Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Cognitive Outcomes of Service-Learning: Reviewing the Past and Glimpsing the Future

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Cognitive Outcomes of Service-Learning: Reviewing the Past and Glimpsing the Future

Article excerpt

At the start of the 1990s it seemed as though this decade might mark the "cognitive revolution" for research on service-learning. In March 1991, Wingspread conference participants discussed the research agenda for the 1990s in service-learning as they sought to identify critical research questions (Giles, Honnet, & Migliore, 1991). Among the research questions that were generated about the effects of service-learning on the individual student were, "What is the effect of service-learning on students as learners?" and "What knowledge do students gain as a result of service-learning?" (p. 6). Indeed, Wingspread participants expressed hope that research on student learning outcomes could help to transform education, concluding that, "At the center of current educational reform is attention to student outcomes--the knowledge and skills we want students to have as a result of their education" (p. 15).

Yet as the decade came to a close, a crisis of confidence about cognitive outcomes seemed to be brewing and a major sticking point seemed to surround the issue of the quality of the outcome data. Although there has been great progress in the last decade toward answering questions related to cognitive outcomes, several researchers in the field have noted the lack of progress in providing convincing evidence for skeptical faculty, and argued that without this evidence, service-learning's future is in jeopardy (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Osborne, Hammerich, & Hensley, 1998; Troppe, 1995). Eyler (2000) expresses researchers' own evaluation of the current state of research on cognitive outcomes: "Intellectual outcomes--knowledge, cognitive development, problem-solving skills, and transfer of learning--are at the heart of the school and college mission and yet we know relatively little about how they are affected by service-learning" (p. 11). Moore's (1999) comments on experiential education in general capture the problem with service-learning practitioners' reliance on belief rather than data:

   When it works, experiential education is a fabulous,
   exciting pedagogy with the power to
   transform individuals and institutions. But I
   think we need to take the risk of saying out
   loud that it does not always work. Our posture
   of true belief looks like Dorothy's faith that the
   Wizard of Oz could supply the Scarecrow's
   brain, the Tin Man's heart, and the Lion's
   courage; it obscures our problems and distracts
   us from doing something about them. (p. 23)

It is in this spirit of excitement and reflection that Howard, Gelmon, and Giles (2000) assert, "The time is right for a renewed call for service-learning research" (p. 5).

Given that the main course objectives for faculty are student learning objectives, the more service-learning is shown to enhance traditional classroom learning, the more service-learning will be viewed as legitimate among educators (Troppe, 1995). Therefore, the outcome measures of service-learning that faculty will find most convincing will assess the cognitive or intellectual outcomes of their students specific to course content. As stated by Eyler and Giles (1999),

"Although faculty might agree that community service contributes to students' personal and social development and that it makes them better citizens, many are dubious about its value in the academic program, where the most important goal is learning subject matter." (pp. 57-58).

Similarly, Osborne, Hammerich, and Hensley (1998) note the lack of research's perceived relevancy on non-academic outcomes for many faculty, asserting that "most faculty will be persuaded to incorporate service-learning into their courses to the extent that service-learning can be shown to impact the learning of course content [emphasis in original]" (p. 6). Without well-documenting service-learning's effect on student learning, more and more faculty and administrators will become critical of service-learning's role in higher education (Cohen & Kinsey, 1994). …

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