Learning: Its Opportunity and Promise

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


return to KON home page
to print, please use this version
browse other KON publications

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

Interested in submitting an article to KON FORUM? Papers are now being accepted for review. For more information, click here.



Service-Learning as a Value-Added Curriculum Strategy in Family and Consumer Sciences


Linda C. Robinson and Amanda W. Harrist
East Carolina University and Oklahoma State University

Preparation of this manuscript was supported, in part, by a grant awarded to the first author by Oklahoma Higher Education Partners for service-learning. Appreciation is expressed to the staff and clients of the social service agencies in Stillwater, OK, who partnered with our students in many different ways.

Linda C. Robinson currently teaches at East Carolina University's College of Human Ecology, Department of Child Development and Family Relations, and Amanda W. Harrist teaches at Oklahoma State University’s College of Human Environment Sciences, Department of Family Relations and Child Development


An upper-level family and consumer sciences service-learning course titled “Professional Services for Children and Families” is reviewed in light of four characteristics that have been empirically supported as being crucial for service-learning to be effective: support of autonomy, matching of goals and activities, attention to relationships, and opportunity for reflection. The course also is reviewed from the perspective of a cognitive map theorized to encompass three stages of service-learning: shock, normalization, and engagement. Practical suggestions are given for instructors designing service-learning components as part of their family and consumer sciences curricula.

Service-learning as a curriculum strategy has become more widespread at the college level (Stanton, Giles, & Cruz, 1999). Rooted in Dewey’s vision for experiential learning, the ethic of service has been fortified by both the previous Bush and Clinton administrations and by federal legislation incorporating service-learning as a component of national service (Kielsmeier, 2000). Numerous studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of service-learning as a pedagogical tool for enhanced academic learning as well as civic responsibility (Rockquemore & Schaffer, 2000).

For example, Stage (2000) described the experiences of 447 education students in an introductory child development course. Some of the students conducted in-depth observations of children in a campus child development laboratory and completed written reports on their observations; other students spent at least 20 hours in service-learning within a school setting and had reflective journaling assignments. The service-learning experience combined with reflective journaling appeared to enhance linkages between course content (i.e., various aspects of child development) and application in school settings.

Although the ability to link research and theory to real world applications is a valuable objective, service-learning also affords the opportunity to sensitize students to social issues and civic responsibility. Vogelsang and Astin (2000) compared two groups of students, one group having engaged in service-learning and the other having engaged in co-curricular community service. Although both groups of students benefited in a variety of areas, outcomes for students participating in service-learning integrated within an academic course were stronger than those effects for co-curricular community service in the following areas: stronger commitment to racial understanding and activism; higher self-reported levels of critical thinking and GPA; and greater likelihood of service-oriented career plans. The authors emphasized the need for more exploration of how service-learning might enhance learning in diverse disciplines.

Through the analysis of student reflection on their service-learning experiences, Rockquemore and Schaffer (2000) were able to develop a theory of how service-learning enriches the academic experiences of students. Although one of the goals of their service-learning was to enhance learning among the students, their courses also emphasized sensitization to issues of social justice and civic responsibility. Thus, their students, who tended to be white and affluent, were exposed to a variety of social services for the poor and marginalized. Three stages emerged from the analysis of these service-learning projects: (a) shock as students were exposed to social and economic disparities between their personal reality and that of those whom they served; (b) normalization as students adapted to the reality of those they were serving and developed relationships with staff and clients built on common bonds; and (c) engagement as students made attributions as to causes of social problems.

One of the prime principals of service-learning is that learning is reciprocal (Greene, 1998), that the student serves in order to learn, and the community being served accepts the service in order to teach. Service-learning at its best sensitizes students to the social justice/policy contexts in which social service needs are embedded (Stanton et al., 1999). Thus, service-learning becomes a means of adding value to curriculum as well as to community programs (Hoonet & Poulsen, 1989, as cited in Stanton et al., 1999). Given the historical mission of colleges of family and consumer sciences to explore the reciprocal relation between individuals and their near environments (i.e., to embody the human ecological model), a service-learning model seems an appropriate model, particularly in terms of preparing students for careers as helping professionals. However, most family and consumer sciences faculty have not been trained in designing and implementing a service-learning course. Our goal here is to provide some recommendations for those considering employing a service-learning component in their family and consumer sciences curricula.

