Analyzing Student Journals in a Service-Learning Course.

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Most service-learning courses utilize the amount of reflection in student journals as a means of assessing learning. This qualitative study analyzes student service-learning journals in a first year experience program. Intended outcomes of increased community awareness, improvement of personal skills, and self-discovery were evident in the journals. Developmental themes of identity exploration and career development emerged from the first year student journals. Service-learning courses should incorporate developmental issues into curricula to maximize the experience for students.

Reflection is key for students in service-learning courses to link the concrete experience to more abstract learning (Hatcher & Bringle, 1997; Goldsmith, 1996). Students engaging in service can become so entrenched in their lives, their university studies, and the logistics around the service-learning experience that they may not take the time necessary to reflect and learn from their experience. Daudelin (1996) describes reflection as "the process of stepping back from an experience to ponder, carefully and persistently, its meaning to the self through the development of inferences; learning is the creation of meaning from past or current events that serves as a guide for future behavior." This reflection, then, is not just an exercise but rather is the path toward learning.

Service-learning, in particular, requires a higher amount of reflection since the experience itself serves as the primary resource of information. Students generally are given credit for the learning that takes place and not for the hours of service (Howard, 1993). But, documenting learning in service-learning courses is nebulous. Learning can take place in a variety of domains: personal development, attitudes, beliefs, and civic engagement. Consequently, journals become an ideal mode of documenting learning and enabling students to reflect as well. Most service-learning courses utilize journals as one source of reflection (Eyler, Giles & Schmiede, 1996; Goldsmith, 1996; Kendrick, 1999). Hatcher and Bringle (1997) advise that journals should be directly tied to course objectives and the format of the journal should follow those objectives. Under the best circumstances, the reflection and learning evident in journals meet course objectives.

Goldsmith (1996) points out that service-learning journals help students heighten observational skills, process information, explore feelings, evaluate their service project, increase communication when the journal is shared, increase writing skills and fluency, and build citizenship. Eyler, et al. (1996) describe that journals are beneficial to students for personal development, connecting to others, and understanding others. In particular, they note that the journal "can become a useful focus for reflection on personal growth and changing perceptions" (p.78). However, this implies that those are the goals of the service-learning experience. Journaling is a means for measuring outcomes, but there may be unintended outcomes that emerge from the service-learning journaling process. Because service-learning includes reflection as part of the learning process and keeping a journal also involves reflection, students are poised for a synergistic reflective experience, yielding learning in ways not explicitly denoted in learning outcomes (Goldsmith, 1996; O'Grady, 2000). Evidence is clear that service-learning is beneficial. Kraft (1996) describes how service-learning has been noted historically to reduce prejudice, increase self-worth and insight, increase open-mindedness, increase self-esteem among a variety of other benefits. Service-learning also improves academic skills, particularly writing skills (Astin, Vogelgesang, Ikeda, & Yee, 2000). Civic engagement and greater social responsibility have been linked to service learning experiences for college students (Eyler, 2000). When couched in the reflective process, service-learning positively influences students (Eyler, 2000; Hatcher & Bringle, 1997; Kraft, 1996).

From a developmental perspective, service-learning serves as a facilitative process in continuing introspection and identity formation for college students. In particular, first year students transition from high school to the college campus and move from adolescence into what may be deemed "emerging adulthood," a relatively new term for the period of the lifespan from the late teens to the early twenties (Arnett, 2000). These emerging adults continue to explore life's opportunities but do so more autonomously than adolescents and distantly from the family of origin but do not perceive themselves as "adults." At the same time, emerging adults are beginning to make more life-directing decisions and are simultaneously given more options for those choices (Arnett, 2000). The college experience has become a primary force in shaping emerging adults, allowing them to develop as individuals, explore their identities, expand their thinking, and interact with others. Universities, to support student development, provide educational and recreational programs to help students learn to cope, to manage money, to study better, to learn about relationships, and to get a job. Freshman Experience or First Year Experience programs strive to ease the transition for students, to foster a sense of belonging for the students, and to help the students succeed in university study. In addition, the First Year Experience can help the students through this "emerging adulthood" period where they have many choices and are making life-altering decisions. Put together, the service-learning experience and First Year Experience program can create a climate for internal change for the students. Students moving into adulthood, defining themselves as university students, and being coached to reflect on their service learning yields a transformation in what students learn.

The learning that takes place and the changes that students undergo as a result of the first-year program and service-learning experience are not easily assessed through quantitative measures. A qualitative approach better captures the underpinnings of the transformation of students in their own words, specifically in journals. These journals assess how much students are learning but also serve as a touchstone to the transformation. The goals of the program can be assessed by what the students describe in journal entries. However, because of the reflection required, students may demonstrate learning that is unintended. They learn something that was not specifically targeted but is deemed meaningful by the individual student. Using a qualitative approach, first-year students' service-learning journals are investigated on how students describe their learning, intended and unintended, in relationship to service-learning outcomes.
Original languageAmerican English
JournalAcademic exchange quarterly
StatePublished - 2003


  • Psychology
  • Curriculum and Instruction

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