Students and faculty are engaged in service-learning at every level of the educational ecology; state and international communities, K-12 schools, and colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimates that more than 13 million K-12 students participated in service and service-learning during the 2000–2001 academic year (Fiske, 2001). During the 2005–2006 academic year more than 6 million college and university students attending more than 1,000 institutions of higher education also were engaged in some type of service-learning (Campus Compact, 2007). These data suggest that service-learning is a comprehensive and innovative pedagogy in college, universities, and K-12 schools.
In the early 2000s, service-learning projects continue to grow and evolve in schools and institutions of higher education in such a way that a common definition has not yet emerged; however, a number of accepted definitions for service-learning are used by researchers and practitioners. One definition proposed by Campus Compact (2001) focuses on service-learning as pedagogy: “service learning is an educational methodology which combines community service with academic learning objectives, preparation for community work and deliberate reflection” (p. v.). A second definition offered by Campus Compact states: “service-learning means a method under which students learn and develop through thoughtfully organized service that is conducted in and meets the needs of a community and is coordinated with an institution of higher education (or K-12 school), and with the community; helps foster civic responsibility; is integrated into and enhances the academic curriculum of the students enrolled; and include structured time for students to reflect on the service experience” (p. 15). Tom Ehrlich of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching defines services learning as follows: “the various pedagogies that link community service and academic study so that each strengthens the other. The basic theory of service learning is Dewey's: the interaction of knowledge and skills with experience is key to learning” (1996). Researchers Robert Bringle and Julie Hatcher (1995) define service-learning as “a credit-bearing, educational experience in which students participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility.”
Staff at Learn and Serve America offer a core concept of service-learning, which holds wide agreement among both researchers and practitioners: “service learning combines service objectives with learning objectives with the intent that the activity change both the recipient and the provider of the service. This is accomplished by combining service tasks with structured opportunities that link the task to self-reflection, self-discovery, and the acquisition and comprehension of values, skills, and knowledge content” (retrieved from http://www.servicelearning.org. on April 15, 2008).
The National Commission on Service-Learning (Fiske, 2001) suggests that service-learning is a teaching and learning approach that integrates community service with academic study to enrich learning, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities. The intentional and planned link to the curriculum is the hallmark of service-learning. A second distinction is the reciprocal nature of the partnership between campus and community in the identification of the need and in the benefits resulting from the partnership. In other words, service-learning activities provide a mechanism for active learning and the construction of authentic learning experiences. It allows students to translate and reflect on their experience and to work in teams with other students and community members who may be different from themselves toward solving authentic problems in the community. Service-learning projects are group projects that prepare students for membership in teams in schools and future professions. Finally, service-learning projects provide faculty with a strategy for moving away from the role of lecturer to the role of a facilitator and guide who facilitates the incorporation of new knowledge with old and the application of information to authentic, new, and varied contexts or persons.
One challenge in the implementation of service-learning activities is the misconception that these are equivalent to other community-based activities such as experiential education, volunteerism, internships, practica, and field experience. Furco (1996) provides a conceptual model for differentiating service-learning from other forms of experiential education that uses two factors: the intended beneficiary and the overall balance between service and learning as the discriminating variables. For example, volunteerism may be defined as an experience in which students provide a service and the intended beneficiary is the community partner. Community service is the engagement of students in activities with a primary focus on the service provided and the benefits accrued for the community partner. Students may acquire some benefit, but it is not necessarily tied to their discipline. At the other end of the continuum, internships engage students in service activities with the purpose of providing hands-on learning opportunities to enhance the learning and application of a set of skills or knowledge: The focus is the student.
Field experiences provide students with the opportunity to perform a service as part of a program designed primarily to enhance the understanding of a field of study: The emphasis is on the student's acquisition of skills within the field of study. Service-learning is distinguished from these other forms of experiential education by the intention to benefit the student and the community in a reciprocal and equal partnership. The focus is equally divided between the service provided and the learning that occurs. Weigert (1998) identifies six elements of service-learning that further differentiate it from other community-based outreach activities: (1) the service is meaningful to the community; (2) the service meets a need or goal; (3) the service is defined and identified by the community; (4) the service is embedded in course objectives; (5) assignments which require reflection are used to link service with objectives; and (6) the assignment has value and is assessed and evaluated.