Description of the Service-learning Project

Our service-learning project was conducted in a junior-level course on Professional Services for Children and Families in the Department of Family Relations and Child Development (FRCD) at Oklahoma State University. The purpose of the course was to familiarize students with challenging issues facing families and individuals as well as the types of services available to address their needs. The class consisted of 69 students, only 7 of whom were males. All of the students were FRCD majors except for one Math, one Psychology, and five Sociology majors. Students worked in self-chosen groups, and students were expected to volunteer for 15 hours during the semester in the agency of their choice, after establishing goals for meeting the learning needs of the students as well as the service needs of the agency. Reflective practice occurred through student journaling and preparation for group presentations made to the class at the end of the semester.

The primary goals of the service-learning component of the course were consistent with four of the six functions of service-learning suggested by Stukas, Clary, and Snyder (1999): (a) career development (examining students’ desire to work with a given population after having hands-on experience in that population, and assessing that experience in light of their career goals); (b) value expression (allowing students to explore their professional and personal values in light of the ethic of service); (c) understanding self and world (providing students a way of exploring what they have to offer, clarifying their expectations about people in need and the role of professional services to address those needs, and recognizing how they fit in settings sometimes much more diverse than any they had previously experienced; and (d) self enhancement (potentially increasing students’ sense of self-efficacy or self-esteem as they recognize that their skills are useful, or that they have been helpful to someone in need). Although a protection function (distraction from or discovering of ways of dealing with issues students face in their personal lives) was not consciously intended in this course, some students did experience it (e.g., one student realized she was in an abusive relationship after working with clients who had been abused).

What We Learned: Recommendations for Implementing a Service-Learning Project

In a recent Social Policy Report of the Society for Research in Child Development (Stukas et al., 1999)—a review of existing empirical research on service-learning programs—the authors determined that programs must embody four characteristics in order to be effective. They conclude programs must be autonomy-supportive, be designed to match goals and activities, attend to relationships among participants, and provide opportunities for reflection. In addition, the cognitive map (described above) developed by Rockquemore and Schaffer (2000) provides a framework within which the above characteristics may be operative. Thus, the characteristics delineated by Stukas et al. may facilitate the shock/normalization/engagement process outlined by Rockquemore and Schaffer through which value is added to academic curriculum and social service provision. The critique of our service-learning course is organized around these two frameworks.

Four Characteristics of Effective Service-Learning (Stukas et al., 1999)

  1. Autonomy-supportiveness. Both students and the community partners they serve need to have a voice in deciding what activities will be performed. If too much structure is provided, students and community partners might not feel ownership of the project; if too little structure is provided, services provided might not be appropriate to either the students’ abilities nor the community’s needs. Our recommendation for instructors regarding autonomy-supportiveness:

Identify the interests of students and then assign groups accordingly. Students who have interests that are not shared by others in the class may benefit from doing individual projects. Yet, students should be allowed to identify their actual placement and project to fit their personal service and learning goals. In our course, students were asked to form groups of four to six based upon common service-learning interests. However, many of the students chose to work together either because they knew one another or because students sat near one another in class. For these groups, students tended to decide on agencies based upon the interest of one student; consequently, many of these students were dissatisfied with their service-learning experience due to a poor fit between their personal interest and the community partner with whom they worked. Having the instructor’s guidance in group formation and community agency assignment should result in better fit for more students.

  1. Match between goals and activities. Stukas et al. (1999) suggest that service-learning works best when students can help shape their activity according to their needs and interests, as long as those activities reflect institutional goals. Our first suggestion for instructors wishing to facilitate a matching goals and activities:

Set up an initial contact with the agency (or, if this is not possible, provide an introductory letter) to clarify the difference between service-learning and traditional volunteer experiences. Also, have students and agencies share their goals for service and for learning to help clarify the potential for a meaningful experience. In our course, the students were to contact the agency of their choice and work with the agency to determine goals and activities to meet their mutual interests and needs. Some groups were able to work with their agency in developing activities that the students found to be interesting and fulfilling; other groups had more difficulty with this aspect of the course. Clarifying expectations of students and community partners at the beginning of the project might mitigate this problem.

