Best Practices in Community Engaged Teaching
By Joe Bandy, Assistant Director, CFT
Jeffrey Howard has offered ten principles of that may serve as valuable guidelines for planning high impact community engaged courses and projects, which are excerpted here by the University of Minnesota’s Community Service-Learning Center. 
In addition to these principles, the scholarship on community engaged teaching suggests other important considerations for faculty. These are derived from various sources:
Project-Content Links. The thorough integration of project and academic content is associated with the greatest synergy of community engagement and learning experiences. This means that learning goals and community engagement goals should be closely aligned. Content should inform students about various dimensions of their community project and, likewise, community engagement should allow opportunities to learn course content at deeper levels. Without this integration, student learning and community impact can be limited.
Engagement. Fundamentally, community service projects should take place in ways that allow students to have significant community impact. This means that the service component should meet a public good as determined by an open and thoughtful collaboration between faculty and community partners.
Reciprocity. Reciprocity means that everyone involved in a project – student, faculty, community members – act as both teacher and learner, and that everyone regards one another as equal colleagues. This ensures good communications and planning throughout the project, maximizes active learning, ensures mutual impact, and empowers community voice.
Community Voice. Community voice in a community-based project has an impact on student cultural understanding, and can shape their experiential and ethical learning. For this learning to occur, community members should be involved in every stage of the project and course, when possible. It is important to encourage and support community involvement in project planning, student orientation, guest lectures, site visits, class discussions, progress reports, final presentations, and project evaluation. Not only does this permit greater cultural understanding and ethical development, but it ensures deeper community partnerships and more impactful projects.
Exposure to Diversity. Exposure to diversity has an impact on students, particularly personal outcomes, such as identity development and cultural understanding. Again, community involvement is important at every phase of a project to make certain that this learning can take place.
Public Dissemination. To guarantee community engagement and impact, the results of the project should be shared with the partner, if not with a larger public such as the campus and public communities
Without opportunities for students to reflect upon their community work in the context of course content, the learning potential of community projects is limited. There should be some mechanism that encourages students to link their community experience to course content and to reflect upon why the community work is important. Below are some reflection exercises or assignments that are particularly helpful in community based projects:
Personal Journals provide a way for students to express thoughts and feelings about the community experience throughout the semester. Structured journals provide guidance so that students link personal learning with course content. Click on each journal type to learn more.
Critical Incident Journal
Critical Incident Journal
This journal includes a set of prompts that ask students to consider their thoughts and reactions and articulate the action they plan to take in the future: Describe a significant event that occurred as part of the community experience. Why was this event significant to you? What did you learn from this experience? How will this incident influence your future behavior? What new action steps will you take next time?
Each page of the weekly journal entry is divided into thirds; description, analysis, application. In the top section, students describe some aspect of the community experience. In the middle section, students analyze how course content relates to the community experience. And in the application section students comment on how the experience and course content can be applied to their personal or professional life.
Before students submit their reflective journal, they reread personal entries and, using a highlighter, mark sections of the journal that directly relate to concepts and terms discussed in the text or in class. This makes it easier for both the student and the instructor to identify the academic connections made during the reflection process.
The instructor provides a list of terms and key phrases at the beginning of the semester for students to include in journal entries. Evaluation is based on the use and demonstrated understanding and application of the term.
Students describe their personal thoughts and reactions to the service experience on the left page of the journal, and write about key issues from class discussion or readings on the right page of the journal. Students then draw arrows indicating relationships between their personal experience and course content.
Students submit loose-leaf journal pages to the instructor for comments every two weeks. While labor intensive for the instructor, this can provide regular feedback to students and prompt new questions for students to consider during the semester. Dialogue journals also can be read and responded to by a peer.
Directed writings ask students to consider the community experience within the framework of course content. The instructor identifies a section from the text book or class readings (e.g., quotes, statistics, key concepts) and structures a question for students to answer in 1-2 pages. A list of directed writings can be provided at the beginning of the semester.
Experiential research papers ask students to identify an underlying social issue they have encountered at the community site. Students then research the social issue. Based on their experience and library research, students make recommendations to the agency for future action. Class presentations of the experiential research paper can culminate semester work.
Online discussion is a way to facilitate reflection with the instructor and peers involved in community projects. Students can write weekly summaries and identify critical incidents that occurred at the community site. Instructors can post questions for consideration and topics for directed writings. A log of the e-mail discussions can be printed as data to the group about the learning that occurred from the community experience.
Ethical case studies give students the opportunity to analyze a situation and gain practice in ethical decision making as they choose a course of action. Students write up a case study of an ethical dilemma they have confronted at the community site, including a description of the context, the individuals involved, and the controversy or event that created the ethical dilemma. Case studies are read in class; students discuss the situation and possible responses.
Community engagement portfolios contain evidence of both processes and products completed and ask students to assess their work in terms of the learning objectives of the course. Portfolios might contain any of the following: community engagement contract, weekly log, personal journal, impact statement, directed writings, photo essay, products completed during the community experience (e.g., agency brochure, lesson plans, advocacy letters). Students write an evaluation essay providing a self-assessment of how effectively they met the learning and community objectives of the course.
Personal narratives are based on journal entries written regularly during the semester. Students create a fictional story about themselves as a learner in the course. This activity sets a context for reflection throughout the semester with attention directed to a finished product that is creative in nature. Personal narratives give students an opportunity to describe their growth as a learner.
