Learning: Its Opportunity and Promise

Vol. 15, No. 2
ISSN: 1546-2676


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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM

Vol. 15, No. 2. 
1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member,
Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2004. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

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Utilizing Service-Learning in a Life-Span Course


Jennifer Chabot
Ohio University

Dr. Chabot is an Assistant Professor of Child & Family Studies in the School of Human and Consumer Sciences.


My service-learning [is] something that is tough to describe, as it was so powerful. Not one class could compare to the things I have learned while there. It has not only been an insightful, clinically-enhancing work experience, but it has also offered me the opportunity to discover I have an aptitude in working with the mentally ill population, specifically adults. Previously, I did not wish to work with this clientele, but I feel entirely different now.

The above quote is from a student who participated in a service-learning assignment as part of a life-span human and family development course. Her placement at a psychiatric hospital allowed her self-reflection on a variety of levels, including diminishing her skepticism of work with the mentally ill. During the portion of the life-span course that talks about young adulthood and mid-life, she was able to directly integrate her experience at the psychiatric hospital into the classroom experience. The hospital houses up to 40 patients from 10 counties in Ohio and provides a home to severely mentally ill adults. This student spent most of her time interacting in planned activities with patients and their families, including spending one-on-one time with patients simply talking about their lives. As the instructor of this course, I recognize that my presentation of the course concepts of this time period of the life span in no way can touch the experiences this student had working with these adults. Through her interactions and observations, she learned that not every adult in the middle years of life follows the expected social clocks along life’s path. She met adults who were struggling to maintain the relationships in their lives, whose developments in their career paths were chaotic and interrupted, and who struggled with pain in their lives.

The use of service-learning as a teaching pedagogy is rising, and a life-span course is an ideal class to utilize this technique. I will outline the key elements of service-learning for the course, discuss why service learning can be a powerful classroom tool, offer suggestions for building service-learning into the curriculum, share ideas for potential placement sites, and share three case studies of service-learning experiences dealing with various populations along the life span. Integrated throughout will be concepts often referred to as “best practices” from various service-learning scholars.

Why Service-Learning

The benefits of service-learning are numerous. Students can help meet community needs that facilitate a connection to their community while fostering citizenship. Another benefit occurs when students have an opportunity to be placed in agencies that are linked to their academic major, allowing for the opportunity to explore various career options. An added benefit of service-learning is it keeps the class fresh. I teach the life-span course every quarter; the experience is ever changing through bringing active engagement outside of the classroom into the classroom.

Service-learning can “bring to life” course concepts. Rhoads and Howard (1998) stress the need for academic service-learning to tie directly to the curriculum of a course of study. I use their definition of service-learning: “a pedagogical model that intentionally integrates academic learning and relevant community service” (p. 1). In the case of the life-span course, where each stage of life is examined in the context of the family, the opportunity to observe and interact with various populations along the life span offers links to the course content that goes beyond the textbook. The benefit can be seen in the following quotes from students:

The experience brought to life so many of the concepts we earned in class, plus made me consider differences between some ATCO members and other people their age. –Student placed at a center for developmentally disabled adults

It is one things to hear and read about all of the developmental tasks and psychosocial crises that go on during the various life stages, but is it another to actually see and experience them on a personal basis –Student placed at a child development center

Another important benefit of service-learning for students can be on-going service to communities in which they live. The following quotes illustrate this very idea:

I learned a lot during my time spent at the Gathering Place, and the connections I made are literally endless. . . . I plan to volunteer next year.

I have really enjoyed taking part in this assignment, and I will continue to volunteer with the Habitat for Humanity organization as much as I can..

In addition, I want to prepare students to be sponsors/advocates of service-learning and teach them the importance of mentoring and supervision before we send them out into the full-time professional world.

Lastly, it is important to address service-learning’s powerful connection to the discussion of the “scholarship of engagement.” Boyer (1994) discussed his concept of the New American College that included giving scholarship a broader meaning. Boyer included in his vision a college “. . . that not only promotes the scholarship of discovering knowledge, but also celebrates the scholarship of integrating knowledge, of communicating knowledge, and of applying knowledge through professional service” (p. A48). His definition of the scholarship of engagement included activities that connect the academic community with people and places outside the campus, pushing our colleges and universities toward a larger and more humane end (Boyer, 1997). We are moving from a classroom of teaching to one of learning, from students working primarily independently to working as a team, and from a classroom of isolation to one of engagement (Rice, 1996). Students not only work together to create an exciting learning environment in the classroom when engaged in service-learning, but they take their experiences outside of the classroom boundaries, in some cases learning to work with the team of other students on site, as well as with community agency staff and clientele. In essence, we are engaging and challenging our students to address problems in society, giving them an avenue to problem solve collaboratively with all team members involved (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996).

