Academic Exchange Quarterly     Fall  2009    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  13, Issue  3

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Service-Learning: Impacts on Teachers’ Pedagogy


Kathleen B. Wasserman, University of Scranton


Kathleen Wasserman, Ph.D., is a professor of reading teacher education at the University of Scranton



Candidates who earn their teacher certification during a fifth-year program often do not have time to take more than one reading course.  This study examined the knowledge candidates acquired by attending a second reading course during their winter break.  Two versions of the course were offered: a service-learning version and a more traditional version.  Quantitative and qualitative data document that the candidates in the service-learning course learned and implemented more.



The National Academy of Education recently concluded that successful teachers need to know a lot about how students learn, curriculum, and instructional strategies (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, Eds., 2005).  In literacy courses, this translates into knowing how to assess students’ strengths and weaknesses and plan and teach appropriate reading and writing lessons (Snow, Griffin, & Burns, 2005).  Beginning teachers who take more reading courses during their certification programs are more confident and make better literacy instructional decisions (Maloch, Flint, & Eldridge, 2003).  But, candidates who received their bachelors in another subject and then decide to earn a teaching certificate during a fifth-year program often take just one reading course.  As a result, these alternatively prepared candidates report feeling less prepared than other beginning teachers (Darling-Hammond, Chung, & Frelow, 2002).


The link between teacher preparedness and student achievement has been widely documented (see Darling-Hammond & Brandsford, 2005; Imig & Imig, 2007; Snow, Griffin, & Burns, 2005).  Teacher education programs are under pressure to prepare graduates with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to meet the diverse learning needs of all students (Delpit, 2008; Nieto, 1996; Willis, 2003).  Before teachers can be expected to utilize the knowledge base they have developed during their coursework to meet the diverse needs of all of their students, they need multiple opportunities to practice.  Often, due to complex scheduling problems, this practice occurs when candidates teach demonstration lessons for their peers.  I hypothesized that a well-designed service-learning experience—situated in an highly diverse, urban school—could play a critical role in the development of course constructs while, simultaneously, allowing candidates to teach a wide variety learners. 


This study explored the effectiveness of adding a two-week intensive elective reading methods course on candidates’ knowledge about the teaching constructs listed in Table 1.  Additionally, the study compared two versions of the course.  One cohort participated in a service-learning component; the second cohort took a more traditional version of the course.  Both courses were designed for post-baccalaureate elementary teacher candidates, taught at the same university, used the same texts, syllabus, and classroom activities, and were taught by the same professor.   Candidates in the service-learning course spent two hours of class time each day teaching urban students.  Candidates in the more traditional course presented demonstration lessons.  Each course met for 10 days from 8:30 to 3:00 and incorporated hands-on literacy activities, collaborative planning, practical teaching experiences, and discussions of recent research.  Participants self-selected which course would be the most convenient for them; they were given no information about the format (service-learning or traditional) of the course they chose to attend.  Twenty-four, female, candidates, ranging in age from 22 to 45, volunteered to participate in this study. 


Table 1

Key Constructs for Curriculum and Instruction








Focuses literacy instruction on strengthening students’ comprehension and composition by:

o           Using a variety of strategies to develop vocabulary

o           Exploring different types of expository text: inform, persuade and explain

o           Teaching all components of narrative text: plot, setting, characters and theme

o           Selecting appropriate curriculum based upon ongoing, formative assessments


Maximizes student learning by:

o               Actively engaging students in meaningful learning opportunities and with each other through out the lesson

o               Facilitating, guiding, and scaffolding  rather than telling

o               Encouraging students to think critically, be metacognitive form their own ideas rather than having the teacher do the mental work for them

o               Adapting instruction to meet individual student needs

o               Flexibly adapting well designed lesson plans to meet student needs


     The research questions posed by this study included the following: 

  • What impact does a highly structured service-learning experience have on the development of knowledge about teaching literacy in teacher candidates when compared with teacher candidates who take a more traditional version of the same course?
  • How is the knowledge candidates acquire during the course implemented during their student-teaching experiences?  Do those how participated in the service-learning course teach differently than those who took the traditional version of the course?


Data Collection and Methodology

Data for this study was collected during and following the course.  Participants journaled daily about what they considered to be the significant learnings of the day.  The teacher candidates also attended five follow-up sessions in 2002 with the others who had attended the same course.  At these monthly meetings each participant wrote a reflection on what they perceived to be “the best lesson they had taught since our last meeting that included something they had learned during the course” and submitted the accompanying lesson plan. 


Each data source was analyzed independently in three phases using content analysis (Patton, 1990).  First, individual responses that correlated with knowledge were highlighted. This phase ended when repeated readings of the data uncovered no new constructs.  Next, randomly selected writings were read and coded by a teacher familiar with the course; inter-rater reliability was established at .95 (Merriam, 1998).  A series of t-tests, followed by a Bonferroni correction, were used to search for statistically significant differences between the two cohorts.