Interestingly, within the groups where initial expectations were not met, students diverged in their perceptions of the experiences. Some students complained they were being used to do only the work that agency workers found tedious, while other students in the same group described how much they learned about the field through, for example, reading manuals or engaging in informal conversations with clients or workers. This quotation from a student who worked in a shelter for domestic violence victims illustrates the potential for learning that can take place through simple interaction:

I am just so grateful to be able to meet so many different kinds of people. I am so convinced that [service-learning] provides for many unique opportunities that wouldn’t be available otherwise. I just left the . . . shelter tonight knowing that I didn’t actually “do” a whole lot but there’s no way to measure the value and impact of the conversations I had with the client and with [a shelter employee].

Thus, a second recommendation about matching goals and activities:

Assess and discuss the students’ experiences mid-way through the project. If, as in the example described above, the student is unhappy doing what is perceived as “busy work,” the instructor and/or classmates might have suggestions for coping, such as revisiting the goals with the community partner, finding ways to make the activity more fulfilling (e.g., reading the agency manual) or re-conceptualizing the meaning of the activity (e.g., recognizing that someone has to do the filing for the agency to run smoothly).

  1. Attention to relationships among participants. Service-learning provides an excellent opportunity for engagement as instructors and community partners model respectful, fulfilling professional relationships with the students. Some of our students voiced their appreciation to the community partner for the professional yet caring manner in which they were treated. Others mentioned the dedication of the volunteers who supported the work of their community partner. Yet, the students also developed relationships with the clientele of their service-learning sites and often experienced situations they were uncertain how to handle or that fostered ambivalence toward the client. An example from a student journal:

When we had spoken about the required employment preparation classes at the [shelter for the homeless], she made the comment that she would never be able to work again. I understand that she has been through a lot and is working hard to overcome some difficulties. However, I don’t understand how she can just give up like that. She seems to be quite able-bodied. I mean she seems to have full control of herself, except for a few minor ticks from the Tourette’s. It seems the least she could do is volunteer in society, making herself a productive member. Of course I didn’t say any of these things. How can one broach the subject without seeming cold and callous? And, is it even a human service worker’s place to do so? I am sure that she is receiving disability, and I know that it is not that much money. But how do you inspire someone who seems to have given up?

Our recommendation for helping students deal with uncomfortable feelings such as uncertainty, fear, and ambivalence is:

Have students learn about the community partner before beginning their service. One of our students described in her journal taking responsibility for preparing herself to work in an assisted-living facility:

Before I undertook my service-learning project, I researched the [assisted-living center] and the generation of older adults that reside there. By doing this little extra footwork, I feel like I added to my assets and was able to accomplish this assignment with a better understanding of the needs, feelings, and wants of the older adults in our society. In giving a little extra of myself I know that I’ve gotten a lot more out of this assignment.

Other students expressed uncertainty regarding personal and professional boundaries as exemplified in the following quote:

The past few visits our client has repeatedly expressed how much she was going to miss us when our time is up. This was kind of awkward because we were still going to be in [town], but we were not going to be volunteering at the mission anymore. I like our client, but it is not realistic for me to plan to continue spending time with her every week. I do not mean to be cold or harsh, but this is how I feel. Therefore, it seemed to be hard to draw the line between our professional relationship and friendship because while we are providing a service to her, part of that service seemed to be as a friend. I suppose this will be the case in most social service working relationships. I only hope that a natural understanding of how to handle this will come with experience.

Therefore, a second recommendation for helping students deal with relationships in service-learning settings is:

Provide students guidance in the development of professional relationships, not only with their community partners but also with the clients with whom they will interact. This guidance should entail developing relationships with diverse populations, professional boundaries, and closure of relationships with clientele.

