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Research on Student Civic Outcomes in Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Methods
Date Reviewed: January 25, 2018
Research on Student Civic Outcomes in Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Methods is the third volume in a series dedicated to research on service learning. This volume, with its timely focus on civic outcomes, is divided into three sections. It begins with an introduction to how student learning outcomes are embedded in service learning, then moves on to various theoretical frameworks by which one can situate research. It concludes with some nuts and bolts aspects of conducting research on student civic outcomes in service learning, defined as “a course or competency-based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students (a) participate in mutually identified service activities that benefit the community, and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of personal values and civic responsibility” (10).
All three chapters in Part One are useful to the novice in this research area. “Introduction to Research on Service Learning and Student Civic Outcomes” provides a taxonomy of service learning courses, with essential attributes and levels of development for instructors to improve the quality of civic learning opportunities within service learning courses along with clear factors for individual as well as institutional research and assessment. “Student Civic Outcomes in Higher Education” offers a helpful literature review of civic outcomes, while ”Student Civic Learning through Service Learning” concludes Part One with two pertinent questions: (1) What do we know about cultivating civic learning through service learning courses? (2) What do we still need to learn about how the variables of course design influence civic learning? One key point repeated in each chapter is that civic outcomes in service learning should focus on learning with others and not doing for others.
Part Two explores research on civic outcomes in service learning through multiple disciplines and theoretical perspectives including social psychology, political theory, educational theory, philanthropic studies, human development, community psychology, critical theories, and activity theory. The chapter “Critical Theories and Student Civic Outcomes” most directly questions the “individualistic” and “server-centered” approach to service learning (184), noting, for example, that serving at a soup kitchen often counts as service learning but protesting does not (187). A critique of the AAC&U Civic Engagement VALUE rubric is particularly thought-provoking on issues of access and power (187-190).
Part Three turns more directly to the how-to of conducting research with chapters on quantitative, qualitative, and longitudinal research along with chapters on institutional characteristics and using local and national datasets. One of the most interesting chapters in this section, “Documenting and Gathering Authentic Evidence of Student Civic Outcomes,” asks “What counts as good evidence of learning and for whom?” (303). The chapter identifies two challenges familiar to those who work with assessment: making outcomes explicit and collecting authentic evidence (304-305). Unfortunately, much existing research depends on indirect evidence, and the chapter recommends use of the AAC&U VALUE rubric along with ePortfolios to enable formative and summative assessment.
Each chapter of the volume concludes with an extensive reference section. The volume is worthwhile for teachers and researchers who want to improve students’ service learning as a site for civic engagement.
Reflecting on Service-Learning in Higher Education
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
M. Gail Hickey has gathered together a valuable resource in Reflecting on Service-Learning in Higher Education. The chapters provide a vast collection of best practices and important principles to consider when engaging students in academic service-learning. The book is divided into three sections focusing on different perspectives for reflection: Community Partnerships, Classroom Practice, and Diversity.
Although the first section is titled “Reflection on Community Partnerships,” it is really more a reflection on institutional commitment to building community partnerships. The section has two provocative chapters that take the reader through a reflection on just what impact an educational institution should have within its surrounding community and how service-learning can help the institution attend to the voices of the community in which it is placed. Sherrie Steiner’s principles for implementing reciprocity provide a great framework for institutions and faculty to consider while developing service-learning curriculums. Joe D. Nichols asks important questions about the focus on research and specialization at the expense of community and civic engagement and draws from multiple sources to foster reflection around alternatives to faculty recognition of such public work.
“Reflecting on Classroom Practice” is the second and largest section of the book. Each chapter offers a perspective on how service-learning has worked in a particular context. This collection of cases from fields as varied as education, sociology, fine arts, and dental hygiene offers a myriad of suggestions for how to structure a curriculum that incorporates service-learning. There are suggested rubrics, logistical considerations, a solid bibliography with each chapter, and suggestions for what worked well and how one might improve the process over time. Readers will find this section full of ideas, suggestions, and methods focused on building a curriculum, partnering with community members, and methods for reflection with students.
The final section, “Reflecting on Diversity,” pushes even further into the questions that come up when students engage in service-learning with diverse communities. Here the case studies offer insights into how students perceive and articulate the impact of their service-learning on their growing sense of their own contextual lenses and the lenses of those with whom they work. Faculty and administrators are invited to anticipate the types of responses their own students will have in an effort to foster positive reflection and growth in the students that is fruitful for the partner communities as well.
One concern with the book is that community partners are not represented as writers of the chapters. The effort to shed light on the importance of effective community partnerships and the responsibility of higher education institutions to develop service-learning curriculum in partnership with the surrounding community is important. The inclusion of the voices of partner communities as authors could have added to the depth of the book.
Reflecting on Service-Learning in Higher Education is a resource that will be appreciated by high school and university faculty and administrators. The questions raised and the suggestions shared will be useful for any institution looking to begin or strengthen their commitment to service-learning in higher education. Institutions, faculty, students, and the communities with which they partner will all benefit from M. Gail Hickey’s invitation to reflect.
