Assessing Institutional Support for Service-Learning: A Case Study of Organizational Sensemaking

Article excerpt

This paper provides an example of how institutional service-learning assessment data can be used to drive organizational change. Furco's (1999) self-assessment rubric for the institutionalization of service-learning in higher education is used in modified form as the instrument through which organizationallevel assessments were made. The process of organizational change over time is reported through the lens of Weick's (1995) Organizational Information Theory and specifically the double interact, comprised of act, response, and adjustment as organizational members reduce their uncertainty and make sense of organizational action and communication.

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The need to assess service-learning cannot be escaped. Whether to satisfy regional accreditors' demands, provide data demonstrating programmatic efficacy, or measure student progress and teaching effectiveness, assessment's place in higher education is becoming solidified. Over the past 20 years, the assessment focus has largely been on student learning outcomes (Marchel, 2004), and rightly so. Many universities have designed their assessment practices based on the work of experts such as Banta (1996), Cross and Angelo (1988), and Walvoord and Anderson (1998).

However, assessing service-learning brings into play not just student learning outcomes, but also faculty, community partners, and the institution itself (Driscoll, Holland, Gelmon, & Kerrigan, 1996; Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoecker, & Donohue, 2003). Bringle, Phillips, and Hudson (2004) detail the extant instruments that can be used to assess students' experiences in service-learning. Berman (1999) and Heffernan (2001) show how to embed assessment into service-learning course design. The positive effects of service-learning on students are well documented (Ash, Clayton, & Atkinson, 2005; Eyler, Giles, & Gray, 2000).

As the assessment of student learning matures, more attention is being paid to assessing the effects of service-learning on the community partners (Bushouse, 2005; Jorge, 2003; Oates & Leavitt, 2003) and institutions as a whole. Gelmon, Holland, Driscoll, Spring, and Kerrigan (2001) argue that assessing institutional factors makes sense because those "factors affect decision-making at every level and every stage of operations ... service-learning programs are always strongly influenced by their institutional environments ... (and) the impact of organizational context on service-learning and engagement endeavors means that systematic assessment of institutional factors can play an extremely important role in facilitating campus commitment by providing relevant and neutral data to inform decision-making and reduce obstacles" (p. 107). Bell, Furco, Ammon, Muller, and Sorgen (2000) found that institutional support for service-learning is second only to faculty support for service-learning in terms of what is the strongest predictor of the institutionalizing of service-learning. Thus, it is important to conduct assessment on various institutional factors of service-learning.

A critical concern, however, of service-learning research, and in particular assessment, is the paucity of rigorous processes and theoretical grounding of research studies (Bringle & Hatcher, 2000; Kiely, 2005). This is in part because service-learning is a fairly new discipline and that we do not have a great deal of original theories related to service-learning. Ziegert and McGoldrick (2004) argue that we are at a "methodological crossroads," which can be an exciting place to be; but it does mean however, that we need to demonstrate our rigor and highlight theoretical underpinnings when we conduct research in service-learning to enhance our scholarly legitimacy across disciplines. Service-learning scholars recognize that some disciplines' theories (Bringle & Hatcher, 2000; Gelmon, 2000; Giles & Eyler, 1994) have been used to link with service-learning, at least primarily in terms of experiential learning and educational models. …