Service May Make a Difference in Reducing Achievement Gaps

Scales, P. C., Roehlkepartain, E. C., Neal, M., Kielsmeier, J. C., & Benson, P. L. (2006). Reducing academic achievement gaps: The role of community service and service-learning. Journal of Experiential Education, 29(1), 38–60. doi:10.1177/105382590602900105

Article Summary

The purpose of this article was to explore whether community service and service-learning has an impact in the achievement rates for low-income students.  This is a quantitative study examining responses from national samples of U.S. public school principals, data from more than 200,000 U.S. middle and high school students from over 300 communities, and a sample of middle and high school students from Colorado Springs, Colorado (Scales, Roehlkepartain, Neal, Kielsmeier, & Benson, 2006).  The researchers focused on three major questions: perceived impact of community service or service-learning, relation of service to achievement gaps, and the effect of participation with service-learning over a longer period of time (Scales, 2006).   Their study indicated that, “Principals of urban, high poverty, or majority nonwhite schools are significantly more likely than other principals to judge service learning’s impact on attendance, school engagement, and academic achievement to be ‘very positive'” (Scales, 2006).  The researchers also found that participation in community service or service-learning “seems to be related to lessened achievement gaps between low SES and high SES students” (Scales et. al., 2006).  Furthermore, study of the data indicated that “low-SES students who contributed  community service reported significantly fewer missed school days and significantly higher grades than other low-SES students who did not participate in service” (Scales et. al., 2006).  Overall, the researchers concluded that service-learning may be a valuable teaching strategy to positively impact achievement and student engagement.  This strategy can be especially valuable in urban, high poverty, or nonwhite environments.  Service learning may also have a correlation to reducing the achievement gap between students from lower and higher incomes (Scales et. al., 2006).  The researchers emphasized that you cannot conlude a direct causality because of the many variables involved in student engagement and achievement; however, they indicate a “strong link between service or service-learning and academic success” (Scales et. al., 2006).

Strengths and Critiques

The researches provided a thorough literature review documenting the research about  low SES students, analysis of various approaches to school success, and prior studies on the effects of experiential learning and service on academic success.  The breadth of additional resources and references utilized spanned multiple decades and multiple k-12 settings.  The researchers also explained their purpose, methodology, and results with very accessible language.  They were also very forthright in discussing the shortcomings of their research as well as adamant that the findings do not show direct causality to academic achievement.

One major critique of the study, as also noted by the researchers, is that much of the data is self-reported.  Principals self-reported their perceptions and attitudes of service learning, and student data was primarily self-reported as well.  Finally, the researchers also noted that there was no measure of the quality of the service experience.

Another critique I had regarding the study was the lack of delineation between community service and service learning.  Service learning includes a direct correlation between the service to the community and the learning outcomes for the course.  Community service is more like volunteerism.  I believe there is a clear distinction between the two, and each has the potential to impact students differently.  Overall, I understand the point of the study was not to compare service learning to community service.  However, I think it is an important distinction as service learning has a direct correlation to curriculum and student learning outcomes.

My Take

I chose this research study as I wanted to review another quantitative study.  I find that I have a long way to go with my development and understanding of quantitative methods and their implications and usefulness within educational research.  This study struck the perfect tone for me in that the researchers clearly wrote the article with audience in mind – school leaders and practitioners.  Consequently, the article was very accessible, and provided clear explanations of the methods utilized.

I also believe this study has great impact for my line of inquiry.  I am becoming excited about the potential of researching the impact of service learning, community service, and experiential learning in the developmental classroom at the community college level.  Although this study focused primary on middle and high school students, I believe the findings may be applicable to the community college setting.  GCC fits the profile for the schools mentioned in this study – high poverty, majority nonwhite, and within an urban setting.  The student demographics outlined in this study also reflect that of our students.  And, GCC has a sizable achievement gap between students of color and white students.  This study indicates that at a minimum, community colleges should explore implementing community service and/or service learning programs within its curriculum.  Furthermore, these service efforts could help make gains in reducing the achievement gap if targeting low SES students as well.

One area I want to explore further is the design of quality service-learning experiences.  I am familiar with service-learning from a distance.  I have discussed with other faculty members who routinely engage in service-learning the need to identify projects that meet the needs of a community organization, while also aligning directly to the course curriculum and learning outcomes.  I also understand there needs to be a strong component of reflection and assessment in quality service-learning programs.  However, I am not clear on what this would mean for the design of a quality service-learning experience, the strategies a faculty member needs to have in order to successfully facilitate service learning, and the duration of service-learning as well.  Furthermore, I am not aware of studies on the impact of service-learning on the developmental student population.  This may be a focus of mine moving forward – is service-learning a strategy that community colleges should emphasize and dedicate resources toward to reduce achievement gaps and improve success rates in the developmental classroom?  If yes, what does that look like and how would a college go about infusing service-learning more deeply in the developmental classroom.

Finally, I also believe a study such as this is ripe for qualitative data as well. Interviewing students who participate in service-learning about its impact on their lives, their attitudes, and their perceptions toward school and the community seem very relevant to this work.  I believe a blend of methods would lead toward a strong project researching the impact of service-learning in the developmental education community.  Student voice, faculty voice, and community voice would complement the data regarding course success, GPA, and student engagement.

