By Lauren Sproule, TLS Staff Writer
The nature of many university programs dictates that there can sometimes be a gap between what students learn in a classroom and how they can apply that learning in their respective fields.
This is according to Carleton University Prof. Deborah Conners, who pilots a fourth year course called Community Engaged Sociology — the unofficial capstone course for the social justice/community engagement stream of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.
In that course, Conners aims to bridge the gap through experiential learning techniques. With a maximum enrolment of 24 in the class, students break into three groups of eight, each supported by either a teaching assistant or Conners herself. The groups are then matched with a community organization and must work as a team to produce an advocacy project and two videos, which have historically taken shape as interviews.
The students are also required to transcribe the interviews and conduct a sociological analysis. This is an element Conners refers to as “literature meets experience.”
“They need to maximize the amount of time doing things,” Conners says, which is one of the primary reasons she and the two teaching assistants provide the students with research materials during the “literature meets experience” phase of the project. “You just don’t learn when you’re reading and writing essays…there’s an integration that students aren’t getting in a lot of places.”
Conners says that the integration of what she calls “book-learning” and real-world experience is likely to teach them more about what they can expect once they’re in their respective fields.
In the past, Conners says that students have worked with Discovery University, The Alliance to End Homelessness, and Carleton’s own Criminalization and Punishment Education Project.
Not only do the students get a better sense of what one can do with a sociology degree, but they also develop transferable skills she says, such as how to produce videos, develop websites, organize events and work as a team. These skills work in tandem with other courses sociology students need to take, which tackle subjects better instructed in a lecture-style, like social theory.
Conners says that although she loves experiential learning, she has noticed that students who do well in a more “traditional” setting tend to be “thrown” when engaging in an experiential-based course, whereas those who have struggled through the majority of their talking-head style classes are “overjoyed” with the change.
“Variety is the way to go,” she says.
In addition to the course evaluation mandated by the university, Conners says she has her students complete a supplemental evaluation so that she can understand how they respond to the course structure.
“I have rekindled passions and potential opportunities that I rediscovered through this course,” one student wrote.
“When the class first started I was hesitant about continuing because I had never worked with a non-profit organization before and I was unaware of what it would consist of,” wrote another. The student continued to say that it was after they sunk their teeth into the community-engagement aspect of the class that they “began to get excited about having the opportunity to help change lives.”
Other comments expressed the students’ appreciation for the “hands-on” element of the course as it allowed them to gain a better understanding of what they wanted to do after they graduate.
Conners says that because it is a fourth year class, her students aren’t “coming in cold.” They have their own ideas already and are keen to challenge those ideas. This is the environment in which experiential learning thrives, she says, one in which the students can take in the material and organize it for themselves.
“We are learning together. It is this ‘learning together’ that frames a course that is dynamic and useful to everyone involved,” says Conners. “My goal is that students leave my courses with increased ability to learn how to learn.”