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Service-Learning and The First-Year Experience: Preparing Students for Personal Success and Civic Responsibility

Edited by Edward Zlotkowski
National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition
167 pages
ISBN: 1-889271-38-1
$35.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by

Debra David

Health Science Department
Director, Center for Service Learning
San José State University


The premise of this edited monograph is that first-year experience programs and service-learning pedagogy have overlapping goals, values, and challenges. First-year experience programs are designed to enhance the academic success of students in their first year of college through seminars, learning communities, and/or student support services. Service-learning pedagogy involves students' "active participation in meaningful and planned service experiences in the community that are directly related to course content" (see "What is Academic Service Learning?").

The contributors largely agree that course-based service learning has the potential to enhance the effectiveness of first-year experience programs. Participating in service learning during the first year of college may significantly increase students' successful development of academic, social, and personal skills as well as lifelong commitment to civic involvement. They also agree, however, that incorporating service learning in first-year programs is complex and requires careful planning and support.

The contributors include leading service-learning practitioners and researchers, many of whom have used and/or studied the use of service learning with first-year students. Their chapters are prefaced and summarized by John N. Gardner, a pioneer in the development and assessment of first-year experience programs. The primary audience for this volume is faculty members, administrators, and student-services staff directly involved with first-year experience and/or service-learning programs. It may also be of interest to other academic and support personnel concerned with improving undergraduate education.

There are few studies that directly examine service learning in first-year experience programs. The first section, "Making the Case for Service-Learning in the First Year of College," includes three chapters that extrapolate possible outcomes for service learning in first-year programming from research in related areas. Edward Zlotkowski argues that traditional disciplinary survey courses, typically using traditional lectures to cover content, seldom engage students in their academic work or help students understand the relevance of the discipline to contemporary world problems. Service learning is a promising strategy to overcome those limitations. Drawing on research on first-year college adjustment and on the outcomes of high school service-learning participation, Andrew Furco suggests that students who participate in service learning in high school may be better prepared to succeed in their first year of college and beyond. Lois J. Vogelgesang, Elaine K. Ikeda, Shannon K. Gilmartin, and Jennifer R. Keup summarize longitudinal research with a large national sample that examined how service learning and community service during the undergraduate years (not specifically during the first year) affects student outcomes. They found that participation in service shows significant positive effects on all 11 measures studied; course-based service was more beneficial than nonacademic service for all but 3 of the outcomes. (An executive summary (PDF) of that study can be found on the Higher Education Research Institute web site.) They also report on a pilot study of student development in the first year that included items on service learning and nonacademic service. It found that service, both generally and linked to a course, was associated with higher levels of satisfaction and retention. All three chapters note the limitations of existing studies and propose directions for future research.

The second section, "Looking at Today's Students," includes two chapters that focus on the diverse student backgrounds that may require different types of service learning in first-year programs. Marty Duckenfield, like Furco, considers participation in high school service learning a way to promote better adjustment to college, while also noting that the growing number of entering students with service-learning experience may need more sophisticated approaches in college. She recommends building on their knowledge and skills by using them to facilitate service learning among their peers. Tom O'Connoll discusses how the unique needs and life experiences of non-traditional adult students need to be considered in planning appropriate service-learning activities and other approaches to civic learning. Although these two chapters are well written and thought provoking, they are speculative; neither author describes actual first-year college programs involving service learning.

The third section, "Learning From Practice," offers six chapters grounded in diverse models of service learning within first-year experience programs. Four are from public universities, including CSU Fullerton (Kathy O'Byrne and Sylvia Alatorre Alva), University of Rhode Island (Jayne Richmond), Portland State University (Dilafruz Williams, Judy Patton, Richard Beyler, Martha Balshem, and Monica Halka), and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (Julie A. Hatcher, Robert G. Bringle, and Richard Muthiah). One is from a faith-based historically Black liberal arts college, LeMoyne-Owen College (Barbara S. Frankle and Femi I. Ajanaku). The last chapter in this section, co-authored by writing professors Thomas Deans from Haverford College and Nora Bacon from University of Nebraska-Omaha, examines service learning within the first-year composition course across multiple settings.

While all of the contributors in this section clearly support incorporating service-learning opportunities in first-year programming, they candidly acknowledge the pitfalls as well as the successes. Most give examples of efforts that didn't work well and suggest initial service-learning activities of modest scope. Several recommend making participation in first-year service-learning courses elective rather than required. All agree that service-learning components must be carefully selected and explicitly linked to first-year program goals. (The Deans and Bacon chapter provides particularly compelling discussion of how to connect course goals with appropriate service-learning activities. The pedagogy of service learning can potentially encourage engagement in learning, increased interaction with peers and faculty, critical thinking, improved retention rates, and personal growth among first-year students, but using it is neither simple nor a panacea.

The final section, "Summing Things Up," includes Gardner's integrative reflections and four additional program profiles (including one by Armeda Reitzel from Humboldt State University). Gardner's insightful closing chapter highlights many of the key lessons to be learned from these model programs. For example, he notes that none of the programs portrayed in the monograph describes service learning in the first year as a stand-alone intervention. They are all integrated with other reform efforts such as learning communities, academic affairs/student affairs partnerships, and/or first-year writing programs. Also, all rely on considerable support from service-learning offices and faculty development efforts. Gardner concludes with a recommendation that readers join with others on their campus to use ideas in the monograph as a catalyst to develop creative to enhance the experience of their own first-year students.

Overall, the chapters are clear and well organized. Most readers will probably find the last two sections most valuable because of their pragmatic focus. Evidence supporting the potential of service learning in first-year experience programs is still primarily anecdotal, but the ideas and examples presented in this volume indicate that it is an educational strategy that warrants serious consideration.

Posted February 10, 2005.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2005 by Debra David.

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