You are here

Service-learning as a responsive and engaging curriculum: A higher education institution’s response to natural disaster

Billy O’Steen, Dr Lane Perry

What happens if the local context where a higher education curriculum is being delivered shifts in a dramatic and undeniable way? Would or could the curriculum and pedagogy be adapted to address that shift? If so, how and for what purpose? These questions are addressed through a brief review of relevant literature on responsive curriculum and a case study of a service-learning that was developed at the University of Canterbury (UC) in response to the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand. Through research conducted on this course, it has become apparent that there are discernible learning outcomes for students that can be attributed to the implementation of a responsive curriculum.

Service-learning as a responsive and engaging curriculum: A higher education institution’s response to natural disaster

Billy O’Steen and Dr Lane Perry


What happens if the local context where a higher education curriculum is being delivered shifts in a dramatic and undeniable way? Would or could the curriculum and pedagogy be adapted to address that shift? If so, how and for what purpose? These questions are addressed through a brief review of relevant literature on responsive curriculum and a case study of a service-learning that was developed at the University of Canterbury (UC) in response to the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand. Through research conducted on this course, it has become apparent that there are discernible learning outcomes for students that can be attributed to the implementation of a responsive curriculum.


In higher education, a curriculum is often described as a prescriptive set of courses that contain content. The Latin translation of curriculum is “a course to run”, which has been symbolically described as a “racecourse” (Bobbitt, 1918; Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman, 1995). The traditional educational translation of curriculum is the idea that the racecourse is predetermined and through the completion of it, the students will attain intended and desired knowledge and skills. In addition to the course itself, the delivery of it in the form of pedagogy is also a predetermined design in order to support students’ attainment of the knowledge and skills. Usually, the content and delivery of a curriculum is developed and maintained in a vacuum with little regard to external influences such as current events, demographic changes or even findings from educational research.

What happens if the local context where a higher education curriculum is being delivered shifts in a dramatic and undeniable way? Would or could the curriculum and pedagogy be adapted to address that shift? If so, how and for what purpose? These questions will be addressed through a brief review of relevant literature on responsive curriculum and a case study of this approach at the University of Canterbury (UC) following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Review of literature

This review is a representative summary of the literature; for a more detailed review of literature on these concepts, see Perry (2011).

The rationale for a responsive curriculum

Information technology and its influences are developing at a rate that exceeds the capacity to know it all by an exponential factor. According to Henry (2001) as cited in Puccio, Murdock, and Mance (2007), in the past 200 years there have been “25 technical and social inventions (e.g., airplanes, antibiotics, cloning, computers, credit cards, internet) that have dramatically altered human history. Compare this to the fact that from the building of the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt (2100 BC) to the Principate of the Roman Empire (27 BC), which is over 2,000 years of human development, there were a ‘grand total of ten technical and social inventions (e.g., irrigation systems, number systems, coinage)’ (p. xi). Furthermore, the following facts from Fisch, McLeod, and Brenman (2009) about accelerated information growth provide a further context for content’s insurmountable lead on cognitive absorption:

1,000,000 books are published every year

in 10 years Wikipedia has accumulated over 13 million articles in 200 languages;

the top ten jobs in demand in 2010 did not exist in 2004

the US Department of Labor estimates that today’s learner will have 10–14 jobs by the age of 38

it is estimated that a week’s worth of The New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century

the amount of new technical information is doubling every two years

for students starting a four-year technical degree, half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study (Fisch et al., 2009).

Considering this context, perhaps the curriculum or “racecourse” that is supposedly preparing students for survival and success within it needs to be more nimble, flexible and adaptable to the times. With events literally being heard around the world on a daily basis and real-time information and current news available to shape in-time decisions, there should be ways for the curriculum and pedagogy to reflect this responsiveness. And that is just for the everyday curriculum, without regard to extraordinary local or global events. Might there be a role for curriculum and pedagogy when a significant event occurs?

Charles Fritz, a renowned disaster sociologist, stated that, “disaster provides a form of societal shock which disrupts habitual, institutional patterns of behavior and renders people amenable to social and personal change” (1996, p. 55). He goes on to note, the “essential effect of shock is to arrest habitual repetitive patterns of behavior and to cause a redefinition and restructuring of the situation in accordance with present realities” (p. 55). With regard to curriculum, this “arrest [of] habitual patterns of behavior” could be metaphorically viewed as a call to adjust the curriculum in order to lean toward the disaster, not shy away from it. This jolt can lead to new ideas, different perspectives and a fundamental restructure of action and reaction according to immediate concerns.

Along similar lines to Fritz (1996), and with direct reference to higher education institutions, Rendon (2009) offers a poignant observation on natural and manmade disasters (e.g., 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc.). She views these “emergency 911 calls” as open invitations for higher education to determine the greater meaning and purpose of life and an opportunity to ask and reflect upon the more difficult questions around how other cultures and the least privileged in society are treated, and the role of education in addressing those questions. In this, she recognises the university as a place where these conversations can and should take place and become action. She summarises her reflection with the following statement: “Sadly, it often takes a tragedy for us to pay attention to the other side of academics, the one that evokes a sense of wonder in the beauty and mystery of the natural world and the realization of the sacredness of our lives” (p. 19). Indeed, while a dramatic disaster can lead to a reorientation of higher education curricula (e.g., Tulane University’s requirement for every student to engage in community service in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina), perhaps the more sustainable implication is that the curriculum should always be capable of responsiveness to both the dramatic and the everyday.

