Gregor V. Sarkisian, M. Ameerah Saleem, Jeremy Simpkin, Ann Weidenbacher, Natalie Bartko, & Sylvie Taylor
This paper presents an illustrative case study of how students learned community psychology practice competencies. Utilizing course mapping, focus groups, and reflective writing, students and faculty coded, analyzed and interpreted student data to better understand learning activities and processes which contributed to learning community psychology practice competencies in a coalition building course. A community coalition simulation and group work related to the final project emerged as two student learning activities that were found by students to contribute meaningfully to their learning three community psychology practice competencies: (1) Ecological perspectives, (2) community partnership and inclusion and (3) collaboration and coalition development. The instructor’s modeling community psychology practice competency skills was also reported by students to facilitate their learning.
Key Words: Student Empowerment, Curriculum Mapping, Community Psychology Practice Competencies, Community Psychology Graduate Training, Collaboration and Coalition Building
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In the Fall 2012 issue of the The Community Psychologist (TCP), a draft of competencies for community psychology (CP) practice was shared with the membership of the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) (SCRA, 2012). One of the purposes of articulating CP practice competencies is to promote the further development of educational and professional training programs. While there are legitimate fears, as in other professions (e.g., therapy or social work), that the competencies could be developed into rigid accreditation or licensing standards, this is not the stated intent of the competencies for CP practice: “These competencies are not intended as standards for accrediting programs or licensing individuals. Instead, they provide a common framework for the discussion of skills involved in CP practice, and how those skills can be learned (SCRA, 2012, p. 9).” One of the immediate benefits for teachers of CP practice is a better ability to articulate a range of competencies students can develop in CP as well as the program opportunities and limitations to learn various CP practice competencies.
SCRA also proposed three categories to describe the level of training to serve as a framework for graduate programs to more systematically describe opportunities for students to learn CP practice (Kloos, 2010):
Through articulating the Level of Training, graduate programs can be more specific in communicating with students about the depth of training they will receive in various courses or in an overall program.
In training students to develop CP practice competencies, understanding the link between training (academic and field-based), student learning, and student outcomes is a challenging prospect. Yet, there are descriptive and applied research methods available to study these relationships. One descriptive tool, curriculum mapping, has been used widely in higher education as a means of studying learning from a programmatic perspective. Curriculum mapping is a process of developing a graphic representation to illustrate the relationships between program goals, objectives, student learning activities and outcomes, and, instructional activities (Cuevas, Matveev, & Miller, 2010). The curriculum map serves as a tool to conceptualize a program’s curriculum as an interrelated system. While traditionally used as a tool to study program objectives, curriculum mapping can also be used to map how courses in a curriculum align with the CP practice competencies and incorporate Levels of Training (Kloos, 2010) for courses within a curriculum. An additional goal of the curriculum mapping process is to better understand the relationship between what faculty intend students to learn (i.e., declared curriculum), what is presented (i.e., taught curriculum), and what students learn (i.e., learned curriculum) (Harden, 2001). Through creating Declared and Learned course maps, faculty and students can construct a comprehensive curriculum map of how CP practice competencies are taught and learned in their program.
Another consideration in studying student learning is how to conceptualize and measure the acquisition of knowledge. Habermas (1971) has articulated three types of knowledge applicable to the current discussion. Communicative knowledge focuses on understanding social codes of accepted behaviors and beliefs which often vary across social settings and includes both the ability to understand and communicate (e.g., developing collaboration skills applicable to community based work). Instrumental knowledge is utilized to act effectively in social settings and events to achieve observable results (e.g., writing a grant application and receiving funding). Emancipatory knowledge is grounded in critical reflection on the relationship between self and sociopolitical environments. The element of social change in which individuals are able to overcome oppression through social action is at the heart of emancipatory knowledge (e.g., empowerment). While evidence of communicative knowledge can be assessed by experts in the field and instrumental knowledge can be assessed through objective evaluation methods, emancipatory knowledge is best assessed through the inclusion of the learner as a collaborative researcher. And, descriptive methods, such as interviews, journaling and conceptual mapping, are appropriate for studying emancipatory learning within the classroom and in the context of community based projects that expand beyond the classroom (Cranton & Hogan, 2012).
