Evaluating Students in a Course on Social Advocacy


Sections of this article are derived from a chapter that will appear in an NCSS Bulletin edited by Rahima Wade to be published in 2000 on service learning.

Barbara L. Wysocki

Evaluating student performance and progress in service learning situations can be difficult, especially for teachers who have relied on traditional methods and standards for many years. In evaluating students in our high school course on “Social Advocacy: History, Theory, and Practice,” described on pp. 348-50, our original use of “tried and true” methods only quickly revealed that they were not measuring the key elements of service learning: critical and reflective thinking, personal growth and understandings, and the degree to which the students were assuming adult responsibilities during their volunteer time.

As a result, my colleague and I developed four assessment strategies that we felt encompassed the broader range of intellectual understandings and character growth that we wanted our course to help students achieve. These strategies are designed to measure:

1. Class participation

2. writing

3. Volunteer experience

4. Written assignments


Class Participation

First, we grade students on their participation in class. We expect students to actively engage in class discussions, drawing on their experiences at their volunteer site, responding openly and honestly to the observations and insights of their peers, asking questions of guest speakers, and taking full advantage of field trips to social agencies, community meetings, and special events. In other words, the students must demonstrate some personal investment in the service learning process, not looking to the instructor for “correct” answers, seeing themselves as active participants in the learning of the class.


Journal Writing

Second, we evaluate student journals. Each student uses a journal as a way to document his or her personal journey through the course. Students are encouraged to begin by recording the fears and doubts, expectations and hopes that accompanied their decision to take this class. As the year progresses, students write an entry after each volunteer experience as a way to capture not only what happened on a particular day, but to explore their reactions, feelings and impressions about what went well, how they handled a particular situation, what difficulties they are encountering, and what they are learning about the philosophy of the site and how that influences the way things are done.

Journals are collected and read regularly (6-8 week intervals). We not only read a student’s entries, but respond liberally with comments and questions of our own, give affirmations, and encourage them to share something from the journal with the class. This method actually maintains the dialogue of the course, giving us the opportunity to focus in on each and every student.


Volunteer Experience

Third, we assess a student’s volunteer experience. By visiting the site while a student is working, we can determine if this is a good placement for both the student and the agency. We can observe whether the student is actually engaged with residents and staff in a nursing home, for example, and not just filing forms in the office. It is an opportunity to talk with supervisors who can verify the regularity of attendance, the degree to which the student takes on responsibility, and the student’s creativity in designing or implementing special projects.

We look upon the agencies, and particularly the supervisors, as co-teachers in this endeavor; therefore it is important for them to realize the goals of this course and to provide both educational and emotional support to the students. Being physically there as the students volunteer sends a powerful message to all of us that this is a unique partnership and that we’re all involved in making it successful for each party—the students, the agency, and the school.


Written Assignments

Fourth, we grade the special written assignments given throughout the year. One assignment has been to select a literary work (fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or historical) for analysis. The student provides the ordinary analysis (character and plot development, research and methodology) as would be done for an English assignment. In addition, the student critiques the book in reference to personal experiences, ideas brought forth in class, or other readings.

Another assignment is a Day-in-the-Life short story in which the student is asked to develop a character based on someone he or she met during volunteer work. At some point in the story, the character must encounter a volunteer from a social agency. Students must use first person or third person omniscient point of view in presenting the story. Reading the stories has been very illuminating in demonstrating the students’ sensitivity and empathy for the characters they create.

An assignment that comes early in the year is the sociological portrait. This assignment serves two purposes. First, it enables students to consider the extent to which they, their actions, and their surroundings are typical of a particular social group. Second, it gives students experience with sociological ethnographic study. Through this activity, students become both the subject of research and the researcher. Their task is to study, as objectively as possible, a common occurrence in their family household (mealtime, morning routine, etc.), and record their observations in a paper. To prepare students for this activity, we model this exercise by showing videotapes of home situations without identifying the occupants. As a class, students draw conclusions about income level, politics, gender, and religion based on evidence in the room.

