Funds help measure the impact of community service-learning

Michael Brown

In annual surveys at the end of courses,students report that participating in the Community Service-Learning program enhances their learning. However, little is known about the impact CSL has on students’ future career and education plans—knowledge that could be useful in shaping course design and delivery,and bringing a little attention to a program that exists largely as the best-kept secret on campus.

To learn more about longer-term impacts of participation in curricular CSL on students across faculties, a fact-finding mission is underway thanks to a $40,000 Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund grant given to a team led by Alison Taylor early last year.

“We set out to learn more about the long-term impact of CSL on participants,and where the students would like to see more CSL,” said Taylor, professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and director of the Community Service-Learning program. 

Taylor and her team, which includes Mary Richards of Campus Saint-Jean, Zane Hamm in the Faculty of Education, John Simpson in the Faculty of Arts and former U of A post-doctoral fellow Milosh Rakov, sent out invitations to more than 1,800 former CSL students dating back to 2005. All told, 552 responded back. Of those,438 participated in a CSL placement and 87 took a CSL course but did not opt for a community placement. 

“We wanted to be able to compare with students who don’t have CSL experience.” 

The students were nearly unanimous in praise of their CSLexperience: 98 per cent of former CSL students said participation in community organizations is important for overall social development. A similar majority also felt that CSL participation was important in developing their professional networks (94.9 per cent) and employability skills (95.9 per cent). Scores for questions regarding recommending participation in CSL and impression as a learning strategy were just short of 90 per cent, and 94 per cent felt CSL contributed to an increased interest in community engagement.

“Typically, this is a group that is active in the community, but it was nice to see that almost a quarter of respondents continued to volunteer with their CSL partner organizations after their course ended,” said Taylor. Overall, 89 per cent continued to volunteer in the community in some capacity. 

The majority of respondents also felt strongly that their CSL experience prepared them for life beyond university by improving their teamwork and leadership skills. Open-ended responses offered by participants showed a clear line between CSL placement and career path or degree chosen for some. 

“It changed my degree and career path,and I’m now employed in the same capacity I completed my CSL in,” wrote one respondent. Another said, “I was ready to leave my degree and take a year trying to figure what I wanted to do, when the CSL course helped make up my mind without having to leave my studies.”

Taylor said such strong testimonials are evidence that CSL is a valuable and rewarding piece of a student’s education and can be a valuable tool in creating awareness of the program, which currently involves a small proportion of U of A students.

“CSL doesn’t fit every course, but if students are saying CSL is valuable, maybe faculties will be more willing to listen to that,” she said. “And from a student perspective, knowing what other students have said about CSL is valuable in helping them makeup their own minds.” 

Taylor says she wishes every student could go the CSL route, and not just because it is a great way for students to see their education in action while paying tribute to their communities.

“CSL meets students’ need to feel useful and develop networks, while giving them a bit more control over their own learning. And who knows, down the road it might be useful in helping students sort out what they want to do after university.”