Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Engaging Students in Politics through Service-Learning—Mary Banwart (2012)

Overview

Freshmen in a leadership and politics learning community became engaged in politics through a service-learning project, which included a presentation to state legislators about building maintenance needs at Kansas universities.

Background

LA&S 101: Leadership and Politics was set up as part of the Learning Communities (LC) program. I decided to implement service-learning as part of the course. My rationale for doing so was that was that over the years I have seen many juniors and seniors who do not know how to engage in politics. I wanted to work with freshman to help change their path and get them more comfortable talking about and understanding politics.

Students engaged in the service-learning project had an opportunity to examine their own leadership skills and beliefs, develop their research and communication skills, evaluate and analyze public and political communication to be more informed citizens, and analyze how public involvement and public leadership—when enacted by the citizenry—shapes our society. The service activity extended through two semesters. The issue the class embraced was state funding for higher education. Students researched and developed a position on the Kansas legislature's support of higher education.

Implementation

During fall 2005 students met weekly and researched their topic, identified and met with key audiences, and developed a preliminary presentation. Students formed groups based on the critical factors and/or audiences impacting higher education funding in Kansas. Each group brought in speakers representative of their interest area, such as what is service-learning, how to interact with legislators, the history of funding higher education in Kansas, and the challenges facing universities and competing interests when considering funding higher education in Kansas.

In the spring semester, four students from the fall met with individual legislators once every one to two weeks and prepared to meet with groups of legislators. They secured additional information about the deferred maintenance crisis at KU and obtained visual images of degraded facilities and equipment. The students met at the Capitol with three legislators on April 21, 2006, making a formal presentation concerning building maintenance needs at Kansas universities. Students also sought lobbying opportunities with other legislators and key interest groups. After meeting with the legislators, students met independently for reflection and preparation of their final paper.

Student Performance

In the fall, students needed direction and structure. However, in the spring semester, the commitment of the student combined to create a positive and constructive working dynamic. Students took ownership of their final presentation, the research process, the message, and took pride in creating a professional presentation that advocated not just for KU to receive funding for deferred maintenance but all Regents institutions in Kansas.

Attitudinal surveys were administered at the beginning and end of each semester. The attitudinal measures reported suggest that first there must be agency on the student's behalf in order to make a project like this fruitful. If students are not willing to engage with the material, the outcomes are quite simply not going to yield meaningful and positive results. However, an important conclusion that the survey findings reveal is that the combination of student commitment and willingness to produce a product of which they can be proud, the incentive involved in presenting their final project to decision makers, and a more substantive engagement with the material available for understanding the issue must be present in order for students to make the attitudinal gains in both the short and long term that make a project of this breadth worthwhile.

Reflections

The value that service learning can bring to a course is, in my opinion, evident in the spring course. Students applied the work they were doing in class, which motivated them at multiple levels. One of my goals was to help them begin to see that issues—particularly political issues—are not black and white but multidimensional with competing interests and perspectives. Those wanting to gain something from the experience seemed to embrace that idea and were more likely to evidence that in their work products.

Ultimately, there is much to be learned from this project. I believe that it continues to advocate for the positives involved with service learning, reveals challenges that instructors can and should be aware of, but also reinforces that with persistence goals can be reached and students, when they come to the classroom with a willingness to learn and grow, outperform our original expectations. Overall, I feel that I accomplished my goals for the course, more so in the spring semester than in the fall. I am extremely proud of the four students who continued on in the spring semester, and I feel that my time and efforts were rewarded with their growth and accomplishments.


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Background

In the spring of 2003 my department, Communication Studies, was invited to develop a Learning Community course through our leadership studies minor. The rationale behind setting up a LC was that the students enrolled might then be interested in completing a leadership studies minor. I taught two LC seminars before teaching the fall 2005 seminar, which the focal point of this portfolio.

