David J. Fleming, Furman University, and Price St. Clair, Furman University
Many universities and university towns are becoming increasingly popular as retirement destinations for senior citizens. The AARP estimates that at least 80 universities have collaborated with continuing-care retirement communities. In addition to these senior living communities, older adults are also welcomed on college campuses via “lifelong learning” programs. More than 125 colleges and universities across America currently partner with the Bernard Osher Foundation to sponsor Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (OLLI). Programs like OLLI provide non-credit academic courses and other learning opportunities for participants. The senior adults in communities like these explicitly choose to be a part of them and tend to be genuinely interested in learning and taking advantage of their proximity to college campuses. These trends provide opportunities for university partnerships that can benefit undergraduate students and promote intergenerational learning. In this article, we describe our experiences over six semesters in which undergraduate students completed a research assignment that included an opportunity for the participation of senior adults in the data collection phase and as attendees at a research poster presentation event. We also present descriptive survey results that highlight students’ interest in including senior adults in class activities.
Brief Description of the Assignment
All Politics and International Affairs (PIA) majors at Furman University are required to take Introduction to Political Analysis, which covers various approaches to the study of political science, research methods, and statistics up to multivariate regression. A semester-long group research project for the course is the focus of this article.
Earlier iterations of this class included a research poster presentation that involved different sections of the course, and all PIA majors were invited. Outside of students in the class, attendance was often quite low, and the event did not appropriately reflect the amount of work the Political Analysis students put into their projects. Around this time, a colleague had a discussion with a representative from the Woodlands at Furman, a senior living retirement community that is adjacent to Furman’s campus, about getting more interaction between Furman students and residents at the Woodlands. To create a better research poster event and an opportunity for intergenerational connections, instructors of the Political Analysis class began partnering with the Woodlands at Furman and Furman’s OLLI program, which provides classes, social events, and service opportunities for over 2,600 local senior adults.1
The research project assignment begins early in the semester. After reviewing what makes a good research question and the different types of data collection procedures, we ask each student in the class to submit possible research questions. Students then give their preferences among the research ideas and are assigned to groups of 2-4.
Students then consider how to go about examining their research question. In the past, students have interviewed community leaders, performed content analyses of social media posts, and created and implemented their own surveys. Over the next few weeks of class, we work with each of the groups to ensure that their data collection is going smoothly, including assisting with IRB approval. The research project culminates with a poster presentation where we provide guidance and resources on poster construction (see Powner 2015).
Using Senior Adult Community Members as Potential Research Subjects
One way to include senior adults in this research project is as study participants. Two years ago, one group surveyed both Furman students and OLLI members in order to draw comparisons. They created an online survey that was distributed by group members to Furman students and by the OLLI administration to their members. This group received over 450 responses with approximately 250 coming from OLLI members.. Given that the nearest polling location to Furman’s campus is at the Woodlands, Political Analysis students have also collected election exit polling data at the Woodlands for their posters. Most voters at this location are Furman students or residents of the retirement community. Another possibility is for students to collect qualitative data from senior adults via interviews or focus groups. Not only does access to OLLI and retirement community members increase the sample size of the analyses, but the students and senior adults also enjoyed seeing the results on topics that were directly applicable to them. For example, one Political Analysis group examined support for marijuana legalization and received many comments from senior adults about how this topic brought back memories from their college days. Another group used survey data from students and OLLI members to examine political polarization, which sparked discussions between students and senior adults about how political parties have changed since the 1960s.
Including Senior Adults at the Poster Presentation Event
The culmination of the research project assignment is a research poster presentation hosted by The Woodlands or OLLI. The Woodlands and OLLI promote the poster presentations with emails to their members and flyers in their buildings. The poster presentation event operates like an academic conference, as the senior adults and Political Analysis students walk around the room and discuss the posters with the presenters. The event typically lasts 1-1.5 hours, and between 30-50 senior adults usually attend the event. After the event, the PIA department keeps the posters and displays them throughout the academic year to promote and celebrate the work done by students in the class.
