Service Learning and Learning Communities:
By Shalom Staub, assistant provost, and Ashley
Finley, assistant professor of sociology and principal
investigator for the Bringing Theory to Practice research
study--both at Dickinson College
In 2001, Dickinson College adopted an ambitious strategic plan inspired by the vision of its founder Benjamin Rush. Following the Revolutionary War, Rush articulated the need for the college to provide a "useful education" that prepared students to be active citizens in the emerging republic. He called for students to gain knowledge of multiple disciplines and apply that knowledge to solving the problems of the day. Dickinson's 2001 strategic plan affirmed Rush's vision of a liberal arts education that prepares students for engaged lives of citizenship and leadership in service to society. Guided by the strategic plan, Dickinson sought to build upon its strengths--its commitment to global education, interdisciplinary initiatives, and both scholarship and teaching--through pedagogies that introduce students to active and interdisciplinary learning, including service learning and first-year learning communities. In the past few years, Dickinson has expanded its offerings in these areas, identifying promising outcomes related to student and faculty learning and engagement and learning several lessons along the way.
Implementing Engaging Pedagogies
We created learning communities at Dickinson by linking thematically related first-year seminars. Students in the learning communities live together and participate in out-of-classroom programs such as field trips and dinner discussions. Many of the learning communities explicitly encourage students to explore topics like environment and sustainability, global awareness, identity, social justice, and social responsibility, and examine the relevance of these topics in their own lives. For example, as a result of their experiences in the current Environment, Science, and Sustainability learning community (taught by an environmental scientist, a historian, a chemist, and a computer scientist) students actively modified their behavior and residence hall features to achieve greater environmental sustainability. In the coming academic year, the Identity and Social Justice learning community (to be taught by a psychologist and a sociologist) will link courses on Identity, Diversity, and Social Justice and Feminism and Social Commentary.
Social Capital for First-Year Students
has illuminated four key ways in which the deliberate
creation of social networks through active learning
pedagogies like service learning and learning
communities can benefit students:
Generate meaningful social interaction. Learning
community experiences, particularly when coupled
with academic material, create an entry point
for conversation among peers and faculty. Like
all people, students who reside or work near each
other will not necessarily interact, and even
students living in the close quarters of residence
halls can feel isolated or disconnected.
Provide opportunities for informal reflection.
Students who interact frequently with other
students or faculty have more opportunities for
informal reflection. Reflection is imperative
for students to fully assess the impact and meaning
of their engaged learning experiences.
Create emotional supports. Students
in learning communities gain a means for emotional
support that is especially critical in the first
year of college. First-year students in service-learning
courses tend to report greater levels of stress
(perhaps due to struggles with time management,
working in an unfamiliar environment, and encountering
issues of social inequality). In this context,
peer alliances are helpful sources of encouragement
and provide resources for coping.
Provide a protective shield against pressures to use or overuse alcohol.
This shield effect works in two ways. First, students
who are not inclined to drink alcohol increase
their likelihood of finding others with the same
preferences. Second, the peer group can function
as an informal network of caretakers who, although
they may not actively discourage alcohol use,
are often aware of changes in drinking patterns
or mental health among peers.
--Shalom Staub and Ashley Finley
In a separate initiative, Dickinson faculty have introduced
service-learning and community-based research courses
within sixteen different departments, crossing the humanities,
social sciences, and sciences. Faculty members have
developed service-learning courses for students at all
levels, from first year to senior seminar. Dickinson
has been particularly supportive of faculty who implement
active service-learning pedagogy within the learning
community environment. For example, a social-justice-themed
learning community incorporated service-learning experiences
for students at a local domestic violence shelter, food
pantry, and Catholic worker housing. Encounters in these
environments help students make the connection between
ideas and issues covered in the course and the lives
of individuals within communities.
Identifying Promising Trends
As a national demonstration site for the Bringing Theory to Practice project
Dickinson has studied first-year students' experiences
in these service-learning opportunities and learning
communities through surveys and focus groups. Our research
indicates that first-year students benefit from incorporating
community-based learning with academic work, whether
in or outside of learning communities. Students who
had engaged in service-learning activities found deeper
connections to academic material, were sometimes moved
to change their majors or modify their perspectives,
and reported meaningful conversations with peers outside
of class and engagement in campus activism. Students
who engaged in service learning also tended to report
lower levels and frequencies of alcohol consumption
than other first-year students.
First-year students involved in service learning additionally showed higher levels of civic engagement than those who were not. Among research participants, students who were enrolled in service-learning courses or involved in experiential learning (exploration outside the classroom but not with a community partner) had the highest mean levels of engagement at the local, state, and national levels. Although first-year students in general exhibited less involvement at the local community level, those engaged in service-learning courses reported the highest engagement at this level in relation to other first-year students. This finding suggests that students' time with community partners translates into civically oriented behaviors (such as reading the local paper and attending community events).
Although service learning alone showed positive results, service learning within learning communities demonstrated additional value. Like students who engaged in service learning generally, students who engaged in service learning within learning communities tended to engage more frequently in civically oriented activities than other first-year students. In addition, they indicated higher degrees of civic mindedness and moral development than other first-year students.
Best Practices: What We've Learned
Identifying "best practices" is critical for continued success. Our research identified two common links between effective service-learning courses and courses that incorporate other models of engaged pedagogy, such as learning communities. First, successful courses focus on themes that encourage critical thought and exploration. Focus group data suggest that themes premised on timely social or political topics with clear global connections--such as poverty and access to food, exploration of different cultures, gender and global inequality, and environmental sustainability--are particularly powerful in motivating student thought, activism, and engagement.
Second, effective courses show evidence of created social networks. This element requires deliberate action, even in promising environments like learning communities. Focus group data suggest that the most powerful student experiences have occurred in learning communities where peer-to-peer and faculty-to-student ties (or social networks) were fostered and supported. This mediating effect of social capital may contribute to both increased academic engagement and student well-being (see sidebar).
Dickinson continues to offer incentives and support for faculty who are willing to build learning communities and transform their classroom-based courses with active pedagogies like service learning. We now sustain roughly four learning communities per year, involving one quarter of faculty teaching first-year seminars and the same percentage of first-year students.
Although we have focused in this article on how service learning and learning communities benefit students, participating faculty consistently report that active pedagogies add value to their experiences as teachers and scholars as well. Faculty members enjoy the higher levels of student engagement that these pedagogies produce. In addition, faculty find that by working with peers to develop and teach within learning communities, they gain exposure to new perspectives that help them reconceptualize familiar material. Similarly, interacting with local community partners to develop service-learning partnerships helps faculty members develop grounded theory, teach more dynamically, and connect their work to life experiences outside the classroom.