Rules of Engagement: A Service Learning Pedagogy for Pre-service Teacher Education

Kisha N. Daniels, Assistant Professor; Gerrelyn Patterson, Assistant Professor; and Yolanda Dunston, Assistant Professor
Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Studies - North Carolina Central University


Student engagement in higher education has generated considerable attention. Service learning pedagogy has emerged as a practice which has considerable potential to support student engagement. Pre-service teacher education candidates at an urban HBCU evaluating their service learning methods courses demonstrated: 1) an understanding of pedagogical discrimination and preference; 2) an understanding of course content and application skills; 3) increased and/or strengthened leadership skills and 4) an increased propensity for civic engagement. Initial research results suggest that the pedagogical shift to service-learning can be a worthwhile and powerful learning experience which supports student engagement.

Student Engagement in Higher Education

The role and impact of student engagement in higher education has been the focus for many colleges and universities. Researchers have illustrated that student engagement is the greatest predictor of retention and cognitive and personal development in college students (Belcheir, 2000; Bridges, Kuh & O’Day, 2001; Nelson Laird, et al., 2004; Kuh, 2007). Studies also show that certain pedagogical practices are associated with higher levels of student engagement (Astin, 1993; Pace, 1980; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) provides valuable information regarding the relationship between classroom-based learning and student engagement. The NSSE project is grounded in the proposition that the more frequently students participate in activities that represent effective educational practice, the more likely they are to have a quality educational experience (NCES, 1999). Two important studies further extend this view. Astin’s (1993) correlational study of what matters most at higher education institutions indicated two factors that were the most predictive of positive change in college students’ academic and personal development and overall satisfaction with their institution: 1) interaction among students, and 2) interaction between faculty and students. The latter carries more weight than any other environmental or content factor. The study additionally noted that students cited how faculty deliver the curriculum is more important than the content being studied or sequence of courses.

Pedagogy of Engagement: Service-Learning

True engagement in higher education offers multiple opportunities for experiential learning in cooperative situations where the learning has specific consequences and where students are valued and given choice and voice. According to a recent report by the National Center on Education and the Economy, “the core problem [with higher education] is that our education and training systems were built for another era, an era in which most workers needed only a rudimentary education ( p. 8).” Twenty-first century educators must prepare all students to be creative, innovative, and independent solution-finders who are equipped to deal with problems that they have never encountered while working with people who they have never met before, many of whom have diverse values, cultures, experiences and expertise from themselves. They also must be able to find and effectively use resources that are available to them in their communities. It can be argued that such an education requires that students apply what they are learning in real world settings and that they explore their learning in ways that have personal meaning to them. This cannot be modeled easily sitting in a classroom for the requisite 50-160 minutes (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996, 2000). Service learning, as a pedagogy of engagement, is defined as a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities. Historically, it has emerged as a framework for rejecting the “banking model of education, where the downward transference of information from knowledgeable teachers to passive students is conducted in minute increments (Smith, et al, 2005).” Service learning regularly garners national and international attention as it is viewed as a means of re-engaging today’s youth with both academic and civic values. As a teaching and learning method, service learning has substantive character and the literature frequently notes that effective pedagogical implementation results in gains in aspects of student displays of citizenship, as well as active learning that imparts critical thinking, problem solving, increased academic achievement, engagement and subsequently- retention (Loesch-Griffin, et al., 1995; Schaffer, 1993; Ramaley, 2003; Anderson & Erickson, 1997; Wade, 1997; Wolf & Laurier, 2002).

Service-Learning in Pre-Service Teacher Education

While service learning pedagogy may be a new idea to some disciplines, in teacher education it has a long history in the form of field experiences. The rationale for field experience in teacher preparation is grounded in the work of John Dewey (1904, 1938) who spearheaded the progressive education movement and emphasized learner- centered instruction. He was a strong advocate for the experiential training of teachers, viewing the teacher as a learner who needed rich experiences for constructing his or her own learning. In spite of this visionary thinking until the 1980’s the most prevalent field experience for pre-service teachers candidates was student teaching. Early field experiences, if they were offered at all, typically consisted of candidates being sent to observe in schools and classrooms. While these early attempts to provide field experiences were clearly a step in the right direction, the experiences were often fragmented and lacked coherence.

