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Service-learning and civic education.

Abstract

This report intends to assess, through both qualitative and quantitative research, the overall impact of the Service-Learning Program on the civic education of college students at a small, public liberal arts institution. The research focuses on positive student outcomes, including student development, diversity issues, and academic achievement, all of which are related to service-learning as a teaching strategy.

Introduction

Over the past few decades, there has been a growing trend in academia to encourage student civic education and engagement, both on- and off-campus. This engagement takes many forms, ranging from one-time community service experiences to more extensive service-learning projects. Recent research demonstrates the growing importance of creating an engaged campus, supportive of student service within the community. According to Campus Compact, a national advocate for service-learning in higher education, opportunities for students to become civically engaged are necessary because "now more than ever, higher education is challenged to educate the leaders of tomorrow and to connect those future leaders with the world of today" (Hollander, et al., 2001).

For many advocates of civic engagement, student service is essential for promoting an understanding of the individual's roles within both the community and the larger American democratic system. According to Kerrissa Heffernan, civic engagement provides important lessons to students because it "illustrates the basic democratic tenet, that social bonds strengthen communities and institutions, and in doing so maintain the democratic process" (2002, 69). Student participants in the 2001 Wingspread Summit on Student Civic Engagement agreed, stating that they viewed service "as alternative politics, as a method of pursuing change in a democratic society [by] building relationships with others" (Long, 2002, 2). Service-learning naturally contributes to the development of this social cohesion and democratic involvement through its promotion of meaningful campus-community partnerships that enrich and support an engaged environment. In order to fully understand the impact of service-learning in promoting civic engagement, though, we must find adequate ways of assessing both the individual and institutional effects of service-learning programs in higher education.

The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey is a small, public liberal arts college nestled in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. The campus's proximity to Atlantic City and its communities affords students ideal opportunities for service-learning and other forms of civic engagement. The Service-Learning Program has been a part of Stockton's dedication to community involvement since 1991, and for ten years, the Service-Learning Coordinator has been a part-time student position. The primary goal of the Office of Service-Learning, overseen by the Office of Academic Affairs, is to involve students in meaningful community service related to the content of specific courses. Since the program began in the early 1990s, though, little had been done in the way of evaluating the program's impact on Stockton students and the institution as a whole. The program's rapid growth demanded an assessment of both the Office's resources and its ability to help facilitate the development of an engaged campus. Because the five academic years from 1998/99 to 2002/03 represented this growth so well, it was decided that a comprehensive qualitative and quantitative study would be completed for this period. The results demonstrate that without a doubt, the Service-Learning Program has had a significant impact on both the College and the student body at Stockton.

Research Methods

The information for this report was gathered largely from existing statistical reports produced in the Service-Learning Office over the five-year period studied. These reports provided the following information for the study: the number of students involved in the program, the total number of service hours completed, and the involvement of academic divisions in the program. After gathering and compiling this information into charts and graphs, trends were analyzed in proportion to general statistical trends in the College's admissions. The profile of the average service-learning student for each academic year was established by gathering specific information from existing records in the Office of Service-Learning. This information was also compiled into a database and analyzed for trends.

The qualitative research is based on a Five-Year Impact Survey that was distributed to past service-learning students in 2003. The questions on the survey were loosely based on an evaluation and assessment tool used by the Bonner Foundation to assess the impact of the Bonner Scholars Program on participating students. After receiving permission from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) on campus, the surveys were sent to randomly-selected service-learning students from each academic year. The only prerequisites to completing the survey were the following: 1) students must have participated in the Service-Learning Program between the specified academic years, and 2) students must have completed the minimum number of hours required by their respective professors. Surveys were completed anonymously. The quantitative and qualitative results of the surveys were then assessed for trends.