The current paper utilizes descriptive methods consistent with evaluating transformative learning (Cranton & Hogan, 2012) to explore how students reported learning CP practice competencies in a Community Coalition Building in Community Practice course in the Applied Community Psychology (ACP) Specialization at Antioch University Los Angeles (AULA).
ACP Specialization Pedagogy and Level of Training through Curricula
The program pedagogy of the ACP Specialization is grounded in student empowerment which has shaped the structure of curricula for students to develop Experience (Kloos, 2010) with selected CP practice competencies. Working in peer groups, students gain supervised practice experience performing actions, tasks and activities related CP practice competencies. ACP Student Empowerment has been defined based on Maton’s (2008) work to provide students with the underlying program delivery framework throughout the curriculum and has also guided the design of this study through including students as co-researchers to explore their learning process (Taylor & Sarkisian, 2011):
A participatory, developmental, group-based process through which students achieve their academic goals, advance their professional development in the practice of applied community psychology, and, acquire valued educational resources to promote individual, organizational, and community well-being (p. 5).
Opportunities for student empowerment occur primarily in core coursework through supervised, group-based fieldwork with community based organizations. The level of training varies from Exposure to Experience with some students gaining Expertise through field study (Kloos, 2010; SCRA, 2012; Sarkisian & Taylor, in press). The ACP curriculum consists of a gateway course where students receive Exposure to all of the CP practice competencies (Community Psychology: Theories and Methods), four core courses where students develop Experience in selected CP practice competencies (Community Consultation and Collaboration, Program Development and Evaluation, Prevention and Promotion, and Psychoeducational Groups and In-Service Training Development), and a Field Study in ACP in which students may receive Exposure, develop Experience, or, in some cases, Expertise in student-selected CP practice competencies. Students also have an opportunity to take elective coursework which may provide Exposure or opportunities to develop Experience with various competencies (e.g., community coalition building, grant writing, empowerment in community practice, asset-based community development) (Kloos, 2010; Taylor & Sarkisian, 2011).
Community Coalition Building in Community Practice
The community coalition building course introduces students to contemporary theory, research, practice and debate on community coalition building. The major goals of the course are for students to develop their understanding of how community coalitions are structured and function. An additional goal is for students to develop a better understanding of sustainable strategies to promote well being in communities. Pedagogically, the course provides students with Exposure to community coalition building (Kloos, 2010). Students learn the value of community coalition building and how it can be applied in practice, yet, they do not gain supervised field Experience or Expertise in the competency through this course. The activities implemented to promote student learning and demonstrations of student learning in the community coalition building course are presented in Table 1.
After teaching the coalition building course in Winter 2012, the instructor and students began engaging in a participatory process to explore how they learned CP practice competencies. They agreed to focus research efforts on one question: How did students learn CP practice competencies through a coalition building course? To answer this question, students and the instructor discussed different tools available to facilitate the exploration of how they learned CP practice competencies. The result was an exploratory case study design which used a combination of descriptive methods, consistent with evaluating emancipatory knowledge (Cranton & Hogan, 2012), to facilitate deeper exploration of the process by which students reported learning CP practice competencies.
Four students who were classmates in a Coalition Building in Community Practice course in the Winter, 2012 academic quarter participated in this study during the Spring 2012 quarter. While two students (Student 1 and Student 2) had completed all of their coursework in the ACP Specialization, two students (Student 3 and Student 4) had not yet taken the gateway course or any of the core required Specialization courses. The instructor has been teaching in the program for seven years and the ACP Specialization founding director has been teaching in the program for ten years.
Design and Data Collection
Using an exploratory case study design (Patton, 1987), students and faculty utilized descriptive methods (i.e., course mapping, reflective writing & focus groups) to better understand the transformational aspects of learning CP practice competencies (Cranton & Hogan, 2012). Thus, the focus was on the self-reported experiences of learning which are subjective, biased, and not necessarily generalizable to other students or training programs. In line with the ACP student empowerment pedagogy and the CP principle of inclusion, students acted as collaborative researchers (Taylor & Sarkisian, 2011).
