from Inquiry, Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 2001
© Copyright 2001 Virginia Community College System
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Schumann incorporates service learning in a nursing home environment into two psychology courses.
As a clinical psychologist and an adjunct assistant professor, I have been intrigued by the concept of service learning. In clinical work, experiential knowledge about the self provides greater potential for change than strictly cognitive awareness. Similarly, "service learning" has been defined as "the various pedagogies that link community service and academic study so that each strengthens the other. The basic theory of service learning is [John] Dewey’s: the interaction of knowledge and skills with experience is the key to learning. Students learn best not by reading the Great Books in a closed room but by opening the doors and windows of experience" (Ehrlich, 1996).
The Corporation for National and Community Service outlines several basic components of effective service learning. A service learning program provides educational experiences in which students learn and develop through active participation in organized service experiences that meet actual community needs. Additionally, the service project is integrated into the student’s academic curriculum and allows the student time to think, talk, or write about the experience. Service should enhance what is taught by extending student learning beyond the classroom and into the community. Finally, service projects can help to foster the development of a sense of caring for others (Kraft et. al., 1994).
After attending the Fifth Annual Conference of the Virginia Campus Outreach Opportunity League last June, I decided to put these methods of teaching to the test in my courses in psychology. In the fall of 1999, I taught an Introduction to Psychology course (PSY 201) in which I decided to give evening students the option of completing a ten-hour community service project with written reports on the service project or researching and writing a term paper on an approved topic. Many students voiced interest in the service project, but only about half of the class selected this option due to time limitations related to work schedules; most students enrolled in the class worked at least forty hours per week. Ninety percent of those that started completed the service project.
The results from the class project confirmed the value of service learning. The papers about the community service experiences demonstrated that students were able to apply their learning in psychology, and students discovered something they did not know about themselves. One student who volunteered at a homeless shelter recognized her own judgments about people who did not hold down a job. Through her reflective writings, she processed some of her attitudes: "I guess I've just always thought that people who don't work are lazy." She left the experience at least somewhat more self-aware. Another student recognized a pattern in the differences between men and women when they visited the thrift shop where she volunteered. She noticed the shame that men appeared to experience when they shopped at the store and considered the possibility that gender roles caused greater conflict for men when they found themselves to be homeless than for women in the same situation.
In the fall of 1999, I also taught a Lifespan Development course for the first time. It seemed to be a natural course to introduce service learning into the curriculum. The first half of the course is devoted to prenatal development through adolescence. The second half focuses on adolescent development through late adulthood. My own interest in the elderly living in nursing homes became a basis for the project. In December, the service learning faculty organized a college-wide conference on service learning and offered NVCC mini grants to projects that included community service. The college president provided funding for these grants. I invited several students and a volunteer coordinator from Birmingham Green Nursing Home, where a student had just completed her service project, to attend the conference with me. Our team proposed doing an oral history project with residents of the nursing home as part of the requirements for the Lifespan Development course. I was excited about being able to integrate several of my own interests into the curriculum and to provide my students lifespan lessons outside the classroom.
To fulfill the requirements of the Lifespan Development Course, the service project mandated students meet a minimum of eight hours that semester with a nursing home resident. I also decided that the project for this particular course was required just as a final exam is required. Another requirement was for students to keep a journal of meetings in which they reflected on their visits. Students audiotaped at least one hour long session for review to be handed in with the written report at the end of the semester. A final requirement was a written report on the life of the individual. This final project was to be presented in two formats. The first, the written history, would be given to the resident of the nursing home. The other, involving reflection on the project and the integration of course material, would be handed in as the final project of the course. Finally, the students would orally present their projects to the class.
Although several glitches developed, the overall project progressed smoothly. Schedules did present a problem. Initially, my students found it difficult to get connected with the nursing home resident because each of the students had to complete an orientation with the volunteer director and the social worker at the nursing home. In addition, the meeting time between the students and the residents was limited due to the schedules for care in the nursing home. Since mornings were off limits, this presented some challenges for students who worked in the afternoon. Another logistical issue was that several of my students lived in a rural area quite far from the home and needed to have a more accessible individual to interview for an oral history. They were able to find a member of their community to do the oral history project. I struggled with whether these students’ experiences would be too varied in comparison with their peers but decided in the long run they would do a better job if the project met their needs. In addition, students might explore differences among elderly persons living in the community versus those in a nursing home facility, a topic covered in the course content.
