Service-Learning Experiences of College Freshmen, Community Partners, and Consumers With Disabilities

Feb. 15, 2011

Source: Teacher Education and Special Education, v. 34 no. 1 (February 2011), p. 21-36.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Service learning incorporates essential elements that enable students to learn course content as they serve the community and reflect on the connections between explicit course content and their experiences in the field. A service-learning component was embedded as the centerpiece in the Culture of Disability Across the Lifespan course, designed for students' exploration of issues related to the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all aspects of society.
The service-learning project required students to design and complete an agency project with a group, make a class presentation at the conclusion of the project, and submit an individual two-page reflection paper on the content of the project, their contribution to and collaboration on the team, and what they learned about persons with disabilities.

The authors investigated the extent to which students and community partners were satisfied with their service-learning experience and the aspects of the project that contributed to and detracted from their personal satisfaction.
The participants were 19 university freshmen, 6 representatives of community agencies, and 3 consumers with disabilities.

Data from focus group discussions and interviews were triangulated with knowledge surveys, satisfaction questionnaires, reflections, and project artifacts of students.


The four projects varied in their quality of implementation along four dominant themes: expectations, communication, impact, and logistics. Comparison of the students' perceptions to those of the community partners was particularly robust.
Students expressed subtle differences in their perceptions of project expectations. Several students explained that the projects were clear and straightforward, allowing them to work and make a difference in the community. Some noted their lack of understanding of the requirements, which led to difficulty in conceptualizing the service-learning project. Students who expressed lack of clarity of the assignment were those in the group that experienced communication problems. The community partners realized that the open-ended problem solving required communication skills on the part of the students. They viewed this as an advantage for the students to be empowered and to guide their own learning (FG 3, p. 6).

The authors (course instructor and facilitator) were aware of ongoing meetings between the students and the community partner and were not alerted to a breakdown in communication through the established structures. Otherwise, the authors would have negotiated communication between the partner and students or supplemented support.

Another source of discontent among student participants was the perceived lack of direct interaction between students and individuals with disabilities. Most students appeared to believe that the lack of interaction with individuals with disabilities indicated that the projects were not benefiting the consumers.

Recommendations for Service-Learning Implementation in Higher Education

1. The course instructor or facilitator should provide waves of communication regarding project requirements with students and community partners across the semester.
2. The course instructor or facilitator should bridge the communication between the students and the community partners.
3. The course instructor or facilitator should require written goals and progress updates of each service-learning team.
4. The course instructor or facilitator should create a culture that permits explicit discussion of problems.
5. The course instructor or facilitator should specify minimum direct contact with persons with disabilities.

Updated: Sep. 04, 2011