Impact on Students

Though the return rate of surveys was relatively low (only about 23% of students responded), the results are important to the development of the Service-Learning Program for several reasons. First, survey responses relate basic facts about students that have been involved in the program. Second, they provide valuable feedback concerning students' feelings about their service-learning experiences, particularly regarding the impact these experiences had on their civic participation and their understanding of academic coursework. Finally, student respondents provided the information necessary to gauge the overall institutional impact of the Service-Learning Program. These responses have been critical in helping the Office of Service-Learning assess strengths and weaknesses in the administration of the program. The students surveyed participated in a wide variety of service experiences. The following percentages, taken from the first half of the survey, demonstrate the distribution of social issues addressed by students: [2]

* 37% worked with children

* 29% addressed health-related issues

* 29% tutored, either adults or children

* 29% worked with the elderly

* 29% worked with hunger and homelessness issues

* 14% worked with substance abuse prevention and education

* 14% addressed environmental issues

The second half of the survey was primarily concerned with student outcomes. Students were asked to rank on a 1-5 scale the applicability of approximately 25 statements regarding the academic, personal and civic impacts of the respondents' service-learning experiences. A rating of one indicated complete agreement, while a rating of five indicated complete disagreement. [3] Out of the total number of students surveyed, only 28% believed that their service-learning experiences helped them learn academically. In turn, only 43% believed that their coursework enabled them to serve more effectively in the community. Though students' responses regarding the personal impact of their service-learning experiences were slightly more promising, they were still relatively unexceptional. Approximately 57% of students agreed that service-learning helped them identify issues of public concern that they might not have otherwise recognized. The same number felt that service-learning helped them acknowledge their personal prejudices about people in the community and reflect on the effects of these misconceptions.

While students' responses regarding personal and academic development were not particularly noteworthy, the overwhelming majority of students believed that their service-learning experiences contributed greatly to their understanding of civic engagement. All of the students surveyed believed that service-learning was an effective tool for promoting civic responsibility in students, while 86% agreed that their service experiences allowed them to positively impact community conditions. In addition, approximately 71% of students believed that service-learning helped them better understand the needs of the communities in which they served. The responses from the Five-Year Impact Survey have assisted the improvement of the Service-Learning Program in several ways. Though the program has done an exceptional job of promoting social awareness and civic engagement among students, the surveys indicated that the program needs to place more emphasis on the connection between service and academic learning. In addition, the program must also work to ensure that students are given adequate opportunities to reflect on the personal impact of their service-learning experiences.

Reflection activities before, during, and after the service-learning experience are important ways for students to understand the overall impact of their service-learning. Following assessment of the survey results, the Office of Service-Learning developed both short- and long-term goals in order to encourage dialogue and reflection among students, faculty, and community partners. Immediate changes included placing a greater emphasis on reflection during service-learning orientations for students and increasing support for faculty offering in-class reflection activities. One of the program's long-term goals involves seeking resources so that regular dialogues can be held among service-learning students, faculty, and community partners. By interacting with both faculty and community members in the reflection process, students are more likely to recognize the connection between academic work and service. In addition, dialogues that include diverse populations who can offer varied perspectives on service-learning issues may help students better understand the personal impacts of their service, particularly regarding underlying prejudices and misconceptions about the communities around them.

Institutional Impacts

The institutional impacts of the Service-Learning Program at Stockton have been significant. First, by offering students the opportunity to enrich themselves personally and academically while becoming civically involved in the community, Stockton has begun to establish an engaged campus for students and faculty. In doing so, the College has heightened its reputation for integrity within the communities surrounding the campus. As a result, these communities view the College as a valuable resource and seek out campus-community partnerships that take the form of internships, service-learning projects, and Day of Service activities. Thus, students and faculty are offered further opportunities for community cooperation. In addition, the Service-Learning Program has helped dispel the notion of the academy as an autonomous entity within the community; rather, the College has become an active and fully integrated member of the community.

Service-learning has also proven a valuable asset to faculty who are interested in professional development centered around civic engagement. Many Stockton faculty who have chosen to incorporate service-learning into their courses have also been active in promoting service-learning through conference participation, grant-seeking, communication with other faculty members, and publication in peer-review journals. Not only does this dedication to service-learning improve the engaged campus environment, but it also conveys the value of service to students. In addition, it establishes a direct link between civic engagement and professional development that validates the relationship between faculty members and the community in a practical way.

