Service-Learning and Community Engagement: Cognitive Developmental Long-term Social Concern

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Frequently students write reflections on their service in the community and participate in class discussions that make connections between course readings and the service activities. Again, this is different from volunteering. Concerns can arise when service is conducted without a reflective component. Negative stereotypes may be reinforced; complex problems may be viewed in superficial ways; and analysis of underlying structural inequalities in society left unconsidered Jones, Instructors of service-learning courses work to include thoughtful reflection in class discussions and written assignments.

Depending on course content and the particular service-experience, negative stereotypes can be examined and discredited, layers of complexity related to the societal problem can be uncover, or larger societal issues related to inequality can be studied. Reflection is a central and essential component of service-learning courses. As students read texts for the course, participate in class discussions and carry out written assignments, they can make connections with their service-learning experiences.

Students are given the opportunity to apply their knowledge in a service-learning courses. Consider two options for how an instructor of a computer course might design her pedagogy. The first option is teach the course without service-learning. Students will have required readings and written assignments and, as a culminating activity, design a website for an imaginary client.

The computer course instructor who chooses to use service-learning has required readings and written assignments, and also arranges a service project with the director of a local non-profit agency who is requesting a new website for the agency. The director attends a class session to describe the mission of the agency, its clients, and how the new website should function. Prior to designing the website, the students are asked to spend a few hours at the agency to learn more about it. As students work on constructing the website, they keep in contact with the agency director and people employed there to ensure that expectations for the final product are met.

They know that people who work at the non-profit agency are depending on them and that the clients need an up-to-date website with new and important functions. Focusing on every detail, the students put a significant amount of thought and energy into creating the best possible product possible. While students in the computer course without service-learning learn how to design a website though the exercise of making one for an imaginary client, the students in the service-learning course have the experience of creating a website for an actual client.

They understand the significance of their work and the value of listening carefully to clients in a way that students in the course without service-learning have yet to experience. The students in the service-learning course develop a deep understanding of the course content as they carry out the service associated with the course. While not all students in a service-learning course are going to gain a broader appreciation of the discipline, some students will take away deep learning and a greater understanding of the discipline.

In a multi-institutional study conducted with engineering students, a survey was used to learn how the students perceived service as a source of learning technical and professional skills relative to traditional course work. In another study, with a smaller sample of 37 students across sections of a non-profit marketing course, the students compared their learning from a variety of pedagogical tools, including case studies, lectures, reading assignments, guest speakers, exams, textbooks, and service-learning experiences in local chapters of national organizations and non-profit organizations.

Students responded with a 5-point Likert scale indicating the degree to which each pedagogical tool helped them to meet the specific objectives of the course. Students rated the service-learning project higher than all of the other pedagogical tools as contributing to their learning in all course objectives Mottner, With the opportunity to apply newly learned skills in a service-learning project, students learn more about the discipline they are studying, and depending on the service-learning setting, they may learn about the lives of people in the community who have fewer resources than they do, while also learning about the underlying and systemic reasons for particular circumstances.

Through the process of conducting meaningful service in the community, students can learn the importance of engaging in the community to make positive contributions, that is, they can learn to be civic-minded. Cress explains that being civic-minded involves both knowing and doing. College students and graduates may know about and even analyze community problems, yet feel overwhelmed and do little or nothing to remedy them.

This is knowing without doing. Just as harmful, are individuals who carry out service without substantial knowledge about the issue. This is doing without knowing. Cress calls for community-based educational experiences that increase knowledge and skills to address civic issues. In other words, combining knowing and doing in such a way that civic action is carried out responsibly. Service-learning offers the initial opportunity for college students to learn how to be civic-minded by combining knowledge gained in the university classroom with skills acquired in community settings so the responsible and respectful service is provided.

Just tacking on service to an existing course does not make it a service-learning course. The service experience and reflection upon it is integrated with the course. Successes, frustrations, and trouble-shooting are discussed in the classroom. Instructors support students in making links between their service experience and the curriculum of the course.

Instructors may also support students in analyzing the specific circumstances experienced in service-learning so they develop an understanding of the underlying structural inequalities in the broader society that impact those circumstances. With such impressive outcomes, the Association of American Colleges and Universities , rightly included service-learning on the list of high-impact practices. According to Kuh, these elements can be useful in determining the quality of a practice for advancing student accomplishment.

The eight key elements are listed below. In this section, service-learning will be discussed as it related to each of the key elements of high-impact practices. The quality of the service should influence grading, as this is a way to immediately communicate the centrality of service to students. The leader of the community organization where the service will be preformed should be invited to speak to the class about their expectations for service. This leader can share how both high- and low-quality service impact the organization and people in the community.