By using anonymous home interiors, students have significant freedom and safety to comment on the items that they observe. Through discussion, they come to realize that behind their observations may be additional, less obvious factors that account for the physical objects that they notice. A sparse home environment, for example, may reflect a person who travels extensively. It may also indicate a conscious decision to save for long range priorities rather than immediate comforts. The same scene may also mirror a change in income. For the teacher, it is important to encourage students to be open to interpretations, to avoid stereotyping, and not to rush to judgment. Viewing another’s portrait as objectively as possible is a good exercise in critical thinking and should provide some lively and productive discussion.

In their own papers, students provide a careful, detailed description of the physical setting, the human interactions, and the activity itself. Having painted the scene, the students must then analyze the data as a sociologist might. As the students share their portraits, they begin to see patterns and divergences from which they can determine what assumptions can/cannot be made about people. Through the sociological portrait, students come to a realization of who they are, or at least, how they are defined by the broader society (e.g., advertisers, television, politicians). They also begin to realize and articulate their perspectives on causes/effects/solutions to social problems.

Finally, there is a Living Poor in America assignment. Students are given a scenario involving a hypothetical person or family living on a fixed income from social security, welfare assistance, or disability entitlement. They must determine the primary and secondary needs and how much of the income can be allocated to meet the needs. Students then research local market prices for rent, food, clothing, transportation, utilities, etc., for their person or family. This entails visiting a grocery store and attempting to shop for a week’s worth of food based on their allocated food budget. All of this information becomes the subject of discussion as the class analyzes shopping habits (impulse buying vs. developing a list), sacrifices and trade-offs, nutrition concerns, variety in diet, and so on. At some point, a crisis may be imposed in the exercise (e.g., an accident, a job lay off, changes in welfare) that forces them to adjust their budgets and underscores the precarious nature of the lives of those who are poor.

This exercise can raise questions that get to the heart of the current debate on welfare reform. As public policy, is it “smart” to create a welfare-to-work program that puts people on the brink of precarious economic existence? Is it more important for a person to be numbered among the work force, even if the work does not offer advancement or financial inventives? What new expenses does a single mother incur by working as opposed to staying home with her children? Does a job, expecially a low-paying one, provide the resources that enable a person to save, plan ahead, and significantly alter his or her economic situation?

The important thing in developing assessment measures of any kind is to inform the students about how they will be evaluated. Service learning can, on the surface, be construed as very open-ended, lacking in structure, and therefore lacking in grading criteria. The fact is that there is more to observe and consider in making evaluative judgments about students.

The Social Advocacy Course


Suitable Grade Level(s): 11-12


Relevant NCSS Standards

1 Culture

2 Time, Continuity, and Change

4 Individual Development and Identity

5 Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

6 Power, Authority, and Governance

8 Science, Technology, and Society

10 Civic Ideals and Practices



Social Studies Objectives

> Learn about selected social problems, their historical development, and solutions that have been attempted.

> Examine the fundamental questions that underlie political philosophies.

> Read literary texts (fiction/nonfiction) related to social issues.

> Critically analyze the role of popular culture in American society.

> Develop knowledge about people and organizations addressing social needs in the local community.

> Think and act creatively as citizens in a democratic society.

> Reflect on and clarify one’s values in relation to social issues in U.S. society.

> Exchange ideas and opinions with others on relevant social issues.


Project Description

In response to student concerns that they were leaving high school knowing a lot about math and science but very little about the “real world,” Audrey Wells, an English instructor, and I developed the Social Advocacy course in the mid-1980s. Students asked for a course that would put them in touch with their local community, with people facing the daily struggles of living as single working mothers, homeless persons, or persons unable to read or write. Social Advocacy would become a link between the sheltered environment of the school and the life of the community.

We designed the class to focus on the community’s social problems by dealing with a series of core questions, such as, What is society? What is a healthy society? Why do we have social problems? Who is affected by these problems? How do you define yourself? How has your identity been shaped by your society? Do you affect the shape of society? Who or what creates culture? Can culture be changed? What is the relationship between popular culture and social problems? How does television affect society? What is necessary to solve or remedy a social problem? What are the roles of individual citizens/the private sector/government (local, state, national) in remedying social problems?

