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University involved in project quantifying the impact of service-learning

By Luanne Williams

Wingate professors are finding that implementing a service-learning element into the curriculum opens the door to a much more civically engaged student down the road.

“Anytime in my classes that I have required service learning, by the end of the course students are so happy that they did it,” says Assistant Psychology Professor Candace Lapan. “They feel empowered. Many of them are so excited that they continue to volunteer.”

Lapan’s experience is anecdotal, but a new project the University has recently gotten involved in should help quantify the extent to which the service part of Wingate’s motto (“Faith, Knowledge, Service”) is being used in the classroom, and what that means for students.

A group of faculty members and administrators is involved in Advancing Evidence on Civic and Community-Based Engagement in Higher Education, a project started by the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) that is designed to develop national baselines for student performance on civic outcomes. Wingate is one of 18 universities across the nation involved in the effort, which is funded by the Lumina Foundation.

“We want to understand how universities are building civic engagement, which is much more than just voting or political activity. It’s all aspects of community involvement,” says Lapan, who is heading Wingate’s team. “We’ll be using a VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubric as a self-assessment to first determine how our institution is doing.”

Last fall, Lapan and fellow professors Joseph Ellis, Carrie Hoefferle, Chelsea Kaufman, Nana Wolfe-Hill and Cathy Wright, alongside Amy Jackson, assistant vice president of foundation relations and development, underwent training on how to implement equity-focused global learning and civic and community-based experiences. They also learned best practices for designing assignments linked to civic outcomes and working with rubrics to assess students’ civic capabilities.

This semester, their challenge is to collect 100 samples of student work to send to AAC&U for assessment.

“This is not about sending in the best of the best, but about gathering a cross-section of work,” Lapan says. “They want products from a diverse group of students, so our general education classes will be a good source of that. We have a very diverse student body.”

Lapan says lots of service-learning and civic engagement (SLCE) is going on across campus, but it’s not centralized. In fact, there’s even debate about how the concepts are defined.

“Lots of questions need to be answered, like if we mandate service as part of a class, is it still service?” Lapan says. She would like to see service-learning become a general education requirement once a standard definition is agreed upon. Qualified courses would be marked as such, so students would know what to take to meet the requirement.

Already, she has seen the benefits of requiring SLCE, with students continuing to volunteer their time even after the semester is over.

“Sometimes they’ve been held back from the fear of doing something different, if they haven’t been out into the community,” Lapan says. “Service-learning encourages them to take that first step.”

The experience can benefit their GPA as well. Lapan says that once students realize they can make a difference in the community, they’re more motivated in the classroom and better able to make connections about how to apply what they’re learning in class.

She emphasizes that SLCE is about more than students just showing up to volunteer. “The models I’m talking about are more project-based, so that students build a project from the ground up,” she says.

Jackson says Wingate’s involvement in the AAC&U initiative is all about improving the student experience and better preparing students for successful careers.

“Since so many companies are embracing social entrepreneurship, when students can demonstrate their commitment to serving their community it makes them much more marketable,” she says. “And when the opportunities we offer are linked to the academic content of their courses, they can engage in service that’s related to their future vocation.”

She says that assessing and then strengthening the University’s commitment to SLCE will help teach students that getting an education is about more than just their personal ambitions; it’s also about giving back.

Once Wingate’s 100 samples of student work are submitted to AAC&U, along with samples from the other 17 colleges, it will all be assessed by certified scorers, and the resulting baseline data will be disaggregated to identify potential equity gaps in skills development. Then a summary report will offer recommendations as to how individual campuses – and higher education as a whole – can best help students build their civic skills.

Wingate and Queens University of Charlotte are the only North Carolina universities chosen to take part in the grant-funded initiative.

Learn more about Advancing Evidence on Civic and Community-Based Engagement in Higher Education, and contact Candace Lapan for details.

Feb. 8, 2022