Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      January 2000 Volume XXII Number 3


Service Learning

Enhancing the Educational Experience, Improving Communities, Changing Lives

by Aaron Conley

The interesting feature of one widespread movement reaching college classrooms around the country is that students have to go outside the classroom to experience it. At Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne, audiology and speech sciences students in a clinical methods course worked with the Lutheran Child Care Center to screen children for speech and language delays. At Indiana University Southeast, education students have gone out to local schools to judge academic competitions, such as science fairs, and they worked at local science attractions, including the Falls of the Ohio State Park and the Louisville Zoo, preparing activity materials and participating in science projects benefiting elementary students.

The service-learning movement is challenging faculty members to reconsider how students interpret and retain course-based information. Service learning is creating opportunities for campuses to improve town–gown relations by reaching out to address local issues while also introducing new pedagogy that enhances student learning and fosters greater civic responsibility. Thus, service learning holds the potential to help faculty, students, and institutions of higher learning develop behaviors and deepen values that promote citizenship, community engagement, and philanthropy. These changes will have a profound influence on expanding the work of higher education in the future beyond the classroom.

Robert Bringle, Professor of Psychology, and Director, Center for Public Service and Leadership, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

Despite its growth, service learning remains a mystery to many. According to Robert Bringle, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Public Service and Leadership (CPSL) at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, it is a variation on the theme of experiential education. Internships, practica, and even volunteering are much more common and well established in the vernacular of academe. However, “when you volunteer, the focus is on the recipient, and when you do a practicum or internship the focus is on the student,” he says. “What you do in service learning is balance the two.” Bringle’s expertise in the field is evident; in 1998 he received the national Thomas Ehrlich Faculty Award for Service Learning from Campus Compact, a national organization of 620 college and university presidents committed to helping students develop the values and skills of citizenship through participation in public and community service.

Defining Service Learning

Service learning has two functions, one for the student and one for the community. For students, the service is designed to complement classroom-based readings and lectures. As Bringle puts it, “One of the best ways to portray service learning is that the service becomes a text through which academic as well as civic lessons are learned.” The community component is what distinguishes this model from the other models of experiential education, as nonprofit organizations benefit from the service projects students carry out for them. Bringle says “The students are benefiting educationally in the ways in which they better learn course-based materials, but they’re also delivering a service that’s meeting a community need and it helps them understand the role of voluntary service in building a civil society.”

Participants in a service-learning course experience several positive outcomes. One benefit is the opportunity to take a hands-on approach to a course. As Bringle points out, “We know students learn by doing, so that’s nothing new.” What is new, he says, is the opportunity for students to gain some clarification of their goals and values. On a professional level, students realize if their chosen career goals are what they want to do. Bringle cites examples where service learning helped confirm students’ career goals and even pointed them toward more specialized areas of their chosen field. He’s also seen students realize the paths they had initially chosen weren’t what they wanted to do, prompting them to change programs. Numerous students said they were switching their major to education after tutoring Elementary students as part of his introductory psychology class, and one student who was majoring in physical therapy decided to specialize in pediatric physical therapy. Internships and practica don’t allow such flexibility since they’re usually taken in the later stages of a student’s program when it’s too late to change.

Students also gain personal clarification. Bringle’s psychology students, who tutor in the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), experience serious educational and social issues firsthand. By interacting with IPS students, they learn more about difficult family situations, neighborhood violence, and other factors that influence a child’s ability to learn. Bringle says this helps his students see beyond common stereotypes. “They realize it’s not as simple as saying, ‘they’re just dumb kids and that’s why they don’t do well,’” he says.

Service Learning in the IU System

The growth of service learning within IU means not only more students and faculty members are getting involved, but also that more issues are being addressed in communities with IU campuses. According to the Service Learning Inventory, produced by the Office of Community Partnerships in Service Learning at IU Bloomington, service-learning opportunities grew dramatically during 1998–99. IU campuses offered more than 160 courses, enrolling more than 3,330 students. These courses were led by 148 faculty members. This represented increases over the previous year of 37 percent in enrollment, 22 percent in faculty involvement, and 19 percent in the number of courses.

Great examples, besides those mentioned earlier, can be found on every IU campus where service learning is meeting needs while enhancing student learning. In a statistics course at IU East, economics students revised a cumbersome survey used by the local economic development commission. At IU Northwest, biology students conducted research for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the Lake County Parks and Recreation Department that will enhance their ability to manage area natural resources. At IU South Bend, business students in taxation courses helped low-income and elderly citizens prepare their tax returns, while sociology students in a course on race and ethnic relations volunteered at local Hispanic and Native American organizations like El Buen Vecino, Inc., and the Potawatomi Tribal Council.

