Psychology students embrace leadership course

When Claire Crawford stood to lead a PSYC 1F90 seminar for the first time, she was unsure where to start. Only a few years removed from taking the course herself, Crawford felt more like she should be sitting in the seats rather than leading the discussion. But that would soon change.

Achieving a healthy balance between her ongoing Psychology studies and her new leadership role has allowed the 22-year-old Niagara Falls native to embrace a rare opportunity during her undergraduate studies — leading seminars in a year-long experiential learning opportunity.

Claire Crawford

Crawford, along with 18 other upper-year students, is participating in the University’s full-year Facilitating Communication and Critical Thinking in Groups course, which sees the class developing and examining the skill set necessary to lead group discussion as well as practically implementing these lessons by facilitating seminars for students in the first-year Introduction to Psychology course.

The dual role demands about 10 hours of in-class time per week, split between seminar leadership and in-class exercises, but also pays students for their efforts and provides employment experience for their resumés.

For Crawford, the opportunity to work as a facilitator and examine concepts related to the psychology of human learning, including the importance of student engagement and asking good questions, as well as active versus passive learning, has led to some takeaways that will stay with her long after the semester ends.

“In the seminar, we practically apply theories while also learning skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and thinking on your feet — all things you don’t necessarily develop in a normal course,” she said. “All of those skills are really important for employers. Some people come out of their degree only knowing facts, but this experience sets us apart because we know how to communicate and lead as well.”

Experiential learning exercises, like leading seminars, have become an integral part of most programs at Brock, and their importance within the Psychology program was reinforced by the course’s professor, Tanya Martini.

“You can do lots of reading, but until you go out there and try to execute, it’s difficult to fully appreciate those skills in practice,” Martini said. “The course forces our facilitators to stretch themselves beyond the abstract to deal with the messiness of trying to apply the skills they have been reading and writing about.”

Crawford encountered the ‘messiness’ that Martini mentioned first-hand when she entered her first seminar last fall.

“At the start, I felt a bit like a chicken with its head cut off,” she said. “I had never been in a situation where I needed to lead a seminar before, and I felt like the students were expecting me to be a genius. But as we progressed together, I was able to reflect on and learn what skills worked best for me and the students in each seminar.”

The course also aimed to help seminar facilitators develop an enhanced appreciation of diversity, which Martini said is an important goal of any undergraduate Psychology course.

“Sometimes those differences are obvious to us,” she said. “But we also spend a fair amount of time talking about the invisible ways that students differ, including learning disabilities, mental health issues and sexual orientation, and how all of those characteristics can influence their learning and their participation in seminar.”

As she grew in her role, Crawford embraced the different responsibilities that leading a room full of diverse first-year students can bring.

“I try to have a healthy balance between being a role model and a peer facilitator,” she said. “I want to be there to guide them.”

Martini said Crawford is a great example of the outlook and approach the course’s professors are looking for in seminar facilitators, but that many personality types can succeed in the role.

“When we first started putting the course together, I made the mistake of thinking that we would have only extroverts,” she said. “But all types of people find this to be a valuable experience and they can all be incredibly successful. We try to give everyone sufficient training so no one feels like they are being thrown in.”

Crawford, who will graduate this spring, has used the experience of seminar facilitation and other course exercises, such as peer evaluation and preparing a 15-minute Ted-Ed talk, to consider new possibilities for her own life.

“I got to know myself better as a person and as a student,” she said. “And, because I enjoyed the facilitation portion so much, I now think that a position of leadership could be a realistic goal for my future.”

As she nears the end of her studies, Crawford is already planning to use the training and skills she has learned to make her goal a reality.

“I understand how valuable experiential education exercises like the one offered in the course can be,” she said. “I’m prepared for the practicum and teaching elements that come in the master’s programs I’ve applied for, as well as how to best communicate my own skills and ideas in the workplace.”

Having seen such beneficial change in herself through the course’s exercises, Crawford hopes that others will take the same step she did and apply to take part in the course next year.

“It’s a unique opportunity that not every university offers to their students,” she said. “If you have the chance to participate in the course, I would absolutely recommend it. It sets you apart in the professional world and shows that Brock is leading the way when it comes to experiential learning.”

Any undergraduate student who completed PSYC 1F90, regardless of their major, can apply for the hands-on course.

Those interested in learning more about the PSYC 3F01 Facilitating Communication and Critical Thinking in Groups course are invited to visit the course’s website.

Application instructions can be found in the How To Apply” section of the course site. Applications, including all supporting documentation, must be submitted by Monday, April 30 at 5 p.m.

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