University of Vermont

College of Education and Social Sciences

Doctoral Programs in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies

Carol Williams Howe: Service-Learning, College Student Development, and Critical Thinking: Implications for Pedadogical Design (2013-10-11)

Williams Howe, Carol | Waterman Memorial Lounge | 2013-10-11 | 10:00 a.m.

Service-learning has been characterized as a high impact educational practice, often cited as a means through which students can develop personal, professional, and academic skills.  A wealth of research has been dedicated to both illuminating best practices in the implementation of service-learning and to understanding service-learning’s potential impacts on students.  This dissertation contributes to both of these areas of study by exploring under-represented aspects of each.  In article one, I present the findings of an exploratory study to better understand service-learning’s potential impact on students’ critical thinking skills.  In article two, I explore the pedagogical implications of student and adult development theory and present a Three-Phased Model for Service-Learning Course Design.


It is common for higher education mission statements to include critical thinking as a key outcome of undergraduate education.  Likewise, national associations, business leaders, and educational practitioners place a high value on critical thinking as a desired ability for graduates of American colleges and universities.  Yet, recent research has brought into question the extent to which higher education is actually having a positive impact on critical thinking ability.  The purpose of the first article in this dissertation is to further explore the relationship between critical thinking and higher education, with specific emphasis on the potential impacts of service-learning on college students’ critical thinking skills. The article presents an exploratory study of the cumulative influence of participation in service-learning on the critical thinking skills of college seniors, as measured by the Critical Thinking Assessment Test developed by Tennessee Technological University.  Findings from this study support current research suggesting a  positive relationship between service-learning and critical thinking skills; furthermore, they suggest that the impact of service-learning might be greater if it is integrated into the curriculum at multiple points throughout a student’s collegiate experience.   I suggest opportunities for further research into this relationship with particular attention to under-utilized research design elements (cumulative data on service-learning participation and direct measures of critical thinking skills). 


When it comes to best practices in service-learning, a wealth of research has illuminated the importance of reciprocal partnerships, critical reflection, and meaningful integration of service-learning with course content. Likewise, research on experiential and learner-centered education has helped to explain how service-learning courses look different from a lecture-based classroom. Yet, the transition from a more traditional college course to a service-learning course that lives up to all of the best practices in the field is not a simple shift for faculty members or students.  The second article in this dissertation applies student and adult development theory (including cognitive, psychosocial, and moral development theory as well as learning theory) to propose an evolutionary model of service-learning course design.  The overarching goal of this scaffolded model is to utilize developmental theory as a means for improving student performance and success and, by extension, faculty and community satisfaction in service-learning courses. This practitioner-oriented article is intended to inform individual course design as well departmental integration of service-learning.

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