Campus Community Involvement in an Experimental Food Research Project Increases Students' Motivation and Improves Perceived Learning Outcomes

Authors


Abstract

ABSTRACT:  Although the effects of pedagogical strategies using collaborative learning on students' perceived learning outcomes have been studied, little has been examined about possible benefits and challenges in collaborating with the campus community in a food science research project conducted by nutrition majors. We examined the effects of involving foodservice staff and student consumers on perceived learning outcomes of students in nutrition and food sciences. A survey consisting of both quantitative and qualitative questions regarding the students' perceived learning outcomes was conducted with 58 undergraduate nutrition majors who conducted experimental food research as part of their food science course work. Quantitative data were analyzed using descriptive statistics. The qualitative data were coded and analyzed using Nvivo. Approximately 90% of the study participants perceived that contributing to the health of students/faculty on campus positively enhanced their motivation toward their research project. The practical aspect of the research project, developing food that is/can be offered on campus, was also considered to be an important factor affecting students' motivation. These factors seemed to contribute to the quality of the project and their perceived learning outcomes. On the other hand, some challenges related to collaborating with the campus community, including insufficient communication between the student researchers and panelists, were also identified. Involving the campus community in experimental food research appeared to greatly benefit students' learning. At the same time, a more strategic pedagogical design before, during, and after the course work may be required for successful learning outcomes resulting from collaborating with the campus community.

Introduction

Collaborative learning is defined as “an instruction method in which students work in groups toward a common academic goal” (Gokhale 1995). The common characteristics of collaborative learning include peer learning and teaching. O'Donnell (2006) argues that most people learn what they want to know from asking others. Active learning is another important characteristic of collaborative learning since “students learn best when they are actively involved in the process” (Davis 2002). Johnson and others (2007) argue that cooperative learning, a special kind of collaborative learning derived from social interdependence theory (Deutsch 1962) promotes positive (cooperation) interdependence among students to achieve the goals. The close relationship between theory, research, and practice in the cooperative learning approach has contributed to its success in increasing student learning outcomes (Johnson and others 2007).

Social science professors and medical/nursing professionals employ the collaborative learning approach for their pedagogy and clinical training (O'Donnell 2006; Welch and Dawson 2006; Shuster and others 2007). In the field of food science, while the promising use of collaborative learning has been reported (Reitmeier 2002), relatively little is known about its effects on students' perceived learning outcomes.

The concept of collaborative learning can be well applied in undergraduate food science courses because these classes typically involve group assignments such as food product development projects. Subsequently, these projects could positively impact the general public. For example, developing or modifying a food product that had a significant reduction in calories could potentially support consumer weight loss over time. Such an impact may greatly influence students' motivation to actively participate in the project.

To capture the wants and needs of the potential campus consumers, students majoring in nutrition met with campus foodservice dining staff in an informal meeting. The staff expressed their concern about the nutrition quality of foods consumed by college students. In addition, a recent university study determined that females wanted more nutritious foods on campus and would be willing to pay more for nutritious foods (Levi and others 2006). Therefore, we attempted to further expand the traditional collaborative learning concept by working with the campus community directly. It was thought that the application of the research project in a “real” setting and improving the nutrition quality of campus community foods would further facilitate collaborative learning among students and the campus community. In addition, this unique project aimed to motivate these students to actively participate in the projects.

Research has shown that involvement outside of the classroom, such as in the food industry, can provide students with the opportunity to apply knowledge to real-world situations (Dori and Tal 2000; Ackerman and others 2002; Crutsinger and others 2004). On the other hand, little has been understood of how the theory of collaborative learning, which has generally been seen in the classroom, can be applied to student-community collaborative learning outside of the classroom. Therefore, the objectives of this exploratory study were (1) to examine the effects of campus community (foodservice staff and student consumer) involvement on perceived learning outcomes for nutrition students and (2) to identify the challenges and opportunities by involving the campus community in an experimental food research project. This may contribute to further understanding the concept of student-community collaborative learning.

