Building the Field: The Case for Community Service Learning

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Published: 
Nov. 01, 2018

Source: Teacher Education and Special Education, Volume: 41 issue: 4, page(s): 308-320

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Introduction
In this study, the authors sought to explore the influence of community service learning on undergraduates’ willingness to pursue careers as special education teachers. They also included related service providers in their research questions and analyses to capture individuals who would like to pursue careers in special education (e.g., as a paraprofessional, behavioral therapist, etc.), which involve serving students with disabilities in the school system.
In this study, the authors attempted to answer the following research questions:
 

Research Questions
1: Does taking a course with embedded service learning increase undergraduate students’ interest in becoming a special education teacher or related service provider?
2: What factors influence undergraduates’ decisions to pursue careers in special education?
 

Method
The authors report that a total of 134 undergraduate students from a large, diverse public university in Northern California participated in the study. Students were eligible to participate if they were enrolled in an introduction to disability course, which is required for students pursuing a special education minor and is also an upper division general elective course open to all majors.
 

Strategic recruitment survey
The survey used by the authors was adapted from a 21-item questionnaire developed by Zascavage et al. (2008) to acquire information on what most influenced students in their decision to choose special education as a major. They adapted the survey to conform to their primary research question, which was whether students planned to pursue a career in special education. The first item of the survey asked participants whether they planned to teach or provide related services to individuals with disabilities upon graduation. If participants responded yes during the second administration of the survey during the final week of the semester, they were instructed to move on to the next section, which asked participants to rank the five most influential factors in their decision to pursue an occupation teaching or providing related services to individuals with disabilities. 

Data Analysis
The first research question inquired about the effect of the service learning course on undergraduate students’ willingness to become a special education teacher or related service provider.
Participants were asked at the beginning (Time 1) and end of the course (Time 2) whether they were interested in pursuing a career as a special education teacher or related service provider upon graduation.
To analyze the second research question, descriptive analyses were conducted to determine the frequency with which participants ranked the aforementioned activities as influencing their decision at Time 2 to become a special education teacher or related service provider.

Findings
The authors reported that of the 134 total participants, 31 changed their responses from Time 1 to Time 2 in a positive direction meaning that they moved from a no response at Time 1 to unsure at Time 2 or from an unsure response to yes.
Thirteen participants changed their responses from Time 1 to Time 2 in a negative direction; these participants moved from a yes response to unsure or unsure to no. Eighty-seven participants did not change their responses from Time 1 to Time 2.
At Time 2, participants who indicated yes to the question of whether they planned to pursue a career teaching or providing related services to individuals with disabilities were asked to rank order items that had the most influence on their decision.
Participants selected the top five items out of 10 and rank ordered those five items on a scale from 1 (least influential) to 5 (most influential).
The three items most frequently selected as having influenced the participants’ decisions were contact with a person with a disability through volunteering for the service learning course (n = 66), the course’s content (i.e., lecture and in-class material; n = 64), and contact with a person with a disability not including community service completed for the course (n = 61). The items least frequently selected as influencing participants’ decisions were research grants (i.e., research in special education; n = 9) and project expansion grants (working with a faculty member; n = 5).

Discussion
Results of this study suggest to the authors that service learning courses related to the study of individuals with disabilities can influence undergraduate students’ willingness to enter the field of special education.
The change in decisions from Time 1 to Time 2 was statistically significant, and the results are also meaningfully and practically significant for informing the strategic recruitment of individuals to the field.
Most of the undergraduate students who did not consider a career in special education prior to the course responded at the end of the course that they did wish to pursue a career teaching or providing a related service to individuals with disabilities or were at least considering it.
For these students, the knowledge acquired through the course and exposure to individuals with disabilities in a variety of settings allowed them to consider a career path they may not have otherwise.
The authors note that the number of unsure responses also decreased with many undergraduates solidifying a yes position after taking the course.
They also note that service learning course was an influential factor in participants’ willingness to enter the field, but it may also have dissuaded some participants, as evidenced by the negative direction change for 13 respondents.
The authors point out that in this study, undergraduate students most frequently identified contact with a person with a disability—both within and outside of the service learning course—as the activity that most influenced their decision to pursue a career in special education.
Results of this study corroborate previous findings that contact with a person with a disability strongly influenced undergraduates’ decision to choose special education as a major (Zascavage et al., 2008).
What is perhaps more surprising is that undergraduates also identified the service learning course’s content as highly influential to their decision. The authors claim that this provides support for the integration of service learning within a course related to disability so that content and application are meaningfully connected. Contact alone may be a powerful recruitment tool, but providing knowledge in tandem with opportunities to connect with individuals with disabilities in rewarding and positive ways may be more effective.

Conclusion
Service learning has documented benefits, but in this study, the authors make the case that it can build the field of special education in positive ways.
Creating courses related to disability that include service learning components, or adding service learning to existing courses, provides undergraduate students with both knowledge of and experience with special populations.
Undergraduate students who serve individuals with disabilities in a variety of settings within their communities have the opportunity to see firsthand available career options related to individuals with disabilities.
In this study, the service learning experience was a factor in many students’ decisions to pursue careers as special education teachers or related service providers. The course’s content also influenced undergraduate students’ decisions to choose a future career in special education. Thus, courses with embedded service learning components may be advantageous recruitment tools.

References
Zascavage, V., Schroeder-Steward, J., Armstrong, P., Marrs-Buttler, K., Winterman, K., & Zascavage, M. L. (2008). Considerations for the strategic recruitment of special educators. Teacher Education Quarterly, 35, 207-221.

Updated: Jul. 29, 2019
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