Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Assessing Learning in Community Service Learning: A Social Approach

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Assessing Learning in Community Service Learning: A Social Approach

Article excerpt

This essay advances a way of thinking about assessment that envelops both process and outcome. We assert that learning in community service learning and the assessment thereof might fruitfully be considered in communication with others (the students, constituents from the community, instructors, etc.). Concepts central to a social approach to learning are identified, and examples of ways to assess those concepts are advanced. Finally, methods of assessing the social dimension of learning are provided, including interviews and focus groups, the analysis of journal assignments, and the observation of videotaped interactions.


Community Service Learning (CSL) pedagogy, programs, and research by their very nature promote the idea of academic-community intervention--an interruption in the way things are that produces some sort of change for social betterment. How to assess both the quality and quantity of change, for whom and for what purposes, remains a central focus of CSL scholarship (see, for example, Astin, Vogelgesang, Ikeda, & Lee, 2000; Driscoll, Holland, Gelmon, & Kerrigan, 1996; Levin, 2000).

In an essay that advances a theoretical and practical framework for conceptualizing the design of CSL research, Astin (2000) uses Wilber's (1995, 1998) four-quadrant model to distinguish the individual and collective as well as the interior and exterior dimensions of social life in terms of individual consciousness, individual actions, institutional culture, and institutional structures. Based on the four quadrants, among the fundamental principles of outcome assessment in CSL, Astin suggests:

1) Research on service-learning needs to look at both individual and collective organizational/ structural outcomes;

2) Service-learning research needs to look at program impacts on the exteriors and interiors of the individuals and organizations being studied. p. 99 [original emphasis]

Astin's use of the model and suggestions for assessment are instructive for their reference to the systemic impact of change processes. Change in any one part of the community "system" impacts the others and thus cannot be studied in isolation. Individual actions are interdependent on those of the collective to produce meaningful outcomes for structures, organizations and institutions, which in turn provide feedback that affects actions and relations on an individual and collective level. For Astin, the implications for assessment are clear: We must evaluate outcomes and change in general in terms of the interdependencies among all parts of the system.

In this essay we extend Astin's (2000) ideas about the systemic relationship among CSL constituencies to the assessment of learning as communication. That is, while we too see the importance of evaluating outcomes in terms of the connections among parts (constituencies) to form a holistic system, our concern for assessment envelops both process and outcome. Learning in CSL and the assessment thereof might fruitfully be argued to be constructed in communication with others, thereby complicating the divisions between Astin's version of the internal individual (cognitions, values, beliefs) and the individual's external actions (outcomes) as well as with the institutional culture and structure. That is, actions are always meaningful and meaning is made in (inter)action with others; the process of meaning-making is itself empirical, just as outcomes are social facts.

From this perspective, we see learning not simply as an individual activity but as a communicative process (see, for example, Dewey, 1925; Habermas, 1984) which cannot be separated from the experience of its occurrence. Viewing learning in this manner offers a window (or maybe a lens) into the CSL experience, because so much of what we and our students take away from those experiences in the community seems so rich, complex, and difficult to name, and thus to easily isolate, categorize, and measure. …

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