PBL + SL = A Successful Developmental Learning Community

Butler, Alison  & Christofili, Monica (2014). Project-based learning communities in
developmental education: A case study of lessons learned. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 38:7, 638-650. doi: 10.1080/10668926.2012.710125

For this week’s readings, we were assigned Michelle E. Jordan’s and Reuben R. McDaniels, Jr.’s article focusing on managing uncertainty during a collaborative activity.  The paper documented students’ attitudes and perceptions toward this style of teaching.  This article reminded me of my own experiences with project-based learning (PBL), as well of much of the literature I have read over the years about PBL.    Consequently, I decided to focus my research review this week on the efficacy of project-based learning in a community college developmental classroom.  Below is a recent summary of an article in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice.
Article Summary

The purpose of Butler and Christofili’s study is to further examine the relationship between project-based learning and service learning, within the context of a developmental education learning community.  The goal of the study was to “help instructors avoid some of the pitfalls that arise when forming and implementing PBL and to help instructors implement successful PBL” (Butler & Christofili, 2014) by strategically designing the project.

The study was conducted at a large urban community college in the Pacific Northwest: Portland Community College.  The study focused on four learning communities involving developmental courses (math, reading, English and college success).  Furthermore, the study examined a learning community over the duration of four terms/semesters.  The first two semesters of this study involved developmental education students, a learning community, and project-based learning.  The second two semesters introduced service-learning into the learning community (Butler & Christofili, 2014).

The researchers documented each semester’s learning community in the following manner: project question, project implementation, competency assessment, and lessons learned.  Overall, the researchers provided conclusions regarding the design of PBL, with a service-learning component, integrated into a developmental learning community.  Specifically, projects must be of proper scope, instructors need to be flexible given all the potential moving parts, projects must be relevant to learning in respective courses, and managing student group dynamics must be purposeful and strategic (Butler & Christofili, 2014).

Strengths and Critiques

The strength of the article is the practical application to designing learning communities within a community college environment.  The authors provide tangible recommendations to design elements and strategies to integrate service-learning into a learning community.  The authors provide a solid literature review, that includes references to many studies and articles that illustrate the efficacy of learning communities and service-learning for community college students.

The overall research described in the study is lacking.  The researchers reviewed student feedback and their own experiences as both researchers and the instructors.  Overall, I expected greater emphasis of student voice in the research, but this was not evident. I found no evidence that students were interviewed to determine their attitudes and perceptions.  Furthermore, I did not find evidence that all the instructors across the four disciplines were interviewed either.

The authors make many claims regarding the success or failures of the respective learning communities, but do not clearly describe the evidence for which those claims are based.  For example, the authors state that the story theme of the third term project generated “overwhelming student buy-in”  (Butler & Christofili, 2014).  But, I did not find evidence as to how the researchers came to this conclusion.  The majority of the authors’ conclusions are based on their observations of the students and review of students’ projects.  However, I question the strength and objectivity of this case study analysis as both authors were also the instructors of the program.  I appreciate the perspectives of the instructors; however, I believe the research could have been enhanced with a third-party observer/researcher interviewing students, observing classes, and reviewing final projects.

I was very disappointed that this article did not include persistence data  (students enrolling in the next semester and remaining at the college) for the students participating in the learning community.  The article would have been strengthened with more quantitative data.  The only statistic provided was that the retention rate for the third term was higher than previous terms (Butler & Christofili, 2014).  Statistics, as we have discussed, do not tell the whole story.  But in this case, I believe evidence that a learning community designed in this manner could lead to a) increased retention, b) increased persistence, and/or c) higher percentage of course success is vital to other instructors or community colleges adopting this type of instructional model.

Consequently, I offer the following suggestions to improve this study:

  1. Utilize an observer who is not an instructor;
  2. Provide data as to the success, retention and persistence rates of the respective co-horts;
  3. Provide evidence for the conclusions and assertions that are made; and
  4. Focus more on student learning outcomes and impact on the community organizations involved in the service-learning component of the instruction.

My Take

Despite the reservations I have regarding this case study analysis, I am excited about how this article relates to my current role at GCC.  I have been charged with launching our service-learning effort at the college.  We have had pockets of service-learning offered by faculty in various disciplines; however, we do not have a coordinated effort which supports faculty in these endeavors.  Furthermore, I do not believe we have an understanding across our college that service-learning is and can be a meaningful instructional strategy that promotes learning.  Most individuals, when talking about service-learning, tend to focus on the service; the benefits to the community organization and how participation in service-learning improves students feelings and perceptions toward school.  This article, though, reminded me of the need to emphasize that service-learning can and does improve student learning.  And, the article sparked in me an interest to learn more about the impact of service-learning on the developmental student population.  I would venture a guess that the majority of service-learning programs in community colleges across the US focus more on high achieving students (possibly a research question to explore….).  But, this strategy has proven to have a positive impact on developmental students. Ultimately, I am now rethinking how we roll out our service-learning initiative.  Possibly we target a range of interested faculty across multiple disciplines, with developmental education students being a focus. This may prove to be a strategy that positively impacts our success rates, while also emphasizing the role we play as a college in our community.

Another take-away from the article is that instructors struggled to build accountability into their group projects.  I am continually surprised at how frequently this comes up as a challenge for instructors.  Designing effective collaborative learning experiences is challenging. Instructors need to plan extensively to build individual and group accountability into the course for all students involved.  Repeatedly, the instructors indicated how students were upset at how some of their classmates did the majority of the work, while others students apparently did less.  This has always been a challenge of collaborative learning, and there are a lot of articles and guides developed to assist faculty in developing strategies to make sure students are accountable for the work of the group, as well as their individual role within that group.  This article serves as a reminder that additional professional development is probably needed locally at GCC to provide faculty with the skills and strategies to design meaningful and effective collaborative learning experiences.

Finally, I have a renewed sense of excitement around the benefits of learning communities and service-learning in developmental education.  And, this renewed excitement may inspire me to focus my research efforts in this direction.

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