A Qualitative Examination of a Character Development Service Learning Project and its Impact on Internalizing Virtues in College Students

Janet Fox, Kimberly Jones, Krisanna Machtmes and Melissa Cater
Louisiana State University, USA


This article describes how a character development service learning project enhanced understanding of virtue development as a construct of adolescent development among college students. Based on reflections shared by students, service learning is an effective avenue for promoting and understanding virtue development. Through reflection journals, students shared a deeper understanding of moral development, an enhanced awareness of the similarities and differences among character terms and an increased knowledge of the complexity of moral development. Many students discovered the importance of the character messages to their upbringing and the impact it could have on the current state of society.image


Historically, character development has been a critical goal of higher education (Berkowitz & Fekula, 1999; Chickering, 2006; Dalton, Russell & Kline, 2004). Scholars have believed that education in itself is a moral venture with one of the goals being to develop virtues in students (Balmert, & Ezzell, 2002; Berkowitz, 2002; Carr, 2005). While the term “virtue” is extremely hard to explain, the American Heritage® Dictionary (2009) defines virtue as moral merit and uprightness. Heavily grounded in philosophical and religious traditions (Fischer & Bidell, 2006; Nussbaum, 1996; Rizvi, 2006; Thornburg, 2000), virtues serve as broad categories that encompass and capture strengths of character.

Character is commonly thought of as either good or bad conduct (Walberg & Wynne, 1989). It is the action or activation of knowledge and values which includes cognitive, affective, and behavioral components (Huitt, 1996). Action learning and service learning approaches to character education, and character development are often defined in terms of cognition, affect, and volition which influence the final component of overt behavior (Huitt, 2004), making them ideally suited teaching methods for achieving character development outcomes. Educators and the public alike desire two educational goals: academic competence and character development. These goals are not mutually exclusive, but are instead complementary (Wynne & Walberg, 1985).

Campbell and Bond (1982) described the major factors affecting character development as follows: heredity, early childhood experiences, important adults and older youth modeling appropriate moral behaviors, peer influence, general physical and social environment, communications media, academic content taught in schools and other institutions, and specific situations and roles that elicit corresponding moral behavior. Given the prevailing influence of these factors, there is a need for university students to engage in interactions that respect the individual differences of students: racial, religious, and cultural backgrounds, as well as political and ethical standards. The synergistic effect of accumulated experiences with peers and mentors within divergent environmental contexts provides the framework for students to acquire the wisdom which builds character and integrity (Thornburg, 2000). Providing students with age appropriate character development training helps them adhere to values which are common to their culture, while helping them clarify and defend their personal values, which are unique to the individual.

One of the foremost criticisms of character education is its lack of a clear, widely accepted definition and associated principles. Critics contend that character education has no solid foundation and that it is instead built upon sets of vague ideals, ideals that may or may not share a common core message (Pritchard, 1988). This lack of clarity and subjectivity contributes to the idea of an untestable model (Lovat, 2009). In fact, an early 20th century study of character education by May and Hartshorne (in Leming, 1997) showed that it had no effect on student moral conduct.

It has also been argued that character education promotes a certain group’s ideals or notions of morality through the very act of teaching a standard set of virtues (Bebeau, Rest, & Narvaez, 1999). Some opponents even consider teaching virtues to be a form of indoctrination (Pritchard, 1988). Instead of a socialism-based approach to moral education, they advocate for an autonomous approach where children and youth construct their own definitions of morality and methods of cooperation instead of having the meaning and expression of morality mandated by a dominant group. Another facet of the criticism of character education is connected to its incorporation into the school environment because it is believed that the educational system should function as a values- free environment (Lovat, 2009). For some people, the line between education and religion becomes blurry as character education is introduced into the curriculum (Pritchard, 1988), thus it is believed that the values of religiosity are forced on students within the school context where there is little or no ability to disagree.

To promote virtue development, Bohlin, Farmer and Ryan (2000) developed the Internalizing Virtue Framework as a school-wide instructional model designed to assist educators in becoming more purposeful in their efforts to teach character education. The framework evolved from the Character Education Manifesto (Ryan, Bohlin, & Thayer, 1996), which both defined character education and offered seven principles for guiding reform. These principles acknowledged the reciprocity in character education shared by students, families, schools, and communities as well as recognizing it as a life-long undertaking. Built upon the principle that character development is an enduring endeavor, the Internalizing Virtue Framework demonstrates how educators can assist students in going beyond virtue awareness to internalizing good character dispositions. The Internalizing Virtue Framework consists of the following components: raising awareness, inspiring understanding, constructing positive

behavioral actions, and cultivating reflective thought to support students’ aspirations to internalize virtues.