My first LC was called “Leadership in America.” Students who participated in this two-semester program would have completed seven hours of the 19-hour minor. In the fall the LC students were enrolled in a course that fulfilled the minor’s diversity elective and a course that fulfilled the minor’s community development elective, as well as the one-hour facilitation course. In the spring the students completed the minor’s one-hour Introduction to Leadership course, after which they could apply for admission to the minor program. During the course the students studied traditional/seminal theories of leadership, attended an on-campus leadership program, and wrote self-reflection papers. However, the course seemed to be too broad to fully capture students’ interest. Furthermore, a University of Missouri colleague and I wanted to develop a course that would combine leadership and politics in such a way as to educate and excite first-time voters about the 2004 presidential election.

In the fall of 2004 I worked with a colleague in Missouri to create a “FirstVoter” curriculum in coordination with the KU LC and an MU honors course on leadership and politics. Throughout the semester the students were exposed to the same curriculum, worked on interactive programs such as “Poli-peers,” and interacted online with one another after watching a presidential debate. The KU students, through the LC, were also enrolled in an introductory political science course as well as a community development course, fulfilling two electives for the leadership studies minor, and then continued in the spring with enrollment in the Introduction to Leadership course. Without an election year on which to base the LC curriculum in the 2005-2006 academic year, and a growing interest in service learning, this current LC program design seemed more suited to an “off-election” year project.

I decided to implement service-learning for my third course offering in the LC program, with the rationale being that over the years I have seen many juniors and seniors who are uncomfortable engaging with politics. I wanted to work with freshman to help change their path and help them become more comfortable talking about and understanding politics. Studies (see below) have found service learning with a civic engagement focus to increase political interest, knowledge, and civic involvement at multiple levels and in various ways. The current course—and thus the activity design—operated with such an underlying intent.

In fall 2005 (pdf), 18 students enrolled in the Learning Community for Leadership and Politics. My course, LA&S 101: Leadership and Politics, was a seminar course for the group. One general goal of this seminar was to enable first year KU students to make a successful academic transition to the University. Students were asked to explore why they were at the University, their goals, and how they could contribute to the academic and social community around them. In the spring semester (pdf), four students from the fall course engaged in a service learning project through which they had an opportunity to examine their own leadership skills and beliefs, develop their research and communication skills, evaluate and analyze public/political communication to be a more informed citizen, and analyze how public involvement and public leadership—when enacted by the citizenry—shapes our society.

Service activity topic
The issue the class embraced for their project was state funding for higher education. The students researched and developed a position on the Kansas legislature's future support of higher education. At the time the issue was chosen for the course, KU faced a $135 million deficit in promised state funding for building maintenance, and the state faced a $535 million deficit in such funding. Further, the legislature had previously promised 70% support (in the late 1980s/early 90s), but budget cuts and reallocations had dwindled that figure to 30% (the balance of which tuition increases has sought to cover). While students do acknowledge such issues impact them, in general young people do not perceive political issues and politics as having a direct impact. This lack of engagement among young people traditionally has been evident at the ballot box, in lower levels of political efficacy, higher levels of political cynicism, and lower levels of civic engagement.

Course objectives
Upon completion of the course, students should have:

  1. Developed an understanding of various perspectives on leadership and leadership within our public/political sphere;
  2. Practiced and observed the role of communication in leadership, particularly public/political leadership;
  3. Examined the importance of leadership in a “community” context that offers exploration into notions of civic engagement and citizenship;
  4. Explored the role of conflict and debate in leadership; and,
  5. Begun to formulate their personal definition and philosophy (credo) of leadership.

Learning goals

There were two attitudinal learning goals:
Increased political efficacy. Personal involvement should increase levels of political efficacy, particularly greater confidence in personal ability to:

  • Understand politics/political process
  • Have an effect on politics
  • Discuss politics
  • Interact with political leaders

Decreased political cynicism. Personal involvement should decrease levels of political cynicism, including:

  • Improved perception of political process
  • Improved perception that students personally can have a role in the political process
  • Believe that the political process and political leaders can do work that positively impacts citizens/state
  • Increased trust in political officials/politicians

There were three cognitive learning goals:
Increased understanding of issue complexity. There is not one simple answer to an issue that can be compressed into a six second sound bite.