Across the country, teacher preparation programs have been moving toward a more holistic conceptualization of the pre-service teacher experience, which is marked by more substantive field experiences and an increased collaboration between universities and public schools (Huntling, 1998). In research which focuses on service learning and pre-service education, Anderson (1998) indicates that service-learning can be a worthwhile learning experience but there are many challenges to its successful use in teacher education, including an already overcrowded curriculum, difficulties of arranging successful K-12 and community service-learning sites, and the linkage of service-learning to state and national teacher education accreditation standards. It is often reiterated that inquiry-based instruction has the potential to increase student engagement, but in pre-service teacher methods based courses, it is often difficult to integrate this type of instruction due to the need to master diverse amounts of specific content and skills (Wolf & Laurier, 2002).

However, North Carolina Central University, an urban Historically Black College or University (HBCU) recognized the essential need for pre-service teacher candidates to actively apply their newfound content knowledge and skills thereby producing more effective practitioners. This research reflects the initial attempts at infusing service learning pedagogy into eight pre-service education courses over a two-year span. The evaluative feedback stressed marked improvement in the quality of the student learning and engagement experiences. In particular, the findings provide substantive data that will add to the discourse on “best practices” during clinical experiences in teacher preparation. It also notes the impact of service learning pedagogy in the preparation of teacher education candidates for the rigors and demands of the teaching profession.

Sample and Methodology

North Carolina Central University is a historically black, state-supported liberal arts institution with an enrollment of approximately 8,700 students located in Durham, NC. NCCU also holds the honor of being the nation’s first public liberal arts institution founded for African Americans. While continuing to serve its traditional clientele of African American students, NCCU has broadened its commitment to meet the educational needs of a student body in a diverse educational and cultural environment, and it vigorously strives to diversify its enrollment. During the 2006-2008 academic years, the Teacher Education program in the School of Education had an average enrollment of 167 students.

Faculty assessed the service learning methods courses during 2006-2008 academic years. The pre-service candidates were asked to participate in a service learning survey/course evaluation which provided them with an opportunity to reflect on and evaluate the course and experience at the end of the semester. The sample of assessed students consisted of full-time pre-service teacher candidates who were classified as juniors and/or seniors during the time of enrollment in the service learning methods courses.

The survey/evaluation utilized was adapted from methodology used to evaluate national Learn and Serve America service learning programs for use with higher education curricula. It consisted of thirty-seven (37) questions that gathered demographic information and examined the impact that a service learning pedagogy had on the following areas:

  • Pedagogy Discrimination: The ability to ascertain the differences between service learning methods courses and traditional methods courses.
  • Content Comprehension and Application: The ability to understand and apply content knowledge and skills through service learning projects.
  • Leadership: The ability and skills through which an individual influences an individual or a group of individuals to accomplish a goal.
  • Civic Engagement: The ability to influence individual and collective actions to identify and address issues of public concern and understand the relationship between the service learning projects and their impact on political, social, and cultural infrastructures.

Discussion of Emergent Themes

Pedagogy Discrimination

Boyer (1996) generally classified service learning as a scholarship of engagement and specifically identified it as a scholarship of teaching, integration and application. He noted that effective service learning projects have the potential to be meaningful across disciplines and many aspects of everyday life; provide the student the opportunity to design, implement and assess programming; and solve real world problems through the application of course content. NCCU pre-service teacher education candidates offered the following observations about service learning pedagogy:

  • “Service learning differs from other courses because in my other courses I was only required to “observe” classes where as in these 2 methods courses I actually had to work with students. I really like the service learning because I am getting practice before I step out into the field. I understand it is not in full effect but it opens your eyes to all types of children from different backgrounds just as the ones that will be in our classes.”
  • “Service learning is an opportunity to share what we have learned in methods classes by using our academic skills and knowledge to needs of the local community by participating in different projects in the Durham Public Schools. It is a win-win opportunity to have the opportunity to practice theories that have been taught in method course. This is a great way to give back to the local community by working with prospective students.”

A study by Miller (1997) examined the distinction between traditional introductory psychology courses and their service learning counterparts. He found that students selecting the service learning option did not differ demographically, or in self-reporting final grades, but did report enhanced ability to apply concepts outside of the classroom. This suggests that the students were able to discriminate between the different pedagogical foci of the courses, echoing the NCCU student’s sentiments in relation to Pedagogy Discrimination.