The framework draws heavily from the work of developmental psychologists, political scientists, and theologians (Berkowitz, 2002; Lickona, 1999; Markham, 2007; Vessels & Huitt, 2005). In building virtues, Lickona (1999) identified the importance of awareness of morality in everyday situations. The Internalizing Virtue Framework promotes this awareness by establishing a common language and shared character goals. Students become aware of the pillars of character when educators use consistent terms and connect these virtues to students’ intellectual and personal development.

The second component of the Internalizing Virtue Framework is understanding virtue in terms of moral reasoning, or the application of morals when making a decision about what one ought to do (Berkowitz, 2002).

Understanding of virtue is awakened when students experience that “Aha!” moment and realize that behaving virtuously and making judicious choices contributes to personal contentment and to the happiness of others.

The third element of the Framework, action is a widely discussed concept in the dialogue regarding moral development (Berkowitz, 2002; Lickona, Schaps & Lewis, 2000; Narvaez and Rest, 1995; Vessels & Huitt, 2005). In the sense of moral development, action describes creating and recreating moral knowledge through ongoing participation within a setting. Within the Internalizing Virtue Framework, action enables students to build positive habits through continuous practice. The action phase of the virtues framework is very closely tied to experiential learning because of the emphasis on learning by doing.

The final component of the Internalizing Virtue Framework is reflection, which involves thinking about choice and action. Reflection helps students develop the self-knowledge vital to internalizing virtue and refining moral reasoning (Bohlin, Farmer and Ryan, 2000). Markham (2007) identified disciplined reflection that promotes the cultivation of virtue as one of seven features of morally serious people. More than acquiring a set of behaviors, the Internalizing Virtue Framework promotes increasingly gaining wisdom—acting and reflecting on behavior, learning from mistakes, and creating a better understanding of how a life is shaped by virtue (Bohlin, Farmer and Ryan, 2000).

The Internalizing Virtue Framework was first used in primary and secondary education. It has been used to promote a community of virtue within the school, to guide curriculum implementation to include an implicit focus on ethics, to provide professional development training for faculty, staff, and parents, and to guide students to take responsibility for their own moral development (Ryan & Bohlin, 2001). The meaning of character education has taken many forms and must be examined carefully. In some cases, there is a definite need to expand beyond the currently narrow interpretations. Instead of telling students what to do, character education programs need to help students learn how to make difficult ethical choices and decisions.

Four general conclusions are suitable methods for teaching adolescents about character:

  • Utilize experiential programs (after-school youth development programs) which offer students the opportunity to apply knowledge in everyday situations;
  • Recognize character education and academics as interdependent, not a “flavor of the week format” where character education is an abstract add-on to the curriculum;
  • Introduce role models who can scaffold student moral development experiences; and
  • Promote positive peer influence.

Research conducted by Wynne (1989) also indicated that the quality of relationships among faculty was a major contributing factor in the development of student character. This research supports Burns and Rathbone’s (2010) contention that personal narratives are a key aspect of moral pedagogy. From their perspective, moral education is a practice, not a method, which the faculty member integrates throughout the curriculum with personal modeling and not just through deliberate instruction.

Since the framework has been in use less than ten years, there is scant research on the virtues framework. This study seeks to bridge that gap in the literature. The purpose of the study is to examine the internalization of virtues among undergraduate college students participating in a service learning project.

Project Description

In preparation for an Adolescent Development course, the professor and a youth organization representative met to identify a mutually beneficial service learning project that tied into the class learning goals and supported the needs of the youth organization. Based on the needs expressed during this meeting, a school-based advocacy character development project was identified: the undergraduate students would design character messages for elementary, middle, and high school students. The character development service learning project had two academic goals that supported class goals: 1) as a result of this project, students gained a greater understanding of adolescent moral development, and 2) undergraduate students internalized the meaning of virtue. Students learned about and discussed the character development service learning project on the first night of class. During the first eight weeks of class, students were prepared for the service learning project as they learned about adolescent cognitive development, physical growth, psycho-social development, moral development, adolescent culture, and ecological impacts on adolescent development while weaving character development into the material covered. A youth development professional presented a lecture on character development, the six pillars of character, and the distinctions among morals, values and ethics. The professor provided in-depth moral development instruction. Students were given dilemmas, reflection questions, decision-making models, and group discussion time related to virtue development.

Given this academic foundation, students formed groups and identified a topic that their group wanted to write about. Students worked in and outside of class on their character development messages. The professor and youth development professional provided support to students as they worked on their character development messages service learning project.