Students participated in course mapping, reflective writing, focus groups, coding and analyses of data. Faculty participated in course mapping, facilitated the focus groups as well as students’ reflective writing, coding, and analyses of data. Data to develop the course map templates were collected using the curriculum mapping process and templates described by Sarkisian and Taylor (2013). First, criteria, categories and descriptors were developed into student learning activities and student learning outcomes. Next, students and faculty independently rated the course map for the coalition building course. Both individually and through a focus group format, students and the instructor content analyzed (Patton, 1987) data using the CP practice competencies and criteria from a Learned course map legend as a broad framework. Learned course maps served as a starting point to identify CP practice competencies that would be the focus for reflective writing on how students learned (Harden, 2001). Subsequent meetings between students and the instructor were used to conduct data coding, analysis, and interpretation.
During a fifteen-week period of time in the Spring 2012 academic quarter, students, the instructor, and the ACP Specialization director participated in a series of activities to better understand how students learned CP practice competencies in the coalition building course.
Development of declared and learned course maps. Using the six-step curriculum mapping process described by Sarkisian and Taylor (in press), faculty developed a course map for the coalition building course. (1) Criteria were developed to assess curricula; (2) categories and descriptors for criteria were developed; (3) blank course maps were constructed by faculty; (4) faculty completed course maps; (5) student completed course maps; and, (6) faculty and students shared their results with one another. After the maps were completed, the instructor revised the generic curriculum map legend to reflect the actual (i.e., learned) student learning activities and demonstrations of student learning specific to the course (See Table 1).
Selection of CP practice competencies. Students and faculty met and discussed the similarities and differences between Declared and Learned course maps. Students and the instructor reviewed the course maps and identified CP practice competencies in which students had meaningful learning experiences. Through the first focus-group style meeting, three CP practice competencies (i.e., Ecological Perspectives, Community Inclusion & Partnership, and, Collaboration & Coalition Development) emerged as competencies for further refection and discussion (See Table 2). Below are the primary descriptions provided for each of the three CP practice competencies from the Fall 2012 TCP (SCRA, 2012):
Reflective writing, coding, analyses and interpretation of data. Using the student learning activities (i.e., Classroom based learning, Reading and applied research, Group work, Writing, and Field learning) from the course map as a general framework, students engaged in reflective writing on how they learned each of the three selected CP practice competencies. Because the exploratory nature of this exercise, students were encouraged to lead from their experience in their writing and refer to the student learning activities as an organizing framework.
After all students completed their individual reflective writing, students and the instructor met and discussed the process of coding themes which illustrate a similar concept, issue, or idea (Patton, 1987). Students then individually coded themes and unique insights of their own writing and that of the other students. During the second focus group meeting, the instructor and students analyzed and interpreted data (i.e., students’ individual writing on how they learned the three identified CP practice competencies). To increase the credibility of data from students, faculty collected and combined the raw and coded data and distributed the document to students who then had an opportunity to correct, edit, or add any information (Guba & Lincoln, 1985). Additionally, investigator triangulation was utilized through having (1) students, (2) the instructor and (3) the ACP Specialization director conduct independent data analyses prior to the second focus group meeting to utilize three different viewpoints of the learning process (Guba & Lincoln, 1985; Patton, 1987).
First, differences between declared and learned course maps are described. Next, the student learning activities and instructor classroom activities reported to have been influential in how students learned the three identified CP practice competencies are presented. Supporting student quotations from reflective writing and a focus group are offered to illustrate the dynamic nature of their learning process and experiences.
Differences between Declared and Learned Course Maps
Table 2 presents the course map developed by faculty (i.e., declared course map) and maps developed by the four students (i.e., learned course maps) for the three CP practice competencies that were the main focus of this study. While demonstrations of student learning (Oral Presentation (O) & Final Project PowerPoint Presentation (P)) were rated nearly the same by students and faculty, there were differences in ratings for Student Learning Activities (lea) (Classroom based learning, Reading and applied research, Group work, Writing, and Field learning).
