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Impact of service learning on the cognitive and affective development of pre-service teachers.


This study investigates the results from a Service Learning experience with pre-service teachers in the Masters TESOL (Teaching English to Students of Other Languages) program at a Midwest state university. The project involved university students helping immigrants and refugees improve their proficiency in English at community agency programs. The data analysis showed that the project had an impact on students' academic improvement, growth in civic capacity, interpersonal, and occupational skills.


Recently an increasing number of teacher education programs have started to incorporate service learning in their curricula in an attempt to better prepare teachers for their future work with diverse populations. Service learning, unlike other service activities, represents a synergistic model whereby the students' community service experiences are integrated with the academic learning objectives of different courses.

The goals of higher education programs with Service Learning components are different. Some try to provide prospective teachers with knowledge about pedagogy of school based service, others claim that their goal is to foster teachers' moral knowledge and orientation toward care, still others try to promote civic engagement and sensitivity to the needs of learners with diverse backgrounds and special needs (Root, 1997). Despite differences in the programs' goals they all report positive effects on their teacher education students from the implementation of service learning projects (Wade, 1995; Astin, A. & Sax, L., 1998; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Eyler, Giles & Gray; 1999).

Most reviews of service learning research point out that in the future we should focus more on the effect of service learning on improving not only students' affective but also academic knowledge In order to study the impact of service learning on students' subject matter knowledge, we need to look at the different disciplinary communities where service learning is practiced. As Zlotkowski (2000) noticed in his most recent review of discipline-related service learning projects, "what we know about its [i.e. service learning] discipline-specific efficacy is very limited" (p.61). The same author suggests two areas for Service Learning research within the different disciplines at the level of graduate education: (1) Service Learning as a pedagogy within discipline-specific graduate programs and (2) the impact of graduate Service Learning experiences on professional perspectives, priorities and competencies.

The review of the literature on discipline specific projects in Service Learning reveals almost no studies in the field of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other languages). The National Service Learning Clearinghouse at the University of Minnesota lists only eight studies on Service Learning in foreign language education and out of these only one (Bennett-Cumming, 1993) is in English as a Second Language (ESL). At the TESOL convention 2000 there were only two presentations on the topic (Biava, 2000; Wurr, 2000). All of these studies report on service learning projects with ESL students. There seems to be a clear need to look at the way service learning affects not only the ESL students but also pre-service ESL teachers.

The study

The study was conducted as a pilot project in Service Learning with MA students from the TESOL program at a Midwestern urban state university. The project required that students provide 10 hours of service while tutoring immigrants and refugees in ESL at community agency programs. The project aimed at equally benefiting the providers and the recipients of the service by ensuring an equal focus on both the service provided as well as the learning occurring.


All students registered for the TESOL Methods class during the Spring semester of 2000 participated in this pilot study. Eight of the students were female and two were male. Two of them were African American, one was Chinese, and the rest were Caucasian Americans.


The project was developed as part of the requirements for the course in TESOL Methods. This course offers students opportunities to develop both content and experiential knowledge in the teaching of English as a Second Language. The service learning component was added to assist students in gaining experiential knowledge. Students were required to help meet the needs of LEP (limited English proficiency) immigrants by tutoring them in English at several community service agencies. Before they were allowed to tutor, students had to observe the teachers and prepare materials for their lessons. To make the service a meaningful academic learning experience, students were asked to keep reflective journals in which they were to reflect on and analyze their experiences at the different sites. Later they discussed their experiences in class as part of their studies of different theories and factors involved in the process of teaching and studying a foreign language. At the end of the semester all students wrote a final paper, participated in a focus group discussion, and completed a survey.

Data Analysis

The students reflections, final papers, and transcripts from the discussions added up to about 150 pages of text which was analyzed using qualitative methods of analytic induction (LeCompte & Preissle, 1993,) To complement these data, a multi-domain assessment survey, adapted from Barbara Baird' (1998), was used at the end of the course (see Appendix A). Descriptive statistics from the survey are reported in Table 1.


Analysis of the qualitative data shows that the project had a great impact on student learning in both the cognitive and affective domains. The repeated analysis of the reflections and transcripts revealed several recurring themes. We will examine the ones that seemed to have had a significant impact on the students' development.

