Community Based Learning

Community-based learning is a high impact practice which can improve student retention and engagement, and help students better absorb, retain, and transfer knowledge. This tip sheet contains suggestions for working with an on-campus community partner to offer students an authentic learning experience. Community partners come to the classroom to present students with a real-life problem, a relevant question, or a research area related to the course curriculum. Over the duration of the term, students apply what they are studying in the curriculum to analyze the problem, reflect on what they are learning, and provide potential solutions to the community partner’s problem or need.


Having students work on an authentic problem for a community partner is not without its challenges. Lenton, Sidhu, Kaur, Conrad, Kennedy, Munro and Smith (2014) outlined a number of these challenges including the following:

  • Compared to more traditional course offerings, the workload is higher for students and instructors.
  • Working on authentic problems may be chaotic and confusing, just as it is in the real world. Students may become frustrated with the process and higher workload, and be unclear about the learning goals when compared to more traditional courses.
  • Engaging students in a reflective process is necessary to help students recognize the learning that is taking place.
  • Instructors may require extra operational support to handle the details of the project. The details can range from ensuring that students have completed the necessary ethics and data sharing agreement to the time and effort required to foster the relationship with the community partner.
  • It can be difficult too to complete a project within the timeframe of a term.


However, there many good reasons for taking the time to offer this type of course (see, for example, Kuh, O’Donnell & Reed, 2013; Lenton et al.; Lombardi, 2007). Working with a community partner has the benefit of bringing students into meaningful contact with future employers, customers, clients, and colleagues. Students experience higher levels of engagement and take a deeper approach to learning when they are able to apply what they are studying to address a real-world problem. They are better able to apply theory to the specific project. They have a deeper understanding of the subject matter. They can improve critical thinking, problem solving, presentation, analytical, team work, and interpersonal skills. They can experience what it is like to work on real problems relevant to their discipline, and reflect on that learning in a safe and supporting environment.

Getting Started

Any course requires advance planning and this is especially true when designing a course where you’ll be collaborating with a community partner. Course planning involves shifting the focus from what the students need to know to master disciplinary theories or content to setting in place the conditions for the students to do something well for someone other than the course instructor.

In addition to making decisions about the content you’ll cover in your course, spend time designing a learning opportunity where both the student and the community partner benefit.

Lining up the appropriate partner

Having an on-campus community partner has several advantages over an off-campus community partner. An on-campus partner is physically located closer to the student, making it easier to schedule in-class visits, and is more likely to be sympathetic to the structure of the academic term and course workloads. Examples of on-campus partners include individuals from the Writing and Communication Centre, Student Affairs, living learning communities, and residence life coordinators, and librarians to name a few. Some best practices:

  • Ensure that the collaboration and the project benefit both the students and the community partner.
  • Meet with the community partner to discuss expectations. Clearly outline what the community partner is committing to, and what you, as the course instructor, are committing to. Provide a detailed schedule of events with dates and times set well in advance.
  • In many cases, offering this type of learning experience means taking a team approach to designing and delivering the course. The project may involve a number of individuals. Consult with these individuals and schedule their time in advance. They are often an integral part of the course and, in many cases, may interact directly with your students, often during class time.

Completing Research Ethics Office paperwork, if necessary

uWaterloo expects instructors to be the proxy for their students, and to have procured ethics permission for human subjects research in the term before a course is taught. Depending upon the project you have planned, you may have to complete this paperwork in advance of the course.

Planning each activity, each class, and each assignment to nest inside the term project

Providing students with authentic learning opportunities means that there are no “textbook cookie-cutter answers” available. The challenge for course instructors offering these kinds of learning opportunities is finding the balance between providing students with a project that is open to multiple solutions and/or interpretations, and ensuring that the students are given enough guidance and structure to tackle the activity.

Moving out of our comfort zone

Because these projects can be more open-ended, instructors and students are often learning alongside each other. While this is where the best learning can happen, it can also be very disorienting for student and instructor alike as it takes us outside our comfort zone. Being as prepared as possible and having clearly defined outcomes for each class and a clearly outlined process to move the project along can help overcome some of these feelings of discomfort and lack of control.

