Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Creating New Learning Settings: Collaborative Student Research Groups

20 Mar 2024 2:15 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Mona Corinna Griesberg
FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany

During my psychology bachelor’s program in Germany, classes were mostly teacher-centered lectures that allowed little student engagement. Fortunately, psychology classes at a small liberal arts college in Michigan, USA, introduced me to less hierarchical but feminist teaching formats. In the beginning of her feminist psychology course, Dr. Karyn Boatwright shared her feminist teaching philosophy aiming to create collaborative learning communities (Enns et al., 2005; Sinacore & Boatwright, 2005). She gave me the opportunity to facilitate a social action project focused on sexism research. In the following, I describe the project and reflect on its benefits and challenges. By sharing my experience as a teaching assistant, I hope to encourage fellow educators to create more wholesome learning opportunities for students to gain research and feminist leadership experience.

Feminist Leadership & Project Goals

Dr. Karyn Boatwright teaches Feminist Psychology of Women every winter term. Within ten weeks, two classes of circa twenty students each meet three times a week to discuss feminist issues from a psychological perspective. An intergral part of the course is students’ participation in social action projects, making up thirty percent of their grading. In the beginning of the term, students received a list of possible social action projects and informed Dr. Boatwright about their preferences. For example, the projects were about creating a more inclusive environment at the campus gym, a theatre performance on reproductive rights or feminist peer-support groups for students. I offered a collaborative  research group focusing on sexism research. Each social action group consisted of five to ten students and met outside of class to work on a social justice issue. The projects aimed to promote community engagement, political activism, and long-term social change. In the following, I describe the social action group that I facilitated as a teaching assistant: a collaborative research group focusing on ambivalent sexism. As the facilitator of the collaborative research group, I endeavored to follow my professor’s example and apply feminist leadership principles. That meant creating collaborative learning spaces that were - contrary to my former and many others experiences in higher education - based on relationship building and welcomed expressions of emotions, intuition, and vulnerability. I wanted to minimize hierarchies between the students and myself but allow us to build trust and connection. Furthermore, the goal was to empower the students, to foster awareness for the needs of marginalized communities and to increase an understanding for how feminist research can contribute to social justice and improved well-being. 

Academia and research have long been less accessible for people with marginalized identities (DeBlaere, 2020). I hoped the project would help students to feel less intimidated by research, to connect research to personal experiences, and to build confidence knowing that they have much to contribute to academic spaces. However, the project was not directly aimed at encouraging students to stay in academia or build a career in research. Instead, the project offered opportunities for students to build their curiosity by finding and exploring topics about which they cared deeply and wanted to learn more. I wanted to open their minds to the different ways in which research can be conducted, so they have a broader view of what research and academia can look like, can contribute to change within the fields, and can make more informed decision career choices.

Project Activities

Since the project was carried out during the covid-19 pandemic, it was limited to synchronous and asynchronous online learning. Our weekly online meetings gave the project the necessary structure. In preparation for these meetings, students did their individual  literature review on ambivalent research (Glick & Fiske, 2018). I recommended that they would invest up to two hours per week in their research. In an online drive, students could view recommended scientific research papers and other materials like podcast episodes. Moreover, I encouraged students to look for alternative materials to engage with the project topic in a way that would suit their interests. If they found interesting alternative materials, they added them to our online drive.

During our weekly meetings, we discussed their individual research of the past week.  I invited students to pose questions and to share their newly gained knowledge. For example, if someone didn’t understand the statistics of a research paper they had read, we looked at it again. We also shared observations of our daily life that aligned with the research content we had learnt about. Towards the end of the term, we used out group meetings to plan our final online event. Even though students’ individual research was the basis for their learning, the regular meetings created a communal learning experience.

In addition to our weekly project meeting, I organized online meetings with international researchers who worked on topics related to ambivalent sexism. Students attended on a voluntary basis and asked questions about the research and academic life. It was also an opportunity to practice networking, an important skill for career development. 

Furthermore, I met students one-on-one online, at least twice throughout the semester. The first time was a chance to get to know each other better and discuss expectations for the research project and their first impressions. Towards the end of the project, we met again to reflect on the overall learning experience, to exchange feedback and discuss their grading.

