Psychology professor brings community to the classroom

Students collaborating around table

York University psychology Professor Lesley Zannella changed things up in her recent Critical Thinking in Psychology course by offering students the opportunity to bridge the gap between classroom and community.  

In a year-long, fourth-year psychology capstone course of approximately 60 students, Zannella first helped students build the foundational skills of critical thinking during the fall term, and then allowed them to translate those skills into real-world scenarios in the winter term, through a community-based project. By engaging with community organizations, students were encouraged to critically analyze psychological research, apply theoretical knowledge to practical situations and develop creative solutions to challenges as they arose.

Lesley Zannella
Lesley Zannella

“It is important to me that students in this course not only develop the ability to be critical consumers of research in psychology but that they also develop the ability to communicate that research in an accessible way,” said Zannella.    

Working alongside Sophie Koch and Paola Calderon-Valdivia, the Faculty of Health’s experiential education co-ordinators, Zannella partnered with five local community organizations dedicated to supporting various underserved communities: the Writers Collective of Canada (WCC), Innocence Canada, the Remedy Institute, the Haven Mental Health Wellness Centre and Progress Place.

“By fostering partnerships with organizations that support underserved populations,” Zannella explained, “I sought to facilitate a collaboration between academia and the community with the shared goal to promote empathy and social change.”

Zannella divided students into 10 groups and assigned each community partner to two of the groups. In advance of the student involvement, the professor worked with each community partner to design and develop a project that responded to the needs of the organization and aligned with the learning outcomes of the course.

“One of my teaching strategies is to facilitate opportunities for students to strengthen employer-valued skills such as critical thinking, communication and collaboration” said Zannella.

Each week, students collectively worked on the community-based projects within the classroom. They also participated in three touchpoint meetings with their community partners throughout the term.

Working with Lisa Endersby, an educational developer at York’s Teaching Commons, Zannella developed an assessment structure that would provide students with the opportunity to reflect on their experience. Their reflections were overwhelmingly positive, and many indicated interest in pursuing future studies or career paths related to their community organization.

“I love the experiential learning opportunity that this project has provided me. I am applying the theoretical concepts and research processes I’ve learned within the academic space to a practical challenge,” wrote psychology honours student Megalai Thavakugathasalingam, who believes every psychology student should participate in a program like this one. “I have also been stretched to critically reflect and creatively develop a solution on behalf of the organization, which has provided me with a real chance to consider how academic research can be disseminated and benefit everyone.”

Psychology honours student Blake Haig echoed those sentiments: “This experience showed me the transformative potential of collaborative learning environments,” he said. “This class not only challenged my preconceived notions about group work but also instilled in me a new-found appreciation for the power of community in academic pursuits.” 

Shelley Lepp, CEO of collaboration partner WCC, who worked with York students to identify best practices in training for volunteer facilitators of community writing workshops, sees the value of this initiative for both parties – to help establish relationships that will lay the groundwork for future progress.

“As a charitable arts-health organization deeply committed to alleviating isolation and loneliness for those most vulnerable, we know these students will one day be our partners on the front lines,” she said. “Connecting with them in this context and in this moment empowers us both to understand how clinical and community supports can work together to improve mental well-being for all.”