Service Learning

Developed by: Fran Champion
Last Revised: July 1999

Source: Champion, F. (1999). Service learning. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University.

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As the population of the United States prepares for the 21st century, the education system of our nation is under constant critique. It is widely recognized that the education of children is of utmost importance and a wide variety of ideas to improve the condition of the education system are being considered. The critical need to improve the education system is the direct result of a movement from the agricultural/industrial age to an information age (Huitt, 1995/1997) and on the subsequent change in the desired outcomes for success in post-industrialist society (Huitt, 1997a).

The Secretary (of Labor's) Commission of Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) (Whetzel, 1992) identified some of the skills and competencies needed for the modern workplace. The SCANS report advocated developing the technical skills necessary in our changing society, as well as other skills such as information acquisition and processing skills, and important personal qualities such as responsibility, honesty, and integrity. At present our educational system focuses efforts and systematically reports on developing student's basic skills (only one of the recommended foundational skills.)

Huitt (1997b) identified several omissions in the SCANS report that he believed important for life success, a broader concept than workplace success. The major modification was in the addition of competencies in the in the domains of affect/emotion and conation. From research in behavioral sciences literature, four additional workplace qualifications were identified: optimism, setting and using goals, self-efficacy, and self-regulation.

Service learning is an important strategy that shows great promise for addressing both the development of academic skills as well as other important outcomes in the cognitive, affective, and social domains identified in the SCANS report and Huitt’s (1997b) critique. The purpose of this paper is to define service learning, report on research that addresses its success, identify some successful models, and provide an overview of key components when implementing a service learning program.

Service Learning Defined

The concept of service learning is based primarily on the views of John Dewey, a philosopher and educator who advanced the concept that active student involvement in learning is an essential element in effective education. He viewed the community as an integral component of educational experiences for both enhancing a student's education and for deveoping future societies (Waterman, 1997). Service learning evolved as a vehicle to strengthen student's learning, to reconnect them with their communities, to counter the imbalance between learning and living, and to repair the broken connection between learning and community (Anonymous, 1997b).

The National Community Service Act of 1990 defined service learning as a process whereby students learn and develop through active participation in organized service experiences that actually meet community needs. Service learning provides students opportunities to use their acquired skills and knowledge in real life situations in their communities; this enhances teaching by extending student learning into the community and helps foster a sense of caring for others (Burns, 1998). The primary goal of service learning, as expressed in the NAASP Bulletin (Anonymous, 1997a), is to make learning relevant for the children. Kromer and Hitch (1994) reported "Service learning seems to be one of those rare education models that enable all of the participants to be winners."

Service learning is widely used at the primary, secondary and college levels. Its use is expanding as more states include service learning and community service as part of high school graduation requirements (Waterman, 1997). Through the Learn and Serve America initiative of the Corporation for National Service, thousands of K-12 schools nationwide have been awarded grants to develop community/school service projects that are integrated with content taught in the classroom (Silcox, 1997). At its best, service learning experiences are integrated into the academic curriculum. Additionally, structured time is provided for the students to think, talk, and write about what they did and saw during the service activity.

Developing and Implementing A Service Learning Program

Much of the service learning literature is focused on developing and implementing a service learning program. Burns (1998) identified the essential phases as preparation, action, reflection, and demonstration/recognition. During the preparation phase, the needs of the community are assessed and the viable outcomes are identified. The core content of the curriculum to be learned through the service learning project must be identified. Additionally, the teacher must distinguish the civic or social knowledge and/or skill to be learned during the project. Eyler and Gites (1997) concluded that the extent to which service activity is integrated into the curriculum is a strong indication of the successfulness of the service learning program. The teacher and the involved community members must collaboratively plan the instructional project and identify roles and responsibilities of all members involved. Also, students must be prepared for assuming their role, understanding the learning outcomes, and demonstrating the expected social behaviors. Bradley (1997) reported that a program that offers students repeated opportunities for at least one school year under the supervision of a caring adult is likely to be have a much greater impact than projects of shorter duration. Additionally, if the project is one that the student is interested in, then the student will be more engaged and the project will have greater impact. These are issues that need to be taken into account during the planning phase.