Bringle, Games, and Malloy (1999) outlined guiding principles based on Boyer’s concept of the scholarship of engagement. The principles can guide a campus to become an engaged campus, yet they are also fitting for principles of an engaged classroom. Several illustrate the connection between service-learning pedagogy and the scholarship of engagement and are at the heart of this pedagogy (Bringle, Games, & Malloy, 1999, p. 201-202). The engaged campus will:

  1. involve communities in a continuous, authentic, and meaningful manner.
  2. have learning at the center.
  3. promote a culture of service.

Best Practices of Service-Learning

Although components of service-learning often found in the literature on best practices of service learning will be integrated throughout this article, I would like address some specifics of the discourse on these best practices. Weigert (1998) outlines elements of service-learning that are important to always keep in mind. These include the following elements: (a) student provides meaningful service; (b) the service students provide meets a need or goal of some kind; (c) members of a community define the need; (d) the service provided by the student flows from course objectives; (e) service is integrated into the course by means of assignments that require some form of reflection on the service in light of course objectives; and (f) assignments rooted in the service must be assessed and evaluated accordingly.

It is important to keep in mind that the academic credit is for learning, not for the service, and that the academic rigor of the course should not be compromised (Howard, 1993). Service-learning works best when it is used to meet course objectives and assists in using different ways to link the service to the given discipline (Enos & Troppe, 1996). This requires reflection on the part of the faculty—asking such questions as “What purpose does this disciplines serve in society? What does its knowledge base offer ordinary citizens? How can service be used as a text to illustrate the concerns of this discipline?” (p. 159). Morton (1996) expands on this idea of viewing service-learning as a text. He challenges us to give equal importance to the service assignment as to readings. An important component of this is to structure service like we would provide structure for reading assignments.

In 1989 an advisory group met a Wingspread and developed the Ten Principles for Combining Service and Learning (Honnet & Poulson, 1989). These include six that are commonly used in the literature:

  1. An effective program engages people in responsible and challenging actions for the common good. This includes being an active participant, not merely being a spectator or visitor in a classroom, further the argument for an engaged classroom.
  2. An effective program articulates clear service and learning goals for everyone involved. This includes what is to be accomplished and learned and is fostered through a mutual process in the service-learning exchange.
  3. An effective program allows for those with needs to define those needs. The actual recipients of service define their needs.
  4. An effective program expects genuine, active, and sustained organizational commitment. This includes an on-going commitment and linking the service to the curriculum as a valid component of teaching ensures this.
  5. An effective program includes training, supervision, monitoring, support, recognition, and evaluation to meet service and learning goals. Progress of the service is monitored among all involved.
  6. An effective program is committed to program participation by and with diverse populations: varying ages, race/ethnicity, socio-economic class, people with disabilities, and gender. The goal is to remove barriers for access to service that may exist.

Faculty members integrating service into their courses also need to consider their options of how to do this. In order for it to be a truly integrated experience, it needs to “function as a critical learning complement to the academic goals of the course” (Howard, 1998, p. 21). This is as pivotal to learning as class lectures and library research. Morton (1996) raises the question of whether service is at the center of our course or offered as an optional assignment. Although there is no one model of integrating service into a course (Enos & Troppe, 1996), faculty members make the mistake of simply adding on a service component without any intentionality for integration. This practice can threaten the academic integrity of the course. Another issue has to do with how much service is enough to have students engage in order to make it an enriching experience for both the student and the community agency. A great source of additional information on these questions can be found on the National Service Learning Clearinghouse Web site:

Where to Begin

An important step in incorporating service-learning into any curriculum is to build coalitions with community agencies. Joint design is a critical tool that involves both the agencies and the faculty (Hatcher & Bringle, 1997). When a collaborative, reciprocal effort is not made, the community can often feel exploited (Howard, 1998). I have heard this concern expressed from agency staff, so care must be taken with these critical partnerships. Instructors and students can diminish this risk of exploitation by taking the time to gain a full picture of an agency’s mission and its place in a given community. As part of an assignment, students can be asked to gather the agency’s mission and history, a description of the clientele, and information about how needs of the population are met.

Another aspect of collaboration involves those with whom we teach. As an example, my life span/service-learning course  included input from other university faculty. This course is a core requirement of every program in Ohio University’s School of Human and Consumer Sciences. There was a collaborative effort with school faculty in identifying potential agency placements for the variety of majors represented in the School (Early Childhood, Food Service Management, Dietetics, Family Studies, Interior Architecture, and Retail Management).