Qualitative effects were also noted in all three of the data sets.  To better identify what those differences were, writings from two “typical” randomly selected participants will be chronicled.  The “typicalness” of their journal entries and follow-up reflections were supported by identifying at least three other participants from the same course who wrote comments with very similar ideas.  Katie (all names are pseudonyms) represents the service-learning course and Susan represents the traditional course.


Results and Discussion

Journals Entries Collected During the Courses


     Figure 1

     Plot of Number of Times Individuals Mentioned Constructs in Journals

    Curriculum Constructs


          Service-learning course*                         Traditional Course*        

               mean = 51.65                                      mean = 40.05   

                                                SD = 12.31                                         SD = 8.80                         







   Instruction Constructs  



         Service-Learning Course*                                       Traditional Course*                                           

                mean = 37.22                                      mean = 16.20                  

                                                SD = 14.95                                           SD = 7.73                       

     n = 12


Figure 1 illustrates the results of the analysis of the journal responses correlated with the constructs under study and plots the frequency of these responses by individuals within groups.  Differences between groups for both constructs were found to be significant at p = .0002.  Because scores for both of the total curriculum and instruction scores were determined to be statistically significant a series of t-tests were used to compare totals for each of the sub constructs listed in Table 1.  Probabilities, means, and standard deviations are displayed in Table 2.  It is apparent that those who attended the service-learning course wrote a statistically significant greater number of responses related to two of the four curriculum sub-constructs. 




















Table 2

Journals: Probabilities, Means and Standard Deviations for Constructs




Service-Learning Course**





Curriculum Constructs













































Total Curriculum









Instruction Constructs




Active Engagement


















Critical Thinking










Adapting Instruction



















Total Instruction



















































*Results were significant at the .002 level necessitated by a

 Bonferroni correction                 **n = 12



For example, the candidates who attended the service-learning course wrote twice as many comments about vocabulary development as those who attended the traditional course (means = 8.58, 4.27 respectively).  There were also differences in the way participants wrote about vocabulary.  When reflecting on a vocabulary lesson Katie wrote:

The vocabulary game went well and the students participated.  Just like you said, the students were able to guess the meaning of a word by the category it was placed in… They have to think!  This is a much better technique than just copying the definition from the dictionary.

In the quote above, Katie noted that the game-like instructional strategy engaged her students.  She feels that the students will retain the new vocabulary words because they had to think about their meanings. Susan’s reflection below about a similar vocabulary lesson she taught is somewhat different.  She wrote:

I think my [vocabulary] lesson went well.  I couldn’t believe what I left out.  Things like going over definitions before I expected them to group them [the words].  I realized that my instructions needed to be more specific.  The web and the chart provided different ways to organize things and makes vocabulary more interesting. 

While Katie likes the new pedagogy she is developing because it requires her students to think and increases their learning, Susan likes the new strategies because they will make vocabulary lessons less boring for her students.  She does not address the cognitive benefits for her students. 


Statistical differences were also found for three of the five instructional sub-constructs.

On the topic of the students’ active engagement, Katie, referred to her students being actively involved in her lessons a total of fifteen times.  Responses like “They had so much to say about what we were working on—you could just see they were ready to explode” and I was surprised by how well they worked groups.  Every group finished the assignment and everyone contributed” were scattered throughout her journal entries.  On the other hand, Susan wrote only five responses related to the students’ role such as “I think it’s important to structure the lesson so that the children are involved.”  Some of her responses revealed how difficult she found it to participate in the lessons demonstrated by her peers and others sounded more theoretical in nature than actual learnings from her experiences during the course. 


In summation, participants who practiced with children wrote double the number of comments about the instructional sub-constructs under study than participants who attended the other course.  Additionally, their comments were very specific while those written by participants who attended the more traditional course tended to be somewhat vague.  This vagueness was also noticed when reflections were compared.


Reflections and Lesson Plans Compiled during Follow-Up

This section explores how much—and how well—participants implemented what they learned during the five months immediately following the courses in their assigned student teaching placements. Responses for each candidate were totaled and averaged.  Then the averages were averaged and compared using t-tests.  Results for curriculum and instruction were both found to be significant at the p = .007 and p = .001 respectively.  Candidates who participated in the service-learning course consistently implemented more than those enrolled in the traditional version of the course. 


Differences were also noted in how they wrote about what they were implementing in both tone and content.  For example, both Katie and Susan wrote 250 during the reflection period at the beginning of each of their March follow-up sessions.  Both reflections, followed by the codes applied, are reported below beginning with Katie.

