Give 'em some some credit

Carey Bosak and Keith Fallon grab clipboards and questionnaires - tools for their "service learning" class in community psychology at the University of Vermont, and hop into a car.

Instead of going to a classroom, they'll spend this December day canvassing one of Burlington's less-than-cheery neighborhoods.

After numerous fruitless stops, the shivering pair is finally invited into the home of Luke McKenna, where Mr. Fallon takes notes as Ms. Bosak asks Mr. McKenna to rate things like trash and noise on a 1 to 5 scale.

Here at UVM, where famed educator John Dewey absorbed the merits of learning by doing as an undergraduate, students like Bosak and Fallon are doing a lot in the "real world." And they're getting full academic credit for it.

But are they really learning? It's a serious question that many faculty here and elsewhere are grappling with as the effort to inculcate civic engagement in students gains momentum on this and other campuses nationwide.

Does volunteer work fit in a college class?

Behind the boundless enthusiasm of its proponents, there is quiet resistance to service learning as it expands to include new disciplines, from political science and economics to accounting and chemistry.

In discussions within departments here and on other campuses, some faculty question granting ever more academic credit for learning that departs from traditional academic study and is rooted in experience. There's also debate about whether, some day, to make it a graduation requirement.

"Some of my colleagues say this is stupid," says David Howell, chairman of UVM's psychology department, referring to service learning. "Some of that is just intellectual arrogance. But there are also some serious people who object because they just don't think it works."

Theory applied to experience

Bosak and Fallon will enter Mr. McKenna's views into a pool of survey data gathered by a dozen or so students in Professor Lynne Bond's psychology class. For weeks, they have analyzed, debated, and written about their findings - a key step of "reflection" considered vital to linking theory with experiences in the community.

Both Fallon and Bosak say this class has energized them like never before.

"I've really enjoyed doing these interviews," Bosak says. "It's been really eye-opening, a different slice of life. It's great to be out of the classroom, too. I've learned a lot."

Their professor agrees. "These students are learning more because they're doing it in the complexity of the real world," Dr. Bond says. "And they're reflecting on it in their class work and discussions - that's the key."

It is also a "win-win-win" situation, she adds, because not only do students learn, but the city gets a free report on residents' attitudes from her class. That report, a city official says, is critical to helping craft a new community action plan to address neighborhood blight. Meanwhile, the university, too, gets safer streets nearby.

Service learning is not new, of course. It has grown from a few campuses in the mid-1980s to hundreds of colleges and universities today. About two million students in the United States take service-learning classes.

Critics of its efficacy aren't new either - but have grown in number as advocates press for more service learning in disciplines as diverse as economics, education, and even English literature.

As associate dean of UVM's College of Arts & Sciences, Donna Kuizenga acknowledges service learning has potential in some disciplines, but not all - and only if done properly.

"I'm a great animal lover - so I could have my students volunteer at the humane society," she says. "But that's not going to help them in the 18th-century literature class I teach."

Kevork Spartalian, acting chair of the UVM physics department, concurs.

"Some disciplines are more amenable to this than others," he says. "Departments like psychology send students out to mix with the community. For us, in physics, this kind of hands-on experience is in our laboratory."

Skeptical faculty on many campuses want proof that service learning has a demonstrable impact on student academics - or is applicable to their disciplines.

"Acceptance from individual faculty and from campus to campus is very uneven," says Jeffrey Howard, editor of the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, the main scholarly journal in the field.

Overall, though, he says service learning is gaining rapidly, based on the growing number and quality of articles submitted to his journal.

Growing trend meets resistance

Likewise, officials at Campus Compact, the nation's leading advocacy organization for service learning, point to 639 member campuses, compared with 235 a decade ago. They say resistance among campus faculty is not so much about academic validity. Instead, it stems from several factors:

* The heavy extra work required to change a traditional course over to a service-learning model. Janet Eyler, a researcher at Vanderbilt University, says most faculty resistance centers on the complex management and logistics of such courses.

"These courses can be very hard to teach well," Dr. Eyler says. "It means transportation, extra supervision, and faculty members becoming engaged in the community with the student and community partners. Those practical challenges and the extra time involved are very burdensome, particularly to faculty members trying to get tenure."

The result, she and others say, is that Campus Compact, government agencies, and others are trying to fund new centers on several campuses to provide assistance and training in how to manage such classes.

* Considerable confusion over terminology. At Vanderbilt University, for instance, service-learning advocates are trying hard to make the distinction between simple "community service" or volunteering, which does not carry academic credit, and service learning, which does. Campus Compact and others now use the term "academic service learning" to distinguish it from pure volunteer work.

* Ambiguity over academic benefits. A Rand report last year found that service learning had some "civic responsibility" benefits for students. But it also found that "no association emerged between participation in course-based service learning and the development of academic or professional skills."

On the other hand, several studies report significant academic gains. A January survey of 22,000-plus students by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles found "significant positive effects" on writing, critical thinking, and grades.

"John Dewey was probably more right than he possibly could have known," says Judith Ramaley, UVM president and the chair of Campus Compact. "But learning doesn't happen automatically by doing. It doesn't happen unless you have reflection on what it all means - unless you write about it, debate it, analyze it. It's not good enough just to serve other people soup in a soup kitchen - that doesn't teach anything."

Enhancing academics

Sitting in their regular classroom at the end of the term, Bosak, Fallon, and other students in Bond's community psychology course reflect on their new understanding of community - and the meat their experiences have put on textbook theory.

Bond writes terms on the chalkboard. Hands shoot up. One young woman talks about how the survey data showed the need for more citizen participation in the North End. The data, another young man says, shows the need to "empower" residents and all "stakeholders."

Afterward, standing in the shadow of the Dewey academic building, Lauren Merritt, a junior and a psychology major, ponders how this class is unlike any she has taken.

"I've taken every psychology course this university offers and none have been as powerful or as tough as this one," she says.

"It was extremely challenging to learn the terms and then go out in the community. Working in the North End, I could see how theories in our textbook really made sense. I think I'll remember it as one of my best experiences at school."

E-mail claytonm@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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