The conceptual model that has guided service-learning was proposed by David Kolb (1984) and was built on the process of experiential inquiry proposed by John Dewey. The six step process of inquiry (encountering a problem; proposing a problem or question to be answered; gathering information to answer the question or solve the problem; making hypotheses; testing hypotheses; and making judgments or assertions) was used by Kolb to develop a learning cycle that included four phases: concrete experiences, reflective observations, abstract conceptualization (with faculty mentoring and guidance), and active experimentation. These phases are cyclical and generative.
Billig (2006) provides eight principles of effective practice in the development of service-learning activities within the curriculum: (1) service must be integrated in the curriculum; (2) diverse perspectives and experiences foster civic discourse and democratic values for all participants, both student and community partners; (3) the service is meaningful, requiring problem-solving and critical thinking; (4) reflection is used to encourage critical and creative thinking; (5) students contribute ideas in each phase of the experience; (6) the process is monitored by knowledgeable faculty and staff; (7) the experience is of sufficient intensity and duration; and (8) partnership is reciprocal and collaborative.
Faculty implementing service-learning generally move through four stages. First, community needs are identified and defined by community and campus partners, goals are then set for both learning and service. Faculty and community partners clearly delineate responsibilities and expectations and typically provide some type of orientation for students and staff if needed. The service experience constitutes the second phase and provides authentic and meaningful experience linked to the discipline and course objectives. Reflection is phase three and may occur in multiple ways: by analyzing concepts, evaluating experiences, positing questions, and reflecting on the problem/need and potential solutions. Evaluation and celebration is the final stage and recognizes the work of the student and community partner and provides a public mechanism to share the accomplishments of the students and community partners in meeting the need and/or solving the problem.
A number of large and small sample studies have demonstrated the positive impact of service-learning on personal outcomes, such as efficacy, identify, spiritual growth, and moral development (Astin & Sax, 1998; Eyler & Giles, 1999), the ability to work with others, leadership, and communication skills (Driscoll, Holland, Gelmon, & Kerrigan, 1996). Social outcomes such as the reduction of stereotypes, facilitation of cultural and racial understanding, sense of social responsibility, and citizenship skills (Eyler & Giles, 1999) have also been positively impacted (Bringle & Kremer, 1993). Participation in service-learning has also been documented to affect community involvement and volunteerism after graduation (Astin, Sax, & Avalos, 1999).
Faculty report that service-learning has a positive impact on academic learning and improves students' ability to apply what they have learned in the real world (Driscoll et al., 1996; Eyler & Giles, 1999). For example, a study of California high school students found that those students who participated in service-learning scored higher on all of the study's academic measures than those students enrolled in the comparison group who did not participate (Furco, 2002). These findings have been replicated in Philadelphia, Denver, and Hawaii (Billig, 2006). A study of fifth graders in Michigan also found that participation in service-learning activities was positively correlated with state test scores (Klute & Billig, 2002). Similar findings are reported for sixth grade students in Philadelphia (Billig, 2006). Participation in service-learning has been associated with higher attendance rates (Shumer, 1994) and decreased referral for disciplinary reasons (Follman, 1998). Service-learning also contributes to career development (Astin & Sax, 1998) and to students' greater sense of belonging and identification with their school (Eyler & Giles, 1999). Most importantly, students who are engaged in service-learning are more likely to graduate (Astin & Sax, 1998).
As of 2008, increased attention to service-learning was occurring concurrently with a focus on engaged teaching and learning. Researchers, scholars, and professional organizations have encouraged U.S. schools, colleges, and universities to focus on student learning and academic outcomes. Faculty state that their involvement in service-learning is motivated by one of three philosophical questions. First. is the value of service-learning for enhancing academic and interdisciplinary learning? If so, this philosophy would also support service-learning as a methodology that allows students to deepen their understanding of their discipline while developing strategies of inquiry appropriate across all disciplines and life experience. Second, is the use of service-learning for the acquisition of the skills and behaviors of leadership? Knowledge of and skills necessary for effective leadership are best experienced and gained firsthand in the real world. Third, is the service-learning conducive to civic engagement? This connection is frequently explored in published research.
