October 31, 2014

Service-Learning: From Theory to Practice

by Margaret Miklich, Pharm.D., PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Maryland Medical Center

Service, combined with learning, adds value to each and transforms both.1
                       -Honnet and Paulsen (1989)

When asked why they’ve chose their career path, many health professionals say “I like helping people.”  I would argue that serving rather than helping people is really what drew them. I initially began contemplating this concept after reading Rachel Naomi Remen’s essay entitled Helping, Fixing or Serving?  In it she states, “Fixing and helping create a distance between people, but we cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected.”  I’ve reflected on this concept for many years.

Service-learning embodies the idea that community service and classroom learning can be intimately intertwined.  Service is more meaningful when informed by theoretical frameworks.  And conceptual knowledge is better understood when examined through the lens of real world experiences.

While the first formal service-learning program was established in 1965, it wasn’t until the 1980’s and 90’s that a concerted effort was made to develop the theory and refine the practice of service-learning.2  Today, service-learning activities are pervasive and commonplace in curricula — from elementary school to undergraduate and graduate programs. In 2008, 20% of elementary schools across the nation participated in some form of service-learning.3 In the same year, a Campus Compact survey revealed that 93% of member colleges and universities offered courses that included some form of service-learning.  That’s 24,271 course offerings at 627 responding institutions!4

Given the vast number of service-learning opportunities, it's not surprising that a number of theories have been proposed to explain why service leads to learning.  And there are an even greater number of practices that attempt to guide how to conduct service-learning activities. There are common themes running through the proposed theories.  More important, all agree (proponents and critics alike) that how service-learning activities are constructed is extremely important.5,6 Before we examine the how, let’s take a quick look at the theoretical framework of service-learning.

Service-learning is most often explained using constructivist educational theory.  Constructivists believe that learners construct meaning from their experiences.  Learning is an active process prompted by new experiences and interactions that challenge prior understanding. An essential component of constructivism is for the learner to critically reflect on the new experience. It is only through reflection that learners decide if, when, and how they will alter their current knowledge and perceptions.7

There are several scholars who contributed to the theory of constructivism including Jean Piaget, John Dewey, and Maria Montessori (who developed an educational approach and schools bearing her name). David Kolb (who developed the Learning Style Inventory) used constructivist theory in his work on experiential learning.

Service-learning leads to learning so long as it includes experience, inquiry, and reflection.8 In order for knowledge to be recalled and applied, it must be gained through a situational experience. Inquiry then takes place when this new experience seemingly defies or contradicts prior knowledge.  Finally, reflection demands that inconsistencies between prior knowledge and knew experiences be reconciled.9

Individuals, organizations, and expert panels have all weighed in on how to best construct service-learning activities. While there is significant diversity in the proposed approaches to service-learning, common themes have emerged:

1) Service learning should be integrated into the curriculum or course in a purposeful way. Clear goals for both the service and the learning components must be articulated. Service activities should be designed with course objectives in mind and should clearly connect to learning goals.1,5,10

2) Requiring students to reflect on the experience is critical. Reflection must occur before, during, and after service. Not only should reflection take place at regular and purposefully constructed intervals, but it should be rigorous. Methods for reflecting should be varied and should include written, oral, and nonlinguistic approaches. Reflections should be self-assessed by students and assessed by instructors.1,5,9,10

3) Service-learning should be meaningful. The service activity should address a legitimate, unmet community need. Meaningfulness can also be achieved by allowing students to choose the issue they want their service to address. Moreover, meaningfulness is achieved through the relationships that students form while they are completing the activity.1,5

4) Service-learning requires a significant time commitment. The time commitment should be sufficient for students to have multiple experiences coupled with inquiry and reflection. One experience is unlikely to be sufficient. Moreover, rigorous inquiry and reflection requires elaboration in the form of papers, discussions, and other forms of expression. It is only through inquiry and reflection that students recognize discordance between their prior experiences and modify their knowledge, perspectives, and opinions.1,5,8 All of this takes time!

Three-quarters of colleges and schools of pharmacy reported some form of service-learning in their curriculum in 2002.11 There are many ways to structure a service-learning course but using proven strategies is likely to be more effective. One paper describes a service-learning course at the Worchester/Manchester campuses of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science (MCPHS) and studies student learning.12 The course consisted of five components: 1) service work in community settings; 2) seminars on topics such as communication and diversity, 3) guided journal writing (reflection); 4) guest speakers on community service activities such as homeless shelters and AIDS services; and 5) student-led presentations about their service activities and what they learned.

Let’s examine whether this course followed the best-practices principles for service-learning. Objectives were clearly set and service activities appeared to connect to course objectives. The reflection activities were not described in detail but students were required to answer a series of questions in weekly journal entries. Of note, when compared to the other components of the course, student reported learning the least from the journaling activity. It is difficult to say whether the service activities were meaningful but presumably they met real community needs. Students were allowed to rate their interests and had some say in the service activities they completed. With regard to duration, students were required to participate in two hours of service each week in addition to attending a weekly one-hour session at the school. The time allotted appears to be sufficient for students to make repeated site visits, gain new experiences, develop relationships, and engage in inquiry and reflection.

By understanding constructivist theory and intentionally applying the best practice principles, instructors can successfully implement service-learning activities into their schools’ curriculum. Service-learning is an excellent example of how theory informs practice.

  1. Honnet EP and Poulsen . Principles of Good Practice for Combining Service and Learning. Johnson Foundation, Inc.
  2. Marullo S. Service-Learning: A Movement’s Pioneers Reflect on its Origins, Practice and Future. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 1999; 6:133-137.
  3. Community Service and Service-Learning in America’s Schools [Internet]. Corporation for National and Community Service. 2008.
  4. Service Statistics 2008: Highlights and Trends from Campus Compact’s Annual Membership Survey [Internet]. Campus Compact. Boston: MA. 2009.
  5. Billig SH. Unpacking What Works in Service-Learning. Growing to Greatness. National Youth Leadership Council. 2007.
  6. Eby JW. Why Service-Learning is Bad. 1998.
  7. Kaufman DM. ABC of learning and teaching in medicine: Applying educational theory practice. BMJ 2003;326:213-6.
  8. Giles DE and Eyler J. The Theoretical Roots of Service-Learning in John Dewey: Toward a Theory of Service-Learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. 1994 Fall; 1: 77-85.
  9. Bringle RG and Hatcher JA. Reflection in Service-Learning: Making Meaning of Experience. Educational Horizons. Summer 1999. 179-185.
  10. USCDornsife. Joint Educational Project. University of Southern Californa. 2014.
  11. Peters SJ, MacKinnon GE. Introductory practice and service-learning experiences in US pharmacy curricula. Am J Pharm Educ. 2004;68(1): Article 27.
  12. Kearney KR. A service-learning course for first-year pharmacy students. Am J Pharm Educ. 2008;72(4):Article 86.

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