What is Community-Engaged Learning?

CEL is a structured approach to learning and teaching in which students apply knowledge and analytic tools gained in the classroom to real-world partnerships and projects. In CEL, students collaborate with community partners to advance community-identified goals and initiatives while advancing their own learning, personal growth, and civic identity. CEL can take many forms, but it always prioritizes both student learning and community benefit.

Background to Community-Engaged Learning at Bates

Bates College has a long and proud tradition as a national leader in efforts to integrate academically rigorous, mutually beneficial work in the community into courses and research across the liberal arts curriculum.  From its founding in 1855, Bates’ mission has been to empower students to take informed civic action while helping them to cultivate the skills needed to become responsible stewards of the wider world. The establishment of the Center for Service Learning in 1995 advanced this commitment by providing institutional support for faculty who wanted their students to engage and collaborate with community members in order to realize their teaching goals. At the time, the effort to link service to academic study was only beginning to gain traction in institutions of higher education, and the Bates Center for Service Learning was one of the first programs in the country devoted to promoting work in the community as a means for furthering students’ academic development. With the vision and guidance of co-founders Peggy Rotundo and James Carignan, the Center for Service-Learning helped professors and students forge meaningful partnerships with a wide range of grassroots initiatives, non-profits, and local officials that helped to promote positive change in Lewiston-Auburn while bringing Bates to the forefront of an innovative pedagogy.

The Harward Center for Community Partnerships was established in 2004 to build on the strengths of the college’s Center for Service Learning and to honor the legacy of Bates president Donald W. Harward, who made community-engaged learning and research, as well as positive campus-community relationships, hallmarks of his presidency. The transition away from the language of service learning and towards terms of partnership and community engagement reflected broader efforts to move beyond a deficit and charity-oriented model that privileges students and faculty as the main providers of work and knowledge. Partnership as method involves a thoroughgoing recognition of the strengths and assets of the off-campus community and a commitment to engage that community in a spirit of humility, openness, and collaboration. Partnership as goal means that student learning and community well-being are co-equal goods whose attainment is an ongoing, collaborative pursuit. Whether community partnerships are central to your pedagogy, or you are including a small project with the community in one of your courses for the first time, our Harward Center staff are eager to help you navigate the process and find ways to cultivate transformative collaborations  with our local partners.

The resources below will help you to build your understanding of principles and effective practices for community-engaged learning and pedagogy. If you are interested in discussing a specific course or project, we invite you to set up an appointment with one of our CEL staff members. 

The Benefits of Community-Engaged Learning

The benefits and value of CEL are well-documented, with assessments demonstrating increased student learning and graduation rates at every level of education. As colleagues at North Carolina Campus Engagement share, civic and community engagement not only advance student success but also cultivate empathy, civic learning, and sustainability and sense of place, while contributing to faculty flourishing. Research has also shown the benefits of CEL in the following areas:

Learning Outcomes
CEL students are:

  • More invested in their learning
  • Learn more academic content, and retain key material longer
  • Learn higher-order skills (e.g., critical thinking, writing, math, and technology) at more advanced levels of aptitude.
  • Learn to evaluate and deploy multiple approaches to complex problems
  • More readily transfer learning from one context to another

Sources: Prentice and Robinson 2010; Gallini and Moely 2003; Cress 2004

Whole Person Outcomes
CEL students develop:

  • Increased emotional intelligence
  • Enhanced self-efficacy
  • Deeper understanding of the self-world relationship
  • Psychosocial well-being
  • Increased motivation for mindful community action

Sources: Bernacki and Jaeger 2008; Hurtado and DeAngelo 2012

Institutional Outcomes
CEL has been shown to offer a range of institutional benefits:

  • Improved student retention
  • Students’ pursuit of higher levels of education
  • Faculty scholarship productivity
  • Increased positive outcomes for first-gen students and students of color, including academic performance, and persistence to graduation
  • Positive correlations with recruitment and retention of faculty of color
  • Improved town-gown relations and more livable communities:
  • Enhanced ability of community partners to achieve their goals
  • Increased participation of students, faculty, and staff in off-campus community
Introduction to the Principles of Community-Engaged Learning

There is a substantial literature on the general principles and methods of community-engaged learning, which can be challenging to navigate due to the many terms used to describe the work. Different scholars and institutions refer to service learning, community-engaged learning, community-based learning, public scholarship, and civic engagement,  among others. Each has distinct connotations that reflect the methods and philosophies that animate the work. Joe Bandy of the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching provides an excellent introduction to the various terms and the benefits and drawbacks to each. For a general introduction to principles of community-engaged research, see Kerry Strand, Nicholas Cutforth, et al., Community-based Research and Higher Education: Principles and Practices (San Francisco, 2003); individual chapters of the volume make suitable reading assignments to prepare undergraduate students for the various phases of developing community-engaged research projects. Randy Stoecker, Research Methods for Community Change (Los Angeles, 2012), draws on the author’s long experience as a leader in academic community-engagement to provide a model and strategy for integrating research into efforts to promote community change. Corey Dolgon, Tania D. Mitchell, and Timothy K. Eatman, The Cambridge Handbook of Service Learning and Community Engagement (New York, 2017), provides an assessment of the latest trends in community-engaged work within different disciplines, and offers much greater focus on pedagogy. Gelmon, Holland, et al., Assessing Service-Learning and Civic Engagement: Principles and Techniques (Providence, 2001), provides an overview of methods for evaluating the impact of community-engaged work on students,  partners, faculty, and institutions. 