Students identified student tenure in the ACP Specialization and prior experience with CP practice competencies before program entry as two viable reasons for the differences between learned and intended course maps. Student 1 and Student 2 had completed the gateway course and all four core Specialization courses. As Student 2 described, “I was introduced to ecological perspectives one year ago in my introductory Community Psychology class. These perspectives have been repeated throughout the program coursework, and each time I find new ways of understanding and applying these concepts.” Student 3 had not completed the gateway course or any of the core courses but had prior experience in most of the CP practice competencies covered in the course. This became clear in class during initial discussions on ecological perspectives:
Student 4 had not completed the gateway course or any of the core courses and did not have prior experience in most of the CP practice competencies covered in the course. Yet, with quite varied levels of experience, all students reported feeling supported and being of support:
In addition to ecological perspectives, students identified inclusion and collaboration as skills practiced in all learning activities as illustrated by the two quotations below:
While this overlap presented a challenge to examining concepts independently, as many of the CP practice competencies overlap or are applied simultaneously, investigator triangulation was utilized to minimize overlap between competencies and strengthen the credibility of the students’ self-reported learning experiences (Guba & Lincoln, 1985).
Below, for each of the three CP practice competencies identified by students as most relevant to their learning in the Community Coalition Building in Community Practice course (i.e., Ecological Perspectives, Community Inclusion & Partnership, and, Collaboration & Coalition Development), two student learning activities (i.e., the community coalition simulation and group work related to the final project) emerged as influential in how students learned the three competencies. Additionally, the instructor’s ability to model skills associated with CP practice competencies and to provide feedback after students engaged in practicing skills was reported by students to have a positive influence on their learning process.
In students’ reflective writing and in the focus groups, student learning activities such as class discussions and readings were reported to have served valuable roles while other student learning activities, such as the coalition simulation, were reported to function as a catalyst to learning: “Although I had an idea of what it entailed through selected readings, it wasn’t until we completed the simulation exercise that I had working knowledge of the term ‘coalition development’” (Student 1).
Student Learning Activity: Community Coalition Simulation
One of the classroom-based student learning activities included a community coalition simulation, an exercise to simulate a coalition through guided role play with each student assuming a different role in the coalition (Wolff & Sarkisian, 2013). The coalition simulation exercise was conducted on the second-class meeting, after the class had discussed the four CP practice competencies below. The following quote from Student 4 highlights how a combination of lecture and reading during the first day of the course provided her with a foundation in ecological perspectives from which to draw upon for the coalition simulation exercise:
The levels of analysis were introduced to me at the beginning of the coalition building workshop. I was able to learn about the ecological system by taking notes through the instructor’s lecture. Reading chapters one and two of Tom Wolff's Power of Collaborative Solutions and the instructor’s lecture gave assistance to my understanding of the four principles of ecology.
Ecological perspectives. After the coalition simulation exercise was over, the instructor guided students through each ecological level of analysis and had them identify levels that were considered as well as levels that were overlooked in the work of the simulated coalition.
Through reinforcing the holistic exploration of the issues after the exercise, students were able to continue their exploration of solutions to problems within an ecological context. Students found the application of the levels of analysis and principles of ecology after the simulation exercise helpful in reinforcing their prior knowledge of this foundational perspective, as Student 2 recounts: “Ecological perspectives were then applied in the coalition simulation, allowing us to see systemic dynamics in the process of bringing community organizations together to form a coalition”. Additionally, the simulation afforded students an opportunity to explore and reflect on activities occurring on different ecological levels specific to their role in the exercise:
The coalition simulation exercise was also reported to be helpful to students as they were provided with an experience of coalition building prior to beginning work on their final project which helped them to gain a more in-depth appreciation of the work they would soon be studying.
