How to build Community Engagement into the Curriculum – key principles to support lecturers

This blogpost summarises a set of principles for supporting lecturers to build Community Engaged Research and Learning into their teaching. The principles were devised by a group of lecturers, community partners, students, and community engagement coordinators, all interested in community engagement in the curriculum in higher education, beginning with a participatory workshop at the 9th Living Knowledge Conference 2022 in Groningen. The workshop was about effectively designing professional development programmes to support lecturers to build Community Engaged Research and Learning (CERL) into the curriculum. It was facilitated by members of the Erasmus+ CIRCLET project team, together with lecturers who were participants in the CIRCLET Continuing Professional Development programmes.[1]

During the workshop, the CIRCLET team facilitated a discussion on how we can most effectively design supports for lecturers to build Community Engaged Research and Learning (CERL) into their teaching. A brief case study on the CIRCLET newly designed supports for lecturers across Europe was presented. After introducing the new supports and describing the thinking behind them, facilitators asked participants to think about what they had learned from any supports or initiatives they had been involved in (either as coordinators or participants), and from their own experiences of doing, or supporting, CERL.

Through individual reflection and sharing of experiences, during the workshop and afterwards in a collaborative writing process, the participants and facilitators collectively developed the following diagram and Key Principles to guide and support lecturers starting to build CERL into their teaching. We hope you will find them useful!

[1] CIRCLET was an Erasmus+ Strategic Partnership project. The project aimed to strengthen capacity among higher education lecturers to improve learning outcomes for students by rethinking curricula to incorporate CERL, with an online dimension. As part of the CIRCLET project partners developed two Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programmes for lecturers: An innovative on-line accredited postgraduate module and local year-long learning circles. All the resources produced by CIRCLET to support CERL can be found at


Figure 1 – The circles of CERL (Community Engaged Research and Learning)



The first step in any CERL project is a conversation – with your CERL support team, with a lecturing colleague who’s doing CERL, or with a community partner who you think you might like to work with, and might like to work with you.

Make time and space to work together with CERL community partners, and to clarify a common vision.

Clarify the concept of partnership – make sure to form reciprocal partnerships that don’t reproduce the same old knowledge hierarchies.

Build a sense of trust and security in partnership with all participants – conscious awareness of differences and common purposes, combined with heart.

Engage management colleagues at the planning stages – to enhance the culture of the university by including societal impact as a core value or goal, not just in research strategies but also in teaching and learning strategies.

Look for support in your discipline. Share experiences with others, informally or in coaching or mentoring relationships.

Start small – be clear about the scope and scale of the project – this will make it sustainable. If you feel that the project is unmanageable, it will probably never happen.

Time and workload pressures – on lecturers and on community partners – can be a particular challenge when starting a CERL project, which is why it’s so important to keep things manageable. Trying to do too much too fast, taking on too ambitious a project, not feeling ready for CERL, and lacking necessary supports, can all contribute to a CERL project having less than satisfactory outcomes for all participants.

Try CERL during your early career, and also start it in the early years of the undergraduate curriculum – then you can progress to multi- and inter-disciplinary CERL projects.

Support at the very beginning, along with knowledge and understanding from senior management regarding CERL, is key to getting lecturers at all grades involved.

For coordinators: Start with enthusiasts, and open doors for them. Build CERL into early career lecturers’ training in teaching practices – emphasise that it’s about facilitating more than teaching. Case studies or CERL mentors could give insight, a greater scope and knowledge to those who are developing new projects within the different faculties of the university. Pedagogical supports/coaching are invaluable for new lecturers to provide insights into how to do CERL.

Be aware that lecturers may not have a choice about implementing CERL – they may not be allowed to do it, or they may be required to do it regardless of experience or preference. Another challenge is the cost associated with some CERL projects e.g. resources for science demos. This needs the support of school executive to ensure that it remains sustainable within a programme.

Ensure everyone is ready and able to participate – community partners, students, and the lecturers themselves. If the students feel unclear about what CERL involves, what’s expected of them and what the purpose of a CERL project is, showing them some examples of CERL in different disciplines prior to launching a CERL project could be helpful. Case studies of CERL projects can be found on the CIRCLET website.

Making sure that students understand that the priority requirement from them is to deliver their best effort, and that the outcome should follow – this is important for setting expectations about what constitutes a successful CERL project.

Develop common understanding of key terms and language (e.g. in interdisciplinary work). There can be challenges in involving natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities together with communities, but the outcomes for everyone can be well worth it!

Focus on the inputs and processes for collaboration, and useful outcomes should emerge.

Assessment drives student learning, so your choice of assessment method, and the detailed brief you provide, will help clarify what is expected of the students. Think about how you can assess the students’ work effectively, to support rather than negate the co-creation skills that you are encouraging them to build. Can you co-create an assignment? Do you have to give grades or could you use pass/fail approaches, or an open badge system? How might you involve the community partner in the assessment (in a way that works for them). Examples of assessment types might be demonstrations/hands-on activities; video assignments; infographics; reflections (individual or groupwork), using canva…

Reflection is such an important component of CERL and sometimes lecturers don’t have that background in reflective practice, to fully grasp its importance, or feel they have the skills or tools to support students to develop in this way. Useful resources on reflection can be found in section 3 of the CIRCLET themed resource lists for CERL.

This will require unlearning some of the existing ways that people do things, and how people behave, in order to develop new skills and approaches.

The hyper-competitiveness/individualism of some contexts in Higher Education can discourage collaboration, for example, and it may feel as if there is no support for CERL in some universities. Gatekeepers (such as someone who has a contact in a relevant community organisation, but doesn’t want to share it) can actively block progress. CERL coordinators and lecturers who find themselves working in this kind of environment will need to find ways to sustain themselves and work collaboratively despite this prevailing culture.

Raise awareness and the visibility of CERL activities. Make sure people recognise and own their achievements and the collective achievements of the partnership.

Model the values of CERL. Make the skills involved in CERL visible for people, colleagues, senior management. Ensure that what people are doing is valued and recognised.

Work with people who want to work with you, building a sense of community in small and big ways to develop, create, and sustain work.

Your partnership with your community partner allies will also be a support.

Champions/ambassadors can help and have a snowballing effect, building a community internally in the university. There is so much more potential in this work if those involved in it are connected and collaborating rather than doing CERL in isolation in different areas of the university.

There is also a need for CERL to be properly embedded in the university curriculum and structures in order to make it sustainable, and it will take partnership work to achieve this. Rather than CERL projects being tied to and dependent on just one member of staff, we need to work together with colleagues to make sure they are built into the curriculum and in Departments, Schools or Faculties.

If you found this blogpost interesting, and would like to join a discussion about it, please do post your comments and ideas on this wiki.


Catherine Bates (TU Dublin), Sinead McCann (TU Dublin), Caroline McGowan (TU Dublin), Judit Gaspar (Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary), Emma McKenna (Queen’s University Belfast, UK), Aleida Giralte (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Spain), Gareth Tribello (Queen’s University Belfast, UK), Leanne Harris (TU Dublin), Shannon Dickson (TU Dublin), Saskia Postema (TU Delft), Ruth Unstead-Joss (University College London (UCL)), Thomas Farnell (Institute for the Development of Education, Croatia), Maelíosa Mc Crudden (Queen’s University Belfast, UK), Margaret Gold (Leiden University, Netherlands)