  • Provide structure by creating a detailed course outline and class-by-class plan.
  • Ensure that each in-class activity clearly contributes to a necessary next step in the project.
  • Provide clearly defined expectations and consequences to ensure that out-of-class activities are completed at an acceptable level and in a timely manner which will appropriately inform subsequent stages of the project.
  • Include a number of smaller assignments throughout the term which contribute to the project, each one necessary in order to move forward.
  • Schedule frequent and timely formative feedback throughout the course so each student knows where he or she stands at each stage of the project.
  • Prepare to learn along with your students. Incorporating authentic learning experiences into your course can be disorienting and uncomfortable for you and your students. Your role shifts from “instructor” to “coach.” Students will come up with solutions or approaches that you have never thought of. That is a good thing, but it also means relinquishing a certain amount of control, being flexible, and adapting to circumstances – just as we do in the real world.

Facilitating the course experience

Provide opportunities

Provide opportunities for students to experience perspectives, expressions, skills and learning styles which differ from their own. Embed opportunities to examine the problem or issue from a number of theoretical, practical and interdisciplinary perspectives into the project.

Create groups composed of students with different and complementary skills sets and learning styles

  • Keep groups in the 4-6 size range. Help students identify the roles necessary to complete the project and encourage them to create teams based on the identified skills sets, or create the teams yourself. (See the CTE Tip Sheets Making Group ContractsGroup Roles: Maximizing Group Performance and Teamwork Skills: Being an Effective Group Member)
  • Emphasize that this is not the type of project that can be completed at the last minute, and success depends on the collaboration and cooperation of each group member.
  • Hold each student accountable for completing all pieces of the project. The group can then use each team member’s contribution to develop the best solution for the next stage of the project. This helps reinforce the social and collaborative nature of the project. Exposure to multiple solutions and reacting to these helps each individual develop a deeper understanding of the discipline.

Invite the experts into your classroom

  • Introduce the community partner and the project to your students early in the term. This reinforces that the project includes stakeholders beyond the instructor and the student. Students experience what it is like to work within the culture of the discipline, and the community partner is provided with a potential viable solution to an authentic problem.
  • Have appropriate on-campus partners facilitate in-class activities. The experts could include people from the writing centre, librarians, or other support units on campus depending on the skill set you want your students to develop. Having these people facilitate in-class activities introduces your students to other support people on-campus, people who can help them during and after the course.

Set performance expectations at appropriately high levels

In the first week of the course, let your students know that this course is not “business as usual”. Highlight in your course outline, in the first class, and throughout the term that the course is not lecture-based, and does not have the typical mid-term, essay, final exam, textbook-driven format. Use the language of the discipline to describe the collaborative project, and invite students to consider themselves as members of the discipline rather than “students trying to get a course mark.”

Create opportunities to discover relevance of learning through real-world applications

Explicitly outline and describe the relevance the project has to real-world performance. Explain how the project mirrors the work done by members of the discipline. Emphasize that, as in the real world, this project involves working in a social context, that is, working with others to complete a project, solve a problem, and/or address an issue.

Scaffold the project so that students expend a significant investment of time and effort over an extended period of time

  • Explain that the project involves a number of inter-related, complex tasks which must be completed in a timely manner during the term, each task contributing to the next step.
  • Review the activities and deadlines scheduled throughout the course and stress how each of these must be completed at an appropriately high level in order to move forward with the project.
  • Draw attention to the consequences of not completing activities in a timely and appropriate manner.
  • Recognize that this is a new type of learning experience for many, if not most, students and can be confusing and disruptive for them. It means moving them out of their comfort level and into an area where real learning – deep learning – can occur. Assure them that, while the solution to the project is open-ended, the structure and support needed to help them complete the project has been provided through the assignments, deadlines and feedback embedded throughout the course.

