Service Learning Methodology Toolkit – Comparing Practical Teaching Methods in Higher Education

Download ES Service Learning Methodology Toolkit in EN DE PT IT LT RO

This methodology toolkit provides an evidence-based insight into service learning and seven practical teaching approaches: 1) community-based research, 2) project-based learning, 3) (participatory) action research, 4) internships, 5) volunteering, 6) action-reflection methodologies and 7) social entrepreneurship.

The toolkit adopted a comparative approach with the main aim of mapping the strengths and weaknesses of the seven practical teaching approaches analysed compared with service-learning. 

Community-based research. It is a methodology based on partnership and full, equal engagement between university researchers, students and practitioners in community organizations. Fundamental to Community-based research is to democratize both the ways in which knowledge is created and disseminated.  Community organisations (and individuals) are thus not ‘researched upon’ but rather are equal partners with university academic researchers at all stages of the method. From an educational perspective, the outcome aims at the development of knowledge and a range of skills for researchers and also, potentially, community members, such as: team working; communication skills; research methods – qualitative and quantitative; reporting on research findings to a wide range of different audiences: policy makers, practitioners, community members and researchers.  Some of the complexities of this method includes: challenges of identifying research topics of mutual interest to both members of the local and the academic community; complexity of partnership working based on mutual respect and engagement between key stakeholders; differences in impact indicators – publications in the academic sphere; implementation in the community sphere.

Project-based learning. As a method it aims at enabling students to develop both personal and professional skills, such as problem solving; time planning for particular project tasks; decision making; personal and team responsibility; self-directed and -regulated learning; self-assessment and -evaluation. During project-based learning there are a lot of separate steps, including activities, workshops, and research with many assessments until the final evaluation in order for teachers to be more objective and lead students to a better learning outcome. The weakness of the method relates the fact that not all students can learn in the same way, Teacher’s role is crucial while applying this learning method. If a teacher is not prepared, lacks experience and competences, the method’s application result can be not satisfying. Thus, the method can be limited in terms of teacher’s help and support. Moreover, the method is highly demanding in time and other resources comparing to traditional learning methods, which discourages teachers to apply it together with other learning methods.

Action research. It is a methodology aimed at working on practical issues at a community level in a participatory way between researchers and local practitioners. Community members and researchers work together to: (a) identify and analyse community problems, (b) find solutions to those problems through the best methods of research, and (c) test those solutions in the community. Action research needs active engagement on all sides of the process, also on the student’s side. Some researchers criticize the method for his lacking of a concrete systematic of the single processes and for a lack of quality criteria or specific characteristics of this research. As the research methodology is very open, it is argued that “everything” which happens in the community can be action research. Therefore, the concrete outputs of action research cannot be foreseen as they evolve while the practice is researched and reflected and depends on the situation. This makes it difficult to plan the concrete research at the beginning.

Internships. An internship is a temporary position offering students work experience. The method is not aimed at promoting a social impact in the community. The focus of internships is on the acquisition of particular career skills and applying knowledge but also skills learned at the university. They are strongly academic based and focus on the interest and learning goals set by the university. In this sense the impetus of what and how to learn is most often related to the university. The typical outputs of internships are practical skills in the respective field of study acquired during the internship. Internships as a method for learning have several advantages. They help students to gain practical experiences in the field of study and increase their job opportunities after study. They also seem to be helpful for closing the theory-practice gap. In some cases internships have been criticised for their use on the part of companies, as a source of cheap labour. Moreover, if mentors and supervisors do not support learning, learning outcomes might be low and dissatisfaction high.

Volunteering. It is generally considered an altruistic activity where an individual or group provides services for no financial or social gain “to benefit another person, group or organization”. There are many types of volunteering: skills based volunteering, virtual volunteering, environmental volunteering, volunteering in an emergency, volunteering in schools, corporate volunteering, community and volunteer work, social volunteering or welfare volunteering, volunteering at major sporting events, volunteering in developing countries. The degree of students’ engagement is high because volunteering requires a high willingness to improve the sector of the cause they serve. The impact of volunteering generally has 3 dimensions: the impact of volunteers on the organization – social and economic; the impact of volunteers in the community (final beneficiaries) – social and economic; the impact of volunteering on volunteers – personal, social and economic.

The skills the student can develop during volunteering are: teamwork, public speaking, time management, decision-making, communication skills, interpersonal skills, confidence, self-efficacy and a stronger sense of self-problem solving and adaptability, motivation to make a change or to improve a sector of life. Volunteering is considered as professional experience in the field of study, which means that young people may have higher chances of employment. It requires, however, time, effort and the pressure that is equal with a person that has a job and it is paid for his job.

Action-reflection methodologies. As a comprehensive method it relates to a set of experiences in actual contexts and educational intervention associated with positive changes in students, particularly in terms of deep psychological processes (e.g., cognitive complexity, moral reasoning, social perspective taking). The outputs vary widely depending on the specific contexts where the project develops, and can include artistic outputs (e.g., a play or artistic performance), but also other types of events (e.g., science fair or demonstration). Nevertheless, projects tend to include individual journals where participants write down their own reflections about the experience – with writing appearing as a decisive element of reflection and personal change. Asa matter of fact, it is a methodology time consuming (projects should last for a minimum of 4-6 months for change to occur) and demanding in terms of student’s engagement.

Social entrepreneurship. It Is not a method. It is a field of student’s engagement, training and working opportunities. However, service-learning and social entrepreneurship share a common goal of engaging students in work to achieve the public good, and a desire to link education to addressing social problems and needs. Social entrepreneurship can also be a didactical approach at the university level. One the one hand, Universities can adopt curriculum for social entrepreneurship, fostering employability and work-experience in this field. On the other hand, social entrepreneurship enhances innovative work-based learning methodologies and extra-curricular activities based on team building, community engagement and interpersonal skills. The collaboration between community partners, students, faculty, teachers, and social entrepreneurs can create new opportunities in terms of community partnerships, collaborative working relationships, and social innovation.