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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 16, 2006
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Perceived benefits of service-learning in teacher education

Shirley Theriot
University of Texas at Arlington, USA
Preservice teacher education candidates reveal personal and professional benefits of participating in a service-learning project. University students actively engaged in connecting content knowledge and pedagogy with authentic experiences in K-12 classrooms. Reflections revealed a service learning component had an impact on participants' sense of their own diversity and the diversity of the students they taught, noticed a relevance to career and a greater commitment to teaching. Data uncovered 1) female participants perceived a greater improvement in the students they tutored; 2) participants' perceptions of their own diversity seemed to make a difference on their perception of diversity in their students; and 3) participants' perceived personal gain decreased linearly as the grade level of their students increased.


Perceived benefits of service learning teacher education

Preservice teacher education candidates in many research institutions are currently engaged in career development and self-discovery through service-learning projects, which are integrated into their professional education courses and aligned with relevant standards. Similar in its fieldwork to internship, service learning principally involves a focus on civic engagement and social responsibility as indicated in the Education Commission of the States document (Anderson, 2000). More specifically service learning is a pedagogy, which involves
... a course-based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students (a) participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility. (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995, p.112)

Along with this trend at the university level, thirty percent of the K-12 public schools in the United States participate in service learning (Kielsmeier, Scales, Roehlkepartain & Neal, 2004). The National Center for Education Statistics (Skinner & Chapman, 1999) suggests the higher the grade level the more service-learning involvement with high schools at 46%, middle schools at 38%, and elementary schools at 25%. Increased attention to service-learning may result from involvement in career related contexts, which encourages development of professional attitudes and values in university students (Root, 1997); greater success in learning how to deal with parents and adolescents (Sullivan, 1991), which elevates confidence levels; increases in positive attitudes about community participation, self-esteem, and self-efficacy (Wade, 1995); and a rise in awareness to diversity issues, both in the students they work with and in their own perspectives (Seigel, 1995).

In addition to these benefits, service learning encourages higher achievement and retention rates at all levels of education (Campbell & Campbell, 1997) and may eventually foster career advancement (Gardiner, Enomoto, & Grogan, 2000) and student satisfaction with college (Astin & Sax, 1998). Evidence of state and national attention to service learning include initiatives, such as Turning points 2000 (Jackson & Davis, 2000) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (1998) calling for more extensive service-learning integration in the core instructional curricula. As a result of the significant evidence of benefits to many institutional curricula, many university mission statements now include community service learning and civic engagement along with academic objectives.

A critical ingredient to revealing the benefits of service learning is immersion in direct experiences followed by thoughtful reflection (Scales, 1999; Dewey, 1933). Through the vital element of reflection, candidates are able to document and rethink the importance of their practices and plan thoughtfully for improved implementation of activities. The purpose of this study is to examine the personal and professional benefits of inclusion of a service-learning component within an early field experience of a teacher education course.

Method

The study occurred during three consecutive semesters of a required teacher education course, Exploring teaching, which includes a service-learning component. A major intention for the creation of this course is to introduce candidates to the myriad of experiences of teaching children by immersion in a service-learning activity in a real school environment. Participants included sixty-seven second and third year candidates. Ages of university participants varied from twenty years of age to the mid forties. There were seventeen male participants and fifty female participants. The students attend class once a week and participate in a minimum of ten service-learning field hours; however, many students complete twenty or more hours. Throughout the field component they are to tutor a child in their area of certification under the mentorship of an experienced certified teacher. In addition to this academic objective, candidates also focus on civic and social responsibility in this learning community. Students receiving assistance are in fifth to tenth grades, the majority in grades four to eight. Principals and mentor teachers collaborate to select students who are considered in need of academic assistance, as well as social interaction with an adult role model.