A final problem that arose for several students was that certain residents of the nursing home who were assigned to the project had developmental disabilities. Because of such disabilities, the factual content of some residents’ histories were in question, and project expectations had to be adjusted. One student came into class in a panic because she was certain that her resident would not recall much detail about her personal history. As I listened to her describe the resident, it was apparent to me that the woman was developmentally delayed. I tried to alleviate the pressure the student felt about the content of the history and emphasize the process of the project. My student, a bright young woman, also expressed her own lack of experience in dealing with someone with developmental delays. She was quite anxious. We discussed her concerns, and other students with similar residents also made suggestions. The student decided to continue the project with her resident despite her own difficulties. By finding activities they could do together, she learned a great deal about the woman and allowed her to talk about her life in a manner consistent with her developmental abilities.
At the end of the semester, I listened to all of the oral presentations and the taped segments of interviews. One student shared that her elderly person asked her to stop the taping and proceeded to tell her of a childhood trauma that she had never revealed to anyone. My student, a middle-aged adult herself, was surprisingly poised in dealing with this situation, something I suspect the elderly woman felt. The student was amazed that the woman had carried this information with her all her life and felt that the history-taking was valuable in this woman’s life.
In another history of a developmentally delayed adult, one of my students pondered the value of a traditional lifespan model like Erikson’s. Could it be applied to such an individual? She struggled to place the woman in the theories of development we had learned in class and found that the resident had different skills socially, intellectually, and occupationally. The student felt that the woman’s life had value and did not wish to label her in a pejorative manner.
Other students had unique relationships with residents experiencing special circumstances. One nursing home resident had some unresolved issues with her children and a strong desire to see them resolved before she died. The resident had cancer in an advanced stage. When the woman asked her assigned student to help her write to a favorite talk show host, the student took her wishes seriously. Together, they wrote to the show explaining the resident’s condition and her concerns for her family. Representatives from the talk show wrote back to the resident. Although the woman was not invited as a guest, the show sent two tickets for the resident to attend the show. The resident and the student plan to go if the woman’s health allows. At the moment, the resident’s health is declining, but she seems to be quite peaceful that her wish was honored. Maybe having had a chance to express her fears and concerns about her children has been helpful. My student, who I expected to be quite upset with her resident’s condition, has been amazingly calm and found support from other students in the class. Her fellow students thought the life history had special significance for someone so close to death. Did she have an experience that will stay with her? Certainly.
Overall, the depth of the relationships formed in a relatively short period of time has been one of the amazing and surprising outcomes of the project. Clearly, elderly residents of nursing home communities are in dire need of human contact. Many of the residents spoke with affection about their "college buddies" and were pleased that they could be of help to a student doing a project. Also, students felt that they had gained insight into the aging process in a way that no textbook could teach. Many reflected that they were not as afraid of getting older, that they realized their current life choices were significant, and that they were surprised at the liveliness of the elders they encountered.
Students’ discussions of their experiences indicated that integration of course material was happening, that the values behind classification were being challenged, and that the experience was provoking some thought about whether our text covered this segment of the population. The project prompted some students to conduct research beyond course requirements on issues they encountered while participating in the project.
In evaluating the overall project, I believe it was a worthwhile course requirement. At least half of the students who participated decided to continue volunteering their time to the community service agency even after the course ended. Students became aware of community needs and their ability to fill those needs. I believe it gave them a sense of purpose that they probably would not have acquired in the traditional classroom.
If I were to incorporate this type of project in future classes, I believe the greatest challenge would be to help the students integrate the course material more thoroughly. Some students accomplished this task quite well when they completed the oral history. Their writing reflected issues they connected with their learning from the course and text. For others, it was not as apparent in the oral history that they could see the relationships between different theories and the life experiences of the elderly person. Perhaps that was related to the abilities of the individual students; some are quite comfortable abstracting ideas and integrating them with examples from everyday life. But I see this as a challenge to try to increase the value of the experiential learning.
Ehrlich, T. 1996. Foreword in Barbara Jacoby and Associates, Service Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Kraft, R. & Krug, J. 1994. "Review of Research And Evaluation in Service Learning inPublic and Higher Education." In Building Community: Service Learning in the Academic Disciplines. Denver: Colorado Campus Compact.
Mary Schumann, Ph.D., is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Manassas Campus, Northern Virginia Community College. This article relates a service learning project that was undertaken in the Spring of 2000 with students in a Lifespan Psychology course. Dr. Schumann is also an adjunct professor with the Graduate School of Education, George Mason University.