It was hard to choose just one to share…during this lesson they [first graders] were so engaged & worked so hard with their group that they didn’t have any time to get into trouble.  That was exciting!  I started the lesson by ask [sic] them to show me different ways people can move…Then in their groups I had them pick the 3 fastest and slowest ways.  They had to really think hard and the groups were really passionate about their choices.  Their arguments were amazing.  Then I read a big book…We made a matrix and compared humans with 5 other animals.  Then I made groups of 3 and each group picked an animal to write about.  I showed them how to use a venn diagram to compare and they wrote:

            I can _________.

            The ___(animal)     can _____________.

            We both can ______________.

I put the pages together to make a book for our class library and they are reading it over and over.

(Coded as: Curriculum—vocabulary, big book, matrix, venn diagram, expository, writing; Instruction—critical thinking, active engagement, group work, discussion.)


I only taught one lesson this month that used strategies I learned from your course…Our textbook is boring so I thought I would bring in a story to spice things up.  I found the book Pink and Say...I wanted to try using a Frayer Model and I though the notion of friendship would work.  I had my students [fifth graders] work in groups of four to complete one graphic organizer.  I was surprised that it was so hard for them.  I had to help each group quite a bit.  Next I read the story to them.  Then, in their same cooperative groups they completed a venn diagram comparing and contrasting the ways Pink and Say were similar and different.  This part of the lesson was easier since they were already familiar with this form of graphic organizer…The first half was a struggle—I needed to scaffold more than I did.  The students were confused.

(Coded as: curriculum—vocabulary, Frayer Model, narrative, venn diagram; Instruction—group work, read aloud, facilitator, active participation,

Although the codes were quite similar, Katie had a hard time choosing what lesson to present while Susan admitted to only teaching this one lesson because “needed to have something to show.”  Susan also discusses her frustration with the lesson while Katie’s tone is positive.  Perhaps more significantly, the comments written by those who practiced with children were much more positive, self-affirming, detailed, specific, and showed a greater understanding of the course constructs than those who attended the other course.



Darling Hammond and Bransford (2005) developed what they refer to as a “Vision of Instructional Practice” (p. 11) for effective teaching.  Their research-based vision calls for universities to prepare teacher candidates who posses the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to meet the instructional and social needs of all children.  More specifically, their vision calls for teacher candidates who:

  • Understand how children develop and learn with in social contexts;
  • Possess deep subject mater knowledge about curriculum content and goals; and,
  • Know how to use appropriate instructional strategies to teach individual children based on assessment data. 

This vision served as the basis for the courses described in this study.  Both versions of the course were designed to teach candidates about research-based literacy curriculum and instruction. All aspects of the courses were held constant with the exception of the type of practice the candidates experienced.


It was hypothesized that the teacher candidates who practiced what they were learning with at risk elementary school students during a service-learning experience would develop more knowledge about the course constructs presented in Table 1, and therefore, demonstrate greater implantation of pedagogies learned during the course than those who demonstrated lessons for their classmates.  This hypothesis was proven to be true for this particular population of teacher candidates.


The candidates who participated in the service-learning course were also able to focus the social contexts of urban education.  They reported that their authentic practice lead to a greater master of course content.  In their journals, participants wrote very strongly about how the opportunity to practice—or lack thereof—impacted their acquisition of knowledge during the course.  Katie found that being able to practice had a significant impact on her learning.  On the fourth day of the Course, after teaching her third lesson, she wrote:

Being able to learn something and then go back to teach what I learned has been one of the greatest things of this course.  Many other times I have learned material and I have never had the opportunity to go back and actually apply it and it seems that I have forgotten some of those things I did not apply.  I feel that what I have learned in this week I will remember and implement it in my teaching because I actually understand it.  This reading course is giving me the opportunity to really practice and apply what I learned and I feel that this is why I learned.

In contrast, Susan felt that teaching demonstration lessons to her classmates—the norm in many teacher education courses—rather than real students, impeded her acquisition of knowledge.  After teaching her third lesson, she wrote in her journal about how frustrating she found the experience of teaching lessons in an artificial setting:

[I feel] Totally, Totally, Crappy!  Excuse my language, but I don’t feel very enthusiastic or motivated especially, after my disastrous lesson.  I was all over the place and was not so much in my role as a teacher, but as an experimenter who was unsure of what the heck I was doing.  …I didn’t feel like we were in a classroom but rather a laboratory setting…overall I’m feeling like I’m learning a lot, but I don’t know if my learning will translate itself into the teaching with my students…that is really frustrating.


It must be clearly stated that just adding a service-learning component to a university course is not the answer to increasing student teachers abilities to successfully teach literacy to all of their students.  In this small study it was the combination of how materials were taught to the teacher candidates coupled with structured practice that led to the mastery of course constructs. The hands-on nature of the learning experiences provided and the tight link between what was modeled and what was then practiced at the urban school resulted in increased knowledge about reading curriculum and instruction.



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