Participant reflections

During each semester of this introduction to education course, participants completed reflections at three-week intervals with a final summative reflection. The three-week interval reflections began with a summary of the interaction with students and followed with perceptions of service activity on participants and students. For the final reflection, students responded to specific questions regarding their work with the students, the course, and the benefits of working with children during a service-learning activity. Participants' reflections allowed researchers to gain insight and understanding of the participants' perspectives on career choice, student diversity, their own diversity and the relevance of the experience on their choice to become a teacher. Specifically, the questions were as follows. Qualitative methods (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) were employed in this study. Data collection included the process of reading and rereading all participants' reflections, collecting repeated terms and phrases and placing these in categorie s according to their significance of similarity and intensity. The use of superlatives aided in the determination of specific categories. This coding process resulted in categories of High, Medium, Low, and Not applicable. These four categories were arbitrarily assigned numerical values. A quantitative number of 5 indicated the High category, a coding of Medium as 3, and a coding of Low was counted as 1. The Not applicable category was not included in the analysis, but rather just an indication of missing data. It was determined that missing data demonstrated that participants were not interested in the category and as a result did not respond. Inclusion of key terms and phrases indicated that participants were interested and saw them as relevant to their experience. Students' names indicated in this text are fictitious.

One resulting category focused upon the participants' awareness of the diversity of their K-12 students (Seigel, 1995). (See Table 1). Indicating this awareness of K-12 students' diversity, included key terms and phrases such as difference, respect, developing a relationship, and understanding.

Table 1: Sample indicators for ratings taken from candidate reflections

CriteriaHighMediumLow
Awareness of K-12 Student DifferencesI learned that there is a big difference knowledge wise with each student.
It is amazing how differently I view the students now.
By building meaningful relationships with our students, we learn something that can never be taught in a lecture. We can really see for ourselves the difference in each student.This week I saw the different personalities in the classroom.
Relevance to CareerI am intrigued when I actually see students actually showing their learning styles.Active involvement with kids is always the best experience.Well, to be quite honest, I am really bored in the school.
Affirmation of Correct Career DecisionIt is an awesome feeling like I'm guiding young minds. I want to pursue a teaching career because of the time off, now I want to help children learn.This experience further convinced me that I want to be a teacher.I guess teaching takes time and experience to be successful.
Awareness of Own DifferencesDuring this service learning experience, I learned very much about myself. I have a way of affecting kids. They listen and respect me, and look up to me.This experience helped me to understand other people, but most of all I see myself in a different light.We all learn differently and knowing that will make me a better teacher.
Expression of EnjoymentI absolutely loved being there because it was fun and exciting. I looked forward to the days to work with kids.I enjoy helping in this way.It was fun and in time I expect to be more comfortable with the process.

Secondly, the analysis indicated an understanding of the relevance of field activities to their career (Gardiner, et al, 2000). Terms and phrases indicating that these service-learning activities showed relevance to their future career were 'mastery of content is a must', 'teachers can make a difference', and 'feeling like a teacher'. Also, participants indicated that the activities encouraged future teaching career choices (Anderson, 2000) as they mentioned 'wanting to be a teacher', 'feeling needed', and 'feeling confident in knowing that they can help children learn'. Also, data indicated evidence of preservice teachers' awareness of their own differences once they interacted with students in this context (Seigel, 1995) with key terms and phrases such as 'understanding myself better', 'learn differently', and 'I learned something about myself'. Finally, participants demonstrated an enjoyment during the interactions with students, indicated by key terms and phrases such as 'fun', 'enjoy', and 'excited to go to the classroom'. These key terms and phrases were statistically analysed as discussed in the following section.

Results

Tables 2 and 3 show the descriptive statistics of the five categories created during analysis of reflections in the present study. As can be seen in Table 3, the overall ratings on the five categories are rather high. This may be attributable to participants' first experience and low beginning level of pedagogy and practice knowledge. These tables contain the list of variations among characteristics mentioned in reflections.