PBL + SL = A Successful Developmental Learning Community

Butler, Alison  & Christofili, Monica (2014). Project-based learning communities in
developmental education: A case study of lessons learned. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 38:7, 638-650. doi: 10.1080/10668926.2012.710125

For this week’s readings, we were assigned Michelle E. Jordan’s and Reuben R. McDaniels, Jr.’s article focusing on managing uncertainty during a collaborative activity.  The paper documented students’ attitudes and perceptions toward this style of teaching.  This article reminded me of my own experiences with project-based learning (PBL), as well of much of the literature I have read over the years about PBL.    Consequently, I decided to focus my research review this week on the efficacy of project-based learning in a community college developmental classroom.  Below is a recent summary of an article in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice.
Article Summary

The purpose of Butler and Christofili’s study is to further examine the relationship between project-based learning and service learning, within the context of a developmental education learning community.  The goal of the study was to “help instructors avoid some of the pitfalls that arise when forming and implementing PBL and to help instructors implement successful PBL” (Butler & Christofili, 2014) by strategically designing the project.

The study was conducted at a large urban community college in the Pacific Northwest: Portland Community College.  The study focused on four learning communities involving developmental courses (math, reading, English and college success).  Furthermore, the study examined a learning community over the duration of four terms/semesters.  The first two semesters of this study involved developmental education students, a learning community, and project-based learning.  The second two semesters introduced service-learning into the learning community (Butler & Christofili, 2014).

The researchers documented each semester’s learning community in the following manner: project question, project implementation, competency assessment, and lessons learned.  Overall, the researchers provided conclusions regarding the design of PBL, with a service-learning component, integrated into a developmental learning community.  Specifically, projects must be of proper scope, instructors need to be flexible given all the potential moving parts, projects must be relevant to learning in respective courses, and managing student group dynamics must be purposeful and strategic (Butler & Christofili, 2014).

Strengths and Critiques

The strength of the article is the practical application to designing learning communities within a community college environment.  The authors provide tangible recommendations to design elements and strategies to integrate service-learning into a learning community.  The authors provide a solid literature review, that includes references to many studies and articles that illustrate the efficacy of learning communities and service-learning for community college students.

The overall research described in the study is lacking.  The researchers reviewed student feedback and their own experiences as both researchers and the instructors.  Overall, I expected greater emphasis of student voice in the research, but this was not evident. I found no evidence that students were interviewed to determine their attitudes and perceptions.  Furthermore, I did not find evidence that all the instructors across the four disciplines were interviewed either.

The authors make many claims regarding the success or failures of the respective learning communities, but do not clearly describe the evidence for which those claims are based.  For example, the authors state that the story theme of the third term project generated “overwhelming student buy-in”  (Butler & Christofili, 2014).  But, I did not find evidence as to how the researchers came to this conclusion.  The majority of the authors’ conclusions are based on their observations of the students and review of students’ projects.  However, I question the strength and objectivity of this case study analysis as both authors were also the instructors of the program.  I appreciate the perspectives of the instructors; however, I believe the research could have been enhanced with a third-party observer/researcher interviewing students, observing classes, and reviewing final projects.

I was very disappointed that this article did not include persistence data  (students enrolling in the next semester and remaining at the college) for the students participating in the learning community.  The article would have been strengthened with more quantitative data.  The only statistic provided was that the retention rate for the third term was higher than previous terms (Butler & Christofili, 2014).  Statistics, as we have discussed, do not tell the whole story.  But in this case, I believe evidence that a learning community designed in this manner could lead to a) increased retention, b) increased persistence, and/or c) higher percentage of course success is vital to other instructors or community colleges adopting this type of instructional model.

Consequently, I offer the following suggestions to improve this study:

  1. Utilize an observer who is not an instructor;
  2. Provide data as to the success, retention and persistence rates of the respective co-horts;
  3. Provide evidence for the conclusions and assertions that are made; and
  4. Focus more on student learning outcomes and impact on the community organizations involved in the service-learning component of the instruction.

My Take

Despite the reservations I have regarding this case study analysis, I am excited about how this article relates to my current role at GCC.  I have been charged with launching our service-learning effort at the college.  We have had pockets of service-learning offered by faculty in various disciplines; however, we do not have a coordinated effort which supports faculty in these endeavors.  Furthermore, I do not believe we have an understanding across our college that service-learning is and can be a meaningful instructional strategy that promotes learning.  Most individuals, when talking about service-learning, tend to focus on the service; the benefits to the community organization and how participation in service-learning improves students feelings and perceptions toward school.  This article, though, reminded me of the need to emphasize that service-learning can and does improve student learning.  And, the article sparked in me an interest to learn more about the impact of service-learning on the developmental student population.  I would venture a guess that the majority of service-learning programs in community colleges across the US focus more on high achieving students (possibly a research question to explore….).  But, this strategy has proven to have a positive impact on developmental students. Ultimately, I am now rethinking how we roll out our service-learning initiative.  Possibly we target a range of interested faculty across multiple disciplines, with developmental education students being a focus. This may prove to be a strategy that positively impacts our success rates, while also emphasizing the role we play as a college in our community.

Another take-away from the article is that instructors struggled to build accountability into their group projects.  I am continually surprised at how frequently this comes up as a challenge for instructors.  Designing effective collaborative learning experiences is challenging. Instructors need to plan extensively to build individual and group accountability into the course for all students involved.  Repeatedly, the instructors indicated how students were upset at how some of their classmates did the majority of the work, while others students apparently did less.  This has always been a challenge of collaborative learning, and there are a lot of articles and guides developed to assist faculty in developing strategies to make sure students are accountable for the work of the group, as well as their individual role within that group.  This article serves as a reminder that additional professional development is probably needed locally at GCC to provide faculty with the skills and strategies to design meaningful and effective collaborative learning experiences.

Finally, I have a renewed sense of excitement around the benefits of learning communities and service-learning in developmental education.  And, this renewed excitement may inspire me to focus my research efforts in this direction.