Community inclusion and partnership. Students found community inclusion and partnership to be embedded in all student learning activities. Student 1, Student 3, and Student 4 identified the coalition simulation as the main class exercise that emphasized the importance of community inclusion and partnership. They discussed how critical inclusion is to the process of a coalition, providing a more realistic view of the challenges which arise when trying to promote community change. Additionally, the coalition simulation was an opportunity for students to practice enacting inclusion. The three quotes below illustrate how Student 4 deepened her knowledge of community inclusion and partnership through participation in the community coalition simulation:
Silencing and finger pointing were also negative behaviors which resulted from interactions during the coalition simulation and mirrored negative processes found in non-simulated coalitions:
The coalition simulation exercise was an effective tool in invoking the lived experience of students as a catalyst to link course concepts to community processes associated with the three identified CP practice competencies.
Student Learning Activity: Group Work Related to the Final Project
Group work related to the final project included communicating and coordinating research activities, dividing project responsibilities, developing and implementing a work plan, and, developing and presenting a final PowerPoint presentation. Students found their group work informative to developing their understanding of ecological perspectives, community inclusion and partnership, and, collaboration and coalition development – in both process and content.
Ecological perspectives. Student work on the final project with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) was observed by students to be a valuable opportunity to reinforce learning the ecological perspectives. For example, Student 2’s observation summarizes how students experienced this reinforcing process:
Additionally, for Student 3, the field study aspect of the group work served to engage her interest in thinking ecologically:
Community inclusion and partnership. The practice of inclusion was reinforced through collaborative work as a small group in developing a case study on a coalition operating in Los Angeles (i.e., NAMI). Students were both practicing inclusion through their efforts as a small group and studying the inclusive practices of NAMI. The following quotes illustrate how the simultaneous practice and study of inclusion generated an opportunity for experiential learning and consciousness raising on issues related to inclusion:
Student 3’s quote is particularly illustrative of how the multiple learning environments catalyzed into a consciousness raising experience:
Yet, each student developed unique insights into which collaborative activities contributed to their learning as the following three quotes illustrate:
Group work activities related to the final project provided students with an opportunity to enact their value on inclusion and practice their collaboration skills within their group while the content of their final project focused on studying the coalition building efforts of NAMI within an ecological context.
Instructor Activities: Modeling of CP Practice Competency Skills
Students found the instructor’s modeling of CP practice competency skills that were of focus in the course to be helpful to their learning. As the quotes below illustrate, students appreciated that the instructor was flexible, promoted a safe learning environment, and modeled the skills students were learning:
In this exploratory case study, learned course maps provided a jumping off point for students to identify three CP practice competencies for further investigation of how they learned through engaging in reflective writing, content analysis and interpretation of data. Two notable differences in student ratings of course maps were attributed to student tenure within the ACP Specialization and prior experience with the CP practice competencies before program entry. These differences underscored the importance of the ability of the instructor to be flexible in the delivery of content and adapt material to the knowledge and experience of the learners. The instructor’s ability to model skills associated with the CP practice competencies students were practicing was also reported to be helpful to their learning process.
Empowering Qualities of Student Learning Activities
Two student learning activities (community coalition simulation & group work related to the final project) emerged as influential to students’ developing their understanding of three CP practice competencies (ecological perspectives, community partnership & inclusion and collaboration & coalition building). The coalition exercise exposed students to a simulated experience that allowed them to explore roles in which oppressed individuals work together to overcome obstacles to community well being. And, small group work related to the final project provided additional opportunities to critically reflect on their own collaboration skills as well as the role of NAMI in facilitating opportunities for well being among people with mental illness. Both the community coalition simulation exercise and the group work related to the final project involved three activities connected to how students learned three CP practice competencies (ecological perspectives, community partnership & inclusion and collaboration & coalition building):
The opportunity to experience multiple and differing group-process experiences related to the course material was reported by these students to serve as a catalyst to their learning CP practice competencies. This praxis experience was also reported by these students to have a reinforcing effect on learning and helped them to gain a better appreciation for the complexity of community work.