During the action phase, the teacher facilitates the knowledge and skills needed by the students in order to initiate and complete the service learning project. The service learning activity will be implemented during this phase. The project should be continuously assessed by the teacher, the students, and the community members involved. If needed, the activities are corrected and adjusted in the action phase.

Service learning involves the component of reflection, which is done continuously during the planning, and implementation through writing, speaking, and demonstrating. Students must be engaged in the evaluation and assessment of the project; teachers should link the activities so students have the opportunity to understand the meaning and impact of their efforts. Research conducted on the reflection phase of service learning found that when reflection is present in the project, students are less likely to drop out of school. When reflection is not present, the program has a negative impact on students. This is important to consider when having service learning, or community service, as a requirement for graduation. Blyth, Saito, and Berkas (1997) found that without reflection, students feel less responsibility toward serving others, civic involvement, and the environment. The reflection component enables the student to make a connection between what they are doing and what they are learning.

The last essential component identified by Burns (1998) is the demonstration/recognition aspect. The students, as well as all others involved, should be recognized. It is recommended that the students be involved in the reporting to local newspaper publishers and news reporters to publicly recognize their accomplishments.

Research Studies On Service Learning

Outcome studies conducted on service learning are not as prevalent as articles discussing the concept and implementation of service learning programs. Researchers who have investigated the claims of service learning report only a small research base to support program effectiveness (e.g., Bradley, 1997; Chapin, 1998). One reason for the lack of research support may be the confusion about what service learning actually is. A second reason may be that researchers are in a quandary about the appropriate research focus. Advocates of service learning are most interested in changes in student's attitudes and behaviors. However, as Serow (1997) pointed out, program evaluators are challenged to not only capture the essence of the service learning experience, but also to show that students are converting that experience into other outcomes. This change often takes more than one school year to appear but the service learning programs usually last less than that. Therefore, the long-term benefits for individual students involved in service learning projects are difficult to assess.

Additionally, Lipka (1997) indicated there is little research available to inform about a connection between service learning and adult life in terms of persistent, long-range effects on behavior, attitudes and predispositions. As a result, educators are left to assumption and estimation to determine the effectiveness of the service learning programs. He suggested that if school programs are to incorporate service learning, the evidence of future consequences on students should be based on reasonable empirical evidence.

Conrad and Hedin (1997) reported that educators may be reluctant to adopt service learning programs because there is a lack of evidence to demonstrate that these programs result in any higher scores on tests of academic achievement than do traditional approaches. Additionally, they are concerned about a lack of a clear theory that describes the process by which service learning enhances academic achievement or life success.

In the last several years, Search Institute has been involved in the evaluation of the National Service-Learning Initiative and the Generator Schools Project. The evaluation efforts are managed by the National Youth Leadership Council and receive funding from the Kellogg Foundation and the Dewitt Wallace - Reader's Digest Fund. A majority of the research has focused on the impact of training and the processes that the initiatives have used to implement quality service learning programs. Additionally, the institute developed a set of surveys designed to explore the impact of service learning on youth. Results of these surveys indicated that service learning was a positive experience for the students involved. Benefits included the youth getting to know the people that they helped, feeling involved in what they were doing, and realizing that it feels good to help others. The students completing the surveys did not believe that the service experience improved basic academic skills; however, it was reported that the students did believe that the experience made them think more deeply about issues that they normally did not think about.

This research is similar to the conclusions presented at the Service Learning Summit held in 1995. At this Summit, experts stated that emphasis should be placed on the positive benefits of service learning on improving critical thinking and problem solving abilities rather than focusing primarily on academic skills. Blyth, Saito, and Berkas (1997) supported the idea that quality service learning experiences may have more to do with how they help youth think and work together in teams than in  the improvement of  basic academic skills.

