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Failing is NOT an Option


Defining and Promoting Student Success
A National Symposium
November 21-22, 2008
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, California


Rebecca Mushtare, Marymount Manhattan College

With the distractions of jobs, families, cell phones, public transportation, and every other aspect of their lives, it is difficult to hold students’ attention. Although as educators we often complain of students’ inability to prioritize their time, the truth is they do prioritize – learning and education just rarely make it to the top of that list. I have turned to Community Based Learning1as a strategy for student excellence and student success. In this article, I candidly share the lessons learned, as a faculty member, from the first Community-Based Learning class2that I co-taught. I will also share some of the strategies I have implemented to make similar experiences more fruitful for students, faculty and Community-Based Organizations (CBO)3.

Seeking education in a major city provides a plethora of opportunities for students and just as many challenges and distractions. One of my biggest frustrations as a faculty member is that, although students may demonstrate focus, facility and engagement in the classroom, the course work completed outside of the classroom is often below expectations. When I assigned media-making projects to my classes, I found that students often placed value on:

    1. Memorization and Regurgitation. Students often avoid problem solving, experimentation or utilizing learned information in new situations. In many cases the course materials (readings, discussions, etc.) are not applied to the media-making practice.


    1. Technical Skills. Technical skills are concrete and can be tangibly “mastered” and measured; it is therefore easier to “focus” on than concepts or content in media projects.


    1. Positive Affirmation. Students often focus their attention on peer and instructor compliments, both on their own work and what they offer to others, rather than considering areas for improvement or development. Opportunities to change or revise their work are overlooked.


    1. Completion of a Task. Students are often satisfied with earning a “C.” The endpoint of a course or project is seen as the most valuable, rather than the process of learning that happens on the way. An editing process (including brainstorming, planning, drafting and revising) is often devalued or not even considered.


These student behaviors and practices are symptomatic of a lack of focus or commitment to education. It was a combination of the above symptoms, dialogues with colleagues, and my previous exposure (as a graduate student) to participatory action research4 that led me to embrace community based learning strategies. Sometimes we need to break down the four walls of institutional learning to help students understand that case studies, theory and controlled experiments are indeed “real.” For many students, earning a C or D is inconsequential, as long as they are progressing towards their degree. Working with a CBO makes students accountable to someone or something outside themselves, with the “real” risk of failure, disappointment and consequences for all actions and all choices.

Project Description
The idea of creating a course that worked with a CBO on a “real” project was intimidating, but I also saw it as a necessity. Ultimately, after many conversations, my co-adventurer Terri and I decided to dive head first into community based learning – together. With the help of our college’s Community Outreach Coordinator, we chose to collaborate on media projects (video, web, print, etc.) with nine different CBOs. The CBOs we chose serviced diverse populations and addressed a variety of social, political, and economic concerns. Through both theory and practice, the course we designed thematically explored the use of media to initiate positive societal change in collaboration with populations that are disenfranchised5.

The version of community-based learning that we embrace defines the relationship between the course participants and the CBO as reciprocal. In the classroom the community partner is seen as a co-educator and co-participant, the student is seen as a peer-educator and co-participant and the faculty is seen as a co-educator and co-participant.6

Pedagogical Lessons

None of us had embarked on a project like this before and needless to say there were a couple of bumps in the road. Our students blindly jumped into our sea of ambition (and enough course material for two separate courses), to create high quality media projects while facilitating student learning. The experience also taught me the following pedagogical lessons:

    1. Limit the number of new pedagogical strategies that are introduced for a particular course and help students understand those choices.
      Many students come into a course assuming that they will “receive”7 information and understand learning as a definitive, rather than as an ongoing, process. For me, learning is about being open to developing your understanding and articulation of ideas – it is an evolutionary process that develops when being reflective and critical. Everyone is a potential collaborator, learner, and teacher.

      In this course there were a number of learning and teaching approaches that were cited by students as “new” and overwhelming: decentralized authority (two instructors AND community partners), the lack of a textbook, using the community as a classroom, working in different media, and tackling different topics in their projects. Although each of these methodologies can provide fruitful learning by pushing students out of their comfort zones, too many at one time can force a student to shut down or lose focus. Talking about these methodologies with students can help instructors discover when these strategies hinder the experience or collaboration and thus, when changes in the class structure are needed in order to maintain a nurturing learning community.


