By Sumi Raghavan
Department of Psychology
“We don’t really have much community here at Willy P, at least not in the classroom.”
“Isn’t a community just a group of friends?”
“Everybody wants community, we just don’t know how to create it, so we don’t bother.”
I begin my Community Psychology course asking students to tell me their own definitions of community, and then I ask them if they feel that they are members of any communities. I typically get a range of responses, but there is often consensus on one issue: students feel alone in the classroom. They occasionally have a friend in class, but often, they spend four months seated next to a peer and never speak to them. And when I ask them what they think of that fact, they pretty much all agree: It’s weird.
In the Spring of 2017 I completely redesigned my Community Psychology class with the goal of remedying that isolation and encouraging community building within the classroom. Community Psychology is also UCC course and attracts a range of students with different degrees of exposure to the social sciences. In that way, it’s an excellent cross-section of WPU students and a great venue to experiment with building communities. So, my goal was to facilitate some experiential learning: create classroom communities to show students the concepts of membership, group values, interdependence, adaptation, cycling of resources, and other core community psychology ideas.
To accomplish this, I conferred with colleagues and peers including Dr. Michele Cascardi, another psychology professor, and incorporated a variety of flipped classroom and team-based learning techniques. As a junior faculty member, I was nervous to experiment with a new pedagogical model, and I’ve often felt comfortable leaning more heavily on lecture format. It’s part of the social script of college and students are oriented to sitting in class and watching their professors talk. However, the data shows that flipped classroom and experiential learning techniques are quite effective and the subject matter of community psychology lends itself so naturally to team-based learning.
Students began the semester by completing a brief survey about their major, year in school, typical grades, and experiences with group-work. Students presented with the usual complaints: “it’s too hard to schedule meetings with other students” and “I always end up doing the work”. I mixed up the groups based on gender, major and reported grades earned, so there were a few stronger students in every group. Diversity is a core value of community psychology so I attempt to diversity the groups as much as possible along every dimension. Students then created “team rules” that they drafted and agreed upon, signed and submitted to me. I encouraged them to specifically speak to the common complaints about group work when setting up these rules. This reflects the ideals of citizen participation and empowerment.
Over the course of the semester, they spent some time with their teams in almost every class session doing a variety of tasks including small group discussions, activities, and educational games. They also took team quizzes together and completed a group project. Like any community, the student teams relied on each other for success in the class at large. They were expected to negotiate differences and refer back to their initial team rules to mediate disputes. They also completed evaluations of team members throughout the semester as part of their grade which further reinforces this sense of accountability.
One particularly valuable exercise was called “Privilege for Sale”, where students were meant to learn concepts of intersectionality and diversity in communities. Teams were given different amounts of Monopoly money to start and were allowed to purchase “life privileges” from a list, including “privilege to marry someone of your choosing” or “privilege to have the support of the police in an emergency”. They were then asked to imagine what it would be like to “immigrate” to other team environments where members had different privileges, and to discuss how they could adapt to these new communities. The exercise was fascinating from the perspective of community building: individual teams felt protective of their members and critical of other teams, particularly those with more “privileges”. In turn those teams with more privileges felt defensive, and expressed a desire to seclude themselves from teams with fewer privileges. In short, the classroom began to reflect modern American society, with its systemic inequalities and segregated communities. Upon completing the exercise, we spent time processing the results both in teams and as a class, and students said they felt much more bonded to their own team members and started understanding the role that communities play in our society.
At the close of the semester, I asked students again for anonymous feedback and the result was almost unanimous: they had all changed their mind about group work. When they were asked to build a community, rather than just engage in a task together, they felt a sense of group cohesion and accountability. When asked to consider the role of their team in the larger context of the classroom, they recognized that communities operate in a broader social context. They learned that a community is not just a group of friends and it can be created in classrooms, even here at Willy P.
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