Editor's Choice: The Efficacy of Service-Learning for Community College ESL Students

By Elwell, Marlene D.; Bean, Martha S. | Community College Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Editor's Choice: The Efficacy of Service-Learning for Community College ESL Students


Elwell, Marlene D., Bean, Martha S., Community College Review


Higher education has been criticized for failing to address meaningful environmental, economic, and social problems as well as failing to prepare college graduates to meet the rigors of socially responsible citizenship (Readon, 1998). There is an expanding expectation on campus and in the community for higher education not only to focus on student learning and development but also to deepen the commitment of addressing human needs by resolving social problems (Jacoby, 1996). One such way to accomplish this is through community service-learning. Student community service and service-learning are powerful learning experiences that effect change and address America's social problems (Berson, 1994). As a result of community service-learning, today's college students are different from their predecessors, and as America's social problems continue to increase, more students are seeking solutions to these problems through faculty-facilitated community service-learning projects (p.15).

Perhaps more than any other educational institution, the community college has a unique opportunity to be on the leading edge of this service-learning paradigm, since the community college's existence is intertwined with a commitment to improve the communities that surround its campuses (Berson, 1994). In this paper, we will discuss a successful short-term community service-learning project that the first author facilitated for English as a Second Language (ESL) students in a reading class at the community college level and examine how the ESL students benefitted from participating in this community service-learning project.

Service-learning Defined

Service-learning can be defined as a pedagogy which involves academic study linked to community service through assignments that require some sort of structured reflection so that each reinforces the other, with the benefits far exceeding those of service or learning by themselves (Mass-Weigert, 1998; Jacoby, 1996; Kinsley, 1994; Berson, 1994). By working on a community service project, students apply classroom knowledge to real-world experiences and use real-world experiences to inform classroom knowledge. This exchange encourages the students to become lifelong, active participants in the community (Berson, 1994). The hands-on experience also imparts knowledge to the students that they could not otherwise gain; hence, service-learning is an integration of service and learning, which creates synergy (Howard, 1998). According to Jacoby (1996), the hyphen in service-learning is symbolically representative of this symbiotic relationship. The goals of service and learning are of equal weight; thus, the hyphen is essential (p.6). Service-learning is also known as community-based learning, community learning (Mass-Weigert, 1998), and experiential learning, all of which involve students in a wide range of activities that are of benefit to others and use the experience generated to advance curriculum goals, such as gaining a deeper understanding of the course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility (Waterman, 1997; Bringle & Hatcher, 1996).

History of Service-Learning in the U.S.

The concept of service-learning in the United States has an impressive history that includes the land grant university movement of the 1860s, John Dewey's educational philosophy of the early 20th century, the Truman administration's focus on higher education, and the campus and community-based organization initiatives of the 1960s' Civil Rights Movement.

In the 1930s, John Dewey stressed that school and society were one and that higher education was intertwined with what he termed the "dilemmas and the perplexities of its time" (Arches et al., 1997, p.36). Along with Dewey, others have continued to emphasize that important advances in knowledge occur when educational institutions focus on key issues facing modern society. …

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