Materials and Methods

Experimental food research project

The experimental food research project was a large component of a 3-unit food science course required among 58 undergraduate nutrition students (1 male and 57 females) in a medium-size northern California university. The students were required to spend 3 h of laboratory work per week for this project. After meeting with campus foodservice staff during the 1st week, the students formed groups consisting of 3 to 5 students each and selected a food product commonly offered on campus that they wanted to modify to make it more nutritious. On the 2nd and 3rd week, literature was reviewed to become familiar with the science of the food product each group had chosen, and a research proposal was developed by each group. The students then spent 4 to 5 wk on recipe modification as well as practicing a variety of sensory and objective methods that fit their group's research questions concerning the quality and consumer acceptance of their products. Specifically, the student researchers compared the quality and consumer acceptance between the original product and a more nutritious/healthful product they had modified. Sensory evaluations of their modified products, primarily using discrimination tests and acceptance tests, were conducted for the next 2 to 3 wk with foodservice staff and campus community consumers consisting of 40 to 85 students, faculty, and staff. The sensory and objective data were analyzed and the research results were reported orally and in the form of a research manuscript.

Study design

At the end of the course, the 58 students participated in individual evaluation surveys. The survey consisted of both quantitative and qualitative questions (Table 1). The quantitative questions reflected desired outcomes of this collaborative project. These questions included 3 quantitative questions regarding 3 perceived learning outcomes (Q1a, Q1b, and Q1c), 2 quantitative questions regarding active peer learning in groups (Q2a and Q2b), 1 quantitative question regarding contribution to nutritional quality (Q3a), and 2 quantitative questions regarding campus community involvement (Q4a and Q4b). Four qualitative questions (Q5a, Q5b, Q5c, and Q5d) were included to identify the challenges and opportunities of involving the campus community in the project. Some questions were modified from those by Reitmeier (2002). In addition, there were questions regarding the research process, such as the literature review and statistical analysis. A 5-point Likert scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” was used for each quantitative question. Although the survey participation was voluntary, none of the students declined to participate in the survey. This study was approved by the Human Subjects Committee at California State Univ. (Chico, Calif.).

Table 1—.  Quantitative and qualitative survey questions regarding perceived learning outcomes, active peer learning in groups, contribution to nutritional quality, and campus community involvement (n = 58).
Q1.Quantitative questions regarding learning outcomesQ1a. I feel confident about using food science and research concepts in my future job. (Application of research concept.)
Q1b. I can apply my knowledge of food science to solve problems in nutrition and dietetics. (Knowledge for problem solving.)
Q1c. I have sufficient knowledge of food science concepts to interpret research data. (Knowledge for research interpretation.)
Q2. Quantitative questions regarding active peer learning in groupsQ2a. My group resolved conflicts effectively.
Q2b. Members of my group contributed equal (but maybe different) efforts to the research project.
Q3. Quantitative question regarding contribution to nutrition qualityQ3a. Developing food that can contribute to the health of students/faculty on campus significantly enhanced my motivation toward our research project.
Q4. Quantitative questions regarding campus community involvementQ4a. Modifying/developing food that is/can be offered on campus contributed to enhancing my motivation toward our research project.
Q4b. Involving the campus community (that is, foodservice staff and students) in our research project significantly contributed to the quality of the project.
Q5. Qualitative questionsQ5a. How effectively did your group work together on the product development project?
Q5b. Describe 1 example of something you learned from the campus community members who collaborated with your group.
Q5c. Describe 1 example of something the campus community members learned from you that they probably would not have learned otherwise.
Q5d. Please suggest 1 change the class could make to improve its collaboration with the campus community.

Data analysis

All quantitative data were analyzed using SPSS 15.0 (SPSS Inc., Chicago, Ill., 2005). Descriptive statistics were used to examine distribution of ratings for each quantitative question. Spearman's rank correlation coefficient was used to examine relationships between 2 variables. The significance level was set at P = 0.05.

Nvivo 7 (QSR Intl., Melbourne, Australia), a qualitative data analysis software program, was used for qualitative data management and analysis. Answers to the qualitative data were coded independently by the 2 authors based on the principles of grounded theory (Strauss and Corbin 1998; Charmaz 2000). Preidentified and newly identified themes from the codebook were compared and synthesized across the qualitative data. In addition, negative cases were assessed to identify exceptions in the data and explore alternative hypotheses to primary findings (Patton 1990).

Results and Discussion

Table 2 presents the mean scores for quantitative questions regarding perceived learning outcomes, active peer learning in groups, contribution to nutritional quality, and campus community involvement (Q1 to Q4). The high mean scores (around 4 out of 5) indicate positive effects of the project on student motivation, active learning, and perceived learning outcomes.

Table 2—.  Mean scores for quantitative questions regarding perceived learning outcomes, active peer learning in groups, contribution to nutritional quality, and campus community involvement (n = 58).
QuestionMean (± Standard Deviation)*
  1. *A 5-point Likert scale ranging from “strongly disagree” (1) to “strongly agree” (5) was used for each quantitative question.

