A college course on abnormal psychology may suggest a focus on human shortcomings. But not so in Donna Duffy's classroom, where the unifying theme of this course is resilience--people's strengths and ability to overcome experiences of adversity.
It's a new twist on service learning, a teaching technique that Duffy, a 1998 Carnegie scholar of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a professor of psychology at Middlesex Community College in Bedford and Lowell, Mass., has championed since 1993.
Through service learning, professors integrate classroom instruction with community service in a way that supports better understanding of course content and promotes a sense of civic responsibility. In Duffy's abnormal psychology class, she offers students the opportunity to complete 22 hours of community service. Typically, half of her students opt for community work, and are placed in schools, adult day care centers, nursing homes, veterans' hospitals and alternative school programs.
In class, Duffy incorporates their experiences with course material on topics such as attention-deficit disorder, Alzheimer's disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But instead of listing deficiencies, Duffy steers class discussions toward strengths. She helps students identify ways they can improve the lives of the people they're working with, as well as promote community resources that support resilience.
She says the approach has boosted her students' learning and stimulated their interest in community work.
"The focus on resilience starts to generate questions students wouldn't have asked otherwise," she says. "Students begin to ask 'Why aren't we doing more to develop resilience in our communities and ourselves? What works best?'"
Students' views after the class support Duffy's theory. "When researchers determine ways to promote resilience, the community can take action and develop ways to help," wrote one student in his reflections about the class. "In the future, when more information is available about resilience, I wonder if some of the disorders of our society will disappear?"
Finding what works
When service learning was first introduced to Middlesex in 1993, Duffy immediately saw it as a great way to challenge students.
"The authenticity of the problems can strengthen student thinking in ways that a more conventional approach may not," Duffy says.
But several years of applying service learning taught her that students who work in the community can be disheartened by some of their experiences, such as working with ailing Alzheimer's patients.
She has found that the concentration on resilience, paired with a team approach to learning, unites the class and heads off any despondent feelings.
In the beginning of the course, she primes her students by providing them with a background on factors that make people strong, such as support groups, mentors, family and friendships. She also discusses case-specific information, such as how a child's ability to read at grade level is essential to his or her sense of self. In addition, she helps her students explore how community services and advocacy groups could be resources for them and the people they work with.
Duffy then weaves resilience through the course by having teams of students discuss "critical incidents," or challenging experiences students had while working in the community.
For example, one student told of a child with attention-deficit disorder who began to lie and skip school. Another described his experience with a man with schizophrenia who refused to take his medication. The students who have done community work partner with those who haven't, and together they discuss how the details of the experience relate to, or differentiate from, the course material on attention-deficit disorder and schizophrenia.
The student teams then reflect on ways they can gain deeper understanding about the critical incident. Class discussions on how to deal with lying and help the man with schizophrenia provided an excellent forum for understanding the social implications of mental disorders, says Duffy.
Other faculty say they are impressed by Duffy's new approach to service learning.
"Her method seems really helpful for her students in terms of understanding people's situations," says Middlesex professor of cultural anthropology Susan Thompson, PhD. "It helps them see each situation from multiple perspectives and she was also able to get her whole class involved--I had a hard time telling which students did community work and which didn't."
Overall, students were more engaged and were better able to integrate the course material with their community experiences, says Duffy. At the end of the course, students completed a questionnaire on whether the theme of resilience was helpful: 90 percent of the class reported that it significantly helped them grasp the key concepts of abnormal psychology.
But perhaps the greatest benefit of the course is that many students continue their community work after the class is over, says Duffy.
"Students begin to realize that they have a role and responsibility in developing the resilience of their communities," she says.
Duffy, who is known nationally for her support of service learning, is cautious about claiming her new approach is "the way to go." But she's been encouraged by the improvements in her students' learning, and in their attitudes toward service. So Duffy spent last semester on sabbatical to examine and fine-tune her approach, and to create a course guide that will help her students develop a deeper understanding of the concepts.
Toward this end, she will also be developing a partnership strategy for service learning that bridges the teaching of psychology from high school to graduate levels of education through grant support from the APA Education Directorate and Campus Compact, an affiliate program of the American Association for Higher Education that has pioneered national initiatives in service learning.
"The focus on resilience starts to generate questions students wouldn't have asked otherwise. Students begin to ask 'Why aren't we doing more to develop resilience in our communities and ourselves? What works best?'"
Donna Duffy Middlesex