Engaged Learning for Well-Being at St. Lawrence
In St. Lawrence University professor Patti Frazer Lock’s first-year program course, her fifty students have lots of opportunities for interaction and collaborative learning. “I put all their names into a statistical package and hit randomize, so every class, they’re working in different groups, pairs, and combinations,” she explains. The students are also expected to write substantial amounts each week, in reflective journals, “advising letters” to their first-year advisers, assessments of peers’ papers, and research reports. Lock team-teaches the class, Having an Impact: Leadership, Teamwork, and Motivation, with two other St. Lawrence staff members who also share advising duties, and the students all live together in a residential building and participate in community-based learning placements. It’s unusual to find so many engaged learning practices clustered in a single course, but it’s all by design at St. Lawrence, one of two “intensive sites” in the Bringing Theory to Practice project.
Bringing Theory to Practice, now in its fifth year, is sponsored by the Charles Engelhard Foundation of New York City and developed in partnership with AAC&U. The project was founded to address chronic disengagement of students from their academic experiences. Research shows that about 40 percent of undergraduates suffer from depression, and more than 30 percent of students report regularly drinking to excess. Bringing Theory to Practice aims to address these problems by exploring the links between engaged learning and student well-being, as well as fostering civic engagement and enduring interpersonal relationships that strengthen both society and individuals. In 2005, seven institutions were selected as “demonstration sites” to develop and measure the impact of various types of engaged learning, and in 2007, two demonstration sites—St. Lawrence University and Georgetown University—were chosen as “intensive sites,” selected specifically to counter the issue of selection bias in BTtoP programs. At St. Lawrence, 100 percent of first-year students are participants in a living-and-learning environment that emphasizes engaged learning, while faculty members systematically gather data to track students’ learning outcomes, alcohol use, and well-being. The intensive sites project, which will conclude in 2010, aims to add to the empirical research base for understanding the relationship between engaged learning, mental well-being, and civic development.
“We had a lot of interest in this project because we’re proud of being innovative when it comes to pedagogy, and BTtoP is all about the cutting edge of pedagogy,” say Catherine Crosby-Currie, St. Lawrence’s associate dean of the first year and the BTtoP project director. “We really want to explore what it means to learn in an engaged and democratic, decentered classroom, where the professor is willing to give up the power of learning to the students.”
The university’s First-year Program (FYP) was a natural fit for the BTtoP project, Crosby-Currie explains. “We’ve had a first-year program at St. Lawrence for twenty-two years,” she says. “It’s already successful, and it has a manageable number of students for introducing engaged learning practices in a systematic way.” In the FYP, cohorts of students live together in residential colleges and take the same first-year program course in the fall semester. In the spring, they take smaller first-year seminars that focus on research skills. Experienced faculty members like Lock, who is chair of the mathematics department, teach these courses and advise the students. “I had put off joining FYP as an instructor for a while, because I love teaching math and writing math textbooks,” she says. “But now that I’ve done it, it’s tremendously rewarding. Within a month after these students arrived at St. Lawrence, there was a feeling in the classroom of being with family.”
The amount of data to be gathered for the BTtoP project at St. Lawrence can seem daunting, even to a seasoned researcher like Christine Zimmerman, St. Lawrence’s director of institutional research. Zimmerman and Anne-Marie FitzGerald, a research associate, have spent months developing and testing the instruments they’ll use to measure students’ learning and mental-health outcomes. During the 2007-08 academic year, they began gathering baseline data on students’ engaged learning behaviors, alcohol use, and health from the then-first-year class, using a variety of existing measures. Crosby-Currie also initiated a series of professional development activities, including forming pedagogy teams to discuss different types of engaged learning practices—like community-based learning, advocacy and activism, and reflective learning journals—and how they could be incorporated into new and existing St. Lawrence courses.
Zimmerman and FitzGerald also developed inventories for both students and faculty members to complete detailing what engaged learning pedagogies they encounter, and with what frequency. “There is not one survey available that really captures it all,” Zimmerman explains. “What we’re doing is more comprehensive than what’s available so far, and we’re also tailoring our measures toward what we try to teach students in the first year.” First-year students will take the inventories in spring 2009, as well as participate in focus groups about their learning experiences. During the 2009-10 academic year, the current first-year students as well as incoming first-years will all take the inventories again. They’ll also answer questionnaires about their alcohol use and their well-being—a tricky concept to measure.
"In our baseline data from last year, we started to question if the well-being and the depression measures were really measuring what we wanted. We want to measure the idea of ‘flourishing,’” Zimmerman explains. “A lot of students might not chart for clinical depression, but they still might not be flourishing. We started with our demonstration site data and are working from there to refine these measures.” And throughout the data collection, FitzGerald emphasizes, faculty will continue to be trained in engaged learning pedagogies that they can use immediately in their classrooms.
Two of the most important factors in St. Lawrence’s BTtoP project are the large sample size of the group and the breadth of engaged learning pedagogies involved, Zimmerman says. While the demonstration site project only included a group of thirty students, the current project involves more than six hundred —all of St. Lawrence’s first-year class—and will add roughly another six hundred students with next year’s incoming class of 2013. “This year will be the beginning of our collection of some really exciting data,” Crosby-Currie says. “We’ll be able to see after these two years whether the engaged learning is really demonstrating itself as better well-being and decreased drinking behaviors. We don’t want to only look at the negative, but the positive—are the students flourishing as people?”
It may be too early to tell, statistically, whether the students are flourishing, but the anecdotal evidence is looking good to Lock. She was thrilled, she says, by the cohesive group her FYP students formed, both in the classroom and in the dorm. “We didn’t have problems with cliquishness or exclusionary behavior, and we didn’t see many disruptive behaviors, including excessive drinking,” she says. “The sense of community was impressive.”