NCCU pre-service teacher candidates were not only able to discriminate the difference between traditional and service learning pedagogy, the results also seem to lean toward a pedagogical preference. Additionally, they expressed the need for additional methods courses to be offered utilizing the service learning pedagogy.

Content Comprehension and Application

For most teacher candidates, the field experience is limited to the requirements of stringent pre-determined field experience assignments that are often limited to observation or “helping” tasks which offer little direct teaching responsibility. Service learning opportunities have been shown to increase self-efficacy and confidence through the ongoing responsibilities of design, implementation and assessment of learning activities (Wolf & Laurier, 2002). As displayed in Table 1, respondents strongly agreed with the belief that service learning courses offered them opportunities to extend content comprehension and application. They strongly agreed or agreed on all content comprehension and application constructs.

Table 1: Content Comprehension and Application


Strongly Agree


Teacher candidates are involved in developing curricula and programming with community members. 57.1% 9.5%
Teacher candidates are involved in setting learning goals.. 66.7% 28.6%
Teacher candidates are involved in implementing the service-learning initiative.. 71.4% 14.3%
Teacher candidates are involved in evaluating the service-learning initiative. 61.9% 23.8%
Teacher candidates are prepared for the experiential learning process. 57.1% 33.3%
Teacher candidates develop programs and activities that address educational standards/mandates. 57.1% 28.6%
Service-learning assignments, including homework, are connected to class objectives. 71.4% 28.6%
Student learning through service can occur in a range of disciplines. 61.9% 28.6%

These findings speak to research that suggests that pre-service teachers who completed service learning field experiences successfully completed their student teaching internships. The teacher candidates in the study specifically noted ease in planning activities, communicating with parents, and increased interpersonal skills (Sullivan, 1991). Wade (1995) also noted an increase in pre-service teachers’ gains in self-esteem and self-efficacy.

Student responses to open-ended questions support these findings. One student wrote that, “Within this course we had the opportunity to do lesson plans and teach the students in the afterschool program with our lessons on various topics. I think this a great way to get experience before we are put in that situation of teaching in the real world. It was wonderful practice for me and how I can better prepare myself with my future students.” Another added that “Service Learning methods courses help me get the hands-on experience that I need. I learn best by actually doing what we are reading about instead of just writing chapter summaries.”


Recent educational reforms have increasingly focused the attention of pre-service education programs on developing leadership skills. Teachers have always been expected to lead in various ways in and out of the classroom, by designing and evaluating curriculum and instruction, working efficiently and effectively with parents and community members, and implementing school and district policies. While some of these skills can be acquired with “on the job” training, teacher education programs have a responsibility to support the acquisition of leadership skills prior to graduation. Unfortunately, teacher candidates have not been exposed to frequent leadership opportunities and have been unprepared to handle the diversity of in-service leadership roles (Lieberman, 2002).

The data from the survey/evaluation (presented in Table 2) suggests that implementing a service learning pedagogy helps increase leadership skills and proves teacher candidates with multiple opportunities for leadership development. Candidates responded favorably (strong agree or agree) to all of the questions directly associated with leadership. Most notably, pre-service educators felt that the service learning experience increased/strengthened their openness to new experiences, to take risks and accept challenges (95%); ability to make a difference (91%); ability to persevere in difficult tasks (95.2%); insight into personal strengths and challenges (100%); leadership skills (95%) and ability to communicate effectively (95%).

Table 2: Leadership


Strongly Agree


Teacher candidates feel ownership and participate in decision making of the service initiative. 54.5% 18.2%
My participation in service-learning has increased or strengthened my openness to new experiences, to take risks and accept challenges. 75% 20%
My participation in service-learning has increased or strengthened my belief in my ability to make a difference. 76.2% 14.3%
My participation in service-learning has increased or strengthened my ability to persevere in difficult tasks. 76.2% 19%
My participation in service-learning has increased or strengthened my insight into my personal strengths and challenges. 72.2% 28.5%
My participation in service-learning has increased or strengthened my leadership skills. 66.7% 28.6%
My participation in service-learning has increased or strengthened my ability to communicate effectively (listen and articulate ideas). 61.9% 33.3%

Similar findings were cited by research studies in which service learning experiences were found to increase the likelihood of increased self-esteem, efficacy, and willingness to engage in leadership roles (Vadenboncoeur et al., 1996; Anderson, 1998). Wade (1997) noted that this may be due to the innovative nature of the service learning experiences, which provide the pre-service teacher with increased feelings of authority over their project. Pleasents, et al. (2004) determined that effective service learning implementation encouraged students to seek and discover their own personal style of leadership. Wolfe and Laurier (2002) argued that service learning experiences offer opportunities to develop professional competence, confidence, personal efficacy, improved interpersonal skills and strengthened leadership and organizational skills. Pre-service teacher leadership skills which are gained and strengthened through service learning experiences are important to the infrastructure and advancement of the profession.