The rationale for an engaging curriculum

For a responsive curriculum to be effective, it is clear that it must also be engaging. While a responsive and relevant curriculum certainly provides the possibility of engagement, it does not assure it any more than an unresponsive curriculum. Thus, a combination of responsiveness and engagement points toward an effective curriculum.

Within tertiary environments, Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, Whitt, and Associates (2005) affirm that what students do during their time at university is more important to their success than who they are or where they go to university. In their view, student engagement is defined as “students’ involvement with activities and conditions likely to generate high-quality learning” (Australian Council for Educational Research, 2008a, p. 1). By understanding how opportunities implemented within universities influence the student experience, universities can better engage students while simultaneously investing their resources effectively and efficiently. Research has shown that curriculum design and specific pedagogies can positively influence students’ engagement (Kuh et al., 2005; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Hicks & Lee, 2008). Furthermore, “student engagement” focuses on the relationship between students’ involvement (what students do) and university conditions (what opportunities universities create) and is underpinned by the most robust indicators of high-quality learning, including Chickering and Gamson’s (1999) seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education (Nelson Laird, Chen, & Kuh, 2008). (For a more thorough review of Chickering and Gamson’s (1999) principles, see Perry, 2011, pp. 42–51).

Utilising nearly a decade of data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, Kuh (2008) identified 10 educational practices that have a high impact on student engagement. These practices were derived from over 1.5 million students’ responses to survey questions that focused on the following six benchmarks:

Table 1 Australasian universities’ survey of student engagement benchmark measures

AUSSE Benchmark

Attempts to Measure

Academic Challenge

Extent to which expectations and assessments challenge students to learn

Active Learning

Students’ efforts to actively construct their knowledge

Student and Staff Interactions

Level and nature of students’ contact with teaching staff

Enriching Educational Experiences

Participation in broadening education activities

Supportive Learning Environment

Feelings of legitimation within the university community

Work Integrated Learning

Integration of employment-focused work experiences into study

Source: AUSSE (Australian Council for Educational Research, 2008b)

Service-learning as a responsive and engaging curriculum

Kuh found service-learning to be one of the 10 high-impact practices and this has been substantiated in other research that found it to be engaging and an effective practice at improving students’ academic achievement, civic engagement and personal growth (see, for example, Astin, Vogelgesang, Ikeda, & Yee, 2000; Moely, Mercer, Ilustre, & McFarland, 2002; O’Steen, Perry, Cammock, Kingham, & Pawson, 2011; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Perry, 2011; Simons & Cleary, 2006). Most implementations of service-learning have an intentional blend of community service, relevant in-class curriculum and guided reflection (Eyler & Giles, 1999). It is important to note, though, that within the field of service-learning, its implementation occurs across a wide spectrum from a one-time service event to semester-length projects. As evidence of this differentiation, Stanton’s (2009) review of literature noted more than 165 different published definitions of service-learning. These many definitions can coexist with quality constructs in place and a focus on the varying goals of communities, universities and educator applications (Carney, 1979; Ehrlich, 2000; Furco, 2003; Kendall & Associates, 1990; Stanton, 1987; Stanton, 2009; Stanton, Giles, & Cruz, 1999).

Butin (2005) recognised value in the continual experimentation with different notions of how service-learning works in contrast to a domesticated, artificial prescription of best or only service-learning practices. Thus, service-learning pedagogy is seen by many in the field to be flexible, responsive and adaptable to changing situations. While the balance or joining may differ on a case-by-case basis, in order for the pedagogy to be referred to as service-learning, it will usually have some variation of these characteristics. Finally, it is service-learning’s pedagogical alignment with curriculum and critical reflection that serves as but one way of responding to the needs of a local community.

Case study of responsive and engaging curriculum at the University of Canterbury

After the first major earthquake in September 2010, UC was (and still is as of June 2012) at a crossroads between Fritz’s (1996) “societal shock” leading to “a redefinition and restructuring of the situation” (p. 55) and Rendon’s (2009) “emergency 911 calls” leading “us to pay attention to the other side of academics”. This crossroads provided the context and opportunity to build upon the movement created by 9,000 UC students who organised themselves into the Student Volunteer Army following the major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 by creating a responsive and engaging curriculum in the form of a course, CHCH101: Rebuilding Christchurch—An Introduction to Community Engagement in Tertiary Studies. The significant milestones in this process are outlined below in Table 2.

Table 2 Timeline of significant milestones for service-learning at UC


Significant milestone

January 2012

222nd UC student completes CHCH101: Rebuilding Christchurch, the only explicit service-learning course in New Zealand and one that must be taken as an overload because it does not fulfil any degree requirements (yet).

