While I was working on databases and spreadsheets at the American Red Cross, for hours at a time, I would often think to myself, “what is service learning, and why do we have to do it?”
Most of the time, I simply thought of it as forced volunteerism, with no real direction, or purpose. This is due to the fact that the reason that we were made to volunteer was not exactly revealed to us. So, I decided, for my paper, to make some discoveries about Service Learning.
These discoveries would be made most likely by viewing other schools’ programs, which implement service learning. The facts that would be of most interest are, service learning itself, the definition of service learning, the benefits of service learning, and finally, how service learning should and needs to be implemented into the curriculum, most importantly, the pharmacy curriculum.
I thought, before heading into my service learning experience at the Red Cross, that Duquesne’s pharmacy school would already have a grasp of the concept of service learning, how it should be implemented into the curriculum, and most importantly, how it benefits the students. Benefit to the students, has to be the most important aspect of the entire concept, because if there is no real benefit to the students, there is no good reason to waste valuable time on an education strategy known as service learning.
The education strategy that is known as service learning is not a new strategy at all. The roots of service learning can be traced back to the 1930’s. It was during this time that a man by the name of John Dewey founded the concepts that would eventually lead to the formation of service learning. This was apparent in his assessment of education, in which, he theorized that effective learning required context through application and experience. Dewey called for an approach to teaching that was democratic, participatory, and interactive. His philosophy of education was the foundation for approaches such as service learning that extend students’ learning beyond the walls of the classroom. An important aspect of Dewey’s assessment of learning and education was that learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection. It is in the reflection stage, through discussion groups, journals, and papers, that Dewey believes, students really learn from their experiences and make connections to things relevant in society and also their future profession, which is pharmacy, in this case.
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Although Dewey made his introduction of a new approach to learn in the ‘30’s, his concepts were not really put into practice until recently. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, various government, organizational, and educational programs sponsored activities that included service learning, such as internships with government agencies. Pharmacy internships, or experiential education, as Duquesne would call them, would be included here. In the 1970’s, several national associations dedicated to service learning were established. By the 1980’s and 1990’s, many national groups involved with higher education launched service learning initiatives. Among them, was the American Association of Higher Education’s Service Learning Project, which includes a multiyear initiative to enrich service learning practice in 18 disciplines, one of which, is pharmacy.
Dewey did not, himself, define service learning. He simply laid out the ideas for what would become service learning. With Dewey not defining service learning, many different interpretations of it can be made. One good definition of service learning that I found, was, “Service learning is a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development.” (Fredericksen). This definition seems a bit wordy and it is easiest to define service learning if you break it down. If broken down, Service Learning is a combination of Service, community action and Learning, often seen as additional knowledge gained. Thus, when the two are put together Service Learning is the acquisition of knowledge through community service.
Although the key component of service learning is volunteering, service learning differs from volunteering in that service learning is connected to classroom instruction and academic requirements. Service learning can also be distinguished from internships and other forms of experiential learning. This is due to the fact that these types of learning do not necessarily involve students in social problems or in addressing unmet community needs, as service learning does.
Service Learning was created for a purpose. The main purpose behind it was to benefit the student in a way other than the benefits received from the classroom. These benefits, however must be real and evident to the students, if the program is to be successful. When the College of Pharmacy at the University of Texas first incorporated service learning into their curriculum, some the intended benefits to the students were to improve their communication skills and to help them gain a better understanding of needs and issues in the community. When comparing other service learning programs, having students interact with members of the community seems to be a common benefit. According to the Academic Service Learning Advisory Committee, some of the benefits of students interacting with members of the community are that students become aware of their community’s needs, they have an opportunity to connect with members of the larger community who can offer important partnerships and resources, and also makes students more committed and involved in the community they belong to, thus building teamwork and leadership skills.
Another benefit that the University of Texas College of Pharmacy believes can result from service learning is that students will learn the concepts of caring and social support. This, the college believes, is where pharmacy students benefit most from service learning. This is due to the fact that pharmacists should be able to understand patients’ circumstances and be able to empathize with their situations. According to the University of Texas, an essential characteristic for pharmacists is being able to show empathy to patients. This beneficial trait of a pharmacist can be gained through service learning, where students often go to locations where the people there do not have very much, and are often not as privileged as themselves. The University of Texas also hopes that its pharmacy students will develop more effective communication skills as a result of service learning. The communication will be improved by it being necessary for the students to modify their communication style to the people and situation they are working with.
Teacher, Rebecca Sipe gives many reasons why service learning is beneficial and is more than simply, “doing time.” According to Sipe, the various benefits of service learning include, academic development, cognitive development, career development, social development, personal growth, increased civic mindness, motivated, involved students, collaboration and research opportunities, and reduced behavioral disruptions. Other proponents of service learning claim that it improves student learning, helps students understand the responsibilities of living in a democratic society, and addresses important social problems facing communities. All of these benefits might seem possible from service learning, but all are qualitative benefits and cannot really be measured to prove the fact that there is any real benefit from service learning.
While service learning has many supporters, it also has many who disapprove of it. Some academics feels that service learning dilutes the curriculum by consuming student time and energy that could be better spent in traditional academic pursuits such as library work or research. I know that many pharmacy students feel the same way. They would rather spend more time on learning about drugs and pharmacy than volunteering their time at a soup kitchen. Another criticism of service learning is that the true impact of the projects to the community. This is also a common problem with service learning. Although sixteen hours may seem like an eternity to some students, the truth is that more time must be put in for students to do something real and truly develop skills such as communication skills.
Although there are numerous faults with service learning, there are many benefits apparent that can help students. But, this is only possible if the course is structured and implemented into the curriculum appropriately. This must involve the faculty to evaluate the community sites and have the school and the organization have an agreement on what types of work the students will be doing. For example, the University of Texas has an agreement with the sites that the students go into that mandates interaction of the students and the people that organization serves. The faculty should also assist the student in the goals that are to be accomplished at the site. Rebecca Sipe continues in her article about how to have a beneficial service learning experience. She maintains that successful service learning projects are built on three key elements. First, the project should provide meaningful service to others and this service must meet the needs identified by both the school and the community organization. Second, the service learning project must provide clear connections to the goals for the class. Finally, service learning projects must provide ample time to allow self-reflection of the experiences. This will allow ongoing and in-depth learning.
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