Exit cards are brief note card reflections turned in at the end of each class period. Students are asked to reflect on disciplinary content from class discussion and explain how this information relates to their community involvement. Exit cards can be read by instructors in order to gain a better understanding of student experiences. Instructors may want to summarize key points and communicate these back to students during the next class.
Class presentations might be three-minute updates that occur each month, or thirty minute updates during the final two class periods during which students present their final analysis of the community activities and offer recommendations to the agency for additional programming. Agency personnel can be invited to hear final presentations.
Weekly log is a simple listing of the activities completed each week at the community site. This is a way to monitor work and provide students with an overview of the contribution they have made during the semester.
Receiving quality feedback from professors or community partners has an impact on students’ self reported learning, use of course skills, and commitment to community engagement.
Formative Evaluation: Assessment of student progress towards the learning and community goals are crucial for project completion and quality learning. It also can help the faculty or community partner address any problems that might arise mid-semester before they negatively impact projects. This can be done through regular if short progress reports that are structured into the writing for the course.
Summative Evaluation: End of course evaluations help ensure the success of the next community project as a learning and community building experience. How successful was the project for the agency, the people who use the agency, and the students These types of questions typically are not a part of end-of-semester student evaluations and therefore should be the subject of anonymous surveys and class discussions organized by faculty. Likewise, community partner project evaluations can help to improve partnerships and project designs in the future, and improve campus-community relations.
Other CFT Guides About Community Engaged Teaching
By Dianna Douglas
Photo by Jason Smith
“ Our questions are wonderful reflections of the core values of the College.”
—John W. Boyer
Earlier this summer, prospective students around the globe with an interest in the University of Chicago received an email with six unusual essay topics. The writing prompts included references to Oscar Wilde, the Transformers action movies, Susan Sontag, AB’51, and physicist Werner Heisenberg. And this little gem: “So where is Waldo, really?”
The annual release of UChicago’s essay prompts has become an eagerly awaited event — an imaginative exercise that often inspires even more imaginative responses. For many students and alumni, the essay questions help define the College’s wit and sense of intellectual adventure. It’s also a communal undertaking, with the majority of topics coming from current or past College students.
"Our questions are wonderful reflections of the core values of the College: a disdain for dogma and conventionality, a compulsion to play with ideas, and a high admiration for the arts of self-expression," says John W. Boyer, dean of the College.
Coaxing prospective students to try something new as writers is an important goal of the essay prompts, says senior admissions counselor Grace Chapin.
“We want the students to write about things that don’t show up in a workshop on writing college essays,” Chapin says.
“How do you feel about Wednesday?”
In famous past essay questions, students have been invited to write how they feel about Wednesday, to find the meaning in the super-sized mustard at Costco, or to invent the history of an object. One essay question was simply, “Find x.” Another asked, “How did you get caught?”
Funny, poignant, thought-provoking and deadly serious essays pour in every fall and winter. Laura Castelnuovo, a second-year from New York City, chose the essay question: “Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?” Her answer began like this:
For centuries, one thing has divided the human population like no other: the tomato. No, I don't mean the never-used alternate pronunciation or even the settled debate of fruit vs. vegetable, I mean that in my experiences I have encountered only two types of people: those who love tomatoes and those who hate them. These Newtonian-ly equal and opposing groups can be found at salad bars and dinner tables worldwide, taking their stance. Because when that fruit is sliced, battle lines are drawn.
The essay prompts are chosen from suggestions from current students and recent alumni. More than a thousand people sent in essay questions this year. Andy Jordan, a fourth-year in economics from Doylestown, Penn., has submitted a few questions for consideration since he applied to the College. “I enjoyed writing the essay when I applied in 2008,” Jordan says. “I answered the question with an entire essay of questions.”
His prompt, “Don’t write about reverse psychology,” appeared on the list for the Class of 2016. While this didn’t earn him a free T-shirt or cash prize, he said his friends were impressed.
“A good set of essay questions will give every student a chance to let their voice shine through,” Chapin says. They supplement the Common Application essay, which usually has a broad prompt like “evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.”
Prospective students are also asked to write an essay explaining why they want to come to UChicago, and to explain some of their favorite books or media. Add those to the “uncommon” essay question and the essay for the Common Application, and each applicant writes a total of four essays.
Creativity reveals other qualities
“We learn a lot by reading these essays,” Chapin says. “You can’t write it the day before it’s due, so we see extremely high-quality writing from the applicants.” The admissions officers read tens of thousands of essays between November and March, seeing the unique personality of each student between the generalities on the Common Application and the thoughtful and often funny essays from the supplement.
Having found a fitting way to tackle the essays soon becomes a source of pride for the students. Hundreds of admitted students have posted their essays to the UChicago Class of 2016 group on Facebook, where they are met with encouragement and delight from fellow students. “It’s always a conversation topic during Orientation Week,” Chapin says. The shared experience lets people who have just met discuss something besides their hometown and course of study.
The tradition behind the unique essay questions is at least 30 years old. A question from 1984 invited the students to imagine themselves as astronauts on Mars, and asked them whether they would prefer to be teleported, molecule by molecule, back to earth, or to be the person running the teleporting machine.
The College Admissions office usually sees a flood of questions about the essays from applying students as their deadlines approach. This year, the officers created an instant meme for their Tumblr page with some simple advice: “Keep Calm and Study On.”