Diversity and Democracy

Service Learning and Learning Communities: Promising Pedagogies

In 2001, Dickinson College adopted an ambitious strategic plan inspired by the vision of its founder Benjamin Rush. Following the Revolutionary War, Rush articulated the need for the college to provide a "useful education" that prepared students to be active citizens in the emerging republic. He called for students to gain knowledge of multiple disciplines and apply that knowledge to solving the problems of the day. Dickinson's 2001 strategic plan affirmed Rush's vision of a liberal arts education that prepares students for engaged lives of citizenship and leadership in service to society. Guided by the strategic plan, Dickinson sought to build upon its strengths--its commitment to global education, interdisciplinary initiatives, and both scholarship and teaching--through pedagogies that introduce students to active and interdisciplinary learning, including service learning and first-year learning communities. In the past few years, Dickinson has expanded its offerings in these areas, identifying promising outcomes related to student and faculty learning and engagement and learning several lessons along the way.

Implementing Engaging Pedagogies

We created learning communities at Dickinson by linking thematically related first-year seminars. Students in the learning communities live together and participate in out-of-classroom programs such as field trips and dinner discussions. Many of the learning communities explicitly encourage students to explore topics like environment and sustainability, global awareness, identity, social justice, and social responsibility, and examine the relevance of these topics in their own lives. For example, as a result of their experiences in the current Environment, Science, and Sustainability learning community (taught by an environmental scientist, a historian, a chemist, and a computer scientist) students actively modified their behavior and residence hall features to achieve greater environmental sustainability. In the coming academic year, the Identity and Social Justice learning community (to be taught by a psychologist and a sociologist) will link courses on Identity, Diversity, and Social Justice and Feminism and Social Commentary.


Building Social Capital for First-Year Students

Our research has illuminated four key ways in which the deliberate creation of social networks through active learning pedagogies like service learning and learning communities can benefit students:

Generate meaningful social interaction. Learning community experiences, particularly when coupled with academic material, create an entry point for conversation among peers and faculty. Like all people, students who reside or work near each other will not necessarily interact, and even students living in the close quarters of residence halls can feel isolated or disconnected.

Provide opportunities for informal reflection. Students who interact frequently with other students or faculty have more opportunities for informal reflection. Reflection is imperative for students to fully assess the impact and meaning of their engaged learning experiences.

Create emotional supports. Students in learning communities gain a means for emotional support that is especially critical in the first year of college. First-year students in service-learning courses tend to report greater levels of stress (perhaps due to struggles with time management, working in an unfamiliar environment, and encountering issues of social inequality). In this context, peer alliances are helpful sources of encouragement and provide resources for coping.

Provide a protective shield against pressures to use or overuse alcohol. This shield effect works in two ways. First, students who are not inclined to drink alcohol increase their likelihood of finding others with the same preferences. Second, the peer group can function as an informal network of caretakers who, although they may not actively discourage alcohol use, are often aware of changes in drinking patterns or mental health among peers.

--Shalom Staub and Ashley Finley

In a separate initiative, Dickinson faculty have introduced service-learning and community-based research courses within sixteen different departments, crossing the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Faculty members have developed service-learning courses for students at all levels, from first year to senior seminar. Dickinson has been particularly supportive of faculty who implement active service-learning pedagogy within the learning community environment. For example, a social-justice-themed learning community incorporated service-learning experiences for students at a local domestic violence shelter, food pantry, and Catholic worker housing. Encounters in these environments help students make the connection between ideas and issues covered in the course and the lives of individuals within communities.

Identifying Promising Trends

As a national demonstration site for the Bringing Theory to Practice project (www.aacu.org/bringing_theory), Dickinson has studied first-year students' experiences in these service-learning opportunities and learning communities through surveys and focus groups. Our research indicates that first-year students benefit from incorporating community-based learning with academic work, whether in or outside of learning communities. Students who had engaged in service-learning activities found deeper connections to academic material, were sometimes moved to change their majors or modify their perspectives, and reported meaningful conversations with peers outside of class and engagement in campus activism. Students who engaged in service learning also tended to report lower levels and frequencies of alcohol consumption than other first-year students.

First-year students involved in service learning additionally showed higher levels of civic engagement than those who were not. Among research participants, students who were enrolled in service-learning courses or involved in experiential learning (exploration outside the classroom but not with a community partner) had the highest mean levels of engagement at the local, state, and national levels. Although first-year students in general exhibited less involvement at the local community level, those engaged in service-learning courses reported the highest engagement at this level in relation to other first-year students. This finding suggests that students' time with community partners translates into civically oriented behaviors (such as reading the local paper and attending community events).

Although service learning alone showed positive results, service learning within learning communities demonstrated additional value. Like students who engaged in service learning generally, students who engaged in service learning within learning communities tended to engage more frequently in civically oriented activities than other first-year students. In addition, they indicated higher degrees of civic mindedness and moral development than other first-year students.

Best Practices: What We've Learned

Identifying "best practices" is critical for continued success. Our research identified two common links between effective service-learning courses and courses that incorporate other models of engaged pedagogy, such as learning communities. First, successful courses focus on themes that encourage critical thought and exploration. Focus group data suggest that themes premised on timely social or political topics with clear global connections--such as poverty and access to food, exploration of different cultures, gender and global inequality, and environmental sustainability--are particularly powerful in motivating student thought, activism, and engagement.

Second, effective courses show evidence of created social networks. This element requires deliberate action, even in promising environments like learning communities. Focus group data suggest that the most powerful student experiences have occurred in learning communities where peer-to-peer and faculty-to-student ties (or social networks) were fostered and supported. This mediating effect of social capital may contribute to both increased academic engagement and student well-being (see sidebar).


Dickinson continues to offer incentives and support for faculty who are willing to build learning communities and transform their classroom-based courses with active pedagogies like service learning. We now sustain roughly four learning communities per year, involving one quarter of faculty teaching first-year seminars and the same percentage of first-year students.

Although we have focused in this article on how service learning and learning communities benefit students, participating faculty consistently report that active pedagogies add value to their experiences as teachers and scholars as well. Faculty members enjoy the higher levels of student engagement that these pedagogies produce. In addition, faculty find that by working with peers to develop and teach within learning communities, they gain exposure to new perspectives that help them reconceptualize familiar material. Similarly, interacting with local community partners to develop service-learning partnerships helps faculty members develop grounded theory, teach more dynamically, and connect their work to life experiences outside the classroom.

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