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Knowledge Construction in Service-learning: Findings from Chinese College Students
Purpose of the Study
The service learning approach is a real-life experience based paradigm that enables stronger connections between theory and practice. The majority of the existing literature on the service learning approach tends to focus on the outcomes of service learning; specifically, the outcomes measured based on the evolution of students’ attitudes, social skills, academic performance and other markers after experiencing service learning for a certain period of time. However, few studies provided in-depth interpretation of how students understand and construct knowledge throughout the process of service learning. In other words, the knowledge construction mechanism at work during service learning activities and tasks. Thus, this study is unique. Our attempt was to analyze the benefits of service learning approach, that can then be applied while prioritizing an understanding of knowledge construction.
Service-learning is an influential method which combines community service with curriculum learning, a body of empirical studies indicate that service-learning hold potential to promote students’ various facets of learning, including personal and social skills (Giles & Eyler 1994; Simons & Cleary 2006), sense of civic responsibility (Astin & Sax 1998; Morgan & Streb 2001; Reed et al. 2005), academic achievement (Batchelder & Root 1994; Brush et al. 2006; Hart & King 2007; Lundy 2007; Miller & Yen 2005) and professional experience (Brush et al. 2006; Clark 1999). Unfortunately, there is a lack of solid research on how service-learning promotes student learning, and the process of service-learning (Billig & Furco 2002; Brown 2011; Guo et al. 2016; Li et al. 2016). Another overlooked topic is whether and how task characteristics in service-learning affect students’ outcomes (Schwartz 2011). Hence, this study is aimed at revealing learning process of students who are enrolled in the service-learning program. This study would analyze the influences of task variability in the service learning process.
In addition, service-learning has been widely implemented throughout all levels of education in the United States today (Kenworthy-U'Ren 2008), and majority of the findings in service-learning are based on the American participants. Chinese researchers paid attention to this particular field in the last decade. The field needs more empirical studies to examine the applicability of service-learning in Chinese education system.
Quasi-experimental design method was employed, with task variability as the independent variable and the level of knowledge construction as the dependent variable.
Participants were 84 sophomores (17 male) in a Chinese University. Their age ranged from 18 to 22 years old. They were enrolled in the Psychology of Learning course which integrated service-learning component. These students were formed into groups of 4 members, and then 21 groups were randomly assigned to two conditions. The students in the single task condition (9 groups, n=36, 8 males) were required to tutor/serve a child with autism for eight weeks. The students in the complex task condition (12 groups, n=48, 9 males) were required to tutor/serve two children with autism successively. The first 4 weeks with one child and the second 4 weeks with another child. The clinical symptoms of autism usually vary among individuals. Students were asked to apply their learning (through service learning program) in the classroom to practical situations while simultaneously writing in their reflective journals.
Data Collection and Analysis
A generic template of reflective journal was developed to guide student reflection in service-learning. Specifically, students were asked to describe the process ("What happened in the activity today?”) and identify the apparent emotional and behavioral problems of the child they interacted with. Next, they were asked to respond to the question “What behavioral modification techniques did your team employ in the activity today, and how did these techniques work?”. A total of 483 journals were collected at the end of the service-learning program.
We classified and organized the collected reflective journal data, upon which we developed a coding system. The coding framework is developed based on micro genetic analysis approach, which was a classic qualitative data analysis approach used to analyze students’ learning strategies. We adopted this approach and defined five levels of knowledge construction, that is, sub-assimilation, direct assimilation, surface-constructive, implicit knowledge building, and explicit knowledge building. In these five activity levels, sub-assimilation indicated the lowest level while explicit knowledge building indicated the highest level. Each student received a score for each concept he/she mentioned in the reflective journal. The reliability (0.635-0.951 for concept construction, 0.903 for the construction of concept relation) were achieved. In reference to studies on concept maps (McClure et al. 1999; West et al. 2002), we added another new dimension of knowledge construction, that is, construction of concept relation.
The results of the micro-genetic analysis showed that more than half of all students in two task conditions demonstrated similar initial level of knowledge construction. The student percentage of higher construction level increased as they continued with the service-learning process.
The students in single task condition developed their low level of concept construction in an abrupt but unstable way, while developing the higher level in a gradual and relatively stable way. In contrast, students in the complex task condition reached the highest level faster than those in single task condition, and developed their higher level in a gradual but unstable way.
The results also showed that students in two task conditions developed low level of concept relation construction in gradual way. Students in single task condition developed higher level in an abrupt way, while students in variable task condition developed in a gradual way.
Our findings provide instructional implications. The single task and the complex task played different roles in students’ knowledge construction. Teachers who are interested in service-learning should pay attention to different roles of task complexity. At the same time, teachers should pay more attentions to students’ generalization ability when there is task change. We suggest that students should be instructed to use the generalization strategy in order to ensure higher level of knowledge construction. The optimal time for task change is that when students understand classroom learning, they can efficiently transfer what they constructed in the first part of the service-learning into the second. Furthermore, teachers should scaffold student learning and construction when there is a task change to avoid negative effects of the change.