Increased understanding of an issue’s impact at multiple levels. Students should have an understanding of an issue's impact at the personal level, local level, and state level (potentially at national level).

Increased understanding of leadership in the political/public sphere in the context of civic engagement and citizenship. Students should have a greater understanding of leadership in the political/public sphere and the importance of leadership in a community context that offers exploration into notions of civic engagement and citizenship.

There were three skills learning goals:
Improved research and analytical skills through increased understanding of and confidence in conducting and analyzing research, particularly in a format that meets the needs of the respective agency/audience.

Improved communication skills. Increased understanding and confidence in how to communicate through a formal presentation and informal, personal (lobbying) interactions:

  • Increased confidence in communicating information about their issue and issue related concerns
  • Adapt that communication to various audiences (administration, agency, legislators)

Increased sense of personal leadership skills. Increased sense of one's own leadership strengths, weaknesses, potential, and philosophy.

Resources:

Eyler, J.E., & Giles, D.E. (1999). Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning? Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.


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Implementation

The service activity was extended to two semesters: During the first semester (fall 2005), students met weekly and researched the service activity topic, identified and met with key audiences, and developed a preliminary presentation. Students formed groups based on the critical factors and/or audiences impacting higher education funding in Kansas. The groups were responsible for bringing in speakers representative of their interest area. Each week various speakers attended class and spoke with the students. Speakers included: Bill Lacy (Director, Dole Institute of Politics), David Johnson (CEO, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center), KU Chancellor Bob Hemenway, Linda Luckey (Assistant to the Senior Vice Provost), and Seth Bundy (currently Assistant Press Secretary, Kansas Governor’s office). Each spoke about what is service-learning, how to interact with legislators, the history of funding higher education in Kansas, as well as the challenges facing Kansas universities and the competing interests when considering funding higher education in Kansas. In addition, students were given pre and post attitudinal surveys to measure political cynicism, interest, self esteem, and civic engagement. The survey was administered twice each semester—at the beginning of the semester and again at the end of the semester.

In the spring semester, four students who participated in the fall seminar continued in the program and met once every one to two weeks. During class time they either worked on their presentation using the interactive classroom in Budig Hall or conducted additional research or interviews. The students created business cards to hand out to legislators and university officials with whom they interacted throughout the semester. One particularly important interview the students decided upon and made arrangements for was with the University Architect, Warren Corman. They were able to secure additional information about the deferred maintenance crisis at KU, obtain visual images of degraded university facilities and equipment, and understand the state’s responsibility in maintaining the university properties. As the students finalized their presentation, in various phases of its completion they practiced in front of two KU administrators, Keith Yehle (Director of University Communications) and Linda Luckey (Assistant to the Provost). Before the final trip to Topeka, the students gave their presentation to Katherine Tuttle (Associate Vice Provost, Student Success), Mary Ann Rasnak (Director of Disability Resources), Linda Dixon (Associate Program Director for KU Learning Communities), Keith Yehle and Linda Luckey, and hosted a Q&A session following their presentation. These students were given also pre and post attitudinal surveys to measure political cynicism, interest, self esteem, and civic engagement.

The spring semester students met at the Capitol with three Kansas legislators on April 21, 2006, making a formal presentation concerning building maintenance needs at Kansas universities. The students presented their points for 15 minutes and facilitated a question and answer session for 45 minutes. Students also sought lobbying opportunities with other legislators and key interest groups. After meeting with the legislators, students met independently for reflection and preparation of their final paper.

Learning performance, semester 1

  1. Memo papers and policy briefs: Memo papers were to be submitted as a group, and every member of the group was expected to contribute to the content and completion of the memo. Groups were also expected to compose policy briefs.
  2. Group focus: Group meetings, research, class presentations, guest speakers.  Each group contributed to the overall learning of the class by organizing a class presentation that consisted of representative constituencies for their topic area.
  3. Preliminary presentation.
  4. Semester paper: Each student summarized his or her process of research and development and analyzed the project to that point, including suggestions for future directions.