Students taking Social Advocacy have either had or are currently in a U. S. History course. Therefore, this elective course can focus in on select aspects of cultural development over time, for example, the concept of welfare from 1930-90; the role of reformers as exemplified by individual, group, and institutional efforts in effecting change (e.g., Jane Addams, the Catholic Worker Movement, churches); and the changing role of government (local, state, federal) in addressing social issues.

One of the opening exercises in Social Advocacy is a group activity in which students use Tinker Toys to reproduce their image of society. Their designs very clearly bring out their ideas of who or what controls society, what the various components are, and what roles are played by ordinary people. We then invite our mayor, the township supervisor, and local advocacy groups to class to share their perspectives on social service expenditures as part of the city budget and other related community issues.

Because of its English/history roots, Social Advocacy has deep connections in both areas. The reading assignments, for example, are both fiction and nonfiction, enabling students to compare their experience of people with those portrayed in literature. Students write a short story that encourages them to get “into another person’s skin” and experience a day from that vantage point. Students also use nonfiction literature to examine more closely the personal and social implications of an issue such as teenage parents or foster care.

Because the focus of this course is on American society and its social problems, we acquaint students with social theories about who and what shape contemporary culture. Through Michael Harrington’s book The Other America, students come to know his “culture of poverty,” whereby he suggests that people living in poverty come to develop a set of behaviors that can only be traced to their economic status.1 To make this concept more real, students do a Living Poor in America exercise in which they are given a hypothetical situation and income level and must establish a budget to live on.

Social Advocacy also provides a unit on the media and its influence on American society and culture. We examine the sitcom from the fifties to the nineties, asking if the portrayal of families, for example, is mirroring American life or communicating an ideal of family values. We examine advertising and its use of female images to examine what connections there may be to women who are abused or economically powerless. Through reading John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, students can better assess the role of institutional racism in the 1950s and compare it to the contemporary scene.2

Our community, like many others, contains several large highly automated factories that pay low wages and no benefits to employees. As a class, we tour these facilities, enabling the students to understand the concept of the “working poor,” the factors involved in the high turnover in the work force, and the effects of changing labor conditions.

Through contact with social agencies, however, students also discover that technology—especially electronic technology—shapes and changes social structures and institutions in beneficial ways. Our social agencies communicate better among themselves, and therefore provide better services to citizens through efficient referrals and follow-up work. Students learn that the need for volunteers is often posted on websites, and people can commit to a volunteer activity through online services.

In addition to its social problems focus, Social Advocacy is a course in self-discovery. Students are encouraged to examine their personal attitudes, prejudices, and values regarding society, and to see themselves in relationship to the whole. One activity that reinforces these objectives is the completion of a personal sociological portrait using an anthropological model.

Although all of these activities provide students with valuable learning experiences, students receive firsthand (and, therefore, the best) knowledge of social issues through the people who are dealing with them. To set up the service aspect of the course, we first visited our local United Way staff, who were very helpful in recommending social service agencies that were possible matches with our hopes for the class. We then visited those agencies, shared our vision of the course with them, and invited them to collaborate with us in this endeavor. They agreed to take our students as volunteers; the students would receive information and insights about illiteracy, homelessness, aging, and the like from the experience. This placement plus readings, guest speakers, field trips, and class discussions would assist students in evaluating, reflecting, and forming an opinion on the social issues we studied.

By volunteering in homeless shelters, literacy centers, health care facilities, and the like, students have an opportunity to connect names and faces with particular social issues. Students generally volunteer two to four hours a week outside of the school day. Although some go in the evenings, most complete their volunteer work on the weekends. By spending hours every week at their volunteer assignment, students begin to notice the frequency with which people use the facility, the interactions between the clients or residents, the philosophy of the site, and a number of other subtleties.