Linda Brothers, Associate Professor and Chair of Restaurant, Hotel, Institutional, and Tourism Management, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (second from the left), and her students working at Riverside Park in Indianapolis during the annual Into the Parks Cleanup. Brothers has taught service-learning courses in her department since 1995.

Examples on the Bloomington and Indianapolis campuses can be found in nearly every academic unit, benefiting hundreds of people through nonprofit and educational organizations. In Bloomington, students in a systems analysis class have designed databases for nonprofit organizations throughout the community, and students in an introductory physics class have interpreted exhibits at the Wonderlab, Museum of Science, Health, and Technology. At IUPUI forty-five service-learning classes have been developed in thirteen schools. When speaking about his own students, Bringle summarizes the importance of service complementing classroom-based activities: “The value in my course is not only that the IPS schools and students are helped, but I can relate those experiences to developmental psychology, to learning, to social psychology, and to assessment (in terms of the IPS students’ ISTEP scores). That’s where the educational value comes from.”

Obstacles to Overcome

Despite the fanfare service learning has enjoyed as it has grown over the past decade, questions still arise over what an institution gets in return for its investment. Initiating even a small service-learning program can prove to be a big challenge, and the way it is implemented can seriously affect its potential for success. In addition, Bringle says, the introduction of service learning must further enable the institution to achieve its educational mission rather than alter it. “You don’t want to turn the university into a social service agency,” he notes.

Assessing student performance is also a major challenge. Bringle says it’s important faculty members consider educational outcomes and center on the learning objectives when designing service-learning courses. “This is a little extreme to say, but if the service doesn’t help one meet the course’s educational outcomes, then it shouldn’t be done. Students don’t get credit for the community service; they get it for learning.”

Skepticism and resistance from both students and faculty members are other obstacles. They can be overcome by setting clear goals, Jane Lambert says. As director of undergraduate programs for the Kelley School of Business at IUPUI, she helped facilitate last year’s implementation of X103 Business Learning Community for her school’s incoming undergraduates. Coordinated through Junior Achievement, these students form small teams to tutor elementary IPS students on basic principles of economics. Lambert says the class was designed with three goals in mind: “Business students need to understand the dynamics of project management, they need to be able to work in teams, and they must realize that volunteering and giving back to the community is an important value in American business today.” The class filled 32 sections last year, enrolling a total of 572 students. Lambert expects even more sections to be added in the future, especially based on the student feedback. In their reflection papers, many students confessed they were skeptical going into the course. But most recognized the parallels between their service experiences and future business careers. One wrote: “All of the same skills it takes to be a successful teacher are needed to be a success in the business world. You have to be a leader for others to follow, you must organize your plans in an orderly fashion so the system will run smoothly, and you cannot expect anything without hard work and dedication.”

Other hurdles are getting more faculty members involved and convincing them of the value service learning represents. Like most curricular innovations, service learning wouldn’t have gotten this far without the support of the faculty and won’t grow further without broad-based support. Bringle characterizes faculty members in four ways regarding their stance toward service learning: already doing it, curious, indifferent, or hostile. “There aren’t many hostile faculty members” he says, adding, “We’re broadening that circle of ‘curious’ through our faculty development activities.” Bringle’s research has helped broaden the circle, as he and Julie Hatcher, associate director of the CPSL, have published articles on the implementation, assessment, and institutionalization of service learning in the Journal of Higher Education, Journal of Public Service and Outreach, Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, and the Journal of College Teaching.

As the circle has expanded however, the professoriat has raised some legitimate concerns, including the question of where the investment of time and effort that go into a service-learning course fits within the reward system of their departments, schools, and institutions. Designing a service-learning course and offering it the first time can require a major time commitment, as classroom activities need to be coordinated with out-of-class experiences, decisions need to be made on the proper form of assessment, and relationships need to be established with organizations that will benefit from the students’ activities.

Faculty rank also represents potential problems. Junior faculty members on the tenure track know that in a research university, earning tenure is based less on service activities and more on prodigious research and effective teaching. And tenured faculty members may be too involved in their research activities or too set in their teaching routines to invest the time necessary to redesign their courses. But Bringle says a service-learning course is a great way to combine both service and teaching, which can make a tremendous difference when promotion and tenure decisions are made. “I think service learning is a good way for faculty members to distinguish themselves as creative and innovative teachers.”