Table 2: Central tendencies and standard deviations of characteristics 1 to 5

CharacteristicsN MeanSDMedian
Awareness of K-12 student differences544.720.745.00
Relevance to career524.920.395.00
Affirmation of correct career decision344.940.345.00
Awareness of own differences375.000.005.00
Expression of enjoyment165.000.005.00

Table 2 shows the frequency of references to the five categories in the preservice teachers' reflections. A coding of '0' indicated absence of reference to a particular criteria, and a coding of '1' indicated presence of reference. In the present data, participants' awareness of K-12 student differences (80.60%) and relevance to teaching as a career (77.61%) were the criteria most frequently referred.

Teachers who did not make references to their own differences perceived lower student benefits (mean = 4.45, SD = 1.00) than those who made that particular reference (mean = 4.88, SD = .48). Again, these high rating may be attributable to participants' first experience and low beginning level of pedagogy and practice knowledge.

The present data also suggested that grade of students taught significantly affected preservice teachers' perceived personal gain from the service-learning course (F (3,54) = 11.33, p< .0001). Teachers' perceived personal gain decreased linearly as the grade of their students increased F = 30.67, p <.0001). Interestingly, National Center for Education Statistics (Anderson, 1999) suggests the higher the grade level the more service-learning involvement. Further investigation of K-12 student degree of involvement and service-learning participant enjoyment is needed. Figure 1 depicts preservice teachers' perceived personal gain as a function of their students' grade level. The higher the grade level; the lower the perceived personal gain by participants.

Table 3: Frequencies of references to characteristics 1 to 5 in preservice teachers' reflections

CharacteristicsContent FrequencyPercent
Awareness of K-12 student differences01319.40
15480.60
Relevance to career01522.39
15277.61
Affirmation of correct career choice03349.25
13450.75
Awareness of own differences03044.78
13755.22
Expression of enjoyment05176.12
11623.88

Figure 1

Figure 1: Preservice teachers' perceived personal gain as a function of their students' grade level

Discussion

As mentioned in the section above, the analysis of the reflections resulted in five categories. See Table 1 for the Sample indicators for ratings taken from candidate reflections. These samples demonstrated the five categories gleaned from the participant reflections throughout the semester. These categories deal with the university students' perception of themselves and their perception of the K-12 students. Each of these will be followed by a discussion from the various reflections during the course of the semester as they pertain to individual participant perceptions within each category.

As participants visited the public schools and mentored public school students, they were asked to reflect on the benefits of the service-learning experiences in K-12 classrooms. As the reflection process moved forward, students suggested surprise at the effect of hands-on activities in the K-12 classroom enriching university academic content and pedagogy. The following statements support Seigel's (1995) earlier research with regard to a rise in awareness of differences in the students they teach and in themselves.

It is so much easier to understand the things we are learning in class when you can actually see it played out in the classroom. The wide variety of kids really helps you to see the differences. I just love working with the kids. This is good practice for a real classroom. (Erika)
As the participants mentored the adolescents, they became increasingly aware of a lack of seriousness in homework and study habits of some of their students. In spite of progress in dealing with these adolescents through service-learning experiences (Sullivan, 1991), the presence of concern for students' academic futures was evident as Derrick mentions in his reflection below.
Working in this class makes me realize how important school is to an individual. Many students do not know how valuable their education is and do not realise it until it is too late. For instance, students complain about how much homework they receive. Most students do not realise the reasoning behind all the homework. Not until they value their education will they realise homework is needed to practice what was learned in the classroom. (Derrick)