Community Engagement as Anti-Racist Praxis

Important work to consider how community engagement can be an anti-racist, liberative practice is being done by a range of scholars. Tania Mitchell’s groundbreaking work on critical community engagement is a good starting place. More recently, colleagues at Salem State University have developed Principles for Anti-Racist Community-Engaged Pedagogy. Additional work is being undertaken by the New England Equity and Engagement Consortium.

Teaching Resources

If you would like to learn more about the benefits and principles of community-engaged teaching and research within your discipline, or if you are seeking project ideas and templates, we encourage you to reach out directly to Harward Center staff so that we can set up a one-on-one consultation. During an initial meeting, we will work with you to identify ways that your interests and desired learning outcomes align with community needs. From there, we work with our wide range of community partners to find ways that you and your students can connect with their work. We prioritize long-term relationship building, and will support you at every step of the way in forging meaningful connections and mutually beneficial partnerships that can be sustained across courses and other learning opportunities. Our Annual Reports and the repository of student research available through SCARAB will help to orient you to the kinds of CEL projects and partnerships faculty have been involved in previously.

In addition to providing one-on-one consultations, we offer a number of programs and resources to support faculty in integrating community-engaged learning into their courses. Each fall, we host a Publicly-Engaged Pedagogy (PEP) Faculty Learning Community. In this program, stipended participants meet together once a month during the semester—usually over a meal from a local restaurant. In addition to becoming a sharing and support group for each other, we work together to develop community-engaged learning projects and partners for an upcoming course. Most people finish the learning community with a “shovel ready” community-engaged learning course, a Harward Center staff member who will support that course whenever it’s taught, and a new group of colleagues/friends. In the fall of 2021, our Faculty Fellow Leslie Hill hosted a faculty learning community focused on approaching Community-Engaged Learning with a Racial Justice Lens, and we have previously hosted reading groups focused on common texts such as The Student Companion to Community Engaged Learning to foster conversation about the goals and challenges of Community-Engaged Learning.

The Harward Center also offers Faculty Discretionary Grants of up to $500 to support community-engaged activities in a community-engaged learning course. Such activities might include project materials, transportation, or guest speaker honoraria. We have also supported faculty members in successful applications for competitive grants and fellowships such as the Periclean Faculty Leadership Program which supports faculty in developing community partnerships and community-engaged learning opportunities for their students.

In addition to the resources outlined above from the Harward Center, we encourage you to explore the website of the National Campus Compact,  which offers a wide range of resources for building your understanding of community-engaged pedagogy and important topics in civic engagement in higher education. This searchable database of syllabi and assignments for community-engaged learning courses provides a valuable resource as you begin to develop a CEL course.

Bates faculty who teach a Community-Engaged Learning course that prioritizes reciprocal partnership and assets-based community learning, and that includes critical reflection on how power and privilege are at play in CEL, are encouraged to identify their course as such in the course catalog by submitting the CEL Course Tag Request Form. Faculty are also encouraged to consider this brief summary of effective practices for CEL integration into a course.

Scholarship and Professional Development Resources

Some of our strongest partnerships begin with community-engaged research projects undertaken by faculty members. Direct collaboration naturally fosters a greater understanding of the challenges that our community partners are facing, while also helping to generate ideas for projects and opportunities that would be feasible for students at different levels. A variety of professional development resources and publications are listed below to help you get started.

Community-Engaged Research Resources 
From the National Campus Compact, this page includes references to resources in specific subject areas and disciplines, including public health, sociology, and history.

Community-Engaged Learning, Tenure, and Promotion 
This page  from the National Campus Compact Toolkit offers an annotated bibliography of resources exploring the ways that community-engaged scholarship and teaching is factored into tenure and promotion decisions, including discussions about how to best leverage this work during a review. A 2016 study conducted by Diane Doberneck in the Journal of Community Engagement a Scholarship, “Are we there yet?” offers an instructive update on the state of community-engagement and tenure policies in institutions of higher education.

National Community-Engagement Organizations and Professional Associations
The Association for American Colleges and Universities offers an extensive list of national organizations involved in promoting civic engagement in higher education.

More to come?

We want to hear your feedback about this page and what resources would be most useful to you and your research and teaching. If you would like to see something else included here, please contact us.