Does Service Learning Really Help?
By STEPHANIE STROM
Published: December 29, 2009
BETTY MEDINA LICHTENSTEIN used to dread the beginning of the school year, when students from colleges and universities around
Skip to next paragraph "Suddenly, droves of students were walking through my door, interrupting my day and asking, 'What can I do here?' " she says. "A whole other crowd would send résumé after résumé after résumé expecting me to call them back. Still other ones would come in and say, 'How about some research on X?' in August and then show up in late October saying their thesis really needed to be about Y.
"It was total havoc."
This year, Ms. Medina Lichtenstein feels better about service learning. For their information technology capstone course at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, two students created a Web site and database management system that allow Ms. Medina Lichtenstein to complete in one day an annual report that used to take a week. Another two students embarked on an assessment of Enlace's information technology system with the aim of making it better.
Working with the students required just a few hours of Ms. Medina Lichtenstein's time. For the students, says Carol Soules, their professor, "it was a great practical experience, but a whole other aspect of it is that it helped them to see what the digital divide means in real life."
Ms. Medina Lichtenstein's experiences illustrate the good and the bad of service learning, loosely defined as community service that supplements and enhances what students learn in a classroom.
Volunteers, as any nonprofit leader will tell you (off the record, for fear of looking a gift horse . . .), can be as much a curse as a blessing, especially to an organization that lacks the administrative structure and money to train and supervise students. Some organizations pay a coordinator to direct volunteers, but most consider that a luxury they cannot afford.
"It's not unusual for the task of supervising students to fall to someone who already has plenty of responsibilities," says Elizabeth A. Tryon, the community learning coordinator at the
A positive experience usually requires a considerable investment of time and planning on the part of academic institutions and faculty. Ideally, service learning enriches a particular course of study, and students have the opportunity to reflect in the classroom on their experiences. In reality, service learning often seems unconnected to any curriculum — painting park benches, for example. At its most basic, it can be hard to distinguish from plain vanilla community service.
"The best service learning really involves a process something like old-fashioned matchmaking," says Andrea Dolan-Potter, whose former job as assistant director of the
This town/gown divide is explored in "The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning," published last summer by Temple University Press and mostly written by students at the
Some community leaders spoke ofstudent volunteers having too little time to get much meaningful experience or to justify a significant investment of time to train them. Others told of students arriving on their doorsteps with little guidance or preparation from their professors and expecting to change the world in 20 hours over a single semester. Some felt that their clients were guinea pigs for students doing research, without any return for them.
"Academic institutions are focused on making sure their students learn from the service-learning experience, but they aren't always paying similar attention to the interests of the organizations that provide that experience, much less the clients they serve," says Randy Stoecker, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, who edited the book with Ms. Tryon.
Arriving as the Obama administration is making volunteerism and other forms of civic engagement a cornerstone of its higher-education agenda, the book raises questions about how much benefit results from student efforts. That's something that Karen Sánchez-Eppler, a professor at
Skip to next paragraph"That program has been useful to individual kids there and supporting and invigorating for the teachers," Ms. Sánchez-Eppler says, "but it really has had little to no institutional impact. During the 20 years of this course, the school has continued to have high dropout rates, low test scores, high teen pregnancy rates."
Holyoke High has far less lofty expectations."A program of her size would have minimal impact," David Dupont, the principal, says. "However, just the fact that her students are benefiting along with ours to any degree is worth having it at
THE horse got a little before the cart," says Ms. Soules, who in addition to teaching directs service learning at the
Last academic year, more than 3,000 students at her campus engaged in service learning under the tutelage of 67 professors teaching 105 courses. Ms. Soules would prefer that all of those experiences occur in small courses spanning a year, so that students have time to immerse themselves, but she knows that is not possible. "We have all different levels of service learning," she says. "When it takes place in an introductory course with a hundred students who are spending two hours a week, sometimes they do end up answering phones, filing, sweeping the floors and sorting clothes."
"But," she adds, "it gives them exposure to different communities, which is valuable, and in fact those are the things many nonprofits need done."
It was in the mid-1980s that service learning took off, with the establishment of organizations like Campus Compact and Youth Service America, whose mission is to spur national service efforts among youth. Today, most colleges and universities incorporate service learning in their curriculums, and some departments require at least one course; in 2008, Tulane made a service-learning course part of the required core curriculum.
No one knows how many students participate in service learning nationwide, but 1.2 million students and 22,000 community organizations are involved in programs with grants from the Corporation for National and Community Service, a government agency that is perhaps the largest financer of programs.
Elson B. Nash, the acting director of the agency's Learn and Serve America program, says its grants are aimed at encouraging a better experience for academic institutions and their nonprofit partners. "The relationships are key because everyone — the students, faculty and community organization — needs to be involved in developing the expectations for the service learning experience," Mr. Nash says. "They need to talk about what it's going to address, how the students are going to be involved, how it connects to the classroom experience, how it meets the nonprofit's needs and, most importantly, how it is going to be evaluated."
More and more universities are establishing offices to oversee programs and otherwise formalize what has until recently been an ad hoc experiment in civic engagement. "It's a very fragile relationship, that between the academic institution and the community organization," says Lanese Aggrey, director of academic service learning at the
When she arrived to take up her post at the
Skip to next paragraphAfter eliminating three of the four hurdles, the university quickly accumulated 45 courses that included service learning; in three of them students travel abroad. The goal is 100 such classes.
The university asks participating students and nonprofit groups to sign a contract that spells out dates and hours of service, what service will be provided, and a commitment by the nonprofit to evaluate the student at the conclusion of service. "It's a good way to solidify expectations on both sides," Dr. Aggrey says. "It helps the community partner understand that its needs may only be met to a certain extent, because students have limited time and other obligations, and it helps students understand they can't just blow off their service-learning commitments to go have pizza and beer."
CONSIDER what went into planning and executing Anne Witt's service learning experience in the summer of 2007. Now a junior at the University of Notre Dame, Ms. Witt worked as a counselor at a camp run by Gwen's Girls, which provides a range of services to at-risk girls in the
The process of placing her began six months earlier when, under Notre Dame's Urban Plunge program, students made the rounds of social service agencies in
Ms. Witt chose Gwen's Girls. "I'm a political science major, so law school was what was on my radar," she says. "But after working with Gwen's Girls, I realize there are so many problems with education in
Each week, Ms. Witt had relevant reading to do and papers to write. When she got back to school in the fall, she and other students in the program got together to discuss their experiences and the social issues involved.
The Notre Dame Club of
The organization also benefited. It got a volunteer camp counselor who ended up going back as a paid counselor this summer.
But just as important to Ms. Knezevich was the opportunity to expose her students to a broader world. "You're not necessarily learning this for your class credits," she says. "You may be doing this to learn about different and diverse population, which may not have anything to do with what your major is but will educate you as a person."
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