In designing the service-learning component, one needs to think about the outcomes and how they will be measured. Keep in mind the following questions: What types of service projects are possible? What agencies and/or organizations can be partners? How will the project be implemented and monitored? How will learning be maximized and evaluated?

Orientation to Service-Learning for Students

Orientation to service-learning is something that needs to be addressed in the classroom: expectations, philosophy, and definitions of this pedagogy are critical to successful student experiences. The institutional commitment to service-learning as well as expectations as representatives of the university are important issues. Before students begin their placements, they should know what service-learning is, what potential outcomes exist for the community and for them, and what can be expected in assignments. Each course integrates service-learning a little differently, so time spent on this orientation varies. If your university has a service-learning center, invite a staff member to conduct the orientation. If this is not possible, the following content is suggested:

  1. Give a definition of service-learning that works for your students. Share examples that relate to your students as well as share examples of past placements. The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse (www, is an excellent resource for definitions.
  2. Outline your expectations for the student at the placement site (being on time, reliable, good attitude, taking initiative). Talk about the need to be a representative of the university and the class and encourage them to ask questions of the agency. Encourage students to find out about the agency mission and how it meets the needs of the community (all of which can be included in a writing assignment for this project).
  3. Explain the reasons for service learning, i.e., how the service-learning outcomes relate to course objectives. Although there are reasons related specifically to the course, there are additional general benefits: enhance communication with different populations; learn to face and define broad community issues; foster initiative, independent reasoning, and independent learning; gain exposure to cultural and socio-economic differences; assume civic and social responsibility; build confidence with and satisfaction of helping others and providing needed services; and explore values and ethical issues (Service-Learning Handbook, Michigan State University, 1997-98).
  4. Review the logistics of the assignments, placement opportunities, the reflection plan, and assignment expectations. If time permits, invite agency representatives to visit class to talk briefly about their agencies. Invite previous students to share their experiences.


Reflection is a critical component of service-learning and one of the best practices discussed earlier. Reflection offers students an opportunity to think critically about their experiences. Reflection activities designed for the course should link experience with learning, be guided, occur on a regular basis, allow for feedback and assessment, and foster the exploration and clarification of values (Hatcher & Bringle, 1997). There are a wide variety of reflection tools, including intentional journal writing, small group discussion built into classroom time, group presentations about service-learning experiences, and the writing of integration papers, that allow students to integrate course content with experiences. I have found that allowing students the opportunity to discuss their experiences during class time fosters collaborative brainstorming. In smalll groups (which I refer to as service-learning circles), students share information about the placement, connect experiences and course concepts, and brainstorm to identify other links. The faculty role in reflection is critical; faculty “must be willing to intervene, pose tough questions, and propose often uncomfortable points of view for students’ consideration” (Howard, 1998, p. 21).

Benefits of integration assignments are illustrated in the following student reflections:

From working with toddlers and early school-age children, I learned a lot about that stage in life. All of the things that I learned in class came to life for me. (Student at a community recreation center)

This was a very good experience for me and really illustrated the theories presented in this class. (Student at Big Brothers/Big Sisters)

Tips for Site Selection

Littlefield (1994) outlined criteria for site selection. The site must be connected to the course content, and students must have an opportunity to reflect on how the content relates to what they are dong on site. In addition, students should have an opportunity to have direct client contact or contact with the agency constituency groups. It helps if the work the student does has a clear connection to the mission of the agency. It is important, too, for faculty to work with agencies in joint design, always keeping in mind that the agency voice matters. Agencies should be included in the reflection plan, integration assignments, and course integration planning and preparation whenever possible. Faculty should communicate with agency staff to mutually design the requirements for the assignments so that they are beneficial for students and the community (Rama, Ravenscroft, Wolcott, & Zlotkowski, 2000). This best practice strengthens the quality of the service placement.

Role of Students in the Service-Learning Experience

There are many ways to involve students in service-learning experiences. Faculty members often make the mistake of not including the student voice and leadership as a required element of true service-learning (Morgan & Streb, 2001). Once there is a quarter or semester of experience with this pedagogy, invite past students to talk about their experiences during your orientation time. Experienced students can speak on behalf of agencies, talk about ways they incorporated course concepts, and describe their overall responsibilities at the site. Then, too, current students can help each other with integration ideas. This can be done during an all-class discussion or during service-learning circle discussions. Students can also have a voice in how future service-learning experiences are structured by evaluating their experiences at the end of the course. Students need to be given opportunity, in writing and through class discussion, to speak of the benefits and/or challenges of the assignments. This can also be done through on-going reflection. A Web page for the course can be designed as a way for students to exchange agency placement ideas, course integration examples, discussions about individual experiences, and overall comments and/or reflections.