Q1a. I feel confident about using food science and research concepts in my future job. (Application of research concept.)3.97 (± 0.90)
Q1b. I can apply my knowledge of food science to solve problems in nutrition and dietetics. (Knowledge for problem solving.)4.00 (± 0.86)
Q1c. I have sufficient knowledge of food science concepts to interpret research data. (Knowledge for research interpretation.)4.05 (± 0.83)
Q2b. Members of my group contributed equal (but maybe different) efforts to the research project.4.05 (± 1.23)
Q3a. Developing food that can contribute to the health of students/faculty on campus significantly enhanced my motivation toward our research project.4.45 (± 0.73)
Q4a. Modifying/developing food that is/can be offered on campus contributed to enhancing my motivation toward our research project.4.38 (± 813)  
Q4b. Involving the campus community (that is, foodservice staff and students) in our research project significantly contributed to the quality of the project.4.00 (± 1.01)

Student motivation and project quality

Approximately 90% of all students (N = 58) agreed or strongly agreed with the statements about increased student motivation toward the project (Q3a and Q4a). These statements were attributed to improving nutrition quality of foods for the campus community (N = 52, 89.6%) and applying knowledge in a practical setting with the campus community (N = 52, 89.6%). As our preliminary conversations with the students showed, most nutrition majors who are interested in becoming health practitioners such as dietitians and nutritionists would like to have practical experience to improve the health of the campus community. The following quotes from answers to qualitative questions captured the students' excitement of improving the nutrition quality of campus food:

“People hate tofu, but when incorporated into a recipe, [they] couldn't tell and liked it better than the control.”

“There are many easy changes that can be made to the food available on campus to increase nutrient value without sacrificing flavor.”

Because the demand for collaboration between the food industry and nutritionists/dietitians is on the rise for the development of future functional foods, providing students with the opportunity to experience the development of healthier food products will help those students prepare for an effective collaboration between nutrition professionals and food scientists for healthier product development.

The students' perceived project quality attributed to campus community involvement (Q4b) was also assessed in this study. Seventy-five percent of the student participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that involving the campus community in their research project significantly contributed to the quality of the project. Although the quality of the project can be a direct outcome of student-community collaborative learning, we did not define the quality of the project and it may have been interpreted differently by different students. More specific indicators need to be developed for assessing project quality attributed to student-community collaborative learning.

Active peer learning in groups

Preparing weekly lab reports, oral presentations, and a final research manuscript required group meetings outside the laboratory. We attempted to assess active peer learning in groups using 2 statements shown in Table 1 (Q2a and Q2b). Seventy-eight percent of the students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “members of my group contributed equal (but maybe different) efforts to the research project.” Unfortunately, we failed to receive valid responses to the statement, “my group resolved conflicts effectively.” Some of the students marked “strongly disagreed” because they stated that conflicts never occurred. Others marked “neutral” or none when they never had conflicts. Thus, we excluded Q2b from our data analysis and description in Table 2. The assessment of conflict resolution among our students was from qualitative questions.

Factors affecting various perspectives on active peer learning were further examined in this study. There were no statistically significant relationships between student motivation mentioned previously (Q3a and Q4a) and effective group work (Q2b), implying that there were many factors affecting group work and peer learning in this study.

The students' answers to the qualitative question about group learning (Q5a) were mixed. While the majority stated that they worked together effectively and efficiently, 10 out of 58 students mentioned that they had difficulty getting group members together outside of the classroom. Two of them stated that the group work was good in the beginning but fell apart at the end of the project.

Some of the students mentioned that they had already been close friends before the project started, while a few described some improvement in their group work over time once they got to know each other.

“At first, we had problems on agreeing what to do and had negativity towards the project. However, we ended up getting along really well. We had never met before this project.”

Several students mentioned that they identified each member's strengths and weaknesses and assigned their tasks according to their strengths, which may have created positive social interdependence (Johnson and others 2007).

Students' perceived learning outcomes

Overall, the study participants perceived that they had learned enormously through this project. Over 70% of all students (n = 58) agreed or strongly agreed with the statements about perceived learning outcomes (Figure 1). In particular, research interpretation skills were rated higher (79%, n = 46) than the other outcomes. Because this was a research project and most of the students had never conducted research nor extensive literature review, their perceived learning outcomes regarding research appeared to be shown more that the other outcomes. Nevertheless, our perceived learning outcome indicators were rather broad and specific indicators should be used to measure different types of learning outcomes, such as problem solving skills in the field of food science.

Figure 1—.

Description of perceived learning outcomes among nutrition students (n = 58).