Community Engagement in Higher Education: Policy Reforms and Practice
Date Reviewed: May 30, 2017
Towards the end of their introductory chapter, the editors of Community Engagement in Higher Education succinctly state the broad concern holding the volume together: “More emphasis should be made to link teaching and research with community initiatives” (17). The remaining seventeen chapters show what this can look like across a variety of higher education institutions, from community colleges to urban universities and from regional systems to global partnerships. Though divided into three parts – thematic issues, U.S., and international cases – the basic approach throughout the volume is descriptive case study written by persons with firsthand knowledge of the specific program or community engagement initiative. So, for example, contributors to part one raise “thematic issues” by reflecting on particular cases of the role of technology in enhancing university-community partnerships or service learning in disaster recovery. Similarly, scholars in parts two and three identify thematic issues in their interrogation of case studies focused on sustainable partnerships or the limits of current institutional commitments to critical community engagement.
The subtitle of the book, “Policy Reforms and Practice,” suggests a more robust discussion of the way forward. However, most of the authors focus on their own institutional practices, relegating the larger questions of education policy reform to brief historical overviews of policies (such as the Morrill Act) and commissions (for example, the Kellogg Commission) that have served to legitimate the community engagement role of higher education. Given the parochial focus of individual chapters, the absence of a concluding, forward-looking synthesis chapter is conspicuous – even more so given the increasingly narrow metrics employed to measure the value of higher education institutions and persistent suspicion about the value-added of service learning.
As many of the chapters remind readers, community engagement is not new, and many institutions support a range of initiatives. But therein lies the rub. In one of the strongest chapters – theoretically and practically – Seth Pollack critiques the “pedagogification” of service learning, a process through which service learning becomes primarily a method for teaching traditional content, rather than an “epistemologically transformative educational practice” aimed at forming students for critical civic engagement (170). Pollack’s chapter stands out as one of the few in the volume to find the sweet spot in case study research, using the case to illustrate theory and theory to illumine both the case and the wider social context in which the case is situated. Unfortunately, many of the other chapters do little more than report out on initiatives in which the authors played a significant role. As a result, the volume struggles to assert critical leverage in two important ways: self-critique and social critique. That is, the chapters would benefit, on the one hand, from a bit more critical distance from the programs discussed and, on the other hand, from critique of the wider social forces and structures that significantly shape the societal fault lines along which most community engagement initiatives are carried out.
Taken together, the various case studies suggest that two challenges consistently threaten the success of community engagement: (1) alignment of both resources and vision between a large educational institution and diverse community stakeholders and (2) integration of the community engagement function into the identity of the university. A fair amount has been written in the past five years about the role of universities as anchor institutions, or institutions that are embedded in a particular place and committed to leveraging their resources and the community’s assets for community development, neighborhood revitalization, and so forth. The discussion of anchor institutions has catalyzed a conversation about both of the pressing challenges noted above, offering up a way to think about community engagement as more than just one-off service learning experiences or the aggregate of individual student volunteer hours. Yet, the volume has little to say about this current conversation.
I looked forward to this volume, in part because we had just begun a conversation about how our small, religiously affiliated university could be a better neighbor to those in and around our campus. For those teaching religion and theology, such conversations are opportunities to draw from the deep well of religious reflection on who our neighbor is and what our obligations to one another might be – individually and as institutions. This conversation is not on the radar for the contributors in this volume, an omission that may have to do with the particular interlocutors in the Pittsburgh Studies in Comparative and International Education book series of which this book is a part. (The case studies are drawn primarily from public institutions, with the exception of a chapter on Duquesne University.) Yet religiously affiliated universities are often located in urban centers facing considerable challenges or negotiating difficult transformations. And these institutions articulate a purpose that, in mission statements, at least, resonates with the distinctive moral arc of public serving universities in the United States. These colleges and universities are also often anchors in many small town and rural communities, both of which merit more attention than is afforded in this book (as well as in the broader community engagement literature).
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one final concern: the appearance of sloppy scholarship in many of the chapters, beginning in the editors’ introduction. Issues include misidentifying the town in which a university is located, to quotations without citations, to grammatical errors. These could, perhaps, be dismissed as the collateral damage of publishing in an era with limited copy editing support. However, in light of the constant need many of us feel to defend community engagement and service learning as rigorous, such writing style concerns bear additional weight insofar as they detract from the credibility of those whose commitment to scholarship for social change can – and should – be a catalyst for revitalizing the service mission of higher education institutions.
Liberating Service Learning and the Rest of Higher Education Civic Engagement
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
The double entendre in this book’s title may be clichéd but it is often apt, and in this case Randy Stoecker makes a strong argument that service learning and the rest of higher education civic engagement (“service learning” functions as a catch-all term) is in need of liberating so that it can be liberating. Stoecker accuses “institutionalized service learning” (ISL), as he calls the prevailing practice, of reinforcing an oppressive neoliberal political-economic order. As a faculty member of the University of Wisconsin, he speaks from experience.
