Academic journal article Peer Review

The Scope of BTtoP Research: Design and Findings from the Demonstration Project

Academic journal article Peer Review

The Scope of BTtoP Research: Design and Findings from the Demonstration Project

Article excerpt

The Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP) project seeks the advancement of knowledge and the establishment of best practices centered in the BTtoP triangularity of engaged learning, student mental health and well-being, and civic development. Since its inception, BTtoP has established an aggressive research agenda through systematically evaluating funded projects that intentionally address this triangularity. The most substantial research effort in this vein is the BTtoP demonstration project, for which this article discusses the development and design of a research approach, encapsulates findings to date, and describes future research directions.

Conceptual Framework

Extensive review of the literature (Swaner 2007) identified suggestions as to linkages between engaged learning, student mental health and well-being, and civic development. First, at the outcomes level, correlations have been identified between elements of engaged learning (e.g., involvement in group projects and interaction with faculty) and self-report of better emotional health (Astin 1993), and between student participation in pro-social activities (such as community service) and lower rates of heavy drinking (Wechsler et al. 1995, Jessor et al. 1995, Fenzel 2005). On a theoretical level, research on stress in academic environments has demonstrated that while moderate levels of environmental stress can lead to optimal performance, extreme levels of stress can lead to "anger, fatigue, anxiety, fear, depression, or boredom" (Whitman, Spendlove, and Clark 1986). This would suggest that if engaged learning can optimize stress levels for students, better emotional health may result. Additionally, because students' level of moral development has been negatively correlated with substance abuse and other selfinjurious behaviors (Berkowitz 2000), engagedlearning experiences that promote moral development may help reduce these behaviors. Finally, in a developmental view of students' health behaviors, both depression and substance abuse can result from developmental overchallenge posed by the college environment (Rivinus 1992). Thus, counterbalancing challenges with support may improve students' health, as might equalizing levels of freedom and responsibility by increasing students' "social responsibilities through community work" (Schulenberg and Maggs 2001, 33).

Given these potential linkages, the project began to formulate its central research goal to explore and describe the relationships between engaged learning, student mental health and well-being, and civic development. It was understood at the project's inception that engaged learning would most likely not constitute a silver bullet for either depression or substance abuse, but that there was also enough preliminary evidence to consider engaged learning as a promising community-level approach worthy of systematic investigation. The central challenge of this effort is to conduct inquiry that is multivariate, contextual, and time sensitive in nature.

Multivariate Inquiry

Due to the complexity of BTtoP's triangularity, project research necessarily extends beyond the traditional focus on one or two research variables to a multiplicity of variables that are psychological (motivation, self-concept, and selfesteem), affective (empathy and caring), values-related (moral and civic), and social, among others. Additionally, there is the largely unanswered question of whether and how these variables actually influence student behavior.

This is particularly true in the case of mental health and well-being, as much is still unknown about the interplay between genetic, psychological, and environmental factors in students' experiences of depression and substance abuse in college. This includes whether students have any history of problems or previous diagnoses and whether students experience "collateral events" that may impact outcomes. For example, joining a fraternity or sorority has been correlated with higher levels of binge drinking, and the disruption of interpersonal relationships can lead to an increase in depressive symptoms. …

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