Service-Learning, Personal Development, and Social Commitment: A Case Study of University Students in Hong Kong

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Service-learning, which combines academic study with community service, has become more popular throughout the world. Increasingly, educators, administrators, and students have become disheartened by what many feel is a fundamental disconnection between the real world and academic learning. Moreover, academic studies have been criticized for a lack of relevance and responsiveness to public good (Chisholm, 2002). Service-learning has been touted as one of the fundamental pedagogical mechanisms that bridge this divide (Cantor, 1995; McCarthy, 2002). As Eyler and Giles (1999) note, service-learning is specifically designed to counter the isolation of learning from experience and the artificial division of subject matter into disconnected disciplines. It provides opportunities for students to connect their personal goals with academic study and to apply what they are learning to real-world situations. It also promotes an interdisciplinary approach to academic study and breaks down barriers between school and community. By integrating academic material from the classroom with service activities in the community, the relevance of the class content becomes more readily evident (Waterman, 1997; Shapiro, 2002). The hands-on application of knowledge taught in the classroom provides a clearer, yet simultaneously more complex, perspective regarding that knowledge. What is experienced through action will be learned more vividly than what is merely read, or heard in a classroom.

Research has shown that service-learning can have an appreciable effect on students' intellectual growth, personal development, and social commitment (Markus, Howard, & King, 1993; Rhoads, 1998; Gray, Geschwind, Ondaatje, Robyn, Klein, Sax, Astin, & Astin, 1996; Astin, Vogelgesang, Ikeda, & Yee, 2000). For example, in a large-scale study of the initiative "Learn and Serve America, Higher Education," Gray and associates (1996) reported higher levels of academic achievement and increased effort in school work among service-learning participants compared with nonparticipants. Participants also scored higher on civic responsibility, as indicated by their commitment to helping others in difficulty and understanding community problems. These group differences remained significant even aider controlling for the predisposition of the students to engage in service. Likewise, Astin and associates (2000) found significant improvement in writing skills, critical thinking, and grades, and increases in leadership and self-confidence among students participating in service-learning. Participants also became more value conscious in that they were committed to promoting racial understanding, activism, and service following graduation.

The value of service-learning in enhancing academic skills, in increasing awareness of the diversity of humanity, and in fostering students' social commitment is thus justified empirically. This paper provides a description of a service-learning program implemented at a university in Hong Kong as well as a descriptive evaluation of the program. The discussion also focuses on recommendations for service-learning based on the students' evaluations and our experiences.

This service-learning program is a 3-unit college general education course that includes academic study on campus and community service in nongovernmental organizations. Concerning community service, students work on projects in small teams for about 120 hours during the summer. Students provide services to people in need, such as children and youth in disadvantaged circumstances, senior citizens in deprived communities, and new arrivals from Mainland China (see Table 1). As to academic study, students describe in regular class sessions what they have learned from service. This is followed by comments from the instructor, classmates, and agency staff in order to facilitate discussion and critical reflection on the problems and needs of deprived groups, existing social services and their limitations, and essential knowledge and skills required for serving the needy. …