Civic Engagement

Significant studies on civic engagement have noted foundational links to service learning experiences as the conduit for initiating engagement. Morgan and Streb (2001) surveyed over 200 students who had the opportunity to design and implement service learning projects. They found that this factor greatly contributed to the student’s political engagement, social activism and respect for people different from themselves. Root and Seigel (1995) similarly found that teacher education students’ service learning experiences increased their sensitivity to diversity issues and helped them become more insightful about their own responses to diverse students. Vadeboncoeur, Rahm, Aguilera, and LeCompte (1996) also identified an increased commitment to civic engagement and social justice as well as a reduction in biases in teacher education students who completed a service-learning experience. These findings are supported by the pre-service teacher candidate responses to questions #28, #29, #33-35 on the service learning survey/evaluation. The data displayed in Table 3 reflect strong tendencies toward satisfaction in doing something worthwhile (90%); increased or strengthened abilities to make a difference (90.5%); concern for the welfare of others (95%); appreciation of people with diverse backgrounds and life situations (90%); and sense of community connectedness (85%).

Table 3: Civic Engagement


Strongly Agree


My participation in service-learning has increased or strengthened my usefulness or satisfaction in doing something worthwhile. 76% 14.3%
My participation in service-learning has increased or strengthened my belief in my ability to make a difference. 76.2% 14.3%
My participation in service-learning has increased or strengthened my concern for the welfare of others. 61.9% 33.3%
My participation in service-learning has increased or strengthened my understanding and appreciation of people with diverse backgrounds and life situations. 71.4% 19%
My participation in service-learning has increased or strengthened my sense of community connectedness. 61.9% 23.8%

Service learning experiences provides pre-service teacher candidates with opportunities to partner with community members, families, schools and businesses. These experiences are shown to impact the candidates increased understanding of a community’s characteristics and infrastructure (Wolf and Laurier, 2002). The NCCU students who participated in service learning methods courses noted an increase in civic engagement tendencies thereby duplicating the data from the research of Reinke (2003), who concluded that students involved in service learning are more likely to be civically engaged.

Closing Thoughts

Student engagement in higher education has generated considerable attention. As colleges and universities work toward increased academic success and retention, the requirement for pedagogical shifts has challenged traditional approaches to teacher education. Service learning pedagogy has emerged as a practice which has considerable potential to support student engagement. Moreover, incorporating service learning into selected methods courses in pre-service teacher education curricula at an HBCU proved successful. The data suggests that pre-service teacher candidates enjoyed the service learning experiences and favor this type of learning experience over traditional methods courses. The candidates also incorporated teacher preparation content goals and objectives into service activities/projects, which lead to increased comprehension and application opportunities. The service learning experiences provided leadership opportunities, increased leadership skills and strengthen the propensity for civic engagement. Initial research results suggest that the pedagogical shift to service-learning can be a worthwhile and powerful learning experience which supports student engagement.


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About the Authors:

Kisha N. Daniels (Ed.D), is an Assistant Professor at North Carolina Central University in the department of Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Studies in the School of Education. She has worked extensively in the areas of teaching and learning with university students and public school teachers. She is actively involved with building and sustaining community partnerships in an effort to extend the scholarship of service learning.    Phone: 919-530-7690 ;

Gerrelyn Patterson (Ph.D), is an Assistant Professor at North Carolina Central University in the department of Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Studies in the School of Education, where she coordinates the Middle Grades Education program. She is an advocate for social justice curriculum and pre-service teacher education.

Yolanda Dunston (Ph.D), is an Assistant Professor at North Carolina Central University in the department of Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Studies in the School of Education. She has focused her work on strengthening literacy skills in pre-service teacher education. She is also a contributing author in the text, Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: Educating traumatized children Pre-K through College.

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.