At the end of the term, our project group hosted a public, online event to which all students of Feminist Psychology and other interested community members were invited. At the event, the project members presented what they had learnt about ambivalent sexism and engaged the audience in a discussion. It was an opportunity to share their new knowledge, to practice presenting research in an appealing way and to get feedback from other community members about how the scientific concepts related to their personal experiences.


The grading was based on their attendance of the group meetings, their independent research and participation in the final online event about our project. In the beginning of the project, I explained to the students that they would keep track of their engagement themself. At the end of the term, I met with each student, we reflected on the group project and they told me how they graded their own engagement. Unless it was very different from my impression, the grade was set and contributed thirty percent to their final grading of the whole Feminist Psychology course.

Most students had been very engaged in our group project and graded themselves accordingly. There was a student whose engagement seemed low to me in the beginning of the project. After the first few weeks, we met one-on-one and discussed how she could improve her learning experience and contribute more to our group learning. If educators get the impression that a student isn’t engaged and capacities allow, I would advise educators to do the same time: get in touch with the student, try and find out how they feel about their current engagement and depending on their interest, reflect on how they may engage more.

Learning Through Group Facilitation

For me as a teaching assistant, the project was a fantastic opportunity to practice feminist group leadership, project development and social justice research. I engaged in networking and community building and learned about student supervision, skills that proved useful in graduate school and my further career. Besides, it was simply fun to get to know the students and to learn from them in challenging discussions. For example, we talked about how our families’ dynamics had contributed to us internalizing gender roles. We also reflected on the image of research and how it had influenced our own academic aspirations.

In parallel to the social action project, I was working on my bachelor’s thesis about ambivalent sexism and the engagement with my peers helped my motivation and creativity. Furthermore, the group facilitation and collaboration with Dr. Karyn Boatwright enhanced my passion for researching and teaching psychology and combining these with social justice work. The positive student feedback also encouraged her to continue working with me.

Towards More Wholesome Learning Experiences

The success of the ambivalent sexism research project led to another social action project that I facilitated in 2023.This time, seven students took part and the project centered upon lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and related (LGBTQ+) research. Because the pandemic restrictions had been loosened, the project was conducted on-campus creating new opportunities: In addition to independent research, weekly group meetings and one-on-one meetings, I invited students to engage in further learning activities. For example, some students and I attended external events together, a game night for community building at a local non-governmental organization and a presentation of recent LGBTQ+ research at a neighboring university. We also met for a crafting evening on campus where a queer artist joined us online to teach us crafting queer zines. A few of us met for an intimate self-care morning including meditation and talking circles which created special bonding moments between the students. These activities were all voluntary and there was no grading penalty if students did not join. 

Lastly, I want to highlight a memorable project event: Through an LGBTQ+ organization, we got in touch with bi- and pansexual women from the local community and invited them to join one of the feminist psychology classes. Four women agreed to meet and share their experiences and perspectives with the class. We met in room on campus that allows comfortable seating in a circle next to a fireplace. Providing hot chocolate, tea and snacks contributed to the rather informal and comfortable setting. The students in our group project had prepared questions about the women’s identities, wishes, experiences of discrimination and coping strategies and facilitated the classes. The speakers shared many personal insights, for example, about religious communities and female, sexual empowerment. Their openness allowed for an empowering experience for all attendees. Many students explicitly mentioned the positive impact of the event in their course reflections.

Compared to the ambivalent sexism research project, the LGBTQ+ research project took a more holistic learning approach by including independent research, group meetings focusing on scientific research as well as artistic expression and self-care, one-on-one meetings, online meetings with international researchers, an in-class meeting with local community members and further voluntary events off-campus. These voluntary activities were offered to the students to explore their academic and personal interests, find inspiration, experience a sense of community, to gain confidence in scientific discussions and in their research skills, to build connections to international researchers and more. It was the students’ responsibility to decide how and how much they could and wanted to invest in the project and in the group. This freedom was essential to avoid emotional overload and to create positive experiences in research engagement.