Academic development

The data revealed that what students valued most about this project was the ability to connect subject matter to the real world. Students seemed to appreciate the enriched context of classroom learning that the project provided as well as the opportunity to apply the knowledge gained in class to real-life situations in their own community. It is important to note that for some of these students this was a first encounter with the world of ESL teaching. They seemed to value the opportunity to make their first steps in teaching in the non-threatening atmosphere of a community agency as compared to a regular classroom in a public school. This is how one student comments on her service learning experience:
 I have learned a lot in this course but my learning has been greatly
 enhanced by what I learned at the community agency. There are certain
 lessons that one can only learn from experience--interaction, visual
 assessment, specific cultural patterns, student attitudes, impromptu
 speaking, speaking at a level that your students can understand, and many
 others. I now see that while reading about how to effectively teach in an
 ESL environment is valuable, it can in no way replace the education you get
 from actually being in that situation. I used my knowledge gained in our
 college sessions as a jumping off point in my experiences in the classroom.
 It was challenging but rewarding because by means of trial and error I was
 able to see what methods worked best to fit the needs of my students and
 which didn't. (participant No.4)

The results from the qualitative analysis were supported by the students' answers to the survey. Academic learning along with interpersonal skills received the highest ratings (M = 4.2) among the five categories measured (see Table 1).

Interpersonal (Social) skills

Within the social domain the results from this study seem to support the findings from previous research (Crosman, 1989; Melchior and Orr, 1995; Waterman, 1993 and Williams, 1993) of significant gains in social responsibility. In their reflections students often talked about their increased feeling of community connectedness and ability to work cooperatively with others. They reflected on their greater sense of usefulness and satisfaction with the service as a worthy experience. In addition to that, the pre-service teachers were pleased that the project had given them an opportunity to explore their risk tolerance. They also seemed to value highly the deeper understanding and appreciation of people with diverse backgrounds and life situations, which they gained through participating in this experience. This is probably one of the most important results in view of the participants' program of study and their own cultural background. With one exception (a Chinese student) all pre-service teachers were middle class Americans. Most of them had never had any experiences working with diverse populations, yet they knew that in the future they would be teaching students from different cultures. Here is what one of them had to say about this:
 This project enabled me to broaden my understanding of different realities.
 In teaching high school foreign language I have the same native language
 and customs as my students. When working with a non-native speaker for this
 project I became more aware of the need not to take customs and gestures
 for granted. For example in my student's culture lowering the head and not
 making eye contact is a sign of respect. However, in the American culture
 this is seen as a sign of disrespect. (participant No.2)

During our class discussions we often talked about stereotypes and what it takes to break them. Several students mentioned that this project had helped them challenge their stereotypes and prejudices. For example, one student found out that, contrary to general beliefs, Asian students can participate actively in class if the teacher uses appropriate strategies. Another student worked with Puerto-Rican students and was surprised at their enthusiasm and motivation to learn the language. Before participating in this project she had different perceptions of this student population. Yet another student, who worked with immigrants from the ex Soviet Union, had this to say:
 I believe I gained a greater sense of empathy through my service learning
 project because the students shared with me their pains and struggles. The
 woman who lost her son and husband in Chernobyl, the discrimination they
 faced for being Jewish, the humiliation of going from educated
 professionals to illiterate foreigners, and their determination to become
 Americans and make better lives for themselves and their offspring have all
 challenged me to a greater awareness of why my profession is a noble
 profession indeed. I thought about the experiences my grandparents must
 have had and wondered if there were any people willing to reach out to
 them. I remembered how I was raised hating the monstrous Soviets because of
 fear and propaganda and how human they became before my eyes. I realized
 that no matter how open we are and want to be, we have limitations that can
 and need to be stretched. (Participant No. 5)

Growth in civic capacity

Another theme that kept recurring in the data dealt with the effect of the project on the students' growth in civic capacity. Students shared that the project boosted their self-confidence in their ability to contribute to our common goal to help improve the welfare of every member of our society. They talked about their increased awareness of community problems and social concerns. Most of the pre-service teachers had never worked with immigrants before and were unaware of the problems they have and the way communities deal with them. Through their involvement in the project students were given a chance to gain an in-depth understanding of the problems of this group in our society and engage in critical thinking about possible solutions of the issues. In their journals pre-service teachers wrote of their service learning as a means for instilling attitudes and skills basic to their future adjustment to the profession and responsible citizenship. For example:
 The disparity in the resources for inner city kids and suburban kids is
 pretty striking. The facility at this agency is just not conductive to
 enrichment at all. If there's anything I'm ashamed of, as an American, it's
 the disgraceful disparity in education offered to poor children and
 well-off children. I think service learning projects make you aware of the
 needs of the community that you just wouldn't see otherwise. And they also
 remind you that service learning is truly a two way street. (Participant
 No. 1)

Citizenship outcomes that were measured through the students' responses to the survey included awareness of community problems and social concerns, capacity to contribute to society, belief that helping others in need is one's social responsibility, and preparedness for responsible citizenship. The highest rating (M = 4.3) of these four categories was given to the capacity of students to contribute to society (question No. 2, part V).

