challenges, community work develops students personally and professionally.
For DeHart, the experience taught her that research projects evolve. “Be prepared, but hold your plans with an open hand, because the minute you get out into the community you’re going to start asking different questions than you originally thought,” said DeHart. “It’s going to be different than planned, but that’s the beauty of it, and that’s what made my research, questions, and pursuits more genuine. The research will be more useful coming organically from the community, not a textbook.”
Traveling internationally for a community-based research project also allowed her to see a different side of herself that will help her in the professional world. “I feel now that there are few things that can surprise me,” said DeHart. “I adapt a lot more quickly than I originally was able to. I think it will have a large role to play in the future.”
Schacht’s experience sparked an interest in a future profession in local government. “I think it was a really interesting opportunity,” said Schacht. “You’re dealing with real organizations, and it came across as more relevant. The experience directed some of what I want to do for my career. It’s helped me define what I specifically want to gear my efforts towards.”