Generally, service does come with some challenges as Cress points out service-learning involves relationships, and these can go awry. Students who are working to meet high performance expectations will likely need to overcome obstacles that can interfere with performing the service at a peak level. How the students cope with and overcome obstacles is part of the learning in service-learning, and it is a significant aspect of how students demonstrate a high level of performance in the course.

Deals in Books Understanding Service-Learning and Community Engagement: Crossing Boundaries

When students carry out service, they will likely learn that careful planning, a thoughtful approach, and meaningful analysis of the circumstances takes time, energy, and effort on their part. Often students arrive at college having learned to focus on academic achievement and to view community service as less important or secondary. In order to plan and carry out meaningful service-learning, students will need to work closely with the faculty member teaching the course and their peers who are taking the course along side them.

Consider the example presented earlier of the instructor of a computer course who had the option of having students design a website for an imaginary client or an actual client of a non-profit agency.

Jay Brandenberger, Ph.D. | Center For Social Concerns

Students who are designing the website for an imaginary client, even if working in groups, will not have the same types of interactions with faculty and peers as those who are creating a website for an agency in the community. Simply put, more is at stake when designing a product for an actual client. When that client is meeting a specific need in the community, the website must communicate that clearly and allow for clients and donors to have easy access to various parts of the site.

Students carrying out this type of service-learning will find that substantive interactions with faculty, peers, and with the community leader become necessary in order to successfully complete the project. While college campuses can offer students some experience with a range of diversity for race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, socio-economic class, sexual orientation, and age, it is likely that the differences between college students and people living in the local community are greater.

Life can look quite different for people living as close as couple of miles from a university as compare to life on campus. Students performing service in the community or during study abroad courses can learn about individuals who are living in poverty, struggling to meet basic needs, and who often do without.

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Students can learn about the impact of discrimination from individuals who have experienced it first hand. For some students, the disparity between the life experiences of people they meet during service-learning and their own life circumstances makes them realize the privilege they have lived with all of their lives. Jacoby explains that when students conduct service without multicultural education, negative stereotypes can be reinforced and perpetuated p. Often these goals are among those that faculty hope to achieve when choosing to use service-learning pedagogy. Meeting frequently with the faculty member teaching a service-learning course to receive suggestions, learn how to make progress, solve problems, and increase the quality of service will greatly benefit the students who are carrying out the service.

Stages of Service Learning

The faculty member can provide the timely and constructive feedback that allows students to make improvements in how they conduct the service and develop a more profound understanding of the circumstances that give rise to the need for the services. Although the leaders of community organizations hosting students for their service-learning courses are generally incredibly busy people, they may be able to arrange brief meetings with students to provide feedback on the service they are conducting.


With support from both faculty and leaders in the community, students can refine their service and deepen their understanding. Students often have a greater appreciation of the complexity involved in providing service to meet an identified need as they spend more time within an organization. Frequent and timely feedback affords students the guidance needed to meet the high expectations for service-learning experiences. As noted earlier, reflection is integral to service-learning. In fact, without reflection, a service experience becomes volunteering. The instructor of a service-learning course is responsible for providing periodic, structured opportunities to reflect on the service and integrate the learning from service with course content.

The first is that reflection should connect service with other course work. Second, faculty need to coach students on how to reflect. Third, the reflection process should offer both challenge and support to students. Fourth, the reflection should be continuous; reflection needs to happen before, during and after service-learning experiences.

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Faculty utilizing this framework will help students to gain insights through the reflection process. Service-learning by definition provides opportunities for students to discover relevance of disciplinary knowledge through real-world application. Students in an educational psychology course will provide service in high-poverty schools; students in human service study course will provide service in a domestic violence shelter; students in a research course will provide service in the form of program assessment for a non-profit organization; students in a marketing course will provide service supporting women in a developing country who are starting a cooperative to sell handmade goods.

The needs in most communities outweigh the resources, which makes service-learning a welcome addition in the community, while also providing the chance for university students to make connections between their studies and real-world applications.

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  • A culminating project that is presented to stakeholders offers students the opportunity to consider the outcomes of their learning, make connections between course content and the service they provided, and to contemplate on the larger societal issues related to inequality. The culminating project may be an oral presentation or a report given to the community partner. In some cases the culminating project is one of the main goals of the service. Students who exhibit a high level of competence with their culminating project can articulate how the service-learning experience was a HIP for them.

    Those students who excel in service-learning have the potential to become civic-minded graduates who bring good to their communities, a goal universities surely find worthy. The following best practices in service-learning are adapted from Reitenaure, Spring, Kecskes, Kerrigan, Cress, and Collier and Howard , who focus on two different sides of service-learning.