Community Service-Learning in Statistics: Course Design and Assessment

Debra L. Hydorn
University of Mary Washington

Journal of Statistics Education Volume 15, Number 2 (2007),

Copyright © 2007 by Debra L. Hydorn all rights reserved. This text may be freely shared among individuals, but it may not be republished in any medium without express written consent from the author and advance notification of the editor.

Keywords:Assessment; Experiential learning; Service-learning; Statistics education


Service-learning projects are a useful method for students to learn both the practice and value of statistical methods. Effective service learning, however, depends on several factors and can be implemented according to a variety of models. In this article, different models for incorporating service-learning in statistics courses are presented along with example statistics courses. Principles for good service-learning practice will also be presented as a means for assessing the quality of a service-learning course component.

1. Introduction

I first started using service-learning projects in my introductory statistics classes in the fall of 1998, and I have continued with at least one project each semester until 2002 when I became the chair of my department. Planning for and managing these kinds of projects takes a substantial amount of time, which as department chair I have much less of, so I began to look for other ways to be involved with service-learning besides class projects. Through a faculty seminar, I had the opportunity to learn more about different models for incorporating and assessing service-learning. Together with five other faculty members, I reviewed and discussed service-learning videos, workbooks and other service-learning resources (e.g., Heffernan 2001, Howard 2001, Miller 1996).

Service-learning is more than simply combining community service with academic learning. Successful service-learning depends on a variety of factors, which have been discussed by several authors (Eyler and Giles 1999, Heffernan 2001, Howard 2001). Among these factors are:

Each of these goals can be met with properly orchestrated service-learning projects within introductory to advanced statistics courses, as described in articles by Hydorn 1999, Anderson and Sungur 1999 and Root and Thorme 2001. Civic responsibility, in particular, is not generally connected with statistics education, but it can grow out of students’ increased awareness of the purpose and function of community service agencies brought about by the students’ participation in a service-learning project. Many other possibilities exist besides service-learning projects, however, for instructors to incorporate service-learning into their courses.

2. Models for Course Design

Prior to the faculty seminar on service-learning I had only thought about service-learning in the form of projects in my introductory course. However, course projects are an example of just one way to implement service-learning. In the Campus Compact publication, “Fundamentals of Service-Learning Course Construction,” Heffernan 2001 outlines six service-learning models. These models are described below with example courses, some of which are actual courses and others that could be implemented by statistics faculty. Heffernan provides examples of all six models across all disciplines along with example syllabi and service-learning assignments. She also discusses specific challenges inherent in each model.

2.1 “Pure” Service Learning

Many schools have service- or experiential-based learning programs which offer students educational experiences focused on service. These courses can be found in many disciplines and are primarily focused on public service and community-related issues.


2.2 Discipline-Based Service-Learning

These courses include a specific link between disciplinary course content and community experience. They differ from “pure” service-learning courses by their emphasis on non-service course content.


2.3 Problem-Based Service-Learning

In this type of course students relate to the community as a “consultant” working for a “client.” Students gain knowledge and experience through course content that will allow them to help a community agency to answer questions or solve a problem. Courses with community-based service-learning projects are good examples of problem-based service-learning. Additional examples can be found in Anderson and Sungur 1999 and Root and Thorme 2001.


2.4 Capstone Courses

These are courses that are designed for majors, and are typically offered to students in their final year. They differ from problem-based service-learning courses in that their goal is to cover new material or to generate a broader understanding of the discipline for students.


2.5 Service Internships

Service internships are like traditional internships with the inclusion of an on-going reflection component. Unlike traditional internships, service internships involve a greater emphasis on reciprocity. Several of the examples described by Heffernan are offered as a disciplinary practicum.


2.6 Undergraduate Community-Based Action Research

These courses are similar to an independent study option but involve learning research methodology and serving as an advocate to the community.


3. Assessment

Several authors have proposed a set of guidelines for assessing the quality of service-learning courses and programs. The following list is from Honnet and Poulsen 1989 and was used by Coyle et al 1997 to assess the engineering service-learning program at Purdue. Another set of principles is given in Howard 2001.

Principles of Good Practice for Combining Service and Learning

  1. Engages students in responsible and challenging actions for the common good.
  2. Provides structured opportunities for students to reflect critically on their service experience.
  3. Articulates clear service and learning goals for everyone involved.
  4. Allows for those with needs to define those needs.
  5. Clarifies the responsibilities of each person and organization involved.
  6. Matches service providers and service needs through a process that recognizes changing circumstances.
  7. Expects genuine, active and sustained organizational commitment.
  8. Includes training, supervision, monitoring, support, recognition, and evaluation to meet service and learning goals.
  9. Insures that the time commitment for service and learning is flexible, appropriate and in the best interests of all involved.
  10. Is committed to program participation by and with the diverse populations.

