Service learning is a pedagogical methodology that enriches not only students but also faculty. It requires an intense process of collaboration between students, faculty, private and public organizations, and people in the community at large. This article presents some reflections on service learning coming from a faculty member and an undergraduate student at CSU Fresno.
A Studentís Viewpoint
Service learning is an experiential educational approach in which students learn a body of theory related to the course, in addition to communication and team working skills. In this methodology, students build knowledge based upon their present and past experiences (Glenn, 2006).
As an undergraduate student, I have developed my own definition of service learning. Service learning is a process in which students learn to recognize each otherís contributions to the community, to recognize their own roles and responsibilities towards society, and to show respect for each otherís ideas and input.
It is important for students to understand that service-learning courses demand a high level of responsibility and ethical standards. Students make a commitment to themselves, the instructor, and the community. There are demands in terms of time availability. Students must adjust to the needs of the population they are working with, and make accommodations in their class schedules, coursework, and extracurricular activities to comply with their community-related assignments.
Although studentsí personal views are kept and respected in service learning, there is an implicit expectation that they will comply with the behavioral patterns and cultural values of the community they are working with. For instance, students who strongly believe in the freedom of individual expression in dress may need to adjust those expressions to accommodate the social norms prevalent in the community where they have their service-learning experience. Ideally, there should be congruence between the values of the student, the participating organizations, and the community at large.
Service-learning courses are intense and demanding, but they are also very worthwhile. The real life experiences students gain are invaluable and help strengthen the studentsí professional portfolios. Civic engagement and community service are relevant outcomes of service learning, in addition to increased multicultural understanding of societal issues, and the development of peaceful conflict-resolution skills.
Would I recommend service-learning courses to my peers? Absolutely yes! They are not easy classes, but they are courses that students will remember forever.
The benefits of service learning have been amply documented in the professional literature. The benefits for students have been comprehensively addressed by Astin, Vogelgesang, Ikeda, & Yee (2000) who conducted a study on service learning in 1998 with 22,236 undergraduate students in colleges and universities in the U.S. The results indicated that service learning positively influenced the studentsí GPAs, writing and critical thinking skills, cross-cultural understanding, self-efficacy, leadership ability, interpersonal skills, and choice of a service career (Astin et al., 2000). Service learning has proven to be a very effective methodology for student learning. Additional student benefits have been documented in the literature:
- Motivational reinforcement to learn.
- A sense of professional self-confidence.
- Increased opportunities for interactions with community members and other learners.
- Values clarification.
- Multicultural awareness.
(Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching,
2006: Eyler, Giles, & Schmiede, 1996).
Research also shows several benefits to the university and the community:
- Active involvement of private and public agencies in the student learning process.
- Increased community knowledge of academic programs.
- Response to community needs (Chandler-Gilbert Community College [CGCC], 2006).
- Stronger university presence in the community with greater trust among constituents.
Although the benefits to students and the community are ample, it is my opinion that the benefits to the faculty are even greater:
- More-cohesive classroom interactions.
- Use of studentsí past experiences to enhance learning.
- Establishment of relationships with the community (CGCC, 2006).
In my experience teaching civic engagement courses, I often find myself learning through the process of community involvement and participation. The lessons taught to faculty by community members and students go beyond the classroom experience. Some of my service-learning courses have involved working with immigrant farm workers living in rural areas of California. In these interactions, I have learned to recognize the struggles of immigrant populations, to admire their tenacity, and to appreciate the incredible wealth of knowledge coming from their life experiences. It is very humbling for me to see how community members are willing to volunteer for participatory events, even when they take place after a long day working in the fields.
In my service-learning courses, I have also learned that students, faculty, and community members create an alliance in which each of them becomes a key player. Service-learning programs require solid coordination processes that should start at least one semester before the actual learning experience. In this coordination process, students, community representatives, and involved private or public organizations should be invited to participate in the building of the course syllabus and the design of learning outcomes assessment.
From my students involved in service learning, I have learned about their intrinsic motivation. Service-learning opportunities allow students to channel that intrinsic motivation towards their personal and professional development. My student coauthor is an excellent example of this premise.
His role was to facilitate the development of a community theater for health education. This community theater is composed of students and agricultural workers. After the class ended, this student continues to be committed to this project even though he is not receiving academic credit for it. The community theater formed as part of his service learning performs scenarios on childhood obesity, diabetes, and cancer education to rural communities in the Central California Valley. The community theater has also presented at academic and scientific events such as teaching and learning conferences, and participated in Bi-national Health Week, a collaborative effort between health professionals in Mexico and the U.S.
Through his interactions with community members in focus groups and participatory assemblies, the student developed a very strong sense of belongingness and leadership in the field of health education. The leadership skills he developed in his service-learning experience have served him in other areas of professional performance, such as participation in standing committees and advocacy in health education organizations. In addition, service learning has helped him define his role as a health educator and his commitment to reduce health disparities.
My major point in this article is to motivate faculty to include service learning and civic engagement opportunities in their courses. Service-learning projects require hard work, but they represent an invaluable opportunity for growth, not only for students and community, but also for faculty.
Astin, A., Vogelgesang, L., Ikeda, E., and Yee, J. (2000). How
service learning affects students. Higher Education Research Institute. University
of California, Los Angeles. Report available at www.gseis.ucla.edu/heri.
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (2006). Higher education and the development of moral and civic responsibility. Available at carnegiefoundation.org. Accessed on March 12, 2006.
Chandler-Gilbert Community College (2006). Benefits of service learning.
Available at mcli.dist.maricopa.edu. Accessed
on March 11, 2006.
Eyler, J., Giles, D,, and Schmiede, A., Eds. (1996). A Practitionerís
Guide to Reflection in Service Learning: Student Voices and Reflections. Nashville: Vanderbilt University.
Glenn, J (2006). What is service learning? National Youth Leadership Council. Available at nylc.org. Accessed on March 11, 2006.
Posted November 15, 2006.
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Helda Pinzon-Perez and Mauricio Rodriguez.