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Bridging the gap for pre-service teachers.


Service-learning has proven to be an effective pedagogical approach to improving the teaching and learning environment. While many projects have focused on the impact of this method on student learning in general, fewer studies have looked specifically at its role in the preparation of student teachers. Using a community-based project, undergraduate students in a Physical Education Teacher Education program served as subjects for this two-year study. According to qualitative findings, these students reported that the service-learning experience had a direct impact on their collaborative skills, ability to apply their subject matter, their leadership skills, and ability to communicate their ideas in a real world context.


As the demand for quality educators increases nationally there is a need to examine the effectiveness of the undergraduate experience for pre-service teachers. Effective and meaningful teaching requires an ongoing commitment to pursue methodologies that will maximize the learning environment. This is especially the case as we prepare students for the teaching profession. As teacher educators we have a responsibility to go beyond methods that tend to promote passive reception of course content by our students. Rather, we should explore methods that support and encourage active student participation and application. In fact, McBeath (1991) recommends that effective teaching will move students from a dualistic stage of learning, characterized by a teacher dominated environment, to the commitment stage of learning, characterized by an inquiry centered environment. Collaborative teaching and learning methods foster such an environment. This technique works because the learning environment is a dynamic community whereby the learner and instructor work together as partners in the discovery, comprehension, and application of course content. We can further strengthen and expand this community to include community-based partners. This type of partnership can be illustrated using the service-learning model.

Service-learning can be a powerful educational tool because there is a link between course content and community needs. Furco (1996) suggests that ideally the service and learning components are of equal value whereby "service enhances learning and the learning enhances the service" (p.12). In other words, this pedagogical approach supports a reciprocal giving and receiving by all participants. As a result, benefits associated with service-learning projects include: 1) bridging the gap between theory and practice; 2) building partnerships between university and community affiliates; 3) meeting community needs; 4) applying course content in the real-world; and 5) providing opportunities for personal and social growth on the part of the undergraduate student.

While incorporating service-learning experiences into undergraduate programs has been a practice of university instructors for decades, a recent trend has focused on the usefulness of this tool as a component within teacher education programs (Barnes, 2002; LaMaster, 2001; Watson, Crandall, Hueglin, & Eisenman, 2002). Service-learning projects benefit pre-service teachers because of opportunities to learn and apply pedagogical methodologies, prepare for diverse school settings, participate in practicum experiences prior to student teaching, and understand their teaching responsibilities and abilities (Barnes, 2002; Paese, 1989; Watson et al., 2002).

LaMaster (2001) described the multidirectional impact of a service-learning experience that linked a university and a high school. University instructors and their undergraduate students, along with physical educators, their students and their principal, collaborated to resolve concerns related to lack of motivation, behavior management, and curriculum within a high school physical education program. The target outcomes for this project included early field experiences for the undergraduate students, teaching and motivational strategies for the high school teachers and improved motivational levels and participation of the high school students. Using a nontraditional games approach, the undergraduate students taught several physical education units to the high school students. Throughout the project the university and high school instructors worked together to assess the attitudes of undergraduate students as well as the effectiveness of the program. One major result was the impact the program had on the attitudes of the undergraduate students. A majority of these students felt that the experience helped to improve their abilities in becoming a better teacher. They also indicated that their initial contact with the high school students influenced their approach to teaching and their perspective of the students and the school.

In a similar vein, Watson and colleagues (2002) integrated service-learning experiences within their Physical Education Teacher Education curriculum. Using this approach the intent was to directly address content standards and guidelines for the preparation of beginning teachers in physical education. Watson et al. (2002) noted, "The hands-on nature of service-learning can create a learning environment that truly brings course content to life, enhancing critical-thinking skills, communication (written and spoken), and professional significance" (p. 52). Eyler and Giles (1999) suggest that skills such as leadership, application of course content, communication, and working with others are consistent with skills students will need when they enter the workplace.

While researchers are beginning to look at the role of service-learning experiences as a best practice approach to improve the quality of teacher education programs, additional investigation is warranted. The purpose of the following study was to investigate pre-service teachers' perceptions of the usefulness of a service-learning experience. Specifically of interest was the impact of a community-based project (CBP) on the development of their collaborative skills, ability to apply subject matter, enhancement of their leadership skills, and their ability to communicate their ideas in a real world context.