Learning performance, semester 2

  1. Group focus: Group meetings, research, presentations, guest speakers.
  2. Primary presentations: Final presentations (formal and informal) to audiences of interest.
  3. Semester paper: A reflection paper that summarized students’ process of research and development, presentation design and presentation, and that analyzed leadership development and observation.

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Student Performance

In terms of specific learning goals, I think that the students in the spring semester developed a much deeper understanding of issue complexity as well as leadership in the political/public sphere. Because of the type of focused research they conducted, they developed a grasp of the pros and cons of the issue, extent of impact, and competing interests. They also developed a sense of empowerment from their experience, indicating that they felt their voice could make a difference, felt empowered to think that legislators would take time to listen and dialogue with them, and recognized that one issue ultimately has an influence on many, just as deferred maintenance at Kansas universities has implications for the entire state. I do believe, based on student work, that some students from the fall semester did develop a stronger understanding of issue complexity, as well as impact at multiple levels. However, the engagement and citizenship component was primarily embraced during the spring semester.

In the fall, students also wrote reaction papers (see below). The student exhibiting the most resistance to the project wrote one of the strongest reaction papers in the fall course, exhibiting strong analytical skills, strong writing skills, and strong critical thinking skills for a college freshman. Finally, with regard to the other assignments, the final projects were a critical component to this design, but clearly need more direction and structure for the first semester. Overall, instead of giving the students direction and then the freedom to develop the project organically, it seems that for the maturity level of the freshman cohort there should be more structure as the final presentation progresses. Certainly the resulting fall presentations are indicative that with this student population a future course of this nature should provide a better balance of structure and freedom to explore and develop in order to more effectively attain learning and skills goals.

It is also worth noting that the academic level of the students working together in the spring was much more consistent and more closely aligned. That, combined with their interest, motivation, drive, and pride in their work, were clearly advantageous elements for the spring students. However, the group of four in the spring possessed the type of attitude toward the project that would have allowed them to embrace other group members who were perhaps at a different academic level in order to still function effectively—thus, I firmly believe their work reinforces that commitment and pride in a project can help groups overcome numerous tangible and intangible barriers to still attain academic and skills-related goals. As an example of the students' commitment and pride, please see this thank you letter written by the students.

Attitude results
Attitude shifts during the course of this class—even with its difficulties—offer some encouragement. For instance, from the survey results, it is evident that even with the dissention in the class, mean scores for personal efficacy for the most common citizen behavioral component of politics—voting—increased overall. That being said, the numbers suggest there was a short-term decline on this item; however it is important to remember that the entire class completed the fall questionnaires and only those continuing on in the spring completed the spring questionnaires. Even so, there was a greater increase in feelings of influence with those students from the spring than with the class overall in the fall. Granted, those in the fall started more efficacious with influence but gained less overall.

A steadier decline in cynicism for understanding politicians is evident with the second question; particularly those in the spring appear to place more trust in politicians than did the class as a whole in the fall. Finally, it is interesting to note that in the fall the students actually became more cynical in believing that politics is too complicated; however, the spring students, who conducted a more thorough analysis of their topic area, a more coherent and substantive presentation, and interacted with lawmakers on the topic, decreased substantially in their perception that politics is too complicated for someone like them.

With regard to the efficacy measures, the spring students were more likely to increase throughout the semester in their political efficacy than did the fall class. In fact, on all measures the fall class registered a decrease in personal efficacy, feeling less qualified, less informed, less understanding about major political issues, and less able to assist a friend in understanding politics. The spring class—perhaps not surprisingly—entered the semester with higher efficacy levels on two items, but ended the semester with greater overall efficacy on all items. Certainly it is evident that this set of students overall were more likely to be motivated, interested, driven, and had a sense of how to identify with and relate to politics as a topic. However, in the end, it is clear they perceived themselves to have a greater sense of how to consume, process, and engage with political information and the broader concept of “politics.”