This research study was reviewed by the Institutional Review Board, and students were given the option to participate. A modified grounded theory approach, a complex iterative process, was used by raising generative questions which guided the research but wasn’t intended to be static. Rubin and Rubin (2005) discussed using the grounded theory approach as a means to build theory from the collected data through various levels of analysis (analytical induction). Fielding and Lee (as cited in Rubin and Rubin, 2005) identify levels of analysis which include the following:

  1. Define whatever phenomenon you are seeking;
  2. Develop a definition of the phenomenon;
  3. Develop a working hypothesis of this phenomenon;
  4. Take set of data and examine it;
  5. See if the set of data can be placed under the phenomenon that you developed;
  6. If yes, then seek another case and repeat; if no, then the researcher must reformulate the definition. Continue until all data sets have been examined; and
  7. If a negative case emerges, reformulate the definition or phenomenon being studied.

Students completed a journal that allowed them to reflect upon a number of character-related topics from documenting their service learning experience to discussing specific academic concepts to examining their personal experiences related to character. Reflection journals encouraged students to internalize the readings, deepen their knowledge base, and broaden their thinking. Reflection allowed students to make connections among their learning experience, the service-learning project, and virtue development. Guiding reflection questions prompted an understanding of the struggle youths have with moral issues.

Students learned that reflection was a qualitative research tool. Students also discovered how their backgrounds and biases influence studies and realized the need to acknowledge this to the reader (Rossman & Rallis, 2003).

Each reflection transcription was distributed to each researcher. Researchers read and analyzed each transcript to identify what horizons were emerging. The key analytic strategies used for this technique were coding, memoing, and integrative diagrams (Glaser, 1992 & Strauss, 1987). The Internalizing Virtues Framework provided the lens through which the authors analyzed the data. As data clusters were identified, themes emerged and were confirmed through triangulation among the authors. Through the analysis phase, the authors considered the meaning of the Internalizing Virtues Framework and its influence on how the authors derived the themes.


The population consisted of thirty-one undergraduates: one white male, one black male, twenty-five white females, and four black females. The student reflections, recorded in weekly journals, provided rich descriptions examining the impact of the service learning project through the lens of the Internalizing Virtues Framework. Students’ reflections provided vital descriptions that conveyed context and content-rich perspectives.

After reviewing all of the data provided in the journals, the researchers found no negative cases. The journal entries illustrated positive links that the students made to the service learning project.


Awareness, as defined within the virtues framework, is a means of building a common language and shared character goals. The common language was built through classroom lectures, group activities, and character development messages. Students became aware of the language of character and its relationship to academic and personal maturity. The findings illustrated student awareness of developmental differences among adolescents, the role comfort zones play, and similarities among character terms.

As awareness is created, it’s necessary to understand the developmental differences among adolescents which are fundamental to maturing as an adult of good virtue:

“Writing lessons for elementary, junior high and high school was quite challenging. I liked this exercise because it reminded me that you cannot teach respect to a senior in high school the same way you do to a first grader. The senior would probably feel insulted! And a first grader does not have near the mental capabilities that a senior in high school would, so presenting this topic to them must be at their level.”

Students realized the role comfort zone played in developing and promoting virtues:

“The most challenging part of the assignment was explaining the traits on the levels that the different aged adolescents could understand. We are used to speaking to people our own age… so we had to break out of our own comfort zone so that we could get our message across.”

Through the service learning project, students became alert to the similarities among character terms:

“As children, we are quick to point out when something is not fair, but how do we practice fairness? In our messages, we talked about honesty, consideration, justice, and integrity.”


Understanding was awakened through hands-on experiences, discussions, lectures and the service learning project. The students demonstrated understanding through reflection on the importance of positive messages, moral development influences, complexity of virtues, and real-world examples.

As students gained an understanding of character development, they realized the importance of sending positive messages to adolescents. “When I was younger, I never had character messages in schools. I really enjoyed making these because it was a way to relay positive messages to children.”

A common theme in the reflection journals was the wide range of influences on moral development including positive role models such as parents, teachers, and religious leaders:

“I enjoyed…learning more about “caring” for this project. I understand now why it is so important for youth and adolescents to have caring adults in their lives. Without someone paying attention and showing them that they care, adolescents might not feel very good about themselves. I learned that coaches can be the most influential people in a young person’s life.”

During the service learning project, students discovered the complexity of virtues:

“I remember having announcements in middle school and similar types of messages in high school, but I don’t ever recall having anything… in elementary school. I think that these types of messages are a good way to stimulate children’s cognitive development as well as shape their

character development. It is also a fascinating way to see how the same concept can be similarly but on more complex levels based on psychological growth and understanding of children.”

