Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Technology and Toughness Make for a Smoother Start to Spanish Community-based Learning

The beginning of this semester has gone unusually smoothly. I like to think this is because of some systems/procedures that we have adopted for this semester. If you are running your own CBL course or program, you know how chaotic things can be in the beginning. Here are some the solutions we have put in place:

1. Problem. Students add/drop. During the first two weeks of the semester students are free to drop courses and add others. Whenever a student drops a Spanish CBL course, another student immediately fills it. This leads to several problems. First, we aren't notified when students drop/add, so we have to continually scan the rosters for this info. If the student who dropped already signed up to work in the community, we need to delete him/her from the schedule. Students who add have missed the e-mails telling them what to do, so are "lost" in the beginning.

Solution. Accept this ebb and flow. I no longer try to get students organized before the semester starts. It all starts once the semester starts. That way no one is ahead or behind. I don't feel frustrated that the work I did earlier is nullified when students drop and add. And TAs can share the work of getting students and schedules up to speed (see #7).

2. Problem. Students enroll "blind." Invariably, some students sign up for the CBL courses without ever reading the course description that clearly states that they need to work 28 hours in the community. They simply "needed" a Spanish class. Given the unique demands (and opportunities, of course!) of a CBL course, students who don't understand that can cause problems and take time.

Solution. Force students to make decisions. The lesson on the very first day asks students to identify what they know or think about the class. If there are misunderstandings, instructors can correct them right away. Most importantly, at the end of the lesson students must check a list: will they stay in the class, get more info, or drop it. I talked to several students in my office and after class yesterday. If I saw them blink when I told them they had to work 28 hours in the community (or 56 if they wanted to take both), I told them they should not take the course! Bluntly. If they still clung to the idea (because of scheduling issues, I suspect, not a true desire for the course experience), I told them they had to send me an e-mail with their decision and plan. The course requires responsibly, so I need to demand that students behave responsibly, not hope they do.

3. Problem. Need to provide access to wiki. Having a wiki solved a myriad of scheduling problems. Students self-scheduled, self-corrected their schedule, and community partners could track their volunteers. But the add/drop problem forced me (or the TA working for me), to constantly take access away from those who dropped and give it to those who added.

Solution. Make the wiki public. Problem solved with a keystroke. In fact, go take a look at the wiki:

4. Problem. Students don't follow instructions. It seems that for some students, if it isn't a graded assignment they don't think it's important or urgent. So when we send an e-mail or tell them in class that they need to schedule themselves on the wiki, that somehow doesn't get transferred to their to-do list.

Solution. Grade it. If they don't follow instructions and sign up for their community partner, go to the orientation, etc., then 20 points will be deducted from their midterm community participation evaluation.

5. Problem. Some students treat this like any other course. See all the problems on this list!

Solution. Get tough. No breaks. No repeating. No reminding students of their responsibilities. It's all written down for the students to see. If we keep telling them what to do, then why should they read what we write? I realize this may sound harsh. However, do you want high performers and self-starters working in the community and representing you and your university or not? We cannot complain about (some) students' lack of responsibility in the community if we coddle them in the classroom. And in my welcome e-mail I tell students more than once that they should drop the class if they're not committed to it. That's their very first message from me!

6. Problem. Sending too many e-mails. This is exhausting for CBL instructors and administrators. Students stop reading e-mails if they receive too many. (So do I.)

Solution. Send very few e-mails. With all the information included in the syllabus, the wiki and the coursepack, students know what to do. If they don't do it, then there are consequences.

7. Problem. The responsiblities for CBL administration are overwhelming. Coordinating things for 10 community partners and 120 students is truly too much for one person to handle.

Solution. Share the responsibilities with instructors and students. Having students self-schedule is already half the battle. Other remaining administrative tasks can be delegated to the TAs, as long as proper systems are in place. At the U of I, CBL instructors only have to teach two days a week. Grading reflexiones every other week and taking care of some simple administrative tasks make up that "extra" hour they're not in the classroom. For example, I will not monitor the rosters to check for students who add the class; TAs will do this and send them the welcome e-mail with instructions.


  1. I like how this post shows that it take multiple iterations to get it right. You have to actively seek solutions to your problems (which requires acknowledging problems). Service-learning isn't for people (professors or students) who are not resourceful, opportunity-oriented, problem solvers.

  2. I couldn't agree more, Darcy.
    Up until now, I have thought that CBL required more effort than other classes. Yes, that's true, but we're just forced to do the work that all profs SHOULD do: evaluate and innovate. Sounds easy. It's not.

  3. Excellent post about the problems and solutions. This is a great reflective resource as well on the process of CBL management in the language-teaching context!