O.P.E.R.A.: A first letter mnemonic and rubric for conceptualising and implementing service learning
Saint Mary's College of California, USA
This article presents a rubric to help instructors conceptualize, implement, and assess service-learning courses. Using a first-letter mnemonic of O.P.E.R.A., the rubric incorporates principles of best practice to provide a framework for enumerating objectives (O), exploring community partnerships (P), identifying the type of service-learning students will be engaged (E) in, facilitating reflection (R), and assessing (A) to what extent learning objectives were met.
A number of useful books and resources exist to assist faculty to conceptualise, develop, implement, and assess a service learning course (Campus Compact, 2003; Heffernan, 2001; Wilczenski & Coomey, 2007). As a director of a university service learning centre, two of my colleagues worked with me to create a scholarly and detailed outline of developing, implementing, and assess service learning in a faculty manual (Stephenson, Wechsler, & Welch, 2002). As useful as that information proved to be, the volume and complexity can be somewhat overwhelming to faculty, especially as they initially explore service learning. Over time, it has become necessary to simplify introducing and framing that information and process. Consequently, Saint Mary's College of California has broken the process down into 5 fundamental components that can be easily recalled using a basic rubric that incorporates the first-letter mnemonic device: O.P.E.R.A. These letters represent: objectives, partnerships, engagement, reflection, and assessment (CILSA, 2009; Welch, 2009). The mnemonic is chronological and circular to an extent. However, the mnemonic is intended to serve as a rubric that is heuristic in the sense there is also a degree of moving back and forth between the steps. The rubric is used as the fundamental structure and format in faculty development workshops, allocating 60 to 90 minutes on each letter/component to assist instructors conceptualise, implement, and assess their service learning course. On-going one-on-one support to instructors on specific steps is continued after the initial introductory workshops as they work on their own to develop their course. During these workshops faculty are encouraged to incorporate the first-letter rubric directly into their course syllabus as headings to articulate the fundamental nature and structure of service learning to their students.
The components within this structural rubric incorporate and reflect principles of best practice as articulated in the professional literature (Billig, Root, & Jesse, 2005; Howard, 1993; RMC Research Corporation, 2008). These include: clear educational goals linked to the curriculum, direct communication with and involvement of community partners, student engagement in meaningful tasks that challenge students cognitively and developmentally, multiple methods of reflection are incorporated before, during, and after the service experience to promote critical thinking, and assessment of student learning as well as the service effort and its outcome.
The remainder of this article provides a basic introduction and description of each step and component of the first-letter mnemonic rubric. Space does not allow for a comprehensive narrative of specific procedures or strategies for complex components such as reflection or assessment. Readers are encouraged to refer to the extensive resources on these important topics that can be found in the professional literature.
Figure 1: The O.P.E.R.A. rubric for developing service-learning courses
The second objective, unlike traditional courses, must also be designed to meet the objectives or goals of a community partner. This reflects the reciprocal nature of service learning. The goals of the agency must be compatible with instructional objectives of this course. Without this mutually beneficial 'fit' the activities carried out by students can easily become a service 'project' that may not reinforce the academic content being taught in the classroom. Determining the community goals and their compatibility with the instructional objectives of the class can only occur through dialogue in partnership with a community agency.
To carry this metaphor a bit further, a 'courtship' of sorts then begins to determine if this partnership will work. This requires and involves a conversation with a representative from a community agency, ideally on-site, to determine what those mutual objectives are. A site visit not only serves as a gesture of good will on the part of the instructor, but also allows the faculty member an opportunity to see the site first-hand to determine if the location is appropriate. The instructor should bring a copy of the course syllabus or at least an outline of the class to articulate instructional objectives. The conversation moves to the exploration of the goals and needs of the agency and how the students might be useful in meeting those goals. The discussion includes exploration of how many students could be used and managed as well as when and how the students would be utilised. This last point is particularly critical as it minimises the potential of mis-use of students as 'volunteers' doing mundane tasks such as stuffing envelopes that may not interface with the instructional objectives of the course. Another powerful form of partnership worthy of exploration is to invite and include community partners to come to the classroom as guest speakers or conduct reflection discussions. Partners may also be asked to help evaluate student performance and learning.
