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Studying Service-Learning: Innovations in Education Research and Methodology

Edited by Shelley H. Billig and Alan S. Waterman
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
272 pages
ISBN: 0-8058-4276-4
$27.50 (paperback)

Reviewed by

Virginia Kennedy

Department of Special Education
California State University, Northridge


Service learning, the pedagogical approach that connects service to academic learning, has rapidly increased in use at both the K-12 and college levels since its inception in the 1980s. Its parentage lies in long-standing volunteer programs and in cooperatives that tied colleges to their communities, while its siblings are approaches such as community service, experiential learning, and project-based learning. The CSU system has a growing involvement in service learning, which was strengthened by the CSU Board of Trustees' 2000 resolution that all students should have opportunities to participate in community service and service learning.

Studying Service-Learning: Innovations in Education Research Methodology (2003), edited by Shelley Billig and Alan Waterman, delves into the many challenges of conducting research in a new discipline that has been embraced by practitioners but is not yet firmly credible in the academic world. This book attempts both to describe the existing state of research in service learning and to elucidate the problems that must be addressed and resolved to ensure its longevity as a field of study.

The introduction to the volume identifies seven elements that are imperative to address: the definition of service learning; the lack of strong theoretical foundations; research design and methods; interpretation of results; dissemination; use of research for improving practice; and securing funding for more research. In the first chapter, Jeffrey Howard distinguishes between co-curricular service-learning experiences, such as those that take place during alternative spring break programs, and academic service learning that directly ties service to an academic course and its objectives. He then briefly describes the history of service-learning research from its origins in anecdotal accounts to its very recent development of a national strategic platform for researchers in this field. He notes that studies have convincingly demonstrated positive cognitive and affective outcomes for students and that evaluation studies have started to clarify the components of effective service-learning programs. However, problems common to educational research such as variability in settings, treatments, and individual student characteristics are challenges to generalizability and definitive outcomes. In particular, the community settings in which students serve are usually beyond the control of instructor and researcher, which compromises the equal treatment of individuals in a treatment group. The author calls for the development of new research paradigms that acknowledge the subjective nature of service-learning research and that bring in the communities that are served as co-generators of knowledge.

The next two chapters address definitional and epistemological issues. Furco points out how difficult it is to study a phenomenon that means many things to many people. He calls for studies that will tease out the specific features of service learning that distinguish it from other forms of experiential education. In order to move the field forward from its "mass of disconnected investigations" (p. 15), he calls for a comprehensive and systematic approach to studying the effects of service learning, which he names the "grand-design approach" (p. 25). This approach would seek to eliminate the many limitations of previous studies, from control groups to data analysis, and address a broad range of outcomes rather than just a few. It would also clearly identify the unit of analysis, and start to emphasize the study of individual students.

Waldstein then paints a picture of a field that has not yet clarified its theories of how and what knowledge is acquired through service. He points out that experiential learning methods place high value on the process of learning, which is less commonly studied and more difficult to look at than studying outcomes. He also believes that service-learning research should not be asked to "prove" itself as a pedagogy, but rather amass replicable studies that over time provide confidence in its utility. This author argues that problems with definitions that are too narrow, too broad, or used differently by the multiple disciplines that conduct service-learning research (he gives as examples hard data, rigorous methods, and normative behavior) present pitfalls for the researcher.

The following chapters delve into different parts of the research process, examining challenges and describing effective practices. Helpful charts that tie developmental and learning stages to specific service-learning projects and reflective activities are examples of how theory can guide design and evaluation. Waterman, in his discussion of the selection of outcome variables, advocates a switch to N = 1 research designs that test student gains, maintenance, and losses in the outcomes of study (academic, cognitive, attitudes, self-concept, etc.). By collecting in-depth information on each student before and after project implementation and studying several students simultaneously, the researcher can circumvent the effects of within-program and between-student variability and can distinguish between effects deriving from the program versus those arising from collateral, external events. The presentation of this complicated yet intriguing qualitative and quantitative approach would have benefited from one or two examples of the entire process.

The chapter by Fertman and Yugar on creating and utilizing databases for service-learning data management and research contained step-by-step design instructions, guidelines for effective use, and information about extant national databases that would be helpful to researchers. Hecht's discussion of research design and statistical analysis focuses on quantitative analyses, and carefully identifies the limitations of current approaches, from selection of assessment instruments to establishment of "real" versus statistical significance when the sample size is large. For example, she points out that the very students who might benefit most from hands-on, experiential learning could be the ones least likely to show their growth on traditional paper-and-pencil assessments. Her recommendations for a more robust and sophisticated level of study include pursuing a thorough understanding of program features before beginning an evaluation; considering the integrity and accuracy of program implementation (which might differ considerably from the program description on paper); and noting how a school's mission and a teacher's attitude towards service learning can affect results. It is also important to select constructs to study that can reasonably be expected to change as a result of an often brief service-learning experience. Recommendations for handling missing data, delineation between independent and dependent variables, and the use of Hierarchical Linear Models (Bryk & Raudenbush, 1992) conclude the chapter.

Bailis and Melchior take the approach of "lessons learned" in their chapter on conducting large-scale, multisite research and evaluation. Struggles to establish workable definitions, standards, and benchmarks of high-quality service-learning programs are cogently presented. The importance of having a detailed understanding of the purposes of the study and the program being studied (as well as the resources needed to gain these understandings) is stressed. Shumer's chapter on the development of his well-known Self-Assessment for Service Learning instrument is interesting and instructive in its description of the clarity of purpose, flexibility, and patience needed to collaboratively design and test a new instrument that could be valuable to both practitioners and researchers.

The purpose of Root's chapter is to advocate for service-learning research conducted by teachers, who, she argues, can provide insight into the contexts and real experiences of the students that can elude outside researchers. Not only is research conducted by its practitioners in keeping with the democratic nature of service learning, but its results are much more likely to be valuable to teachers and applied to their own practices. Conceptual frameworks and methodologies that could be used in this type of research are explored, and the example provided of a teacher-researcher project conducted under the guidance of university researchers is inspirational.

The following chapter by Anderson continues in the same vein by presenting a well-developed service-learning research program for preservice teachers. Procedures and results from two case studies of small-group research projects in local public schools are quite instructive. Lessons learned range from the necessity to anticipate intimidation and disillusionment with the difficulty of research to the motivation that arises when the research project is couched as a service-learning project itself.

This volume concludes with Pickeral, Hill, and Duckenfield's presentation of portraiture as a methodology for describing and analyzing service-learning programs. Drawing a picture of a program entails a process of determining a central guiding question, agreeing on dimensions within which to organize data, identifying themes as they emerge from the data, and pulling it all together in a writing style that is descriptive and unabashedly positive and committed to the project. Although a more thorough example of the entire process would have been useful, this approach's ability to strengthen programs through the very act of studying them is evident.

Studying Service-Learning contributes strongly to the maturing of this area of research with its openness about the problems associated with what and how it is studied. The tone of this book is very different from the impassioned, anecdote-reliant accounts that are persuasive to practitioners and the general public but that perhaps have limited the acceptance of service learning among researchers. This comprehensive compilation of the state of the field provides guideposts that will send researchers to the chapter authors' original works. Other than a distracting number of typographical errors, it is quite readable and provides both a variety of viewpoints and cohesion of purpose. This reviewer recommends it not only for faculty involved in or intrigued by service learning, but also for professionals in other "soft" areas of social science research.

Posted January 19, 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 Virginia Kennedy.

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