Kimberly J. McClure Brenchley and Lynn Donahue (St. John Fisher College)
Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.
For students to: (1) gain knowledge of stress and coping theories through academic study; (2) apply that knowledge and generate solutions in order to address community issues; (3) increase their awareness and sensitivity to the challenges faced by a diverse group of people in their community; and (4) develop their oral and written communication skills through translating academic theory into meaningful dialogue with others.
For this action teaching assignment, students in a Health Psychology course taught workshops on stress and coping to homeless pregnant teens or adolescent mothers in a temporary shelter. Students visited the shelter weekly for four weeks. The primary objective of the assignment was to develop two interactive workshops, one on stress research and one on coping research, that would be tailored to the needs of the residents. The goal of the project was to deepen student learning about health psychology through the application of research findings and to help local women who were going through a challenging time in their life.
Background and Description of Activity
Stress and coping theories are commonly taught in Health Psychology courses, often by having students apply these theories to their own lives. We used this strategy as a foundation to design a service-learning project that could simultaneously interest students, deepen their learning, foster the development of social justice values, and help meet needs in our community. For the assignment, students applied course content by leading stress and coping workshops for homeless pregnant teens and adolescent mothers in a local shelter. Approximately 10 residents participated in each workshop.
Much of the groundwork for the project was completed prior to the start of the semester. In assessing the needs of our community, we identified a local homeless shelter that needed volunteers to lead life skills workshops. Although this action teaching assignment could be implemented across a wide range of high-stress populations, we determined that this shelter was the ideal place for us to fill a need in our community.
One benefit of this choice was the age range of the adolescent mothers, who were typically within five years of our students. This similarity in age facilitated connections between the students and residents, and it fostered resident interest in pursuing a college education. However, specific aspects of this shelter dictated that the project be implemented by four students rather than the entire class (see "Variations" below for ideas on implementation for an entire class). Students who did not participate in the service-learning project completed alternate assignments.
All students in the course learned about stress and coping through a combination of reading, lectures, and classroom activities. After this phase of the course, four students were selected for the service-learning project based on their interest, availability, maturity, and reliability. Their first task was to design a simple survey to ascertain the stressors and coping skills used by the residents. The goals of the survey were threefold: First, it gave students hands-on experience with research methodology, which met learning objectives at both the course and psychology department levels. Second, it served as a pretest of residents to help students tailor their workshops to fit residents' needs. And third, it was administered as a post-test to assess whether the workshops were effective in teaching life skills to the residents.
During their first visit to the shelter, the students prepared, served, and joined the residents in a meal. The primary purpose of this visit was to gain familiarity with the residents and understand the challenges they faced. The students engaged the residents in conversations about stress and administered the survey to the residents. Typical stressors included finding housing, juggling responsibilities, negotiating difficult relationships, and providing a stable environment for their children. During the second visit, students offered a workshop on the effects of stress, and during the third visit they offered a workshop on coping skills. When developing these workshops, students were directed to use a jigsaw approach; that is, they worked together but were ultimately responsible for leading their own portion of each workshop.
The major requirement of the workshop content was that the material be grounded in research. We also encouraged students to base the content on the needs of the residents, to include learning activities, and to be as engaging as possible. In order for the instructor to assess student learning and provide feedback prior to the workshops, students completed detailed outlines of their portion of the workshop in advance. The detailed outlines included citations to research that supported the content. Students worked hard to make the content understandable, relevant, and useful for residents, and they thought deeply about how to translate academic course material into presentations designed for a non-academic audience.
After students led the workshops, they visited the shelter a fourth and final time to prepare, serve, and join the residents in another meal. During that visit, they conducted a debriefing of the experience and administered the post-test, talking with the residents about stress, coping, and whether they found the workshops to be helpful. Once the weekly visits to the shelter were over, students completed written reflections on the service-learning project.
Evidence of Effectiveness
This action teaching project was successful on all fronts. Post-tests and feedback from the community partner indicated that the project had a positive impact on the residents. A comparison of residents' pretest and post-test scores indicated that they were using coping techniques more frequently after the workshops had been implemented. Residents' written responses also indicated that they were using coping strategies that the students had taught, such as progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, and seeking social support. At the last session, many residents stated that were excited to have successfully used the techniques they learned, and overall their reports of the experience were favorable.
The student learning objectives for this action teaching project were assessed primarily through the students' detailed outlines, written reflections, and an anonymous survey. The following evidence suggests that the primary learning objectives were met:
(1) On the anonymous survey, all students marked that they "strongly agreed" or "agreed" with each item related to classroom enhancement, civic engagement, and skill development, including these items:
- This service-learning helped me understand how course concepts can be applied to real world issues.
- This service-learning increased my desire to serve my community, to make a positive difference.
- This service-learning developed cross-cultural awareness and understanding of others who are different than me.
(2) Student comments on the experience were overwhelmingly positive. Here are representative comments:
- "I entered this service learning with a biased view because of… different television shows that show teen pregnancy. However, after meeting with the girls and learning their stories I completely changed my view. I learned that I should not judge someone based on his or her circumstances."
- "I realized from this experience that others who may seem different from me really aren't → social awareness."
- "[The workshops] helped me to create meaning from the course content. I never realized there were so many studies supporting different coping mechanisms."
- "Personally, after this experience I feel like I have developed a better sense of maturity, leadership, and organization."
- "I am thankful for the opportunity to participate… and I hope that the girls learned as much from me as I did from them."
(3) Service-learning students outscored their classmates on an exam that included the material they had presented in the workshops. Notably, they did not score higher on the exams with other content. This difference suggests that the project resulted in better learning.
Tips for Implementation
Organization and communication with the community partner were of key importance. We found that constructing an action plan that was shared between us, the students, and the community partner made things go more smoothly. The action plan included: (A) a description of the project, goals, and needs of the community partner; (B) student learning objectives; and (C) a timeline that included all dates, goals, and deliverables of each visit. Most of the students who participated in this project had never previously interacted with people in shelters. To support students and help reduce their nervousness, the course instructor attended the first two shelter visits. To increase student ownership of the project, the instructor did not attend the last two visits.
We have administered this action teaching project twice so far. Seeing tremendous student growth has led us to consider variations of this project that can accommodate participation of the entire class rather than a small group. One potential strategy is staggering multiple student groups across the semester. Because the shelter visits occur over a four-week period, at least three student groups could lead workshops over a single semester. Overlap of residents between each of the groups would be unlikely given the transient nature of homeless shelters. Another strategy would be to partner with more than one homeless shelter or with different organizations that hold regular group meetings for high-stress populations (such as those with chronic illnesses) so that projects could be administered at different sites simultaneously.