These few attitudinal measures reported do suggest that first there must be agency on the student’s behalf in order to make a project like this fruitful. If the students are not willing to engage with the material, the outcomes are quite simply not going to yield meaningful and positive results. Further, these findings indicate that in fact a project like this can have significant consequences in terms of decreasing cynicism in this age group and increasing efficacy with regard to politics and political issues. However, an important conclusion that these numbers reveal is that the combination of student commitment and willingness to produce a product about which they can be proud, the incentive involved in presenting their final project to decision makers, and a more substantive engagement with the material available for understanding the issue must be present in order for students to make the attitudinal gains in both the short term and ultimately long term that make a project of this breadth worthwhile.

Cognitive results
In order to discuss the cognitive component of the course, I have provided examples of the reaction paper from the fall semester and the final reaction paper for the spring semester. For more information on how they were evaluated, please see my fall grading rubric and my final grading rubric.

In reviewing the reaction papers from the fall semester, the examples I have provided fall into two distinct groups. The paper receiving a higher grade (Student F (pdf)) sought out additional source materials, cited from those materials in the argument, raised additional questions as points were developed, and developed an argument with an introduction, main points, and a conclusion. The two paper examples earning lower grades (Student D (pdf) and Student E (pdf)) were largely opinion-based, did not present a coherent argument for their main point, clearly suffered from a lack of proofreading, and failed to introduce and conclude the paper in a manner that aided in substantiating their purpose. Although not represented here, the two papers earning more points on the assignment also earned higher overall grades in the course due to their representative final presentation and quality of memo assignments.

In reviewing the final reaction papers from the spring semester, the four students all submitted quality final products. The purpose of the final reflection paper was not to reflect on an issue but simply their experience with the project. Strong points made by students were the importance of individual responsibility in making the project a success, need for clarity and structure particularly in the fall component of the project, and consideration of multiple topic areas as opposed to one large topic under which groups explore sub-topics. Both papers were informative, completed with authentic comments, and productive uses for both the students and the instructor (see Student A Final Paper (pdf) and Student B Final Paper (pdf)).

Skills results
In terms of the students’ skills, one of the most significant changes between semesters was the quality of the students’ final presentations. In the fall semester there seemed to be such a negative interpersonal dynamic building that the students were unable to work cohesively as a large unit. The final for the fall students was to be comprised of one final PowerPoint presentation in which everyone was to have a role. Without my knowledge (or anyone else working with the course, especially the peer educator), the students decided to break up into groups and create five different and separate group presentations (pdf). There was no effort to blend the material, create a coherent argument, or really fulfill the requirements of the final project as designed and presented to them. Further, some presentations were clearly researched and developed an individual argument supporting the funding of higher education, while some were disorganized and vague in reaching their main point.

However, in the spring semester the commitment of the students, and undoubtedly the group size, combined to create a much more positive and constructive working dynamic. The students took ownership of their final presentation (which also was to culminate in one complete PowerPoint presentation (pdf)), took ownership of the research process, took ownership of the message, and took pride in creating a professional presentation that advocated not just for KU to receive funding for deferred maintenance but all regents institutions in Kansas. The students welcomed and were very open to constructive criticism and advice, and at each practice presentation it was clear that they had carefully integrated comments from the prior session.


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Reflections

Overall, I do think the specific course design was not structured to measure student learning in the traditional classroom sense. Because the service-learning component was designed to exist through a one-hour facilitation course in the Learning Community program, I was not able to tie the service-learning component directly to curriculum through coursework. With more preparation time and work, I could have solicited more information about each of the courses selected for the LC and then spent additional time coordinating the one-hour class accordingly. However, I was hopeful we could try something more unusual with the one-hour course; instead of serving as a review session of course material from the week, I wanted the course to be an active application where the general concepts from each of the classes were expanded upon and enacted through the facilitation course. I also wanted to give the students an opportunity to exercise different research skills, analytical skills, teamwork skills, and audience adaptation skills than what might be used in a traditional classroom. Further, I was very committed to influencing their attitudinal perspectives regarding politics and sought an environment wherein they were given direction but allowed to assume ownership of the presentation to important university and political stakeholders. I feel that I accomplished these goals more so in the spring than in the fall.

