Education Connection



Volume 49 Number 1
Winter 2016

Education Connection

Edited by Carie Forden

This issue's column features a discussion of a participatory action research project to investigate student experiences in a community-based learning program. It describes some of the advantages and challenges of participatory research with undergraduates, and provides us with a nice example of how community psychology can be practices on our own college campuses. If you have an idea for a future Education Connection column, please contact Carie Forden (!  

The Community Narrative Research Project: Undergraduate students examining their own and others' experiences of civic engagement over time

Written by Natasha Main, Chigozie Emelue, Eann Malabanan, Adele Malpert, Shannon Hoffman, Marsha Walton, and Elizabeth Thomas, Rhodes College

The integration of action and research is central to the field of community psychology, and collaborative, participatory approaches to research are highly valued (Kloos et al., 2012). Yet the possibilities for undergraduate students to contribute to action research in higher educational institutions—our own community contexts of teaching and learning—have not been fully explored in community psychology.

In the university context, civic engagement and research with undergraduate students are understood as “high impact” practices that increase student retention and engagement in college. They are increasingly promoted across disciplines and institutional contexts (Kuh, 2008). How can we bring these high impact practices together in action research with undergraduate students in community psychology? What do civic engagement and research look like when practiced together? And how are they experienced by undergraduate researchers?

The Community Narrative Research Project (CNRP) team is taking up these questions as we examine undergraduate student experiences of civic engagement and community-based learning over time. In this brief article, we describe our efforts to establish collaborative learning and shared inquiry. We affirm the value of participatory research for undergraduates as we continue to learn about how students make meaning of their experiences and how these experiences contribute to student identity, development, and learning outcomes. We acknowledge that we still have much to learn about the conditions under which community partners are more likely to benefit from collaboration with undergraduate research teams.

Our research team represents a collaboration that has developed over the last three years between the Psychology and Urban Studies departments and the Bonner Program at Rhodes College, a small, urban liberal arts college in Memphis, Tennessee that holds civic engagement as a core value in its undergraduate experience. The research team includes faculty (Elizabeth Thomas, a community psychologist, and Marsha Walton, a developmental psychologist), undergraduate psychology research students (Adele Malpert and Eann Malabanan), Bonner staff (Shannon Hofffman), and undergraduate Bonner Scholars (Chigozie Emelue and Natasha Main).

At the center of the project is the collection and analysis of narratives written by student participants in the Bonner Program at Rhodes College over a four-year period. We are looking across levels of analysis, from individual student development to program and institutional learning and change. More specifically, we are investigating how students change as they participate in the Bonner Program, how the Bonner Program changes over time, and how the college supports these changes.

The Research Context: The Bonner Program and Bonner Scholars at Rhodes College

The student participants with whom we collaborate at Rhodes are part of a national Bonner Program that was founded in 1990 at Berea College with a goal of providing students with access to education and an opportunity serve. The program came to Rhodes in 1992, and since then it has become a model for student development and sustainable community partnerships. The basic requirements for Bonner scholars include 10 hours of community service a week, or roughly 140 hours of service a semester. Additionally, Bonner Scholars are required to complete two summers of either domestic or international service totaling 280 hours each.

Our research team has been interested in understanding more fully how the intense level of engagement experienced by the Bonner Scholars in their four years at Rhodes influences their educational experience and identity development. The CNRP narrative data collection process is tied to the Bonner Scholars’ ongoing reflection process. Bonner Scholars engage in regular written reflection on their individual experiences, and they routinely hold formal discussions in which they share their reflections with one another. Stories about community engagement, incorporating both personal experiences as well as community and societal/structural issues, become part of the culture of the program. Over a four-year period, this story sharing process builds an atmosphere of long-term trust and a community of support that goes well beyond a single service-learning course or internship experience.

Our CNRP team is investigating the experience of Bonner Scholars who participate in this cultural community of storytelling and service to better understand how students’ involvement with the program impacts their academic, social, and personal lives. The research approach is based in scholarship in developmental, community, and cultural psychology. It relies on narrative as a way to understand development and meaning making as well as organizational learning and change.

Establishing and Nurturing the CNRP Research Team

For the planning phase and first year of the study, two Bonner scholars and two Psychology majors were recruited to the team. Students were involved in all aspects of the initial research planning, including early discussions of relevant research and theory, preparation of an IRB proposal, and planning and implementing the logistics of data collection and data management.

As we began to work with the narratives we collected twice each year from Bonner Scholars, we used weekly team meetings to explore the data together, with students and faculty members reading narratives out loud, noting recurring themes, and identifying points where multiple interpretations were possible. We have intentionally treated these meetings as the development of an interpretive community, in which each member of the team understands that his or her unique perspective is critical to the overall success of the project.

We have tried to be sure that student members of the research team represent second through fourth-year students, so that older members of the team can orient newer members. With longitudinal research, the regular loss of experienced researchers to graduation requires that we are very attentive to keeping good research notes and to documenting all of our observations and procedures. This is, of course, good research practice, and the regular integration of new team members makes it imperative that we keep these research skills sharp.

CNRP as an Undergraduate Research Experience

Students on the CNRP team have reflected on our experience as undergraduate researchers over time. We feel that the professors and students on the research team operate in a power-sharing capacity that empowers students to step out of the typical undergraduate apprentice role to hone a variety of professional skills. We believe that the collaborative model strengthens the research process and increases the value of the research.