  1. Opportunities for reflection. Regardless of how much service is provided, for students to learn it is necessary that they reflect on their experience (Hatcher & Bringle, 1997). Students need structured opportunities to reflect critically before, during, and after the service project (Eyler, Giles, & Schmiede, 1996; Service-Learning 2000 Center, 1998). However, in order for learning to be the most beneficial, reflection should be an ongoing process throughout the service-learning project, thus affording the opportunity for timely, meaningful feedback. This is particularly important for issues that are difficult for students to discuss directly with their community partners or instructor, such as the previous quote regarding the homeless woman who did not want to work. Our recommendation regarding reflection:

Reflection opportunities and feedback should be offered periodically throughout the service-learning experience. If journals are a significant means of reflection, entries should be reviewed and returned at some point during the service-learning experience as well as when the project has been completed but prior to the end of the course. Reflection could also be encouraged through anonymous means such as on-line chats. Then sensitive or problematic issues could be incorporated into class discussions, more fully utilizing the value of experiential learning.

Stages in Service-Learning: A Cognitive Map (Rockquemore & Schaffer, 2000)

  1. Shock. Many students made reference to the disparities between their own life experiences and those of the people they served. Specific realizations concerned the amount of food needed to adequately stock food pantries for a brief period of time; the reality that a woman could be physically abused by the man that she loved and wanted to be with; the cumulative impact of multiple setbacks in life experienced by a homeless woman; and limitations experienced with cognitive disabilities.
  1. Normalization. Other students expressed a growing comfort with the clients, agency workers, and community leaders with whom they interacted. Simple conversations with shelter residents opened the door to increased understanding as well as respect for women living with domestic violence. One student showed a personal interest in a young child who had been labeled as a “discipline problem.” The child responded with compliance and affection, amazing the day care providers with her ability to bond with the student. A student who assisted in a drug prevention fundraiser became a contributing member of the Mayor’s Wellness Committee
  2. Engagement. The third stage in Rockquemore and Schaffer’s cognitive map entails the attributions students begin to make about the causes of social problems. A student working in a crisis pregnancy center referred to a number of young pregnant women who believed their boyfriends would break up with them if they did not have an abortion. In learning that domestic violence programs are offered in elementary schools, another student reflected that education about personal and relationships well-being should be ongoing from elementary school through the high school years. Another student who did her project with Domestic Violence came to the understanding that abusers often have “been through the ringer with family upbringing and may not want to abuse—but haven’t been taught alternatives.” Perhaps the most eloquent example of engagement came from an African-American student who worked with Head Start:

I was repulsed to see that there was a sewer drain in the middle of the playground. It smelled bad. The paint on the classroom doors was chipped. It was obvious that this was a low-income school. I found out in the same day that this was the school where the black people went when [the community] was segregated . . . I felt angry and hurt because I was standing in the place where blacks went to school many years ago and everything in the building is second rate: the books, the facilities, and the danger of the playground. It seems to me that the poorer families in society get treated like second-rate people, too.

Functions of Service-Learning

Although some students were unable to see the value in their service, particularly when it was tedious work or did not fit their interests, the majority of students expressed multiple benefits reflecting the functions of service-learning outlined by Stukas et al. (1999). We conclude with examples of journal reflections addressing the goals of our course.

1. Career development.

I know now that I do not want to work in this type of profession. I think I would go home each day feeling so upset and stressed and I don’t want to put my own family through that.

I chose Head Start as my service-learning activity because, although I am currently a teacher, there are numerous aspects of Head Start that I still have to learn. Upon graduation, I hope to secure employment . . . as an administrator of a Head Start program. . . . This program allows me to take on an even stronger leadership role with adults. This is an experience that I definitely needed in order to be a successful administrator.

2. Value expression.

I already learned tonight some common misconceptions that I had held about abortion. . . . Just from my one evening here, I have started to look at and think differently about some of my own values and beliefs.