Factors affecting students' perceived learning outcomes

Our study revealed that 89.6% of the study participants (n = 52) perceived that contributing to the health of students/faculty on campus positively enhanced their motivation toward their research project. The practical aspect of the research project, developing food that is/can be offered on campus, was also considered to be an important factor affecting students' motivation among 89.6% of the study participants (n = 52). These findings were consistent with the preliminary conversations with our study participants, who expressed the desire to conduct a project in the real setting for improving campus health.

We also examined the relationships between perceived learning outcomes and nutrition student motivation attributed to (1) improving nutrition quality of foods for campus community and (2) applying knowledge of a product development project in a practical setting with a campus community. Table 3 shows that increased motivation due to improving nutrition quality of foods for the campus community (Q3a) was significantly associated with 2 of the 3 perceived learning outcomes (Q1b, P = 0.005 and Q2c, P < 0.001). On the other hand, increased motivation due to knowledge application with the campus community (Q4a) was significantly associated with “knowledge for research interpretation” (Q1c, P = 0.009), but not “application of research concept” (Q1a, P = 0.174) and “knowledge for problem solving” (Q1b, P = 0.055).

Table 3—.  Relationships between perceived learning outcomes and student motivation and project quality through campus community involvement (n = 58).
Learning outcomesIncreased student motivationIncreased project quality
due to improving nutrition quality of campus food (Q3a)due to knowledge application with campus community (Q4a)due to campus community involvement (Q4b)
ρ (rho)aP valueρ (rho)P valueρ (rho)P value
  1. aρ (rho) = Spearman's rank correlation coefficient.

  2. bCorrelations are significant at P≤ 0.05 level.

  3. cThe question numbers correspond to those in Table 1.

Application of research concept (Q1a)c0.2490.060.1810.1740.320 0.014b
Knowledge for problem solving (Q1b)0.365   0.005b0.2530.0550.2080.118
Knowledge for research interpretation (Q1c)0.465 <0.001b0.341 0.009b0.2200.097

Table 3 also demonstrates the relationships between perceived learning outcomes and increased project quality. Increased project quality (Q4b) was strongly associated with one of the perceived learning outcomes, “application of research concept” (Q1a, P = 0.014). It can be hypothesized that the increased quality of the research project significantly contributed to students' confidence in conducting research in general. On the other hand, increased project quality (Q4b) was not significantly associated with the other 2 perceived learning outcomes (Q1b and Q1c). The possible explanation of these results is the lack of definition of project quality. The students may have interpreted the phrase “project quality” quite differently from one another.

There were no statistically significant relationships between peer group learning (Q2b) and perceived learning outcomes (Q1a, Q1b, and Q1c, P > 0.5), indicating that peer group learning was not a strong factor contributing to perceived learning outcomes in our study. Grindstaff and Richmond (2008) argue that previous experiences significantly shape current frames for learning in group work. Our students had had different group work experiences in the past. Moreover, some groups were formed among friends exclusively and some were miscellaneous with people from different backgrounds and values. These may have contributed to the lack of significant association between peer group learning and students' perceived learning outcomes.

Challenges in student-campus collaborative learning

The 2nd objective of this study was to identify challenges and opportunities in student-campus collaborative learning, which might contribute to further conceptualizing of student-campus collaborative learning. The themes that emerged from our qualitative data analysis included “insufficient communication with the campus community,”“the lack of a preliminary needs assessment consumer survey,” and “lack of time management.” As for insufficient communication with the campus community, some students felt that they did not have the opportunity to discuss recipes with campus foodservice staff.

Challenges in student-campus collaborative learning, compared to collaborative learning among students, were clearly demonstrated in their answers to the qualitative questions. Some students pointed out the heterogeneity of campus foodservice staff in terms of their interest in the project. Although the foodservice director was very supportive of the project, some staff members simply did not have time for our nutrition students. Similar to service-learning projects, which often introduce a certain level of uncertainty for the instructor, the students and the industry participants (Crutsinger and others 2004), our students felt the win–win situation was not clearly defined and negotiated in this project. Furthermore, our nutrition student participants mentioned that some student consumers were not very serious about sensory evaluation because they were not well informed of the importance of the study and just came forfree food.” According to Johnson and others (2007)promotive interaction, defined as individuals encouraging and facilitating each other's efforts to complete tasks, achieve, or produce in order to reach the group's goals (P. 17), leads to positive and desirable outcomes. In our study, a limited amount of promotive interaction took place between the students and the campus community, possibly due to the lack of goal clarification. Likewise, Weiss (1990) argues that (1) decisions are the outcomes of interests in contention, (2) people do not always know what kind of information they need to know, and (3) people are often comfortable with the status quo. Thus, developing goals for student-campus collaborative learning may require careful meetings and negotiations at the beginning of the project.