As I reflect on this course and this experience several salient points come to mind. First, before determining this course design cannot function at this level and within this academic program design, I do believe this type of project would have to be (with modifications) tried at least one more time. While I do think the maturity level of students across the board inhibited their ability to rise to the level of quality expected, some students held their own and tried to produce quality work as negative interpersonal dynamics operated around them. The fact that students lived together on the same dormitory floor allowed a few students to capitalize on the effects of their negative intentions in the short term, although in the long term they were unable to mobilize the group as a whole against the program; instead, the effect was to fracture the group as opposed to completely failing the project. Therefore, as Learning Communities explore other alternatives for design, perhaps engaging this project with students who do not live together might allow students to focus more on the project at hand as opposed to inter-group dynamics. Further, for those dynamics that do emerge from the class, students not living together do not have the opportunity to take that “home” in a way that exacerbates the dynamic.

The value that service learning—either traditional or non-traditional—can bring to a course is in my opinion evident in the spring course. The idea that students were able to interact at an applied level with the work they were doing in class was motivating for them at multiple levels. Granted, when students actually met the requirement of bringing to class a representative of their particular interest area, students did provide evidence in their discussions and dialogue that reaching out provided them with a more sophisticated and educated perspective. One of my goals was to help them begin to see that issues—particularly political issues—are not black and white but multidimensional with competing interests and perspectives. Those wanting to gain something from the experience seemed to embrace that idea and were more likely to evidence that in their work products.

In addition to advocating for the inclusion of service learning in future projects, I would also suggest that topical organization does not have to be given over to students (one of the dissenting students argued vehemently that the instructors should never choose topics on which students are expected to work). In fact, with this type of project, while free choice can be handed to students, there is also an argument for coherency and comparability. It was the intention of this design to have a culminating project that could be presented to a specific audience—clearly that cannot be the case with all issues, and often as students are making topical choices they are not considering research material availability, nor do they have in mind accessibility of stakeholders.

With regard to service learning, we sought to implement a segment during the spring semester that would mirror more traditional service learning opportunities. We gathered information regarding student interests and identified agencies that would match those interests, but found that those agencies needed education as to what they could have the students involved in to facilitate service learning. Center for Service Learning staff worked most directly with these agencies, but ultimately we were unsuccessful making this connection for students—partially a result of agencies being unsure how to enact their obligation.

Ultimately, there is much to be learned from this project. In sum, I believe that it continues to advocate for the positives involved with service learning and reveals challenges that instructors can and should be aware of, but it also reinforces that with persistence goals can be reached and students, when they come to the classroom with a willingness to learn and grow, outperform our original expectations. I am extremely proud of the four students who continued on in the spring semester, and I feel that my time and efforts were rewarded with their growth and accomplishments.

Thoughts about leadership in politics LC by Linda Dixon
One of the goals of the learning community is that students connect with others in their community, which typically creates a positive effect as students are drawn together as a result of their shared experience. This cohesiveness can lower barriers during discussions, and their connection to each other creates a feeling of belongingness that can ease students’ challenges in transitioning to a large university. On occasion, such bonding can take a wrong turn when someone expresses dissatisfaction and negativity influences other members of the community.

The Leadership in Politics community, filled with aspiring leaders, developed a small, negative clique in their first semester. Although there were some challenges, the situation became a valuable, teachable moment. After a conversation about the long-term benefits of smart decisions, one of the two leaders made a pivotal choice to redirect his energy to be a productive member of the community and to the project.

During the spring semester, the students who remained in the community had noticeable growth in presenting and framing their arguments. There was a significant difference from their first presentation in front of a mock panel to the final presentation in front of legislators in Topeka. The students showed greater confidence in their answers and improved their understanding in framing the issue. The project gave them the opportunity to experience a “real life” moment with legislators and learn about the political challenges, including constituencies and the overall political process. Through this community, the students grew intellectually and emotionally, taking away lessons beyond what might have been obtained in a “normal” classroom experience.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu.


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Flex Teaching

CTE has created a website for helping faculty create flexible courses that can shift between in-person and online. Visit the Flex Teaching site.

GTA Flex and Online Teaching Program

GTAs: The link to the application form for the GTA Flex and Online Teaching Program is now available. It can be accessed here. 

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