In order to shape understanding of virtues, students shared the importance of having real-world examples to promote virtue development:

“It was a little difficult trying to figure out how to present this theme and its traits to elementary kids in a way that they would understand and be able to apply to their every-day life. We thought the best way to do that would be to relate it to things that they are interested in or that they

interact with on a daily basis. It was a little easier to relate the theme and traits to middle school children because they would more capable of comprehending and associating the characteristic without having to have it completely spelled out for them. We used simple examples and catchy quotes to get the message across to them. It was definitely a lot easier to relate the theme and traits to the high school kids because they are able to think abstractly and apply concepts using their critical thinking skills. We presented them with different scenarios that they could or have possibly found themselves in and left them with a few questions to consider as they went about their week.”


The service learning project provided the vehicle for action by enabling students to build good character habits. Service learning projects that are integrated within academic classrooms provide a critical avenue for making meaning of character. Students identified themes of making a difference, finding new meaning in current knowledge, changing attitudes about service, and working as a group.

The concept of integrating service learning activities within an academic class promoted making a difference in the lives of young people. “I hope this activity is one that will continue to be done in the future…it will help students, like me, realize that these little activities really do help adolescents to make a difference in their life.”

The service learning assignment provided a scaffold for students to make meaning between what they chose and their interests.

“…my group chose citizenship. I was at first slightly concerned about writing about this trait. After doing some research, I discovered that being a good citizen included doing your part to help the planet. I took the section on resource conservation. I am a huge advocate for recycling and resource conservation so researching this topic was interesting and exciting for me.”

Students who were not excited about the service project shared a change in attitude toward service in the following reflection:

“When I heard about this assignment, I wasn’t really excited about doing them because I felt like we were doing work for someone else. Once my group got to working on it, I actually started to get into what we were doing. My group did “caring” and coming up with some ways of caring were really easy, but there were also parts of coming up with caring that were a lot more difficult and took at a lot more thought and time in order to complete them.”

As students worked on their service learning projects, they had a greater appreciation for the benefits of working as a group in supporting character development.

“My group did our character development messages on fairness. I thought this was an interesting project because I never realized how difficult it would be to explain the components of fairness to elementary, middle and high school children. At times, it was difficult to explain the same word for a week and it would become frustrating. However, this project was difficult at first, but because easier as we started working together as a group.”


Throughout the semester, students engaged in critical, structured reflection which is essential to high-quality service learning projects. The reflection activities guide students toward discovering, exploring, and evaluating relationships within the course content as they encounter it in readings, lectures, discussions, and their service learning experiences. Students identified themes related to respect for educators, career choice, self-evaluation, and relatedness.

During the reflection upon the service learning project, students identified a respect for educators who communicate and support character messages that impact youth.

“After doing this assignment I have more respect for teachers and program leaders. It was more difficult to put together morning announcements than I thought. I understand the importance of the messages to inform adolescents of the character traits. Some adolescents may not have been taught these traits by their parents or other adults so this is a good way to teach them.”

The character message assignment provided a student with the opportunity to reflect and decide upon a career choice. Through this experience, the student was able to simulate what it might be like to work with adolescents and which approaches might be successful.

“….I have been debating for some time now on what type of counseling to go into when I graduate. By doing this assignment, it gave me a sense of the guidance counselor view. It showed me how to interact with adolescents in a way that might help them. At first, I thought this activity was pointless and that no one would ever pay attention to something like this. Through the assignment I realized that most adolescents are going through a lot and don’t want to get help or say anything because they are afraid of what their friends might say or think. By doing these character development messages, it gives kids a chance to communicate about their feelings in a way that people cannot judge them or their opinion.”

The character message service learning project provided students with a fertile opportunity for self-evaluation. Journal entries provided evidence that the students examined themselves against desired character traits.

“My group decided on trustworthiness…We selected loyalty, integrity, honesty, and reliability as our four character traits. The messages on reliability certainly pointed out flaws that I possess. I tend to always be running late, so the reliability messages reminded me that people are counting on me. Therefore, punctuality is a necessity! I was also challenged to always stick by my commitments…I was also challenged by the messages on integrity as we wrote them. I was reminded of the importance of doing the right thing even when no one is watching.

Integrity will enrich our relationships with everyone in our lives…display our character to people we encounter every day but may not know. To me, integrity is possibly the most important character trait a person can possess…it is absolutely crucial to stress how beneficial integrity is to young people…it challenged me in a powerful way to reevaluate my character.”