I really enjoy seeing school classes and organizations in the community tie together (referring to how training classes taught same type of information as class). . . . I was proud to support the agency and [its] place in the community

One thing that made me proud was how resourceful the employees [of the Hospice resale shop] were; nothing was wasted. If we could not use the clothes to sell, then we gave them to a program called Action that hands them out to the homeless. If the clothes were too bad for even that, then we bagged them up and gave them to Good Will [who in turn] sold them by the pound to be used for rags. Nothing was ever wasted.

3. Understanding self and world.

Until I actually witnessed a person really having a personal crisis the things I learned in class were just cases in textbooks. These are real people who come to the agency, which makes the things I learned much more real to me. Today a young woman broke down into tears after a positive [pregnancy] test. . . . That was the first time I witnessed anything like that.

It seemed to me impossible for so much bad to happen to one person. [Homeless woman] is middle aged yet has the enduring qualities of a child. She is quick to trust and eager to please. She speaks with a certain brutal honesty that must result from years of hard knocks. More than anything, I am learning how quickly anyone could lose it all. . . . Just because she is homeless does not mean she is uneducated (a stereotype I had). She is an intelligent woman who has an amazing heart. She loves people and still has extraordinary hope in spite of the life she has left behind.

4. Self enhancement.

This experience helped me get over some initial fears about going into a helping profession. I did not feel like I had anything to offer anyone. I did not feel like I had any of the skills necessary for someone in this field. But I learned that I can learn to help people, and that I have skills that can be developed further. I also found out that I have some personal strengths that I can build from (like patience and an ability to work well under stress). I realized that I do have a lot to offer and that I have the one thing that matters most for people working in this field: I care about others.

I was accepted as not just an intern who was there to take notes and look interested. I was now a member of the [Mayor’s Wellness] committee. I had my name on the role, and people knew my name. I was in on the conversation and my opinion was listened to.

This experience gave me large and small nuggets of information that I’ll have with me for the rest of my life. I have learned so much about the process of helping women and children in such a crisis situation . . . . I consider this experience to be one of the most valuable things that I have learned from this semester. I am confident that the time spent with this agency has been instrumental to my personal and professional growth.

Although we continue to find new ways of enhancing the service-learning experience for our students, these journal reflections illustrate the extent to which such experiential learning affords students valuable insights into the stressful situations facing individuals and families, the agencies that address the needs of individuals and families, and the students’ personal and professional development. Service-leaning is a potentially powerful way of adding value to the more traditional approach to classroom learning, particularly for students who are preparing to enter the helping professions. If implemented effectively it also reflects the commitment of family and consumer sciences to create a learning community.


Eyler, J., Giles, D. E., & Schmiede, A. (1996). A practitioner’s guide to reflection in service-learning: Student voices and reflections. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University.

Greene, D. (1998). Reciprocity in two conditions of service-learning. Educational Gerontology, 24, 411-424,

Hatcher, J. A., & Bringle, R. G. (1997). Reflection: Bridging the gap between service and learning. College Teaching, 45, 153-158.

Kielsmeier, J. C. (2000). A time to serve, a time to learn. Phi Delta Kappan, 81, 652-657.

Rockquemore, K. A., & Schaffer, R. H. (2000). Toward a theory of engagement: A cognitive mapping of service-learning experiences. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 7, 14-25.

Service-Learning 2000 Center (1998). Seven elements of high quality service-learning. Palo Alto, CA: Author.

Stage, A. A. (2000). Service-learning: Enhancing student learning outcomes in a college-level lecture course. Michigan Journal of Community service-learning, 7, 5-13.

Stanton, T. K., Giles, D. W., Jr., & Cruz., N., I. (1999). Service-learning: A movement’s pioneers reflect on its origins, practice, and future. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Stukas, A. A., Clary, E G., & Snyde, M. (1999). Service-learning: Who benefits and why. Society for Research in Child Development Social Policy Report, XIII(4), 1-19.

Vogelsang, L. J., & Astin, A. W. (2000). Comparing the effects of community service and service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 7, 25-34.

For further information about manuscripts: 

{short description of image}spaceVia E-Mail
spaceDr. Dorothy I. Mitstifer, Executive Director
     Call for Papers


previous articlePRINT VERSION NEXT ARTICLEnext article

return to top of page