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Integrating Course Content

I want to start my blog by stating that I have really benefited from reading the blogs and email messages my fellow IFers have been sending. It is nice to know that others are also struggling with issues of evaluating student learning, group management and incorporating content. I have been at this for four weeks now and when I reflect on the design of my IF course or how well students and I are doing, I move between feeling that something very powerful is happening in the discussions that are developing and feeling that I am not sure how course concepts are being integrated in group discussions.

I am glad that the course I selected for IF pedagogy – Community Psychology – seems to map well onto a discovery process, since concepts and principles that define the field are open to discussion and the skills students are learning as part of the course are useful for the practice of Community Psychology. I can imagine that if the course content I selected was more prescribed, or if I was using different reading assignments, I would have different concerns and dilemmas. I spent a lot of effort trying to design the course in a way that would allow students to do several things: 1) pursue a 3-stage IF process of developing questions, recognizing possibilities, and identifying consequences about community empowerment; 2) integrate concepts (from weekly assigned readings of primary sources); 3) develop group facilitation, note-taking, and discussion skills; and 4) apply discussion outcomes in tangible ways (students interview community advocates, research community organizations, complete reflection papers). In the first few weeks of class, students are supposed to develop questions (before moving on to possibilities and finally consequences) about community empowerment. Each week there is a “topic” for discussion which is informed by a set of readings that address related concepts. I am feeling pretty good about the potential of students to bring these elements together, although there are a lot of different things happening in the class, and I am getting a range of feedback from students about how they think it is going.

Regarding integration of content, what is different in this class from all others I have taught is that students are entirely responsible for connecting concepts from the readings with discussion content and their location in the IF process. Individual students and groups are finding their way, some better than others, with this responsibility. For the first few discussions, students were too focused on letting the concepts drive the discussion, on recording detailed notes, and on building agreement. Facilitators led discussion more than they facilitated and there was too much consensus and not enough question-asking. But every week, the facilitators and note-takers do a better job, and the quality of the discussions get better. I am also getting disparate feedback. A number of students tell me that this is the richest, most challenging experience they have ever had in college. They point out that they are making deep connections with concepts in the readings and their own experiences and they enjoy the group discovery process and the emotional bonds they are building with group members. They also see real value in learning how to work with others and hold each other responsible. At the same time, other students are bristling under or suffering from the imposed class structure. They point out that they don’t like how some group members don’t adequately prepare for discussion, or how others talk too much/talk too little. They want to bypass asking questions for posing possibilities and consequences. I am trying to encourage application of concepts, good group dynamics and proper use of the IF process in a number of ways. One way is having facilitators create a pre-facilitation outline (Laura’s brilliant idea!): the outline primes facilitators to aid discussants in applying concepts from the readings in discussion at appropriate times. Giving individual facilitators and groups feedback after each session (I complete evaluation forms for each of them), and having each group evaluate its own discussion process, also seems to be helping.

What I have observed is that the hardest thing for students to do in discussion is connecting their comments. But, when connections DO happen, a conversation occurs and students start to recognize different perspectives (transferal), incorporate concepts from the readings in ways that enrich the discussion (context setting), apply individual experiences (emotional acceptance), and produce more questions than answers (generalizing). So, I have been trying to give feedback to support these types of activities, emphasizing that this is a learning process and that they are all in this together.

As I stated before, I feel pretty good about the way the class is going. Nothing has gelled, but at least everything is moving forward. At the same time, I feel like I am juggling several balls in the air as I work with discussion groups – I have to encourage good group dynamics while supporting application of content in the midst of introducing them to a new process of learning.

I realize that I really am engaged in as much discovery as they are. We will see if my enthusiasm and anticipation hold up in the midst of this juggling act.