Studying Service-Learning: Innovations in Education Research Methodology

Studying Service-Learning: Innovations in Education Research Methodology

Studying Service-Learning: Innovations in Education Research Methodology

Studying Service-Learning: Innovations in Education Research Methodology


This volume represents a breakthrough discussion of the research issues surrounding innovative pedagogies. Using service-learning as its focus, it explores ways in which researchers and evaluators can study a teaching and learning approach that has multiple goals, including both academic and affective development. The chapter authors show how to study a topic that is multilayered, complex, and involves the ways in which individuals make meaning of their experiences. Seven challenges that researchers need to grapple with in studying service-learning are identified and addressed: defining service-learning; basing service-learning research on strong theoretical foundations; refining service-learning research design and methodology; interpreting service-learning results; disseminating service-learning research findings; improving service-learning practice; and building funding to support service-learning research. In addition, practical recommendations are provided for professionals involved in doing research on service-learning and more broadly on any form of experiential education, community service and development, or educational reform. Studying Service-Learning: Innovations in Education Research Methodology is an essential resource for researchers who are interested in studying innovative teaching and learning strategies and for students who are learning about a range of research methodologies.


Although individuals have been studying service-learning for decades, most would agree that research in service-learning is still in its infancy. Many fine evaluations of service-learning have been conducted, such as those by Melchior (1999), Furco (2002), and Eyler and Giles (1999). Several summaries of studies have been compiled, such as those by Conrad and Hedin (1991); Billig (2000); and Eyler, Giles, Stenson, and Gray (2000). Volumes of collected research have begun to appear, such as those by Furco and Billig (2002), Waterman (1997), and Anderson, Swick, and Yff (2001).

Those efforts to gather and disseminate what is known about servicelearning are important first steps. They represent efforts to understand the basis for the passion that many educators feel for the practice of service-learning. These works collectively provide glimpses into the factors that help build the quality of service-learning practice. They begin to identify key variables needed to maximize desired outcomes and the effects of various contexts on the impacts that participation in service-learning may have on different stakeholders.

Given the prevalence of service-learning, however, it is surprising to see so little actual research. Service-learning has been estimated as being performed in nearly one-third of all public K-12 schools and one-half of all high schools (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999) and up to 88% of all private schools (Genzer, 1998). Participation in service-learning for faculty and students in higher education is equally strong (Eyler & Giles, 1999). Yet the vast majority of published studies on service-learning are of program evaluations or anecdotal descriptions, not research (Billig, 2000; Eyler, Giles, & Gray, 2000). Having a body of evidence comprised primarily of evaluation studies severely limits the ability to make generalizations about service-learning impacts and restricts the ways in which the studies can be used to improve practice. Furthermore, program evaluations are less likely to be built on strong theoretical foundations. This means that their explanatory value is also restricted. Finally, the definitions of service-learning being used, the program designs being studied, and the populations of students and community members being examined vary so broadly that the discussion of service-learning research must always occur in the midst of multiple qualifying statements.


Clearly, more rigorous, replicable research in service-learning is needed for both K-12 and higher education populations. In studying service-learning . . .

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