In summary, service-learning has been demonstrated to benefit all members of the partnership: students, faculty, and community. Students have the opportunity to apply knowledge in meaningful ways, to work in interdisciplinary partnership with students from other disciplines and communities, and to acquire and/or change disposition and lifelong behaviors and attitudes. Community partners are able to meet an identified goal and establish positive relationships with students and the sponsoring institution. Faculty have the opportunity to support the expansion of student knowledge in application and applied settings; to demonstrate or model the application of discipline specific knowledge in applied settings; to establish partners in the application of research, and to respond to the needs identified by community partners for engaged research. Schools and other educational institutions are able to make connections to the community and form trusting and authentic partnerships with community members and organizations in engaged research and service.
After the devastation of Katrina and other hurricanes in the Gulf Coast region of the United States, student organizations and faculties across the country responded through service-learning and other community outreach and engagement efforts. Student groups organized efforts to provide books, school supplies, clothing, and other necessities. Campuses offered displaced students and faculty places to live, tuition waivers, and opportunities to complete degrees that would have otherwise been abandoned. In 2005 the U. S. Housing and Urban Development and the Corporation for National and Community Service funded the Gulf Coast Universities Rebuilding America Partnership in response to the needs of communities affected by the hurricanes. This program provides an organized mechanism for supporting and engaging college and university students, faculty, and staff in helping rebuild the Gulf Coast region (for more information, see http://www.learnandserve.org/about/programs/index.asp).
Serve America (the predecessor of Learn and Serve America) was created in 1990 through funding by the National and Community Service Act (As amended through December 17, 1999, 170, P.L. 106–170) and the Domestic Volunteer Service Act (as amended by Public Law 106–170, approved December 17, 1999) to integrate community service with curricula through service-learning. In 1993 President Clinton signed legislation to create the Corporation for National and Community Service whose mission is to improve lives of Americans, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering. The corporation provides opportunities for more than two million Americans of all ages and backgrounds to serve their communities and country through Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, and Learn and Serve America, which provides support to K-12 schools, institutions of higher education, and community groups. The mission of Learn and Serve America is to facilitate service-learning projects by providing grant support for school-community partnerships, technical support and training, and the collection and dissemination of information about model programs, curricula, and research (for more information, see http://www.learnandserve.org).
Campus Compact, which is funded by a number of public and private sources (i.e., Corporation for National and Community Service, Ford Foundation, Andrew Mellon Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York), began in 1985 as a collaboration of the presidents of Brown, Georgetown, and Stanford universities in cooperation with the Education Commission of the States. These university presidents believed that students on their campuses were socially and politically responsive to the needs of their communities and neighbors and were actively involved in community service. They sought a mechanism to document these efforts and to encourage supportive structures to increase the participation of other students. By 1991 the Compact had funded more than 120 grants and 130 service-learning workshops across the nation to faculty who linked community serve with the academic mission of higher education, and in 1999, a total of 51 college and university presidents crafted the Presidents' Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education. By 2003, one-fourth of all higher education institutions in the United States were members of Campus Compact. These members promote civic engagement through shared knowledge and resources in the provision of service-learning efforts in the areas of literacy, health care, hunger, homelessness, the environment, and senior services. The Campus Compact mission is “to advance the public purposes of colleges and universities by deepening their ability to improve community life and to educate students for civic and social responsibility” (retrieved April 15, 2008, from www.compact.org).
Students at Campus Compact's more than 1,000 member colleges and universities contributed an estimated $7.1 billion in services to their communities during the 2005–2006 academic year. Nearly one-third of students participated in volunteer and service-learning work coordinated by campuses, performing an average of 5.6 hours of work each week, for a total of 377 million hours of service. It is important to note that these figures represent only work organized or supported by member colleges and universities; it does not capture other student volunteer work. The most common service programs on member campuses focused on tutoring and mentoring, a reflection of the high number of member institutions that have partnerships with local K-12 schools and other youth-serving organizations. Other commonly addressed issues included poverty, reading/ writing, housing/homelessness, hunger, the environment, health care, multi-cultural issues, and services to seniors (Campus Compact, 2007).
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Astin, A. W., Sax, L. J., & Avalos, J. (1999). Long term effects of volunteerism during the undergraduate years. Review of Higher Education, 22(2), 187–202.
Billig, S. H. (2006). Empowering youth to change their world: Identifying key components of a community service program to promote positive development. Journal of School Psychology, 44(6), 513–531.
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