Incorporate frequent, timely and constructive feedback

  • Use formative assessment methods which reward both process and final product.
  • If possible, require students to complete work at an appropriate level before being able to move to the next stage of the project. This means providing them with feedback and the opportunity to use the feedback in order to complete the project to an accepted standard. Provide opportunities for students to assess their existing knowledge and receive suggestions for improvement. Most important, give them the opportunity to incorporate the feedback they’ve been given to help them improve future performance. (See Jill Tomasson Goodwin’s Tips and Tricks, CTE tip sheets Learner-centred assessmentMethods for assessing group work , Responding to writing assignments)
  • Consider providing feedback and marks for process under categories such as professionalism (was the submission received on time with all the components of the assignment addressed?), effort (how much and how well did the student incorporate feedback? How many rounds of feedback did it take?), and improvement (from first to last version, how much better, more professional, more original, etc. was the submission?) (See Jill Tomasson Goodwin’s Tips and Tricks)

Provide time and space for interactions with faculty and peers about substantive matters

  • Use in-class time for project work where you circulate throughout the classroom providing feedback and suggestions to groups as they work on the designated activity for that day. Help students understand how each activity contributes to the project and how to connect the various pieces.
  • Have students submit deliverables prior to the class to ensure that each student has prepared for the in-class group activity.
  • Provide feedback to the individual or group contributions online and in advance of the in-class time so that groups are able to work productively together during the class time and you are able to identify where possible problems and challenges exist. Using a ‘flipped classroom model’ can help provide the structure students need to address the open-ended nature of project, and provide the opportunity to make best use of your expertise during the class time. (For more information see Course design: planning a flipped class)

Incorporate opportunities for public demonstration of competence

  • Schedule regular in-class opportunities for students to showcase their development of competence to their classmates. Students are able to see and respond to each other’s work. Not only will they learn from each other, but also knowing that they will be presenting to their peers raises the bar and motivates students to do better work. Presenting to their classmates within the safe environment of the classroom prepares them for the final presentation they will present to the community partner.
  • Provide a rubric to help students plan for their presentation- particularly to help them prepare for the presentation to the community partner.(See the CTE Tip Sheet Rubrics: useful assessment tools)
  • As much as possible, have the presentations be typical of the types of presentations that are used within the discipline.

It often helps to see how one might go about incorporating a high quality high impact practice into a course. In this video, Jill Tomasson Goodwin shares her experience working with an on-campus partner, Scott O’Neill from uWaterloo’s Marketing and Undergraduate Recruitment department, in her DAC 300 class. Much of her experience informed this Tip Sheet.

DAC 300 is 12-week reflexive, theoretically-informed, practice-based course in User Experience Design (the art of understanding, designing, and creating an "end-to-end" experience of technology for users). The course design choices are based on a very real-world application of knowledge -- facilitated inside, and tested outside, the classroom for an actual client with a pressing need.

Professor Jill Tomasson Goodwin and her third-year Digital Arts Communication class consulted with UWaterloo’s Marketing and Undergraduate Recruitment department to design an augmented reality version of a tour brochure. To complete the project, teams of undergraduate students drew upon their knowledge of user experience design, interviewed high school students, and then iteratively prototyped a range of augmented reality experiences, all designed to engage and inform students as they visit and explore the campus. The project and technology have been so successful that UW will use augmented reality to enhance other recruitment publications.


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact. 


  • Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are. Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  • Kuh, G. D. (2008). Excerpt from “High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are,Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter”. Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  • Kuh, G. D., O’Donnell, K., & Reed, S. (2013). Ensuring quality and taking high-impact practices to scale . Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  • Lenton, R., Sidhu, R., Kaur, S., Conrad, M., Kennedy, B., Munro, Y., & Smith, R. (2014). Community Service Learning and Community-Based Learning as Approaches to Enhancing University Service Learning. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. 

  • Lombardi, M. M. (2007). Authentic learning for the 21st century: An overview. Educause learning initiative,1(2007), 1-12.
  • Integrative and Applied Learning Value Rubric (AAC&U)


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