Evaluating Service Learning in the Communication Discipline

Article excerpt

Educators across the country have begun to incorporate service learning into courses as varied as photography, landscape architecture, civil engineering, and philosophy. Service learning - an innovative pedagogy that takes students into the community in order to provide a needed service to organizations as well as to enhance academic learning-has witnessed a tremendous surge in popularity in recent years. Numerous disciplines have integrated service learning into their curricula, prompting academic conference sessions, an academic journal devoted to service learning, and a series of monographs (see Droge & Murphy, in press).

Communication educators also have recognized that service learning and communication coursework can be a good match, offering students a chance to put communication principles into practice. For example, students in public relations courses can write news releases or public service announcements for non-profit agencies needing publicity. Students learning about communication research can conduct focus groups for a public broadcasting station. Video production students can create videos for organizations trying to attract members or raise money.

Despite the "fit" between many communication courses and service learning as well as the services provided to community organizations, insufficient research has investigated student perceptions of their service learning experiences as well as actual learning outcomes. This study examined students' service learning experiences in multiple courses taught within a communication department.

Service learning literature

Although scholars are not in agreement on how students best learn, considerable attention in the past few decades has focused on what might be called learner-centered or learner-directed kinds of learning. such as cooperative learning, experiential learning and service learning. A common element of these pedagogies is providing students with more direct, hands-on experience with the material being learned. Although the term "service learning" is relatively new, its central tenets can be traced back to John Dewey, who strongly maintained that a primary goal of education was to help students become involved, active citizens of the democracy (see Giles & Eyler, 1994, for a discussion of the theoretical roots of service learning in Dewey). Similarly, the focus of today's service learning movement is the connection between the goals of academic learning and the goals of the community.

As with many educational pedagogies, precise definitions are difficult to articulate due to the varied contexts in which they are practiced. Olney and Grande (1995) note two characteristics that commonly distinguish service learning from other forms of student involvement in the community: "(1) students engage in active reflection on their community experience, and (2) community learning is linked to academic learning" (p. 43).

This study uses a definition of service learning condensed from the National Community Service and Trust Act of 1993, and adopted by American Association of Higher Education:

Service learning means a method under which students learn and develop a thoughtfully organized service that: is conducted in and meets the needs of a community and is coordinated with an institution of higher education and with the community; helps foster civic responsibility; is integrated into and enhances the academic curriculum of the students enrolled; and includes structured time for the students to reflect on the service experience.

An important distinction noted by scholars between "volunteering" and established service learning programs is the potential for service learning to be more fully integrated into existing curricula. Wutzdorff and Giles (1997) viewed integration as a primary strength of institutionalized service learning and expressed optimism that "so many solid programs grow from well-intentioned volunteerism to closely integrated components of institutional curricula" (p. …