Teaching Community-based Learning and Research (CBL&R) in Times of COVID-19

Kankana MUKHOPADHYAY and Angie TAN
College of Alice and Peter Tan (CAPT)

Kankana and Angie share their experience of restructuring learning activities within their community-based learning and research (CBL&R) module to ensure learning continuity for their students.

Photo courtesy of Anna Shvets from Pexels

We teach a module called “Understanding Communities: Theories and Practice” in one of the residential colleges at NUS. The module helps students to critically understand the issues facing marginalised and/or vulnerable communities by providing them with opportunities to actively engage with a selected community. Students are equipped with the basic concepts and skills of community-based research (CBR) which they apply to better understand a programme or policy through collaborating on group projects with community partners. The module’s intended learning outcomes include developing an in-depth understanding of ethical issues, promoting systematic inquiry outside the classroom, and enabling knowledge creation via collaboration with community partners. Partner collaborations are key in creating in-depth community-based experiences for students. Much time is invested in visiting the organisations to identify and investigate a problem relevant to the partner. Students gather data and build relationships through ethnographic observations, informal conversations and formal interviews with community members, and at the end of the semester, they share their findings with the community partners.

Teaching this module during the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us valuable lessons. We truly appreciated what it means for instructors teaching community-based learning and research (CBL&R) to tolerate higher levels of uncertainty and messiness than most kinds of teaching (Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoecker, & Donohue, 2003). We started the semester with three partners who work with the following communities: the elderly, people with intellectual disability, and youths. Then, along came COVID-19! By Week 4, all field visits were cancelled and (re)structuring CBL&R became a challenge.

We were confronted with two vital questions: a) how to implement an online-based CBL&R where students can still learn from the experience; and b) how to create appropriate opportunities within students’ capacities to work with community partners and produce results useful to the community?

To address these questions, we decided the best strategy would be to remain true to CBL&R’s teaching philosophies—relationship and reciprocity. Below, we share how we strategised these philosophies and the resultant outcomes.

Relationships With Our Partners

CBL&R requires active learning pedagogies that allow instructors to venture outside their teaching-related comfort zones and rethink their assumptions regarding control over what is taught and how it is taught (Ginsberg, 2010). The emphasis on collaboration and cooperation over hierarchy is crucial to CBL&R (Strand et. al., 2003). We realised our greatest strength was in the relationship established with our partners. Sustaining an open and honest communication with them in restructuring CBL&R would be the module’s best strategy. We discussed with our partners and requested their help in co-creating CBL&R in an online format. Of the three community partners, the partner who worked with people with intellectual disability decided to continue the collaboration. We added the following new features which ensured continuity of learning:

  • several of the partner organisation’s day activity centres were opened for students to conduct their study online;
  • the partner provided one broad research question that was relevant across all the organisation’s centres; and
  • staff from the different centres participated in remote interviews with the students.


Evidence indicates that CBL&R produces a variety of positive attitudinal, interpersonal, and academic learning outcomes (Porpora, 1999). However, we also observed that the motivation to learn through CBL&R is tied to the reciprocity element—the possibility that the research has a purpose beyond simply mastering course materials. Keeping this in mind, we introduced a new element in the module. The students in their respective groups had to develop a survey based on their primary (interviews) and secondary (literature and organisations’ online information) data that they would then share with the partner to use. By doing this, students developed a sense of competency, responsibility, and ownership towards their projects.

Resultant Outcomes

We witnessed how students were invigorated by a heightened sense of purpose when they realised how the results will be used. They took care to ensure their study was done properly and their findings were appropriately tied back to the survey questions. At the end of the module, we were able to collectively provide seven different surveys, constructed from the significant findings of 14 interviews, that our partner can use to further investigate the issue. Students also benefited by gaining experience in remote interviewing and constructing surveys in CBR. In their final reflections, students also mentioned how COVID-19 affected their learning journey in this module—words like “adaptability” and “flexibility” came up consistently in these essays.

Students presenting their findings on Zoom.
Photo courtesy of Angie TAN

CBL&R enables students to learn about people with life chances, experiences and worldviews different from themselves (Dallimore, Rochefort & Simonelli, 2010). COVID-19 added an authentic learning component to CBL&R as students experienced first-hand that situations seldom proceed as neatly as depicted in the textbooks, and good researchers need to be accommodating and embrace uncertainty and change.


We would like to express our sincere gratitude to our community partner, SUN-DAC, for their support and collaboration in the module. Our deepest appreciation also to our students for their patience and cooperation during this learning journey. Last but not least, our sincere thanks to CDTL for this opportunity to write about our experience and helping to shape the write up with multiple edits and feedback.


Kankana MUKHOPADHYAY is a Lecturer and a Resident Fellow at the College of Alice & Peter Tan (CAPT). She values co-construction of knowledge, and teaching and doing research in the living-and-learning environment of CAPT for the past 5 years have allowed her to engage students actively in their own learning. Her background is in education and human development and her current research interests are in informal and out-of-classroom learning in higher education.

Kankana can be reached at kankana.m@nus.edu.sg.

Angie TAN is an Instructor and a Fellow at CAPT. She believes in the value of experiential learning and strives to incorporate elements of experiential learning when designing her lessons to create opportunities where students can learn through discovery and exploration.

Angie can be reached at angietan@nus.edu.sg.


Dallimore, E., Rochefort, D. A. & Simonelli, K. (2010). Community-based learning and research. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2010(124), 15-22. https://doi.org/10.1002/tl.416

Ginsburg, M. B. (2010). Improving educational quality through active learning pedagogies: A comparison of five case studies. Educational Research, 1(3), 62-74. Retrieved from https://www.interesjournals.org/articles/improving-educational-quality-through-activelearningpedagogiesa-comparison-of-five-case-studies.pdf.

Porpora, D. (1999). Action research: The highest stage of service-learning. In J. Ostrow, G. Hesser & S. Enos (Eds.), Cultivating the Sociological Imagination: Concepts and Models for Service-learning. Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education.

Hesser & S. Enos (eds.), Cultivating the sociological imagination: Concepts and models for service-learning. Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education.

Strand, K., Marullo, S., Cutforth, N., Stoecker, R. & Donohue, P. (2003) Community-based research and higher education: Principles and practices. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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