Subjective evaluations of impact of service-learning on K-12 students

Fifty-four participants responded to the differences they observed in the students they mentored and thirteen did not respond. Seigel (1995) suggests that service-learning activities help to increase participants' awareness of their students' differences. Sheryl comments about her new knowledge and understanding of students' differences and the different ways in which they learn:
Each child contributes in a different way to the atmosphere of the classroom, adding their own personality, interactions, and ideas. Whether you are in a classroom, teaching students or not, this is really a helpful way to view the world. (Sheryl)
Carol comments on her awareness of K-12 children's acquisition of knowledge in different ways (Seigel, 1995) as she engages them in learning activities. Her statements also support earlier research by Campbell and Campbell (1997) and McGowan (1999), who suggests that service-learning encourages participants' higher achievement rates at all levels.
I can definitely see the multiplicity among the students in the classroom. Some of them have a really hard time understanding different concepts, some have a hard time with writing and spelling, and others are the opposite and could do the work given to them in record time. It's interesting to see how they help each other. The students recognise the differences and help each other with their work in class. Group work and partnering up is a tool used a lot in the classroom that I've been in. I tried it with a group of students. This helps with the students' getting to build their group skills, working with each other, and also helping the other person when they don't understand something and you do. (Carol)

Subjective evaluations of impact of service-learning activity on self

Within these five categories the university participants demonstrated self-perception through their interactions with K-12 students and course content. Responses demonstrate steadfastness in the choice for a teaching career, or a revelation of what education and teaching entail, and still others uncover a new dedication to support the education community as future taxpayers.

Understanding relevance to career
(Keywords: appreciate teaching, feeling like a teacher)
Of the sixty-seven participants, fifty-two discovered a relevance to their career choice in education. Gardiner, et al (2000) suggests that participation in service-learning activities can sometimes further participants' understanding of working with others, thus leading to success in careers. Marla reveals that this experience will help her to be a more successful teacher.

Being in the classroom, I have learned something new each time. The teacher is helpful in giving me advice or helping me out when I don't know what to say or how to react to a student. I'm slowly learning how to communicate better on the level of the children so they can understand what I am trying to tell them. I am learning the areas that I need to work more on and what I need to do to better myself in the classroom. This is a great experience, and I know that it will help me become the teacher that I want to be. (Marla)
Making future career choices
(Keywords: want to be a teacher, feel needed)
There was an even number of participant responses and lack of responses in this area. An explanation for this may result from participants' prior commitment to enter teaching.

Preservice teachers' awareness of their own diversity
(Keywords: respect, empathy, and understanding)
Participants' reflections uncovered self-realisations of their own diversity issues, as Seigel (1995) suggests through this service-learning project. These university participants gained insight into their own diversity through classroom activities relating to their multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1985) and as they in turn taught these concepts and relevant content subject matter to the public school students, they voiced their new insight about their own diversity. Amanda reveals personal challenges as she helps others.

I enjoy helping the children with math the most because I feel most comfortable and can explain how to do simple division and multiplication. After learning more about multiple intelligences, I could definitely see in myself and the children how it affects your learning processes. I myself have the mathematical (logical) and musical intelligences and I think that is why I feel best when I get the chance to teach one of the kids about one of these subjects. (Amanda)
Claire remembers her own sense of being different in a middle level classroom as she mentors a student, who also feels incapable of meeting classroom expectations.
Sure enough there was a girl who was working on a science project that was due tomorrow instead of focusing on her algebra test for that day. I helped her with substitution and taug ht her a way to understand and remember it. She was excited and confident with working substitutions. I am able to get on the kids' level and understand where they are coming from. I will be helping the children with the algebra work. I understand exactly where the kids are coming from because I was an average student in advanced classes when I was in middle school. I know that it can be done and I am there to let the children know it can still be done. I enjoyed my first session of mentoring and I can't wait to go back. (Claire)
Enjoyment
(Keywords: Enjoy, fun, and exciting)
After eight semesters of continually hearing students mention their enjoyment of this particular field experience, it was decided that during these three semesters a measure of this enjoyment criteria would be included in this study. Surprisingly, fifty-one students did not mention keywords in this category as compared with sixteen participants who did. Mike left a job in the business world to pursue a degree and certification in teaching at the middle school level. This service-learning experience has convinced him that he made the correct decision because of his sense of comfort and happiness in dealing with adolescents. He writes
I feel happiest when I am with the kids and investing my time in them. The subject is math and it is the same subject that I will teach, so therefore I see this as a great opportunity to be able to learn from both my students and the teachers that are there. The biggest value that this experience, or teaching meets, is the opportunity to make a positive impression on a young kid's life - the opportunity to teach them not only mathematics, but prepare them for a future that they really cannot comprehend yet. A lot of these kids come from broken homes or bad situations and I strive to make my classroom environment one where they feel important, welcomed and valued as an individual. I never thought before I left my job to pursue teaching that it would be this rewarding. I was in the big business environment for so long - 15 years - that it took the meaning away from me. I was numb to people and their needs and only looked to my own. Teaching in just six months has given me more joy and purpose than those fifteen years. I look forward everyday to the opportunities that lie before me and I wake up looking at how today will challenge me. (Mike)