The "trickle-down" effect of the Service-Learning Program at Stockton has perhaps been the most powerful institutional benefit. According to Andrew Furco, a service-learning expert, "service-learning must become part of an institution's academic fabric so it can be legitimized by the faculty and supported by the administration" (2002, 40). Throughout service-learning's 13-year history at Stockton, the program has continued to gain this necessary recognition as a valid and beneficial tool for promoting civic engagement and academic development among the College's student population. Over time, the program has become a valuable resource, both on- and off-campus, for students and community members interested in conducting service projects, members of the administration initiating college-wide civic engagement programs, and faculty applying for grants to further promote service on campus. The Service-Learning Program has been invaluable in its capacity to encourage students, faculty and community members to initiate civic engagement projects.

In 2002, Stockton was awarded a three-year Bildner Grant for Community Inclusion that would help promote diversity to 250 incoming freshmen; the grant was to be partially facilitated through the Office of Service-Learning. The receipt of this prestigious grant was largely due to the College's continued efforts to promote engagement among faculty and students at Stockton. In addition to the grant, faculty and administration at the College have recently been involved in establishing a Democracy Matters group and a grant-funded Dialogues in Democracy program on-campus. The growth of such programs in recent years has led to the establishment of a Working Group on Civic Engagement Initiatives to further integrate these programs into campus life. As an integrated member of the Stockton community, the Office of Service-Learning has been vital in encouraging faculty and administrators to take such measures.

Conclusion

Despite its long history, the Service-Learning Program at Stockton College is still relatively small, attracting only a few hundred students each year. Yet, the program has been essential in establishing experiential education as a valuable form of civic engagement and academic enrichment within the campus community. The Service-Learning Program does not exist in a vacuum; rather, it is necessarily tied in with other campus and community initiatives that strive towards similar goals. The cooperation of like-minded organizations in creating an engaged campus is necessary in order to produce positive impacts on both the individual and the institution. Likewise, the program must continue to enlist the active support of students, faculty, and administrators in order to grow effectively. Regular assessment is also necessary in order to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the program as it expands in size and scope.

Endnotes

[1] Bonner Scholars (2001). 2001 Midpoint Impact Survey for Bonner Scholars in Their Third Year of College. Retrieved 24 May 2003 from the Compendium of Assessment and Research Tools (CART): http://cart.rmcdenver.com/instruments/bonner_student.pdf.

[2] Many students participated in service-learning activities that involved one or more of the issues listed here. In addition, approximately 57% of the student survey respondents participated in more than one service-learning experience for the five-year period studied. Thus, there was significant overlapping in the focus of their projects.

[3] These percentages were found by combining the total number of students who gave a ranking of either one or two to the appropriate statements. A ranking of three or higher was not considered in this section.

References

Carnegie Corporation, & CIRCLE (2003). The Civic Mission of Schools. New York: CIRCLE & Carnegie Corporation.

Furco, Andrew (2002). Institutionalizing Service-Learning in Higher Education. Journal of Public Affairs, Supplemental Issue 1: Civic Engagement & Higher Education, VI. (39-67).

Heffernan, Kerrissa (2002). Civic Lessons. Journal of Public Affairs, Supplemental Issue 1: Civic Engagement & Higher Education, VI. (69-81).

Hollander, E., Burack, C., & Holland, B. (2001). Defining the Engaged Campus. Retrieved 24 May 2003 from Campus Compact: http://www.compact.org/ advancedtoolkit/defining.html.

Long, Sarah (2002). The New Student Politics: The Wingspread Statement on Student Civic Engagement (2nd ed.). Providence: Campus Compact.

Tara N. Fayter, Richard Stockton College of NJ

Tara Fayter has been the Service-Learning Coordinator at Stockton College since 2001.
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Author:Fayter, Tara N.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2005
Words:2358
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