Completing the Learning Cycle: Service-learning
Research has shown the large extent to which student learning is enhanced when there is a link between theory and application; that is, when there is an experiential component to balance out the more abstract, intellectual treatment of course content that characterizes most classroom approaches to subject matter. For example, learning theorist David Kolb has described a cycle of learning which involves concrete experience and active experimentation as much as abstract conceptualization and reflective observation. Questions arise, though, about effective ways to incorporate into our course designs application and concrete experience, particularly in courses which seem more suited to abstract conceptual approaches.
For some faculty here at UNH and elsewhere, service-learning provides a way to achieve the kind of balance Kolb advocates. Service-learning, unlike either internships or co-curricular volunteer activity, aims to fully integrate classroom-based instruction with community-based service activities which are specifically chosen because they enable the student to put the classroom instruction into practice, to reflect upon the experience, and to take the lessons learned from the process back to the classroom for analysis, synthesis, and dissemination.
As it implements its own Academic Plan, UNH has embraced the principles set forth in the national report of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, entitled Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College. This report is quite clear in defining the terms of liberal education in the 21st Century: "Quality liberal education prepares students for active participation in the private and public sectors… It has the strongest impact when studies reach beyond the classroom to the larger community, asking students to apply their developing analytical skills and ethical judgement to concrete problems in the world around them, and to connect theory with the insights gained from practice." For many, service-learning provides the means to achieve these objectives.
Service or Learning?
A definition put forth by the National Service-learning Partnership makes it clear than the intent of service-learning is to solidify the learning experience, and not simply to complement it with some out-of-class experiences:
“Service-learning is a teaching method that engages students in service to their schools and communities as part of their academic studies. Service-learning helps students master important curriculum content by supporting their making meaningful connections between what they are studying and its many applications.”
The ideal of a service-learning experience or unit within a course is to have service and learning goals and outcomes be of equal weight rather than having one follow the other in importance. Thus it is essential that students do some type of formal reflection on their experience, articulating for themselves the ways in which the service connects with the learning.
For More Information
Here at UNH the Partnership for Social Action maintains a library of resources about service-learning. On their WEB site are links to a host of electronic resources: http://www.unh.edu/serve/sllinks.htm In addition, the staff will work with faculty and students to identify service-learning settings that are a good fit for the particular course and individual interests. For more information, contact Marianne Fortescue at 862-2197 or Marianne.firstname.lastname@example.org.