We have conceptualized all of the Bonner Scholars at Rhodes whose experience we study as collaborators in the research project, and we have been in regular community with all sixty of the research participants, attending their program retreats and some of their regular meetings. But the role of the Bonner Scholars on the research team is distinct, with each contributing 5 to 10 hours a week to the CNRP and serving as liaisons to the larger group at Rhodes. From the beginning, the Bonner Scholars on the CNRP team have helped us to negotiate an ongoing tension between our desire to work with all of the students as genuine collaborators with a need to be respectful of their limited time and an awareness that we cannot expect extensive commitments from all of them in our research.

In addition to serving as liaisons to the larger group, we have reflected that the Bonner Scholar team members offer valuable insights from their own knowledge of the program that would otherwise be completely opaque to the team. For example, last spring when we collected narratives at a program retreat, we felt like something was not quite right. The students seemed frustrated and impatient. We were a bit worried, not sure whether to attribute this to technical difficulties in saving the stories or a greater dissatisfaction with the project. The Bonner Scholars on the team helped us to understand the timing of the data collection at the end of the retreat was the most salient issue for the students. We were able to plan the next data collection in ways that led to a much better experience and positive feedback on the project from the students this fall.

The Bonner Scholars on the team have helped to tailor research questions and interpret data. In analysis of individual narratives, for example, Bonner Scholars have identified themes from program meetings and resonances from shared reflections. They see the influence of shared storytelling on individual narratives much more clearly than those of us who are outsiders to the community do. They also help in communicating research findings to Bonner Scholar participants, as they are much more aware of the group’s priorities and concerns.

The participatory model of the CNRP has served as a tool for empowering stakeholders in the different phases of the research by allowing them to make meaningful and engaging contributions. An example of this has been the development of student leadership within the Bonner Program. One of our team members has presented our work at national Bonner conferences, and she has become active in institutional efforts to better integrate civic engagement experiences with our academic curriculum. This fall, she co-facilitated a meeting of student leaders in civic engagement from across the campus. Another team member has become an expert in qualitative data analysis software, writing tutorials, helping to teach advanced research methods classes, and mentoring other students on the team. Three years into our project, we have had eight student team members, five of whom have graduated. The interdisciplinary team includes students going into graduate school in community psychology as well as other health professions.

CNRP as an Action Research Project

The CNRP provides a feedback loop, strengthening the Bonner Program and building institutional capacity for civic engagement and community-integrative education.

For example, one theme that has emerged from our work with narratives and our discussions with Bonner Scholars concerns their struggles to integrate their identity as a student with their community work and their identities off campus. As part of an effort to respond to this, we are now in the planning phases for a new first year course that will focus on community integrative learning in Memphis.

An additional insight that our work has stimulated concerns a lack of communication and integration across campus between various civic engagement programs. The meeting for student leaders we described earlier, co-facilitated by one of our team members, has resulted in a new Student Advisory Committee for the Memphis Center, an emerging academic hub for engagement on campus.

Student-Led Evaluation of the CNRP

In the fall of 2014 the CNRP team launched a student led evaluation of the CNRP. As it unfolded, the project became a site for reflexive practice and positive change within the CNRP. One of the authors, a student researcher on the CNRP team, examined Bonner Scholar-written narratives, conducted interviews with researchers, and held focus groups with Bonner Scholar research participants. Results from the CNRP evaluation highlighted methodological strengths within the project as well as a number of potential areas for methodological improvement.

A noteworthy finding from the evaluation was a tension related to Bonner Scholars serving directly on the research team. Participants perceived a number of advantages related to direct Bonner Scholar participation in the research, but also indicated potential concerns around issues of privilege, access, and privacy. While direct participation was seen as a strength in terms of data interpretation, Bonner Scholar participants were concerned that they could be left out or made vulnerable. Some of them noted that Bonner Scholars on the research team were in a privileged position to influence the research processes.

Through the evaluation process, these tensions—related to the research, but also the social and political climate of the organization and institution—became a topic of discussion between the research team and the Bonner Scholar community. As a result of community discussions, we adjusted our participatory methods to include an advisory committee of peer elected students. This is made up of Bonner Scholars, selected from each class, who agree to meet with us two or three times a semester. We seek input from them about their experience of our research and we encourage them to raise questions and to identify areas where further investigation would be fruitful. This gives us more input from our research participants without demanding too much of them. We are also able to provide more information about the routine procedures established by the team from the beginning of the project for maintaining confidentiality, including stripping names from stories before student researchers have access to the narratives.

Recommendations and Conclusion

Even as we continue to learn and shape our research model, we recommend that others adapt its core features: 1) a team of faculty, staff, and students engaged in participatory research, 2) focused on issues of concern for undergraduate students, 3) with distinct opportunities and empowering roles for members of the team, and 4) producing knowledge that simultaneously contributes to scholarship, student development, and community change.

We believe that the field of community psychology is uniquely positioned to contribute to our understanding of the undergraduate role in action research and participatory, collaborative research on student experiences in higher education. We hope that in sharing our project, we are able to contribute to this growing interdisciplinary arena blending innovative pedagogy and engaged scholarship.


Kloos, B., Hill, J., Thomas, E., Wandersman, A., Elias, M., & Dalton, J. (2012). Community psychology: Linking individuals and communities (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Kuh, G.A. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges and Universities.