Examples of Placements

The following agencies are examples of placements in the life span course described in this article. The focus on placements was on populations along the life span, from infancy to the very old, as well as on issues that individuals and families face. Agency partners included local soup kitchens and home shelters, Meals-on-Wheels programs, Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) programs, senior citizen centers, domestic assault shelters, hospitals, wellness programs, area middle and high schools, Department of Social Services/Human Services, psychiatric hospitals, community centers for developmentally disabled adults and children, child development centers, Head Start, American Red Cross, American Cancer Society, sexual assault advocacy programs, Habitat for Humanity, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters.


Planning and preparing to integrate service-learning into a course can present its share of challenges. For universities on the quarter system, ten weeks can be a short duration for many agencies. Some agency placements are more than a ten-week commitment, based on the agencies time and attention given to training and orienting volunteers. A second challenge is the simple fact that not every student likes the service commitment. Students are not only representatives of the course but of the university, school, and program. In many communities relationships with agencies have a long history, and it is important to send students to agencies with a positive attitude. These issues can be addressed during the course orientation by clearly outlining expectations regarding attitude and behavior. Some courses offer alternative integration assignments to students who prefer them. Another issue is that there is not always a way to control what happens at an agency. Staff changes, staff attitudes toward university students, or time a staff member can give to working with a volunteer can all contribute to a chaotic environment for a student. This is why it is recommended that faculty build relationships with agencies, but it can take a great deal of time and energy. Transportation can also provide problems for students. Some universities receive donated tokens from city transit systems, and some agencies provide vans or vehicles to transport students to and from the site. Car pooling is another solution that can be organized when there are multiple students at one site.

Life Span Case Studies

A closer look at three service learning placements can illustrate the power of incorporating service-learning into a life span course. The first involved a student placed in a local Head Start, where her duties included child supervision and teacher assistance in the classroom. Examples of areas she was able to integrate included cultural observations of language development because this particular site included a large international population and opportunities to observe play and gender development. In her final integration paper, the student shared her insights:

Watching the children enabled me to relate my experiences to our class materials. I believe that the agency I chose helped me make those connections. . . . This experience has made me realize the importance of the early years of life. How and what they experience will make them who they are.

A second scenario is from a student who spent his time working at Ohio State University Extension of Athens County. He was an active participant in the development of 4-H programs. In working primarily with early adolescents in after-school outreach programs, he was able to see aspects of developmental tasks of this time period come to life. He observed the importance of peer relationships among this age group, was able to document his observations of social class impact on identity development, and view examples of the importance of adolescents feeling connected to a group. In addition, his observations of the OSU Extension workers, primarily in mid-life, were integrated into his experiences. He stated in his final integration paper:

I think that by observing the youth at the 4-H meeting I was able to see the reality of the text material. It is easy to read the books and know the material for a test, but if it is difficult to relate the ideas to your experiences, it makes understanding the points a lot more difficult. I think that by doing this project I was able to relate the concepts of early adolescence and middle adulthood to the “real world.

A student placed in a senior citizen community center played volleyball, experienced country line-dancing, and worked in a quilting group. She saw developmental tasks of old age that showed the more positive aspects of this time during the life span, an experience that helped dispel her earlier belief in stereotypes of inactive, elderly individuals not being engaged in their communities. This was a very active senior center, with activities scheduled throughout the day. This student saw adults in the later years of life redirect energy to new roles, hear how center clients developed their viewpoints on death, and saw examples of intellectual vigor, all concepts of later life and old age discussed in class. No academic lesson can truly give intergenerational experience to students such as this, and this also met an important community need of engaging college students with local senior citizens. One student stated:

. . . I feel that old age is even more fascinating because this generation has lived such a full life, which is why I feel it is very applicable to our class.

Closing Comments

One of the greatest benefits of service-learning is observing students connect service-learning to their own lives. In the field of Human and Consumer Sciences we talk about context, and many of us believe students are much more than persons sitting in our class. Service-learning can cause students to examine who they are, what they believe, and what they experience. As the closing quote illustrates, service learning can truly enhance a classroom experience:

At first I thought to myself, “What a pain in the butt to have to go and observe and then write a paper about my observations.” Now I would just like to thank you for assigning this and allowing me this experience. I had a wonderful time, and it made me realize how much I am actually learning. I think I would get more out of a lot of my classes if we could apply what we learned. This experience has also made me more assured and excited about going into early childhood/primary education. (Student placed at a child development center)


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