Within the context of the influence of family, relatedness emerged as a theme. “This message really touched my heart because my stepfather is in the military and I know the sacrifices that soldiers have to make as well as their families. Being a solider is having true fairness in their hearts as well as the families that stand behind them.”

The reflections provided a spectrum of support for a framework for internalizing virtues.


Service learning is an effective avenue for understanding virtue development. With the structure of the service learning cycle, students built an awareness of character development through identifying a need, designing the project, implementing the project, reflecting throughout the project, and evaluating the project. In their reflection journals, students indicated that the coursework provided a firm foundation for creating awareness of moral development. Through classroom lectures, group activities, and the service learning project, students helped construct a common language of virtues and increased understanding of similarities and differences among character development terms. As a result, students illustrated a deeper appreciation of moral development.

Within the realm of understanding, the service learning project helped students became more conscious of the complexity of moral development. As students struggled to write messages for the three age levels, they came to understand the stages of moral development and the developmental differences among youth. Interestingly, many of the students found it difficult to explain character development to younger children and youth because of their newfound understanding of the complexity of character development.

As a result of the service learning project, the students noted the influence of role models on moral development. Educators, parents, and community members were identified as role models that provide youth with developmentally appropriate guidance which assists the youth in clarifying and supporting their own acquired principles. Students recognized the presence of negative influences within a child’s life. Because of this, the students expressed the importance of role models and messages that fostered the positive development of character in today’s society.

Some of the students described resentment towards the service learning project, thinking they were doing work that the youth agency should do. As the semester progressed, these students’ reflections revealed a change in attitude to feeling good about serving others. This change from resentment to feeling a sense of pride over making a difference through service was an excellent illustration of the students own movement through the phases of moral

development. Because of the nature of the project, students felt as though they were helping youth develop morals and values.

When integrating a service learning project into an academic classroom, it is important to know that it will take time and hard work on the students’ part. Students shared in their journals that they didn’t anticipate the amount of time and effort the project would take. Some of the groups initially struggled with the assignment, so coaching was a must. In probing student understanding, the professor discovered that some students were uneasy because they had not participated in a service learning project before, while others were concerned about making a good grade.

In the end, students felt proud of their work. The students felt that they were able to focus on their interest within the group. Working together, they created synergy among team members and learned from each other. An unexpected outcome of the service learning project was that it helped students to evaluate their own character traits, solidify positive virtues, and make plans to work on flaws.


Service learning is an effective way to understand the development of virtues. Material presented during class provided a fertile foundation for learning about the concepts of character development. Service learning offers students the opportunity to make gains far beyond the classroom. Reflection was a critical element throughout the service learning process which served as a conduit to incorporate past experiences into the present situation and stimulate students to make meaning of both the academic and service learning experiences. Service learning supported the students in creating awareness, inspiring understanding, constructing positive actions, cultivating reflection regarding their moral development, and applying the information to a real world setting to address a relevant need.


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About the authors:

Janet Fox

Dr. Janet Fox is a Professor with the LSU AgCenter 4-H Youth Development Program. For the past 15 years, Dr. Fox has been responsible for leading the 4-H Service-Learning in Louisiana, Nebraska and Mississippi. Dr. Fox teaches graduate courses in Service-Learning in Community-Based-Organizations and Adolescent Development at Louisiana State University.

Professor, LSU AgCenter 4-H Youth Development Program, P.O. Box 25100 Baton Rouge, LA 70894-5100. jfox@agcenter.lsu.edu

Kimberly Jones

Kimberly Jones is a 4-H program development specialist with the LSU AgCenter. With over 9 years’ experience, Ms. Jones provides leadership for

afterschool programming, curriculum development, and character education. In her role as the statewide character education program coordinator, she is responsible for guiding the direction of the program and managing a yearly state budget for character education totaling over $100,000.

Krisanna Machtmes

Dr. Krisanna Machtmes is an Associate Professor with the LSU AgCenter Organizational Development and Evaluation Unit as well as School of Human Resource Education and Workforce Development. Krisanna is responsible for teaching Program Evaluation, Research Methods and Distance Education. Her past work has focused on evaluation of youth programs and life skill attainment.

Melissa Cater

Dr. Melissa Cater is a program evaluation specialist with the LSU AgCenter and provides leadership to the statewide 4-H program evaluation efforts. She is currently engaged in longitudinal evaluations of the impacts of 4-H environmental education programs and youth leadership programs. Dr. Cater’s research interests include youths’ development of agency and purpose through engagement in after-school youth development programming and evaluation of youth programs.

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