Kromer and Hitch (1994) described four areas in which students benefited from service learning:

Sheckley and Keeton (1997) stated that when evaluative research has been done on service learning programs, findings supported the conclusion that service learning promoted:

In summary, the limited research showed that benefits occurred for students involved in service learning programs. A major conclusion was that "service learning connects young people to their community, placing them in challenging situations where they associate with adults and accumulate experiences that can strengthen traditional academic studies" (Anonymous,1997c). In general, students learn to connect the traditional academic classroom experience with life in the community. The impact of service learning, for the most part, appears to be on factors other than academic content, although these outcome are important for life success in the 21st century.

Certainly a new paradigm for evaluation of service learning programs that takes into account the interests of everyone involved as well as the limitations of current research and evaluation methods must be developed if we are to accurately evaluate the benefits of these programs. Ultimately, research into the long-term effects must be conducted.

Successful Models Of Service Learning

The Student Service Alliance, established in 1988 by the Maryland Department of Education to facilitate the development of service learning programs, has become a viable model for service learning throughout the United States (Burns, 1998). Additionally, the Generator School Project and National Service Learning Leader Schools are searching for other exemplary programs that incorporate the essential elements of service learning. The Generator School Project is a broad part of the National Service Learning Initiative. A Generator School is a K-8 grade school selected to participate in this project because it is committed to developing effective practices of service learning. Each school selected received a grant to help integrate service learning into its curriculum (Generator School Project: Background). The National Service Learning Leader Schools program is a new Presidential Initiative that will recognize high schools from across the country for high quality service learning. Through this recognition, the initiative is seeking to encourage and increase service learning opportunities for American students. The National Service Learning Leader Schools must demonstrate that the service learning component enhances student learning, addresses the needs of the community, is well integrated into the school, and is designed to foster civic responsibility. The selected Leader Schools will serve as models of excellence and will encourage and assist other schools in integrating service learning into their curriculum (National Service-Learning Leader Schools: About Leader Schools).

Summary and Conclusions

Burns (1998) identified several barriers to implementing a successful learning program. He stated "Barriers to successful service learning programs are both practical and perceptual: practical in that appropriate resources may be unavailable and perceptual in that some people doubt the value of such programs" (p. 41). Another barrier to service learning is the number of teachers that are unwilling to use service learning in their classrooms. Few coordinators are available for service learning programs in the schools and this leaves all of the work to fall on the classroom teacher. Making the contact with the community agencies and supervising the activities are often too time consuming for the teacher to commit to (Chapin, 1998). Funding is also an issue when considering barriers to service learning. Although the National and Community Service Act of 1990 and the National Service Trust Act of 1993 have provided funds for states for school based service learning, most classroom teachers have not been professionally trained on the techniques of incorporating service into their curriculum. Only a few organizations, such as the Social Science Education Consortium (SSEC) and centers funded by the federal government, have conducted training for those involved in school based community service projects. These training projects have reached only a very limited audience (Chapin, 1998).

Sevice learning is designed to make classroom learning relevant and to help student's apply their learning beyond the school setting. While research has shown some benefits of service learning, there is a lack of strong research backing long-term student effects. Bradley (1997) identified two components of the evaluation challenge that faces service learning practitioners. The first is that careful attention must be paid to the design and implementation of programs. It must be clear to students, teachers, and outside observers what quality service learning programs look like and what the benefits of these programs are. In addition, equal attention must be paid to evaluation of outcomes of service learning programs.

Evaluation of both processes and outcomes should be an integral part of any carefully designed program and more work needs to be done. Nevertheless, early results show promise that service learning is an educationally sound way to combine the needs of schools, students, communities, and parents. It connects students to their community and places them in challenging situations where they can strengthen skills and personal qualities identified as important to success in the information age, including academic studies. It is certainly an educational renewal idea that deserves more study.