Setting and Participants

A comprehensive and multi-layered CBP was selected as the service-learning experience. The focus of this project was to increase the awareness of physical activity and nutrition to a total of 450 low income (annual income of $20,000 or below), predominantly Hispanic/Latino and African-American families and their preschool and elementary school children, middle school teens, pregnant high school students, and elders. The CBP was conducted over a two-year period. Participants in the project included 12 university supervisors, 115 undergraduate students, and 14 community sites (which included the site coordinators and site participants). For the purpose of this investigation data were collected on the undergraduate students in the Physical Education Teacher Education (PETE). The first year of the study included twenty-six PETE students enrolled in a required elementary physical education methods course while the second year involved twenty-seven students from a required secondary physical education methods course. The PETE students identified themselves as pre-service teachers with junior or senior status. Students were randomly placed into one of twelve multidisciplinary teams. All students signed a permission contract to participate in the CBP.

Each of the twelve multidisciplinary teams consisted of nine to twelve undergraduate students majoring in Child Development, Family and Environmental Sciences, Health Science, Kinesiology or Leisure Studies and Recreation. Each team was assigned to a designated community site. The number of Kinesiology majors per team ranged between two and four students. These sites included 3 middle schools (students from health, physical education and science classes), 2 pregnant teen sites, 8 community centers for young children (4 to 14 years of age), and a senior citizen center. Together team members developed and taught six one-hour presentations/lessons on physical activity and nutrition over a three-month span. Students estimated that 12 to 25 hours were necessary for planning, implementation and assessment throughout the project. Planning time and CBP site visits were done outside of the regular methods course time.

During the three-month CBP, approximately twenty minutes at the beginning of each methods course was devoted to student led discussion/reflection time. Students discussed their most current experiences working with the participants at the CBP sites and with students from other disciplines.

Data Sources and Analysis

At the conclusion of the first and second year of the CBP, PETE students completed a post project questionnaire. The questionnaire was designed using a four-point Likert scale. Thirteen questions were formulated according to theoretical tenets of service-learning (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Furco, 1996). The mean percentages for the quantitative data for both years yielded the following results: 1) collaboration (n=53, Strongly Agree= 61%; Agree= 65%), 2) application of subject matter (n=53, Strongly Agree= 38%; Agree= 61%), and 3) the enhancement of leadership skills (n=53, Strongly Agree= 51%; Agree= 57%).

Based upon student responses from the first year, additional questions were formulated to further examine the students' perceptions of their experiences in the CBP. Thus, qualitative data were collected at the end of the second year of the project using open-ended questions. The qualitative data were analyzed using a constant comparative method (Berg, 1998; Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Merriam, 1998). Employing this method, patterns in the data were identified and categorized. The data were then systematically receded through comparison and verification of the classification system. This was conducted to substantiate the accuracy of the categories. Collaboration, application of subject matter, and the enhancement of leadership skills were the three themes that emerged from the data. These themes mirrored the results from the quantitative data. To assure coding reliability, two independent researchers coded the data and reached an inter-rater agreement of 93.6%.



Using the National Standards for Beginning Physical Education Teachers (2002) as a framework, undergraduate PETE programs are expected to foster learning experiences that lead to effective teaching practices. Specifically Standard 10 (Collaboration), states that master teachers should be able to establish collaborative partnerships with agencies in the larger surrounding community. Undergraduate work is typically completed in isolation; subsequently, once students graduate many are not prepared to collaborate as team members (Ehrlich, 1997). Service-learning projects, on the other hand, require collaboration and team effort by all participants. The success of the current project was due largely in part to the collaborative efforts by undergraduate students, university instructors, and community leaders. Each team worked collaboratively to develop and deliver the various presentations. Team members also connected on a weekly basis with the university instructors to seek guidance, share information, and reflect on the presentations. It appeared that a majority of the pre-service teachers enjoyed working with their college peers from other majors. According to one student, "I learned a lot from the nutritional group." Another student reflected: "It gave me a chance to work with a team of people attempting the same ideas."