Finally, issues regarding time management were also identified as a challenge in student-community learning. One of the laboratory sessions took place in the evening, which made it difficult for the students to communicate with foodservice staff or recruit student consumers for sensory evaluation.

Opportunity for mutual learning between nutrition students and campus community

Our analysis of the qualitative data (Q5b and Q5c) revealed that there was a mutual learning between nutrition students and the campus community. The main themes regarding mutual learning that emerged from our data analysis included the importance of conducting research in food-product development and the practical application of this new healthy product on campus. Our nutrition students stated that they, along with the campus community, learned together because of the collaborative process. For example, a nutrition student, who conducted nutrition analysis of the food products with support from the foodservice staff, was surprised that “some campus foods are unhealthy and many of the students were unaware how fatty salad dressing is and how many calories it adds.” She concluded that both she and the foodservice staff felt the importance of conducting research in food product development.

There are other specific themes that emerged from the data analysis in terms of what students learned from the campus community. From the frequent direct feedback on their project from the campus community throughout the semester, nutrition students learned that the campus community was more interested in their projects than they thought it would be. The majority of the nutrition students learned that foodservice staff members were willing to help them with providing healthier choices. The students felt rewarded, which reflects the increased student motivation discussed previously. On the other hand, few explicitly mentioned the value of ideas and expertise that came from the community that enhanced their perceived learning outcomes. In order for students to take advantage of the opportunity to learn by engaging in discussions of ideas from the community, the culture of their community must support and encourage it (Grindstaff and Richmond 2008). This leads to the importance of faculty communicating with foodservice staff members about mutual learning.

Most of the nutrition students (n = 52) mentioned that the campus community also learned from them through its participation in this project. The effectiveness of healthier food product development was a major theme for mutual learning that emerged from our study. Many students pointed out that the campus community learned that “healthier options do exist and they will work!” and “there are many easy changes that can be made to the food available on campus to increase nutrient value without sacrificing flavor.

The importance of research in the field of product development was another theme for mutual learning that emerged from our qualitative data. The nutrition students, who invited the campus community to become sensory panelists instead of doing it among peers, learned more about technical challenges in sensory research. Some students pointed out that training panelists is important in their research as a lesson learned from this collaborative project. The following quotes from the students captured their increased understanding of a complex research process.

“Studies need to be done before a food can be released to the public. It probably opened their eyes to all the hard work that must go into a food product.”

“We should train foodservice staff before the QDA (quantitative descriptive analysis) so they can be highly trained panelists.”

Defining and developing indicators for student-campus collaborative learning is crucial for assessing the process and outcomes of student-campus collaborative learning, as well as further theorizing the approach. In the case of student-campus collaborative learning in our study, more research is needed to further conceptualize the 2 main themes that emerged from our data analysis, namely “increased awareness of the importance of conducting research in food product development” and “effectiveness of healthy food product development on campus.”

Our study has several limitations. First, we used students' perceived learning outcomes as indicators as opposed to more objective outcomes such as exams. Second, our study did not have a control group to measure the effectiveness of campus community involvement on perceived learning outcomes, although our qualitative data results made the relationship between campus community involvements and perceived learning outcomes more plausible. Finally, to examine the mechanism by which student-campus community collaborative learning may contribute to student perceived learning outcomes, we need to further understand characteristics of student-campus collaborative learning (that is, mutual learning) and develop indicators accordingly.

Conclusions

We examined the effects of involving foodservice staff and student consumers on perceived learning outcomes of students in nutrition and food sciences. Figure 2 summarizes the conceptual framework of the effectiveness of campus community involvement in students' perceived learning outcomes. The solid lines indicate the relationships that were significantly or partially supported by this study and the dotted lines indicate the relationships that were not examined. We conclude that involving the campus community in an experimental food research project appeared to greatly benefit students' perceived learning. At the same time, more strategic pedagogical design before, during, and after the course work may be required for successful learning outcomes resulting from collaborating with the campus community.

Figure 2—.

Conceptual framework of the effects of campus community involvement on students' perceived learning outcomes. Solid lines = the relationships supported by this study; dotted lines = the relationships that were not examined.

Acknowledgment

The authors would like to thank the study participants, CSUC foodservice staff members, and student consumers who participated in the project for their support.

Ancillary