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Getting Started With Community Based Learning

February 21st, 2023 • Catherine Brix

If you find yourself teaching a course that has grown stagnant and students are becoming disengaged, it might be time to try something new. Students crave hands-on application where they see the fruits of their labor in concrete, meaningful ways. Using Community Based Learning (CBL) can help revitalize a course that has grown sluggish and encourage students to re-engage with the material.

What is CBL?

In CBL, communities are an educational asset filled with resources and knowledge that students can draw on to enhance their learning and gain direct, real-world experiences. CBL reciprocally benefits both participants and the community. It includes practices such as community service, practica, internships, or philanthropy. 

Elements of CBL experiences:

  1. A focus on building relationships
  2. All participants are empowered to apply their skills, talents, and knowledge to meet the goals of the project.
  3. The project contributes to the well-being of the whole community, including participants in the project.
  4. There are measurable outcomes that show a positive impact on the community.
  5. There is a reflective element in which participants examine themselves and their communities, and often larger structures and institutions that shape society.

Is CBL right for your class?

When I considered CBL as a way to reinvigorate my own classroom, I first considered best practices in my discipline. Interpersonal communication is especially important in Spanish language courses, and the need for community interaction to gain proficiency in a second language is paramount. ACTFL is the professional organization that sets guidelines for best practices in foreign language instruction, including the World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages. Their guidelines are structured in this framework by the Five C’s:

  • – Communication
  • – Cultures
  • – Connections
  • – Comparisons
  • – Communities

What does your discipline’s professional organization say about its standards and best practices? If you see any of the Five C’s noted anywhere in your field’s standards, there is an opportunity for CBL in your classroom too!

Some helpful takeaways

If you have established that CBL is a good fit for your course and that its use is supported by best practices in your field, the next step is to consider where you can connect with the community. Consider the following points when deciding to design and implement CBL:

  • – Who would be good candidates as community partners? 

When brainstorming possible partnerships in the community, consider institutions like non-profits, local government, schools, libraries, museums, state agencies, local businesses, and religious organizations. Any of these present outstanding opportunities for community engagement. Consider your own network of proximity as places where you could engage. 

  • – Can you bring a friend? 

Do you have colleagues from your department or from other disciplines who would be interested in partnering with you in a CBL experience? Interdisciplinary collaborations can make even more enriching experiences for our students. 

  • – Is your CBL project student-centered or community-centered? 

Student-centered means that you, the instructor, would identify specific learning objectives and goals in advance, with the focus on your students’ application of skills and knowledge. Those learning goals dictate the services rendered in the community. Community-centered means that the community dictates its needs and the services that it requires from your students and that these services have real consequences for the community. 

  • – Have a vision, but also be willing to listen.

Although you might already have ideas of the kinds of tasks, assignments, or experiences you would like your students to have, remember that this is a community project; both your class’s needs and the needs of the community need to be met with reciprocity. Ask your community partners about their goals and needs and see where you can meet them in the middle. Building mutually-beneficial relationships is the cornerstone of CBL.

© 2023 Catherine Brix. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.

Meet the Author

Catherine Brix 

Visiting Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies, Modern Languages

Catherine Brix is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies in the Department of Modern Languages and a Faculty Fellow at STLI. She specializes in Southern Cone testimonial literature and the relationship between literature and human rights. Catherine’s portfolio can be viewed here.