Application of Subject Matter

According to Barr and Tagg (1995) universities need to create environments that place students at the center of learning. These experiences actively engage students in the process of constructing, discovering, and applying content knowledge. For pre-service teachers, service-learning projects can provide a window into their future profession as well as a realistic training ground for the development of critical skills. In the current project, the PETE students were given opportunities to practice teaching skills related to content delivery, lesson planning, management, and assessment techniques. In fact, the majority of student responses to the open-ended questions emphasized their abilities to apply subject-specific knowledge to a real-world setting. According to one student, "Students have the opportunity to practice their future professions." Others stated, "It gave me ideas and experience"; "It provides situations that forced me to think on my feet"; "It gave me a chance to see what it's like in the real-world"; "I learned that you have to have several games prepared"; "Because this was a real-world setting it allowed me to use the skills I've learned" and "It helped me to see the students I will be working with."


When comparing traditional classroom instruction with that of service-learning experiences, the role of the undergraduate students change. Specifically, they move from a passive receptor of information to an active, contributing member of a larger community. Working alongside university instructors and community members the students are expected to complete real and meaningful work (Eyler & Giles, 1999). In the current project the multidisciplinary teams were comprised of undergraduate students from five different disciplines. Accordingly, each student on the team served as the resident "expert" representing his or her discipline. Together students shared and infused their content-specific knowledge base into the team presentations. Over the course of three months, pre-service teachers reported that the CBP positively impacted their ability to lead. One student stated, "Working with groups of students from different majors allows us to take an initiative to lead." Another reflected, "It's an opportunity to take charge of a lesson and do it the way you want to run it." Other students reported, "I expressed my views and ideas" and "I had to take charge and speak up in certain situations."

The PETE student comments furnished evidence that the CBP provided opportunities to develop and refine skills necessary to become successful future educators. In addition, it was apparent that they developed a realization of the benefits and values associated with their involvement in a service-learning project.


The idea that sound pedagogical skills can be developed and enhanced through a service-learning experience was supported by this study. Together the university students and supervisors worked alongside one another in the discovery and application of subject -specific content. Functioning as team members in the development and implementation of their presentations, the PETE students gained valuable experience in collaboration. The CBP provided an environment whereby the students actively practiced their teaching, leadership, and communication skills thus bridging the gap between theory and practice. According to the data, service-learning projects should be incorporated into teacher education programs.


Barnes, G.V. (2002). Opportunities in service learning. Music Educators Journal. 88(4), 42-47.

Barr, R.B. & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, 13-25.

Berg, B. (1998). Qualitative research methods for the social science (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Ehrlich, T. (1997). Civic learning: Democracy and education revisited. Educational Record, 57-65.

Eyler, J & Giles, D.E. (1999). Where's the Learning in Service Learning? San Francisco, CA: Jossey- Bass.

Furco, A. (1996). Service-learning: A balanced approach to experiential education. Expanding Boundaries: Serving and Learning. Washington DC: Corporation for National Service, 2-6.

Glaser, B. G. & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

LaMaster, K.J. (2001). Enhancing pre-service teachers field experiences through the addition of a service-learning component. The Journal of Experimental Education, 24(1), 27-33.

McBeath, R. J. (1991). Instructing and evaluating in higher education. A Guidebook for Planning Learning Outcomes. San Jose, CA: San Jose Sate University, Faculty and Instructional Development Office.

Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

National Association for Sport and Physical Education. (2002). National Standards for Beginning Education Teachers. Reston, VA. Author.

Paese, P. (1989). Field experiences and competencies for the future physical education teacher. CAHPERD Journal, 52(2), 18-20.

Watson, D. L., Crandall, J., Hueglin, S., & Eisenman, P. (2002). Incorporating service-learning into physical education teacher education programs. The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 73(5), 50-54.

Tami Abourezk, California State University, Northbridge

Debra L. Patterson, California State University, Northbridge

Dr. Abourezk is an associate professor in the department of Kinesiology. Her teaching and research interests are in the areas of pedagogy and motor learning/control. Dr. Patterson is an assistant professor in the department of Kinesiology.
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Author:Patterson, Debra L.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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