Opportunities to reflect on their service experiences are provided frequently in our class meetings. Each week, time is devoted to sharing and reflecting on students’ most recent volunteer experiences. Sometimes the sharing is done in a large group, sometimes just among the students who are at the same site. Students are expected to keep a journal in which they record thoughts, impressions, and insights that reveal much about their personal journey. Journals are read by the teachers as a way to continue communication on an individual basis, to assess students’ learning, and to challenge their thinking. Reflection also takes other forms. Sometimes a simple drawing conveys students’ satisfaction or frustrations; role playing in class can also reveal how things are going or unease in the volunteer situation.

Community involvement occurs on several levels. Placement of students in social service agencies requires that the site coordinator become a teacher and active mentor to the students in addition to being a supervisor, providing direction for the students and their work. Community resources also provide a wealth of field trip experiences and guest speakers in the classroom. The ideal combination occurs when an agency head comes to class and shares the history and philosophical background of the agency, and then we visit the site, returning to class for discussion and quiet reflection. Most important, students are relating to, and sometimes befriending, people from outside their circle and seeing social problems in human as well as academic terms.

Over the thirteen years of this course, our students have earned a reputation for being serious, reliable, and humane workers. One of the benefits of our reputation has been agencies calling with requests for help with one-time special projects. Many times there are annual fund-raising projects that require extra personnel. Honoring these requests is an excellent way to explore new possibilities, forge new relationships, involve students in the schoo#146;s lower grade levels, and broaden the students’ awareness of community services and their ability to serve.

As indicated earlier, we evaluate students through four methods. First, we grade their participation in class. We expect students to be actively engaged in discussions, contributing to the information and insights of their peers, and responding to the stimulation offered by guest speakers, field trips, and readings. Second, we evaluate their journals. We expect entries after each volunteer experience, at assigned times in class, and as a thoughtful instrument for personal growth and exploration. Third, we assess the students’ volunteer experiences. We visit the site while they are working, note their interactions with staff and clients, and discuss their progress with the supervisor. Finally, we grade the written assignments given throughout the year. Because these are written essays, traditional standards are used.

Students also have continual opportunities to evaluate the course. They offer feedback and suggestions for speakers, topics, and field experiences. At the conclusion of the course, students do a formal evaluation of the content, methodology, and instruction. Over the years, we have incorporated a number of student suggestions and ideas, tailoring the course to the needs of the students.

We look upon the Social Advocacy course as an initiation—an approach to responsible citizenship by raising lifelong questions, rather than a course that comes to a conclusion as the semester closes. Therefore, the traditional final exam never seemed to be an appropriate way to end the class. Instead, we hold a symposium at which students present poster projects that reflect their dreams about solutions to social problems they’ve learned about during the class. Parents, agency heads, and classmates are invited to hear their presentations and comment on the ideas. Following the presentations, students are awarded certificates of appreciation; conversation usually continues over refreshments.

This elective class, over its thirteen year history, seems to attract students who are open to and/or inclined toward this teaching methodology and subject matter. The students who take the class find it rewarding and affirming, as suggested by their course evaluations at the end of each year. Over the long term, students report continuing some kind of volunteer work, especially while they are in college. Some students report having refocused their college major, moving away from pure research in medicine, for example, toward something more people-oriented or something that brings them closer to individuals with real needs.

The core questions posed by Social Advocacy are life-long questions that every citizen in a democracy should be asking all the time. By introducing students to volunteering, by supporting and affirming them, and by continuing to volunteer ourselves, we are communicating that civic involvement should be an integral aspect of everyone’s life.



1. Michael Harrington, The Other America (New York: Penguin Books, 1960).

2. J. H. Griffin, Black Like Me (New York: Penguin Books, 1984).

Barbara L. Wysocki teaches social studies in the University Laboratory High School in Urbana, Illinois. 

For more information about this service-learning project, please contact: Barbara L. Wysocki, University Laboratory High School, 1212 W. Springfield Avenue Urbana, IL 61801
(Telephone: (217) 333-2870;
E-mail: bwysocki@mork.uni.uiuc.edu).

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.