What keeps most service-learning practitioners captive, Stoecker asserts, is a failure to theorize about how service learning does and/or could operate. He offers a theoretical view that enables him to (1) reflect on and criticize ideas in current practice and (2) project alternative ideas as points of articulation for liberating service learning – in both senses alluded to above.
Stoecker develops his vision in twelve chapters divided into three parts. A “prelude,” “interlude,” and “postlude” provide other vantage points, ironizing Stoecker’s implied authority on the matters at stake and illustrating metaphorically the problems and promises of service learning. An index of names and topics is also provided.
Part I, “The Problem and Its Context,” surveys the current state of ISL. In chapter 1, beginning with a critical incident from September 2013 – a disciplinary hearing for students who, in support of labor unionization efforts at the University of Wisconsin, occupied the Chancellor’s office – Stoecker explicates his worries about who ISL truly serves. In chapter 2 he recounts the emergence and eventual institutionalization of service learning in U.S. colleges and universities from the late nineteenth to early twenty-first century, emphasizing evidence that suggests ISL has come to serve bureaucratic requirements rather than community initiatives. Chapter 3 makes a preliminary analysis of the avowed and actual theoretical commitments of current practice, pointing to a need for sustained examination of the meaning of four core concepts: learning, service, community, and change.
Part II deepens the analysis. The author argues that ISL supposes “learning” is for students to accrue from service. “Service,” then, means charitable giving, rather than helping communities learn how they might wield their own power. So concepts of “community” in ISL neglect political-economic issues of structural injustice. Accordingly, “change” comes to be seen as a matter of advancing individuals within an unquestioned neoliberal order.
Part III re-envisions the core concepts. The crucial move is to start with a critical theory of “change” as social change. In this light “community” may be grasped not as a vague given but as a goal; “service”is seen not as charity but as casting our lot together to form community and effect change; and “learning” means learning to be learners in service to a shared struggle for change – in short, learning to be liberated.
Although Stoecker offers something to annoy everyone, I still recommend Liberating Service Learning for its challenging examination of the spirit of service learning, in its present state and as it might be in future.
Learning Through Serving: A Student Guidebook for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Across Academic Disciplines and Cultural Communities, 2nd Edition
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
First published in 2005, Learning through Serving is a collection of critical thought on the nature of service-learning, as well as a practical field guide for educators looking to expand their skills in this arena. Cress, Collier, Reitenauer, and their colleagues at Portland State University seek to respond to the organic growth of service programs in contemporary higher education – both curricular and extracurricular. Fundamentally, the authors consider service-learning as a liberatory pedagogical tool that induces students to take control of their own learning, and deconstructs the banking model of schooling (famously attacked by Paolo Freire) that remains dominant in much contemporary education. Learning through Serving is intentionally transdisciplinary, and will certainly be helpful for religious studies or theology educators who employ community-based learning or service-learning models. The wealth of experience the authors share, their diverse voices, and lucid consideration of socially-engaged pedagogy yield great value for those seeking to deepen their practice of service-learning.
The authors’ goals are to assist educators and students in thinking through their community service experiences, in the interest of holistic conscientious formation: “In sum, the book is about how to make academic sense of civic service in preparing for students’ roles as future citizen leaders” (xix). Although some readers might balk at the emphasis on “leadership” – and even the use of the term “service” itself – the authors consider a variety of leadership styles suited for different contexts, and make considerable effort to attend to questions of privilege and social justice. This is interspersed throughout the text, but the authors also dedicate a full chapter (“Creating Cultural Connections”) to addressing these issues explicitly.
This guide was constructed with the intention that it would be read in the context of an academic class – thus the chapters are arranged to build on one another throughout the course of a semester. Learning through Serving is composed as a textbook, placing great emphasis on clarity and structure, without sacrificing substance for the sake of readability. The different chapters oscillate between hands-on course planning and more theoretical treatments of civic engagement and democratic philosophy. The new edition makes a particular effort to attend to the global interconnectedness that increasingly defines contemporary digital realities. Service-learning courses have traditionally cultivated porous boundaries between “town” and “gown,” but in an academic climate that increasingly embraces remote student enrollment, service-learning benefits from critically considering how it might adjust to accommodate – and even take advantage of – new developments in university structure, while empowering students to be responsible citizens.
Cress and her colleagues are experienced enough to know that, in practice, service-learning courses rarely go as planned, and that for a variety of reasons, instructors may have to adjust their approach mid-semester. Ultimately, the service component of a class aspires to be interwoven into the fabric of the more formal coursework, integrating the two elements into a mutually-enhancing, symbiotic whole. Learning through Serving offers a wealth of pedagogical advice for service-learning courses, but also situates service-learning within a larger commitment to civic engagement and building a more just society. It contains invaluable nuts-and-bolts course planning assistance, and gives wise counsel on how to develop enduring, reciprocal community partnerships that build capacity for the long haul.