Future Directions and Considerations

In other educational settings, similar projects may require different degrees of structure and flexibility. We implemented the group projects in Feminist Psychology of Women at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. It’s a relatively small student body with small cohorts and classes. Less than ten students participated in each social action project. Other lecturers and teaching assistants may not have the resources to invest the time and effort into a few students. However, I would like to encourage lecturers in higher education to acknowledge the resources that their teaching assistants, advanced students and interns bring to the table. Sharing teaching and leadership responsibilities can not only ease the lecturer's work but also create new learning opportunities for the group facilitators. Each social action group in Feminist Psychology was facilitated by a teaching assistant. We had the responsibility of overseeing the progress of our project group. The lecturer Dr. Karyn Boatwright met with us, teaching assistants, weekly to talk about how the projects were going and if we needed any additional support.

With the support of Dr. Karyn Boatwright and with few bureaucratic barriers, I had much freedom in developing and facilitating the projects. This may be different at other higher education institutions where, for example, the curricula and grading guidelines may be stricter. Other challenges may be insurance and safety when attending external events with students or inviting external guests on-campus. Before the project, lecturers and teaching assistants should make sure they know about the risks and limits of working on their project outside of campus. They should be mindful that working on social justice issues might come with different risks for different students and they may need assistance in navigating those risks. For example, being associated with LGBTQ+ topics might be dangerous in communities that hold strong anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes. Therefore, the local and academic environment should be considered when selecting the research topic and activities.

The teaching assistants should consider students’ multifaceted identities and positions. Their former experiences and knowledge can differ as well as expectations and needs for the project. The group constellation will lead to a particular power dynamic within the group. Certain intersecting identities will be underrepresented or less visible throughout the project. Thus, teaching assistants should consider how they can make space for those perspectives in the group discourse. For example, they can recommend research materials that thematize underrepresented identities and experiences. Encouraging students to bring in their own interests and alternative materials can also help to diversify the learning content. Still, lecturers and teaching assistants should be aware that conflict mediation might be needed. Since students’ learning curves and their opinions on social justice issues differ, it is important to address early on that the group should work towards a comfortable learning environment for everyone. To achieve this, it can help to collectively set some ground rules in the beginning of the project.  

I hope naming these possible challenges does not discourage educators from questioning if and how they can apply my suggestions to their work. Every educational setting has its challenges and limits. Therefore, each project and group will be different and require adaptation. Nonetheless, I see much potential in this approach of collaborative student research groups. To start small, educators might consider the following: do they have the capacities to create multidimensional learning experiences for their students? Would the students be interested in project work on social justice topics? Are there possibilities of local or virtual community engagement? Can they share learning responsibilities with teaching assistants and students?  How can they make research less intimidating and academia more accessible for a variety of students? Overall, how can you create collaborative learning spaces? I believe that answering these questions, can move higher education towards create more enjoyable and wholesome learning experiences for the students and educators.



DeBlaere, C. (2020). Defining myself in: My early career journey. Women & Therapy, 43(1-2), 144-156.

Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (2018). The ambivalent sexism inventory: Differentiating hostile and  benevolent sexism. Social Cognition (pp. 116-160). Routledge.

Enns, C. Z., Sinacore, A. L., Acevedo, V., Akçali, Ö., Ali, S. R., Ancis, J. R., Anctil, T. M., Boatwright, K. J., Boyer, M. C., Byars-Winston, A. M., Fassinger, R. E., Forrest, L. M., Hensler-McGinnis, N. F., Larson, H. A., Nepomuceno, C. A., & Tao, K. W. (2005). Integrating Multicultural and Feminist Pedagogies: Personal Perspectives on Positionality, Challenges, and Benefits. C. Z. Enns & A. L. Sinacore (Eds.), Teaching and social justice: Integrating multicultural and feminist theories in the classroom (pp. 177–196). American Psychological Association.

Sinacore, A. L., & Boatwright, K. J. (2005). The Feminist Classroom: Feminist Strategies and Student Responses. C. Z. Enns & A. L. Sinacore (Eds.), Teaching and social justice: Integrating multicultural and feminist theories in the classroom (pp. 109–124). American Psychological Association.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Dr. Karyn Boatwright for her invaluable trust, support and supervision throughout the projects as well as her feedback on this essay. I would also like to thank the amazing students who participated in the projects and all researchers and community members who enabled the depth and variety of our learning.
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software