In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Improving Student Outcomes of Community-Based Programs Through Peer-to-Peer Conversation
  • Joshua J. Mitchell (bio), Kathleen E. Gillon (bio), Robert D. Reason (bio), and Andrew J. Ryder (bio)

Scholars and organizations have called for a renewed emphasis on civic outcomes of higher education such as active citizenship, civic engagement, and social responsibility (Adelman, Ewell, Gaston, & Schneider, 2014; National Task Force, 2012). These and other authors (e.g., Schamber & Mahoney, 2008; Steinberg, Hatcher, & Bringle, 2011) cite student participation in community-based programs (CBP) as a catalyst to the development of these essential civic outcomes. CBP are often formally connected to courses, such as service learning (Jacoby & Ehrlich, 2009) or public scholarship (Cahill & Fine, 2014), but can also be free-standing, such as neighborhood partnerships (Guarasci, 2014; Reason, 2013). Steinberg and colleagues (2011) found that participation in CBP contributed “to a graduate’s ability and sense of responsibility to become an active and engaged citizen” (p. 19).

The importance of reflection and discussion to student learning are common findings within the literature (Mabry, 1998; Steinberg et al., 2011). Schamber and Mahoney (2008), for example, applied Kolb’s experiential learning theory to explore the effects of community-based learning experiences on engaged citizenship and civic development. They explained that community-based learning experiences engage students in active learning, help students understand how their personal actions affect social issues, and promote students’ civic engagement. The integration of a critical understanding of social issues into community-based experiences should allow students to engage in more meaningful reflection and discussion. Previous studies have shown that service learning, as a civic and academic pedagogy, is more effective when students discuss their experiences with instructors and site supervisors (Mabry, 1998). We did not find any studies that focus on the effect of peer-to-peer discussion as a mechanism to encourage reflection and learning in CBP. The absence of study on peer-to-peer discussion means we might be overlooking an important pedagogical tool to encourage civic outcomes from CBP.

Smith and colleagues (2009) cited a number of studies outside of civic engagement that support the value of peer discussion. Discussion is an effective pedagogical strategy because it engages students with peers and instructors, enhances learning, and promotes understanding. In a study more directly related to civic engagement, Klofstad (2010) found a direct connection between “civic [End Page 316] talk” (p. 2353) among peers and increased civic participation, reinforcing our belief that infusing more peer-to-peer discussion into CBP should improve learning and learning environments. We explored how peer-to-peer discussion, as part of CBP, affects two civic outcomes: the importance college students place on contributing to the larger community and their self-reported development of personal and social responsibility.


Baker, Jensen, and Kolb (2002) proposed a conversational learning framework, grounded in experiential learning theory, which encouraged researchers to explore the role of discussion within the learning process. Scholars have posited that learning takes place in relation-ships via communicative processes (Cooks & Scharrer, 2006). Conversation serves as a way to make meaning from experiences and, thus, learn. Creating safe and welcoming spaces that foster good conversation and provide opportunities for reflection is an essential part of the learning process (Baker et al., 2002).


We used the Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory (PSRI), a nationally available campus climate assessment, for this study. The PSRI, which assesses individual students’ behavior and perceptions of campus climate related to civic learning in higher education, was developed in 2006 as part of the Core Commitments Initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (Dey, Barnhardt, Antonaros, Ott, & Holsapple, 2009). We used data from 12,745 undergraduate students (50% White, 66% female, and 35% college senior) at 19 colleges and universities to answer two primary research questions, each comprising two parts:

  1. 1. How does participation in CBP and engaging in meaningful peer-to-peer discussion affect (a) perceptions of the importance of contributing to a larger community, and (b) development of personal and social responsibility?

  2. 2. Do meaningful discussions mediate the effect of CBP on (a) perceptions of the importance of contributing to a larger community, and (b) development of personal and social responsibility...


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