    1. Recognize the value and difference of a community-based project versus an internship. Explicitly discuss the differences with your students.

      Working in the “real” world for most students is scary, overwhelming, and full of pressure -emotions not usually inherent in a “traditional” classroom. In the early teaching evaluations and reflection papers a handful of students wrote things like, “I felt like this was an internship more than a class which would have been great… if I didn’t already have an internship.” Comments like these obviously point at a time issue (see lesson #3) as well as the anxieties noted above, but it also indicated to me that we needed to talk as a class about the differences between an internship and the community based project as a group. I now brainstorm with my classes on the advantages offered by this learning environment that may not be present at an internship. Examples include the support and minds of an entire learning community; the faculty member as an advisor or mentor (a different dynamic than traditional lecturer); the ability to make direct connections between theory and practice; the ability for students to take on a larger responsibility than may be appropriate for an intern; and the ability for students to address ideas (addressing procedures, laws, theories, etc.) that are relevant to a real life situation in real time.


    1. Prevent collaboration from becoming reduced to a time obstacle.

      Students’ largest criticism of the course was time: not enough time in class to work on projects, not enough time to get ample feedback, difficulty finding time outside of the class to meet with classmates and CBOs. One step I have taken to address this concern is to have the entire class work with a single CBO; specific class periods are designated as collaboration days, where the CBO comes to our classroom, alleviating a good portion of potential “time” issues. Although students may still go to the site, timing is often more flexible because the visit does not require an appointment with organization administrators. In this scenario, most feedback happens during class sessions, keeping all participants abreast of the latest developments.


    1. Scaffold large projects into smaller manageable steps and provide regular feedback. Set up situations where feedback is collaborative (from students, faculty and CBO). Involve the CBO in the curriculum and assessment; remember that community-based projects are collaborative and that the community partner is a co-educator.

      A community-based project is collaboration, and all participants take on the roles of educator and learner. As many times as I said this and thought this in planning the course, I never realized that we were not fully exercising this idea until it was time for assessment at the end of the semester and my perspective was limited. Regular documented reviews of smaller project segments in a collaborative situation — verbal or written and shared with all parties — insure all voices are a part of the assessment process. This allows parts of a project to be better developed, for successful pieces to be celebrated, and for everyone to be nurtured and supported as an equal collaborator.


    1. Help students to objectively receive and seek out feedback during the process and remember that they CARE about this project, which sometimes clouds judgment.

      Most students lack confidence in their work. Combined with their passion for their assigned organization, this can create a volatile situation for suggesting improvements or refining their ideas. Encouragement is sometimes perceived as pressure. Helping students to cultivate a desire for excellence in their work leads to the birth of lifelong learners. As one of my students wrote, “I know teachers are supposed to help you learn, but they helped me push myself farther and farther to where I feel I have grown so much as an artist.”8


    1. Emphasize the value of skills and concepts learned through collaborative projects. Define these skills and concepts as learning goals when defining what “success looks like.”

      Referring back to Lesson #1, students often see learning as a passive activity rather than an active one. Many students do not label lessons learned as “learning” yet often allude to it. In their reflection papers students hinted at learning:

      “What I didn’t think about though, was the fact that the people working at the organization are just that, people. They’re not perfect and they don’t know exactly what they want.”

      “Communication between the participants is always the greatest challenge. Everybody wants his or her ideas to be heard, but it takes great skill, in my opinion, to be a good listener”

      “…I have been opened to the idea to question, and to think, not just to accept.”

      “I never realized how many tasks were necessary to get the result that was produced.”

      Students also wrote about learning time management, the knowledge they gained from their community partner on a research topic, exposure to new ideas, the art of patience, different communication methods and styles, and teamwork and organization strategies, among other things. I think the disconnect about “learning” occurs because these things were learned by doing, by being a collaborator, by observing others, by trial and error and through experience, rather than as professed by a faculty member. For me teaching is about setting up situations where learning can occur, where mistakes can be made and problems can be solved. I spend ample time in class exploring what it means to learn, be a collaborator and be professional because, although these concepts appear self-explanatory, they breed a number of interpretations. The most surprising, yet logical, question I have been asked was “how can we be professional if we are students?” Setting up clear expectations and having open discussions about these concerns reinforces and acknowledges the learning that does occur.