Bringle says several tools have been developed at IUPUI to address each of these concerns. The dean of faculties office, along with Indiana Campus Compact, awards $1,500 curriculum development grants to faculty members interested in designing and teaching a service-learning course. Help is also available with service-learning assistantships, which provide faculty members with assistants to work with them on their courses. Only students who have completed a service-learning course are eligible for the awards, which range from $1,500 per semester for 10 hours of work per week to $750 per semester for five hours of work per week. CPSL also offers other scholarships linked to service. All of these awards help the campus create a qualified pool of service-minded students who can help faculty members design, implement, and monitor service-learning courses.

In addition to facilitating the development of service-learning courses on the IUPUI campus, Bringle has served as a member of the Research Advisory Council of Campus Compact to develop a national strategic plan for service-learning research. He is an advocate for using scientific research to
• develop theory that explains the process and outcomes of service learning,
• improve the practice of implementing service-learning courses and programs,
• facilitate the development of a culture of evidence and assessment on campuses,
• offer a justification for increased allocation of campus resources to service and service learning, and
• provide a basis for developing policies to institutionalize service learning in higher education.

Under Bringle’s direction, CPSL is conducting research on outcomes associated with engaging students in service-learning classes and other types of community service experiences. For example, with a faculty research grant from the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, three research projects were conducted during 1998–99. The first measured motives for different types of community service among students entering IUPUI. The second studied how service learning experiences are related to the principles of undergraduate general education (e.g., communication skills, integration, appreciation of diversity and ethics, ability to relate knowledge to practice), student leadership, student perceptions of active learning in the course, and student attitudes toward service, social responsibility, and academic persistence. The third compared students with no service experience and those with different types of community service experiences (service learning, intensive community service as part of tutoring and scholarship programs, and community service supported by federal work study funds) on leadership, knowledge of the nonprofit sector, and interest in careers in the nonprofit sector. These studies, which have collected data from more than 700 IUPUI undergraduates that are currently being analyzed, will clarify how higher education helps develop and transmit philanthropic values.

Besides studying student outcomes, Bringle’s research has examined how colleges and universities differ in their commitment to promoting philanthropic values through service learning. In a study of 179 campuses, Bringle and Hatcher developed a method for measuring how central service learning is to faculty, administrative staff, students, and community partners. That research found that progress in developing service learning was associated with specific institutional planning activities directed toward service learning; institutional, financial, and administrative support, and academic leadership for service.

With the support of a Center on Philanthropy faculty research grant, the method for studying campuses was expanded during 1998–99 into the Comprehensive Assessment of the Scholarship of Engagement (CASE). CASE provides a comprehensive method of assessing where campuses are in their development of service learning and community engagement. In addition, CASE assists campuses in strategically planning work on service learning for future growth. This research on institutional outcomes associated with service learning provides a basis for making comparisons among campuses, benchmarking progress, and designing institutional interventions.

The Greater Movement toward Service

The development of service learning reflects a larger movement in higher education toward reconnecting campuses and their communities. Bringle is playing a central role in this movement, shown most recently in Colleges and Universities as Citizens, published in 1999 by Allyn and Bacon and co-edited with University of Notre Dame President Reverend Edward Malloy and former Indiana Campus Compact Executive Director Richard Games. While the book addresses the larger issue of service and the engagement of campuses in their communities, service learning will clearly play a key role in overcoming the stereotype Bringle and his co-editors believe higher education has of its external communities. “Communities cannot be viewed as pockets of needs, laboratories for experimentation, or passive recipients of expertise if the academy is to develop meaningful partnerships,” they say. Through its growth in the IU system, service learning has demonstrated to the state of Indiana how college campuses can develop meaningful partnerships to make an impact on the lives of its citizens. The IUPUI campus administration has encouraged community connections through service by revising the guidelines for tenure candidates to reflect the importance of service, in addition to good teaching and research. IU is further recognizing the importance of service by funding a three-year project that documents the nature of faculty professional service throughout the IU system, noting how it is evaluated and the role it plays in the university. Its evolution has also shown students, faculty, and administrators that the combination of service, teaching, and scholarship is a powerful one that can yield benefits not only to them, but to those who may have otherwise never had contact with their institution.