Implications for Academic Program Development
The findings of this study are consistent with the student empowerment focused pedagogy in the ACP Specialization (Taylor & Sarkisian, 2011). Exercises such as the community coalition simulation and class projects that require students to work within a small group environment are ideal learning activities to provide meaningful Exposure to coalition building and related CP practice competencies, especially when the structure and/or length of the course prohibit opportunities for field learning in which mutually beneficial relationships can be developed between students and organizations in the community. In three of the four ACP core courses, students work in groups with an organization for a ten week period and gain Experience with CP practice competencies related to the course (Kloos, 2010).
Are there other programs utilizing student learning activities such as these to provide students with Exposure to CP Practice competencies? There are likely many. Developing a resource collection of student learning activities by levels of training – Exposure, Experience, Expertise (Kloos, 2010) on the Education Connection page of the SCRA website could be one method by which programs can begin sharing student learning activities by levels of training. And, there is already an infrastructure in place.
Limitations of the Current Study
One limitation to the conduct of this study was the interrelatedness among CP practice competencies and the experience of multiple competencies being applied simultaneously or in such close proximity, presenting a challenge to studying CP practice competencies independently. Although a small class size of four students allowed for a more in-depth view into accounts of how CP practice competencies were learned, the descriptive methods used in this study (i.e., course mapping, reflective writing and focus groups), while appropriate for evaluating transformative learning, are also subjective in nature and there is very little control for bias in students’ reported insights. Additionally, the results of this study portray accounts of learning that are unique to the four students who participated in the course, limiting the generalizability of findings to other students or training programs.
The recent articulation of a draft of CP practice competencies by SCRA has provided educators with a common framework to explore how programs train and how students learn CP related skills (SCRA, 2012). In this case study, students and faculty explored student reports of learning CP practice competencies in a master’s level psychology course designed to provide students with Exposure (Kloos, 2010) to Community Coalition Building in Community Practice. Declared (i.e., Faculty) and Learned (i.e., students) course maps (Harden, 2001) were constructed to identify three CP practice competencies that were experienced by students to be embedded in the student learning activities and demonstrations of student learning, and, that they believed were meaningful to their overall learning in the course. Using the Learned course maps as a starting framework, students engaged in reflective writing independently. Students and faculty then coded and analyzed data generated through reflective writing.
A community coalition simulation and group work related to the final project emerged as two learning activities which students reported as meaningful to learning ecological perspectives, community partnership and inclusion, and, collaboration and coalition development. Both student learning activities also provided students with opportunities to gain practice in applying course related material through work in small groups to deepen their understanding. Finally, students reported the instructor’s modeling of CP skills to be supportive to their learning CP practice competencies.
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Gregor V. Sarkisian, Ph.D., M. Ameerah Saleem, M.A., Jeremy Simpkin, M.A., Ann Weidenbacher, Natalie Bartko, & Sylvie Taylor, Ph.D.
Gregor V. Sarkisian, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Master of Arts in Psychology progam and teaches in the Applied Community Psychology Specialization at Anitioch University Los Angeles, CA, USA.
M. Ameerah Saleem, M.A., is a Clinical Research Professional who serves as a consultant for projects seeking to empower communities through the areas of education, entrepreneurship, and philanthropy in Los Angeles, CA, USA.
Jeremy Simpkin, M.A., is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern and Registered Yoga Teacher who combines the two professions to promote the development of resiliency and overall well-being in Los Angeles, CA, USA.
Ann Weidenbacher, is a Student in the Master of Arts in Psychology program, training in Somatic-Emotional Approaches, Trauma, and Applied Community Psychology at Antioch University Los Angeles, CA, USA.
Natalie Bartko, is an advocate for nutrition and women’s health and is a graduate student at Antioch University Los Angeles, CA, USA.
Sylvie Taylor, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Master of Arts in Psychology program and is the founding Director of the Applied Community Psychology Specialization at Antioch University Los Angeles, CA, USA.
Corresponding author: Gregor V. Sarkisian (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Antioch University Los Angeles, 400 Corporate Pointe, Culver City, CA 90230
Keywords: Student Empowerment, Curriculum Mapping, Community Psychology Practice Competencies, Community Psychology Graduate Education and Professional Training, Collaboration and Coalition Building