The variety of courses and projects described in section 2 above provides ample evidence that the first and last principles can be met by statistics service-learning courses and that the community-service agencies have a large role in defining the projects to meet their needs. Reflection can take the form of regular journal assignments and/or group meetings to discuss progress on service projects. Reports on an agency’s function within the community as well as the results of any data analyses or other studies are also a part of the reflection process and help students to connect course content with community needs. Carefully constructed course syllabi and agreements with community-service agencies can help to ensure that the service and learning goals and responsibilities of all those involved are well expressed. (See Heffernan’s book for details on constructing a service-learning syllabus.) Students should be assigned to projects based on interest and prior experiences, and training can take place in class discussions and through project guidelines. A project time line can be designated as part of the course syllabus to ensure that both students and agency representatives are aware of when the project will be completed.

As part of the service-learning course design process, Howard 2001 provides several matrices that could also be used as a rubric to assess the quality of the service-learning experience provided to students. The example matrix shown below is designed to help faculty assess the purposeful civic learning component of a service-learning course. By following the workbook, faculty are encouraged to consider which aspects of civic learning they want their course to meet and then to develop strategies for meeting those aspects through classroom activities and student assignments. This matrix, along with several others from the workbook, could be used by faculty after teaching their service-learning course for the first time to assess the quality of the service-learning component of the course.

Goal Categories for Purposeful Civic LearningSpecific Objectives Classroom StrategiesStudent AssignmentsAssessment Learning
Academic Learning
Democratic Citizenship Learning
Diversity Learning
Political Learning
Leadership Learning
Inter- and Intra- Personal Learning
Social Responsibility Learning

4. Discussion

A great deal of overlap exists among the six models described above and the examples presented are only the beginning of the service-learning possibilities for statistics faculty to explore. I would like to add co-curricular service learning activities as an additional model for service learning. Although some service-learning experts contend that “true” service-learning takes place only at the intersection of (1) relevant service to the community, (2) enhanced academic learning, and (3) purposeful civic learning (e.g, Howard 2001), it is unrealistic to assume that all learning stops at the end of a course. Through participating in a statistical consulting group, for example, under the direction of a statistics faculty member to complete data and other analyses for community-service agencies, students’ knowledge of and experience with statistical methods will be further enhanced. In addition, their co-curricular work can provide valuable experience to supplement their resume or graduate school application.


Anderson, J.E., and Sungur, E.A. (1999), “Community Service Statistics Projects,” The American Statistician, 53, 132-136.

Campus Compact. Essential Service-Learning Resources. RI: Campus Compact, 2002.

Coyle, E.J., Jamieson, L.H., and Sommers, L.S. (1997), “EPICS: A Model for Integrating Service-Learning into the Engineering Curriculum,” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 4, 81-89.

Duke, J.I. (1999), “Service Learning: Taking Mathematics into the Real World,” Mathematics Teacher, 92, 794-6.

Eyler, J, and Giles, D. (1999), Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Heffernan, K. (2001), Fundamentals of Service-Learning Course Construction. Providence, RI: Campus Compact, Brown University.

Honnett, E.P., and Poulsen, S.J. (1989). Principles of Good Practice for Combining Service and Learning: Wingspread Special Report. Racine, WI: The Johnson Foundation, Inc.

Howard, Jeffrey, ed. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning: Service-Learning Course Design Workbook, University of Michigan: OCSL Press, 2001.

Hydorn, D.L., (1999), “Creating Value for Statistics through Service Learning Projects.” Proceedings of the Section on Statistical Education at the 1999 Joint Statistical Meetings of the American Statistical Association, 281-285.

Hydorn, D.L. (2005), “Community Service Projects in a First Statistics Course.” In Mathematics in Service to the Community: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in the Mathematical Sciences (MAA Notes #66), edited by Charles R. Hadlock. Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America.

Hydorn, D.L., Baker, S. and Boats, J. (2005), “Quantitative Initiatives in College Biology: Profiles of Projects at Undergraduate Institutions.” In Math & Bio 2010: Linking Undergraduate Disciplines, edited by Lynn A. Steen. Washington. DC: Mathematical Association of America.

Miller, S. (1996), Science and Society: Redefining the Relationship. Providence, RI: Campus Compact, Brown University.

Root, R. and Thorme, T. (2001), “Community-Based Projects in Applied Statistics: Using Service-Learning to Enhance Student Understanding,” The American Statistician, 55, 326-331.

Schaffer, M.A., and Peterson, S. (1998), “Service learning as a strategy for teaching undergraduate research,” Journal of Experiential Education, 21, 154-161.

Debra L. Hydorn
Department of Mathematics
University of Mary Washington
1301 College Avenue
Fredericksburg, VA 22401

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