Evaluation of the Research Project Assignment
While Political Analysis students have often commented that they enjoyed the poster presentation experience in student evaluations, we believed that a more direct investigation into the efficacy of this assignment was warranted. We emailed an online survey to all students that were taking the Political Analysis class in spring 2020 (n = 29) and to all other PIA majors (n = 170) to examine student attitudes toward intergenerational learning and the poster event.
First, we examined how common intergenerational learning is. We asked all survey respondents, “Thinking about your educational experiences in and out of schools, how often have you been in a learning environment with different age groups (e.g., young adults, middle-aged people, senior citizens; excluding teachers & professors)?” Students stated that they do not have many formal intergenerational learning opportunities. Approximately 56% of respondents said that they are never or rarely in a learning environment with members of different age groups. Students indicated that they were more likely to be in a learning environment with people from different races, political ideologies, and income levels, than people of different age groups.2
Our second research question focused on students’ experiences with the poster presentation. We asked students who participated in the poster event a series of questions to investigate if this assignment was worth the effort. Students generally had positive attitudes toward the inclusion of senior adults in the poster presentations (Table 1). Students were asked if presenting their “research to an audience of older adults, rather than to my peers, made the experience more enjoyable.” Thirty percent strongly agreed and another 40% somewhat agreed. Over 70% of respondents agreed that presenting their research to senior adults rather than their peers made them take the assignment more seriously. When asked if the PIA department should continue working with OLLI and the Woodlands members as part of the poster event, over two-thirds of students strongly agreed that it should be continued. It is possible that this experience also enhanced their interest in intergenerational learning in other areas. Almost three-fourths of students who participated in the poster presentation agreed that “professors should try to include older adults like those at OLLI or the Woodlands in other types of class projects or activities.”
We encourage instructors to consider other possible intergenerational learning opportunities with senior adults in nearby retirement communities or who participate in university-affiliated lifelong learning programs. Classes on political socialization, civil rights, social movements, and many other areas could benefit from having senior adults included. Besides providing an opportunity for students to learn from people with first-hand experience of many important political events and trends, these types of interactions have been found to empower students, improve students’ leadership skills, and promote intercultural learning and intergenerational solidarity (Corrigan et al. 2013; Lawrence-Jacobson 2006).
Table 1: Views on Inclusion of Senior Adults in Poster Presentations
|Senior Adults Made it More Enjoyable||Senior Adults Made Me Take in More Seriously||Keep This Assignment||Include Senior Adults in Other Assignments|
|Neither agree nor disagree||24.24||11.94||10.61||15.15|
Based on our experiences, opportunities for continued learning is a major reason why many of these senior adults choose to participate in university-affiliated programs and communities. While sustained interactions throughout a semester between undergraduate and senior adults have been found to lead to positive outcomes (e.g., Corrigan et al. 2013), we believe that even one-off activities with senior adults are worthwhile. Our students are interested in participating in more intergenerational learning opportunities and believe that learning with senior adults provides a unique benefit to them. Given the increasing number of university-affiliated programs throughout the country, political scientists should make the most out of these opportunities for intergenerational learning.
1 The coronavirus pandemic put a halt to this activity, but we hope to continue this event in future semesters.
2 This result is largely due to the fact that Furman is a residential, four-year university with the vast majority of students aged 18-22. The student bodies of other colleges and universities may certainly have more age diversity than Furman does.
Corrigan, Trudy, Gerry Mcnamara, and Joe O’Hara. 2013. “Intergenerational Learning: A Valuable Learning Experience for Higher Education Students.” Eurasian Journal of Educational Research 52: 117-136.
Lawrence-Jacobson, Abigail R. 2006. “Intergenerational Community Action and Youth Empowerment.” Journal of Intergenerational Relationships 4 (1): 137–47. https://doi.org/10.1300/J194v04n01_15.
Powner, Leanne C. 2015. Empirical Research and Writing: A Political Science Student’s Practical Guide. CQ Press.
David J. Fleming is an associate professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University.
Price St. Clair is a Class of 2022 graduate of Furman University.
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