Engagement depicts an active, rather than passive, process in which participants are actively involved and taking a degree of responsibility for what is learned. In this pedagogy, students go beyond interacting with the instructor in the classroom through traditional activities such as lectures. Instead, they must engage with each other, the community partner, sometimes the constituencies the community agency serves, and even with themselves through reflection. Engagement also means involving community partners in playing a role beyond merely providing a setting. Partners might be asked to participate in or conduct reflection activities with students.
Likewise, Kolb (1984) articulated the importance and integration of reflection within various steps of learning. A learner takes a concrete experience and considers what was observed during that experience. Based on that reflection, the individual thinks about the meaning of the experience and creates an abstract conceptualisation of what has occurred. This, in turn, allows the learner to actively apply what has been learned.
It is easy to see why and how this type of thought appealed to social scientists and educators like John Dewey who recognised the value of contemplating experience as it relates to an individual's growth, not only cognitively, but in their development as citizens in a democratic society.
Eyler (2002) provided a useful 'map' to help faculty members plan and conduct reflection. She noted that reflection can occur before, during, and after an experience. Reflection can be conducted on an individual basis as well as with and by classmates and even community partners. Mixing reflection formats and objectives accommodates a range of students' learning styles. One method allows a quiet, introverted student an opportunity to be meaningfully engaged during an in-class discussion. Another method affords analytic students to carefully and deliberately contemplate their experience in writing. Reflection can take many formats ranging from written journals to guided discussions. It is not merely a written log or 'dear diary' entry of what occurs during a service experience. A major and common issue is that reflection is not tied to instructional objectives. Instead, students are asked to 'reflect' often for the sake of reflection with little or no connection to course content. A simple way to conceptualise and conduct reflection for students is to frame the reflection topic around the ABCs of reflection (Welch, 1999). Students are asked to reflect in the context of affect; what they are feeling about or during the service and why. The reflection process includes students describing their behaviours before, during, and after the service experience. Finally, students are required to make an explicit connection to class content to assess cognitive growth.
Faculty members are often reluctant to conduct reflection for a host of reasons. Some instructors argue that spending time conducting reflection discussions during class time takes valuable time away from lecturing. Interspersing reflection within lecture can often enhance the content. Reflection need not always take place during class time. Other faculty members view reflection as emotional testimonials that have little or no intellectual purpose. While it is always possible that students may share emotional experiences, reflection in and of itself can promote critical inquiry. Finally, many instructors simply do not know when or how to conduct reflection or assume it is limited to one format such as a journal. Others use the term as a synonym for technical written reports.
However, assessment has traditionally been relegated to rather limited operations and use. The most common is some kind of final examination to assess students' cognitive growth. The second most used form of assessment in classroom contexts is students' self report to evaluate the course. While both of these are effective measures, service learning can also be assessed through tangible products or outcomes of students' work with and for the community agency. This demonstrates mastery and application of students' knowledge and skill. Qualitative content analysis of reflection discussions and journal entries is another way to assess the impact of service learning. Students' affective, behavioural, and cognitive growth can be charted and noted (Welch & James, 2007). Finally, the use of pre and post course measures can help determine students' growth in cognitive, affective, and behaviour.
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|Authors: Dr Marshall Welch is the Director of the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA) at Saint Mary's College of California which oversees the service-learning program. He has been active in the field at the national and international level, hosting the 3rd Annual International Research on the Advance of Service-learning in 2003. He is the co-editor of the book entitled, New Perspectives in Service-learning: Research to Advance the Field and has authored many chapters and articles.
Please cite as: Welch, M. (2009). O.P.E.R.A.: A first letter mnemonic and rubric for conceptualising and implementing service learning. In A. Power (Ed.), Special Edition on service learning. Issues In Educational Research, 20(1), 76-82. http://www.iier.org.au/iier20/welch.html