Conclusion

The findings in the present study suggest that participants' experiences with service learning had a discernable impact on their beliefs both personal and professional and contribute to the literature regarding the benefits of embedding service learning in early field experiences for teacher candidates. As candidates learned about themselves, they documented a growing awareness of their own differences, which ultimately seemed to indicate differences they perceived in their students. Regarding the response to their perception of teaching as a result of this experience, participants demonstrated a greater understanding of the educational process and for many an increase in their commitment to teaching. With respect to the impact of this field experience on young adolescents, female candidates perceived a greater improvement in their students as compared with their male counterparts. Candidates demonstrated a high degree of correlation between experience in service learning experience and commitment to career choice. Finally, quantitative evidence suggests that the grade of students significantly affected candidates' perceived personal gain from the service-learning activity. Future studies in this project will include more structured reflections throughout the semester which focus on critical thinking and participants' content mastery benefits.

Acknowledgement

I would like to thank Dr. Ada Woo, also from the University of Texas at Arlington, for her help with tables and data analysis.

References

Anderson, J. B. (2000). Service-learning and preservice teacher education (Issue Paper No. SL-00-02). Colorado: Learning in Deed and Education Commission of the States.

Anderson, J. B. (1999). (Eds.), Learning with the community: Concepts and models for service-learning in teacher education (pp. 42-72). Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education.

Astin, A. W., & Sax, L. J. (1998). How undergraduates are affected by service participation. The Journal of College Student Development, 39(3), 251-263.

Batchelder, T.H., and Root, S. (1994, August). Effects of an Undergraduate Program To Integrate Academic Learning and Service: Cognitive, Prosocial Cognitive and Identity Outcomes. Journal of Adolescence, 17(4), 341-355.

Bringle, R. G., & Hatcher, J.A. (1995). A service-learning curriculum for faculty. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 2, 112-122.

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Gardner, H. (1985). Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Jackson, A.W. & Davis, G.A. (2000). Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kielsmeier, J. C., Scales, P. C., Roehlkepartain, E. C., & Neal, M. (2004). Community service and service-learning in public schools. Research into Practice: Reclaiming Children and Youth, 13(3), 138-143.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Root, S.C. (1997). School-based service: A review of research for teacher educators. In J. Erickson & J. Anderson (Eds.), Learning with the Community: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Teacher Education. 42-72. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.

Scales, P.C. (1999). Increasing service-learning's impact on middle school students. Middle School Journal, 30(5), 40-44.

Seigel, S. (1995). Community service learning as empowering pedagogy: Implications for middle school teachers. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusettes at Amherst.

Skinner, R. & Chapman, C. (1999). Service-Learning and Community Service in K-12 Public Schools. National Center for Educational Statistics. (NCES 1999043).

Sullivan, R. (1991). The role of service-learning in restructuring teacher education. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association of Teacher Educators, February, New Orleans.

Wade, R. (1995). Developing active citizens: Community service learning in social studies teacher education. Social Studies, 86(3), 184-191.

Author: Dr Shirley Theriot is Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, USA. Email: Theriot@uta.edu

Please cite as: Theriot, S. (2006). Perceived benefits of service-learning in teacher education. Issues In Educational Research, 16(2), 241-252. http://www.iier.org.au/iier16/theriot.html


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