    1. Intentionally focus discussions of course material (theory, readings, etc.) on its connection with or implementation in practice.

      Although students agreed with the statement, “The community partnership aspect of the course helped me to see how course material I learned can be used in everyday life” on the service learning program evaluations9many students confessed in teaching evaluations and reflection papers that this was not necessarily the case. Purposefully directing conversations on readings to cover applying or implementing the ideas shared in their own projects will help to solidify this connection, and presumably have a positive impact on their projects. Regularly asking students to do written reflections along these same lines also helps students to document their progress and intellectual development.


  1. Be flexible – in real projects real surprises can happen. Accept surprises with grace and adjust your plan accordingly.

Markers of Project Success
Out of our nine community partnerships, eight have resulted in tangible projects or products that have been or are in the process of being implemented10In many cases these projects have been used to dazzle donors and solicit funds, while others have been or will be used to advertise to potential clients in the New York City region. Components of at least two of the projects have a scope beyond the New York metro area. Marymount faculty have partnered with five of the organizations in subsequent projects, and there is general interest in future projects. Quality is often the result of commitment and focus, and each of these statistics attests to the quality of the projects on which our students worked . Our students grew from being “it’s good enough” students to students who demanded excellence from themselves, from their peers, from their faculty and from their community partner. Most surprisingly, we obtained these results even though most of these students had only one prior semester of media production (video or digital media) before embarking on this journey.

The priority given to this project by the students was evident in their end of the semester anonymous teaching evaluations11and final reflection papers12. Many students cited cancelling prior engagements, shuffling their schedule and missing out on social activities as a result of their work on the project. Students’ actions and words demonstrated that “good enough” wasn’t an option; they each gave as much as they could, and many students wrote about wanting to give more. On a teaching evaluation one student wrote, “Honestly if I get anything below a B+ I will be pissed – I sacrificed way too many things and worked far too hard.”

1More information about community based learning may be found on the Campus Compact website: http://www.compact.org/

2This course, “Critical Production for Critical Times” was co-developed and co-taught with Terri Dewhirst at Marymount Manhattan College during the spring of 2008. The course was supported in part by a 3-year Pennsylvania/New York Campus Compact Consortium grant awarded to Marymount Manhattan College to expand its service-learning program. This program is impossible without the administrative support and guidance of Cindy Mercer, Executive Director for Academic Achievement, and Erin Schwartz, Community Outreach Coordinator.

3For the remainder of the paper Community Based Organization will be abbreviated as CBO

4See Mountz, as this article specifically addresses the course I was involved with as a graduate student.

5The course syllabus can be found at http://cyberthread.net/teach/critProd_syllabus.php

6See “Definition and Principles” in Campus Compact (2003) for more community based learning definitions.

7The word choice “received” was used in a student reflection paper.

8Excerpted from a student reflection paper.

9Documented in the Service-Learning Program Evaluations that were anonymously collected and tabulated by the Community Outreach Coordinator.

10Statistics in this paragraph were confirmed via follow-up discussions between the Community Outreach Coordinator and the CBOs.

11View student projects at http://www.cyberthread.net/teach/CPCT/arab.html

12Teaching evaluations were collected by Academic Affairs and were not released until grades had been distributed.

13Reflection papers were written at the close of the semester for the course. Student names and CBO names have been removed to protect their privacy and identities.

Campus Compact. Introduction to Service-Learning Toolkit: Readings and Resources for Faculty. 2nd Edition. Providence: Campus Compact, 2003.

Mountz, Alison, Eli B. Moore and Lori Brown. “Participatory Action Research as Pedagogy: Boundaries in Syracuse.” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 7.2 (2008). http://www.acme-journal.org/Volume7-2.htm

Service-Learning Program Evaluations-STUDENT. Tabulated Data. Marymount Manhattan College: Center for Academic Advancement, 2008.

Teaching Evaluations. Marymount Manhattan College: Academic Affairs, 2008.