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Service Learning in Family Life Education: Incorporating High-Impact Strategies in Undergraduate Family Science Programming

Service Learning

Service-learning in the context of Family Life Education academic programming is identified as an effective way to help students understand concepts that they have learned through their Family Life Education texts and classroom activities through applied, often field-based, experiences (Hamon, 2002; Knapp & Stubblefield, 2000). The focus of the servicelearning process is unique from experiential learning (more benefitting the student) and volunteerism (more benefitting the recipient(s) of the volunteer efforts), in that the intention is to benefit both the student and the recipient(s) of the service activity, both of which positively contribute to the community (Deeley, 2010). Additionally, service-learning activities offer a unique opportunity for student growth through allowing students to make connections between conceptual classroom information and experiences gained through field/site-based activities.

A.G. Bertram (*) • B. Burr

Human Environmental Sciences, University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond, OK, USA

© The Author(s) 2017

T. Newman, A. Schmitt (eds.), Field-Based Learning in Family Life Education, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-39874-7_16

Some academic programs may over-emphasize the development of skills and strategies in Family Life Education, limiting focus on conceptual and theoretical foundations which can enhance family professionals’ ability to innovatively develop new strategies and adapt to different situations (Darling, Fleming, & Cassidy, 2009). Thus, carefully planned service-learning experiences provide opportunities for students to integrate newfound classroom knowledge and theoretical concepts into community service, which also acts as a solid training ground for students to become more engaged citizens. Best practices in Family Life Education underscore the need for the educator to “know the audience” with which they are working and serving (e.g. Duncan & Goddard, 2011). Servicelearning can provide a valuable opportunity to learn about the population with which students will serve and work.

Applied experiences in family science/studies programs in terms of field experiences, practicums, internships, service-learning opportunities, etc. have grown substantially over the past 50 years (Smart & Berke, 2004). Many applied components to family science undergraduate programs are utilized as valuable career preparation. Thus, applied field-based experiences such as academic internships afford students opportunities to develop professional skills to more effectively compete for family service positions in the job market. Smart and Berke (2004) suggest that out-of-class learning experiences prior to entering the academic internship enable students to begin connecting classroom knowledge and concepts in applied settings and acquire professional skills in order to be better prepared and more fully benefit from the internship experience. Thus, service-learning course opportunities may allow students to begin to fine-tune knowledge and skill sets to later become better prepared interns and family professionals. These learning opportunities may be available through a number of different avenues. Because “family life education is relevant across the life span, is inclusive of all types of families, and is designed to meet the true needs of the target audience” (Ballard & Taylor, 2012, p. 1) regardless of the focus major of the student, service-learning venues and opportunities abound in society and potentially represent numerous, rich opportunities for students to connect classroom and applied experiences, gain professional skills and prepare for professional work, grow personally, and make positive contributions to the community.

At the instructional level, the success of the service-learning experience and the learning environment often takes careful planning and focus. If students are unable to make a clear connection between the classroom-learning component and the service activity, confusion and frustration are likely to occur (Deeley, 2010; Hamon & Way, 2001; Jones, Gilbride-Brown, & Gasiorski, 2005). Stanberry and Azria-Evans (2001) highlight three instructional approaches from which to draw when designing purposeful educational experiences. These approaches are transmission, transaction, and transformation. Transmission is often characterized by conveying facts and knowledge in a lecture format. Transaction has to do with the process of gaining cognitive skills and problem-solving abilities through active inquiry, dialogue/communi- cation, and application of concepts. Transformation facilitates personal and social change through focused discourse, critical reflection, and the application of praxis (learning by doing and reflective action).

These instructional approaches can also be combined to bolster effectiveness. For example, an instructor may lecture about a particular approach or skill for working with older adults (transmission), help students examine personal assumptions and stereotypes about working with older adults and critically evaluate these assumptions through class dialogue (transaction), formulate a plan to implement the skill working with older adults at a community center, reflect on and process the experience (how the plan worked and how the plan was received), and integrate the overall experience into the student’s view of working with older adults (transformation).

Critical reflection is a key component of service-learning. When transformation is achieved, the potential for impact is strengthened. Commenting on a service-learning experience in an aging course, Hamon and Way (2001) noted that the “positive effects of service learning were enhanced when students had opportunities to process their experiences with each other in discussions” (p. 82). Deeley (2010), commenting on a service-learning experience in a public policy program stated, “transformation occurred through students challenging their belief systems and assumptions, which led to perspective change” (p. 50). Students in the one of the author’s aging classes echo the transformational theme from a service-learning experience working with older adults. Their statements include: “They are just like us: they just look a little older!”; “I was a little afraid to go do my service learning project. I didn’t know what to expect exactly but I had so much fun and was pleasantly surprised that I liked being there.” and “Some are shy and some are outgoing.” Through the experience, students see that many of the beliefs that they held about diverse populations are not true and they spontaneously reevaluate them.

The above instructional methods can serve to help educators create focused and purposeful service-learning experiences where students can learn and discuss course concepts, evaluate preconceived notions and assumptions about the ideas and concepts discussed in the classroom, apply course material in a community/field-based setting, reflect on and process the experience through challenging previously held assumptions, and evaluate new knowledge and skills learned. This experience can aid students in preparation for future internship and professional work. This chapter will describe the various components of a service-learning experience offered through an undergraduate aging course, as well as provide examples for those interested in implementing similar activities and experiences in their area.

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