Collaboration Tools for Diverse Students in Social Work at Carlow University

June 14, 2024

Jessica Friedrichs, a social work professor at Carlow University, has always believed that student learning is enriched by interaction and engagement. “After writing my thesis on community organizing at Penn State and spending a summer as a community organizer in Philadelphia, I understood that interaction with others was the best way to learn,” Jessica reflected. Throughout her 15 years of teaching at Carlow, she has intentionally incorporated interactive activities into her classes. Several of her activities can now be found in the Interactivity Foundation’s Collaborative Discussion Toolkit.

Jessica’s contributions to the toolkit are focused on active listening, expressing social identity, and identifying civic passions. After completing a coach training offered by the Interactivity Foundation, Jessica was then empowered to offer her own certificate programs in collaborative discussion.

Becoming a coach also introduced her to a broader range of activities she could use in the classroom. Some of Jessica’s favorite activities help students establish a baseline of respect and comfort as a group and support their efforts to confront challenges and think deeply about issues together. The activity on Forming Group Guidelines is one of the first activities she uses with the group, helping students establish ground rules for respectful and productive discussions. As they establish these guidelines, they can tackle challenging topics, such as with the activity Embracing Contradictions, which encourages students to develop a more nuanced understanding of complex issues and understand personal contradictions as strengths.

Pairing Critical Thinking with Critical Feeling, as recommended in the toolkit, has proved to be an excellent way for students to explore different ways of understanding an issue. During a class discussion on gun violence, Jessica showed students a variety of images of guns and the aftermath of their use and asked students to use hand signals to show how the images made them feel. Afterward, the class critically discussed the different sides of the debate around gun use and ownership. “Students can see how others feel about the issue through their hand gestures and then hear what they think about it during the discussion,” Jessica said. “My students often have diverse viewpoints on the topic and these activities have allowed for respectful, constructive discussion to happen.”

As first generation students often manage many competing demands on their time and attention, offering an incentive for completing assignments was a helpful way to increase class engagement. In her course on Social Work in Communities, Organizations and Groups, Jessica offered a certificate program within her class assignments. Students who successfully completed eight collaborative discussion activities and wrote a reflection paper about their experience received a Certificate in Collaborative Discussion, a credential they could highlight on their resume and LinkedIn to show future employers their skills. Embedding a certificate program into the curriculum had the two-fold benefit of incentivizing student engagement in class sessions and helping them expand their ability to effectively work together with others.

Learning how to collaborate effectively is an essential skill for students. Understanding the importance of communication, teamwork, and problem-solving is vital for success in both academic and professional settings. Through certificate programs, the Collaborative Discussion Project helps professors foster a sense of community and inclusivity, helping students appreciate diverse perspectives and work harmoniously with each other.

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