Occupational skills

The final theme that I would like to discuss deals with the degree of change in the pre-service teachers' awareness of occupational factors. Students olden mentioned that the service learning experience helped them get a more realistic picture of the ESL work setting and the type of student population they will be teaching. Many students were pleased to find out that they could work with students of different age groups and language and culture backgrounds. The Chinese student, for example, reflected on her newly gained self-confidence when she found out that "there were job opportunities for non-native speakers of English" and that she "could help not only Asian students but many more other people in the future."

Even though most of the students worked full-time, their participation in the project seemed to have given them a chance to explore a future career. As a result of participating in this project, two students reported deciding to actually change their career:
 I am eternally grateful to have been involved in this project. I found this
 assignment to be very rewarding and I hope to soon put to use what I
 learned in a full time position as an ESL instructor. Of all the benefits I
 have received by participating in the service learning project, the one
 that stands out the most, is that a new avenue of teaching has been opened
 up to me. This has so impacted me that now this is the direction I would
 like to go in my future career as a teacher. Thank you for the opportunity
 and enlightenment. (participant # 4)

See issue's website <>.


This project was conducted with only one class over a period of 15 weeks. The results from it should be considered tentative and applicable only to this specific study. What we have found, given these limitations, is that the course when supplemented by the service learning component had a beneficial effect upon the students. It seems that the project helped them to better understand the multitude of variables that influence EFL education. All students expressed their satisfaction with the opportunity they were given to get a real picture of their future work environment. They were able to observe and apply different methods of ESL teaching at the different sites. Their experiences provided ample material for class discussions complementing the theory with lessons from real life.

These findings illustrate both gains achieved and lessons learned by the pre-service teachers and their professor. Additional research is necessary to investigate more variables that affect teacher education programs in TESOL when supplemented by service learning. Future studies may try to compare courses which include service learning with others without such components to investigate for any gains in academic achievement. Another aspect that needs to be studied is the relationships developed between community agencies and service providers. Yet another issue that needs further investigation is the possibility of reciprocity i.e. the service recipients' role as active participants in the teacher education programs. The immigrants' stories can serve as an invaluable source of knowledge for pre-service teachers. Through activities as the above mentioned, Service Learning can provide TESOL pre-service teachers with powerful educational experiences.


The project was supported by a FASL(Fund for the Advancement of Service learning) research grant.


Astin, A. & L. Sax (1998). How undergraduates are affected by service participation. Journal of College Student Development, 39 (3), (pp. 251-263).

Baird, B. (1998). Rationale for measuring multiple domains when conducting service learning student evaluation. In Pickeral, T. & K. Peters (Eds.). Assessing Internal and External Outcomes of Service-Learning Collaborations. (pp. 17-21). Learn and Serve America

Bennett-Cumming, R. (1993). ESL Teaching Lab Project. National Service Learning Clearinghouse at the university of Minnesota.

Biava, C. (2000). Community Service in an introductory TESOL course. Paper presented at the 35th TESOL Convention, Vancouver, BC.

Crosman, M. (1989). The effects of required community service on the development of self-esteem, personal and social responsibility of high school students in a Fiends School. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Lancaster Theological Seminary.

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

Eyler, J., D. Giles & Gray, C. (1999) At a glance: Summary and annotated bibliography of recent service-learning research in higher education. Minneapolis: Learn and Serve America National Service-Learning Clearinghouse.

LeCompte, M., & J. Preissle (1993). Ethnography and qualitative design in educational research. San Diego: Academic Press.

Melchior, A. & L. Orr (1995). Final report: National evaluation of Serve America. Cambridge, MA: Abt Associates.

Root, S. & T. Batchelder (1994). The impact of service learning on pre-service teacher development. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association., San Francisco.

Root, S. (1997). School-Based Service: A Review of Research for Teacher Educators. In Erickson, J. and J. Anderson (Eds.). Learning with the community. Concepts and Models for Service Learning in Teacher Education. AAHE (pp.42-72).

Wade, R. (1995) Developing active citizens: Community service learning in Social Studies Teacher Education. The Social Studies, 85 (pp.122-128).

Waterman, A. (1993). Conducting research on reflective activities in service learning. In Silcox, H. (Ed.) How to guide to reflection: Adding cognitive learning to community service programs. (pp. 90-99). Philadelphia, PA: Brighton Press.

Williams, R. (1993). The effects of required community service on the process of developing responsibility in suburban youth. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Wurr, A. (2000). Service Learning in ESL composition. Paper presented at the 35th TESOL Convention, Vancouver, BC.

Zlotkowski, E. (2000). Service-Learning Research in the Disciplines. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Fall (pp. 61-67).

Dr. Maria Angelova is an assistant professor in TESOL. Her research interests are in teacher education, service learning and technology in education.
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Author:Angelova, Maria
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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