The Effects of Program Characteristics and Psychological Engagement on Service-Learning Outcomes: A Study of University Students in Hong Kong

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INTRODUCTION

Service-learning is now used widely across different academic disciplines throughout the world. As a pedagogical approach, service-learning is about creating opportunities for students to apply knowledge they learn in the classroom to serving disadvantaged groups in society (Cantor, 1995). This linking of academic study with community service is seen as ideally suited to achieving both the personal and academic goals of students and the broader goals of civic commitment and social justice in communities (Chisholm, 2002). Moreover, service-learning is discussed as a potential tool for school reform, a way to address social transformation, and an avenue to prepare students for lifelong learning and participation (McCarthy, 2002). Proponents of this movement contend that service-learning counters the isolation of learning from experience and the artificial division of subject matter into disconnected disciplines (Eyler & Giles, 1999). It provides opportunities for students to link their personal goals with academic study and to apply what they are learning to actual situations in the community. It also promotes an interdisciplinary approach to academic study and breaks down barriers between schools and the community. By integrating academic material from the classroom with service activities in the community, the relevance and application value of class content becomes more readily evident (Waterman, 1997). What' is experienced through action will also be learned more vividly than what is merely read or heard in a teacher's classroom presentation (Shapiro, 2002).

Past research indicates that service-learning is able to bring about a variety of positive student outcomes ranging from intellectual growth and personal development to civic commitment (Rhoads, 1998; Gray, Geschwind, Ondaatje, Robyn, Klein, Sax, Astin, & Astin, 1996; Astin, Vogelgesang, Ikeda, & Yee, 2000). For instance, Astin and associates (2000) find significant improvements in writing skills, critical thinking, and grades, and increases in leadership and self-confidence among students participating in service-learning. Participants also become more value-conscious in that they are committed to promoting racial understanding, activism, and service following graduation. Likewise, in a large-scale evaluation study on the initiative "Learn and Serve America, Higher Education," Gray and associates (1996) reported higher levels of academic achievement and increased effort in schoolwork among service-learning participants when compared with nonparticipants. Participants also scored higher than non-participants on civic commitment, as indicated in their willingness to help others and understand community problems. These group differences remained significant even after controlling for the predisposition of students to engage in service. The value of service-learning in enhancing students' personal development, academic skills, awareness of the diversity of humanity, and civic commitment is thus justified empirically.

Nevertheless, although studies on service-learning outcomes are becoming more plentiful, there is a paucity of systematic research to examine why service-learning is beneficial or why some students benefit more than others. Studies that have specifically investigated changes in participants have tended to view community service as either having been completed or not, while participants' views on service activity and its perceived importance are not included (Janoski, Musick, & Wilson, 1998). Given these arguments, the current study enhances the literature in several ways. The findings provide insights into the effects of program characteristics and psychological engagement on service-learning outcomes from the perspectives of participating students (Delve, Mintz, & Stewart, 1990; Long, Larsen, Hussey, & Travis, 2001). Such an approach is consistent with the recommendation that events should be assessed from the perspectives of the person who undergoes the experience--in this case, the student (Dreuth & Dreuth-Fewell, 2002). …