December 2011

UC Vice Chancellor Dr Rod Carr states, “I believe there are four components that make a UC graduate stand out from the crowd. … thirdly, they should all have the opportunity for a community engagement experience alongside their academic programme” (Carr, 2011).

September 2011

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key presents inaugural UC Community Engagement Awards to leaders of the Student Volunteer Army.

August 2011

UC Recovery Plan states: “Expand the service-learning offering to existing and new students and as a differentiator among New Zealand universities” (p. 20).

July 2011

CHCH101 is offered for the first time.

April 2011

UC Academic Board approves for CHCH101 to be offered as a course in Semester 2 (July).

February 2011

Magnitude 6.3 earthquake hits Christchurch at 12:51pm. One hundred and eighty-six deaths and the destruction of 5,000 homes and the entire downtown area are attributed to it. Several thousand members of the Student Volunteer Army help with relief efforts. UC is closed for three weeks. Teaching resumes in large tents.

September 2010

Magnitude 7.1 earthquake hits Christchurch at 4:54 am. No deaths and significant damage due to liquefaction are attributed to it. Several thousand members of the Student Volunteer Army help with relief efforts. UC is closed for two weeks. All buildings reopen.


PhD student Lane Perry conducts research on two UC courses that use community projects as part of their curricula.

The milestones above that led to developing a responsive and engaging curriculum were dependent on a number of external and serendipitous factors (the students creating the Student Volunteer Army themselves, recently completed research at UC demonstrating that service-learning was effective in that context, and the earthquakes providing an opportunity to try something new). With the support of the research literature indicating that service-learning can occur in a variety of modes, this particular approach at UC used service as a prerequisite for CHCH101 and not as an occurrence within the course. Specifically, students’ service after the earthquakes accounted for one-third of the course with readings, discussions and reflective assessments comprising the other two-thirds. While service-learning was chosen as the engaging curriculum in response to the situation, it is necessary to establish two, potentially more transferable, findings about this:

1.Service-learning was chosen as a responsive curriculum because of this specific situation where students had already provided the service and it made sense to provide a responsive curriculum for them.

2.Service-learning was chosen as an engaging curriculum because of the robust research suggesting it is engaging both internationally and at UC.

Thus, it is plausible that another engaging curriculum or educational practice as suggested by the research could have also been used in response to the earthquakes.


Service-learning is fundamentally about engaging students in the community in order to help meet the needs of that community. Service-learning seems to serve as but one example of a responsive, flexible pedagogy that could serve as an initial events-based or responsive curriculum. Again, it is not service-learning in and of itself that serves as the best form of a responsive and engaging curriculum but its implementation at UC after the earthquakes has provided four potential components that should be considered in general. These components, described below, have emerged as themes from qualitative and quantitative data that were collected and analysed from CHCH101 students and suggests how to make any curriculum responsive and engaging:

1.Students’ experiences outside the classroom are valued and credited as an essential part of the course requirements. For UC students who had provided service after the earthquakes without any expectation of receiving credit or acknowledgement, the fact that this service was now seen to count for one-third of a course was significant to them.

2.The academic content is current, relevant, timely. The readings for CHCH101 were specifically chosen for their local perspective (articles from the Christchurch newspaper and New Zealand magazine Mana), global perspective about disasters (articles about Hurricane Katrina, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011 and tornadoes in the US in 2011), and timelessness (readings about community service from the Torah, Buddhism, and the Bible).

3.Socratic dialogue in group conversations, online discussions and with guest speakers encourages risk taking and idea development. These course activities all started with a questioning premise whereby CHCH101 students were asked to challenge their own previously held assumptions about community service and the idea of incorporating service into a university course. This also provided an opportunity for students to reconsider where knowledge originates—with the instructors, within themselves or somewhere in between.

4.Assessments are opportunities for students to creatively reflect on their experiences and link them to the academic content. The assessments for CHCH101 were both structured and open-ended invitations for students to use their experiences and the academic content to create personalised definitions of the aspects of community service: caring, helping, connecting and healing.


While the UC students’ altruistic actions were appreciated and needed by residents of Christchurch, it was not clear what they learned from the experiences alone.  Thus, CHCH101 was designed as a responsive and engaging curriculum to provide them with an academic opportunity to critically reflect on and learn from their experiences. In a welcomed by-product of data collected from students in the four offerings of the CHCH101 course (as of June 2012), it has become apparent that the strongest learning outcome for students is not the service they performed or the academic content they obtained but their improvement in critical thinking. This was initially an anecdotal observation through group discussions and unsolicited emails from students about how much the course was making them rethink previously held assumptions. However, that observation has been substantiated by statistically significant increases in critical thinking according to pre- and post-course surveys designed to measure it.

Perhaps this, then, becomes the longer lasting lesson from CHCH101—that the development of a responsive and engaging curriculum has the potential to positively impact students’ ability to think critically. As a university education should prepare students to be responsive to ever-changing conditions, it seems that the curriculum should seek to engage them by mirroring and promoting that responsiveness. Assuming that the scenario at UC is not an outlier, but includes transferable lessons, continued inquiry into the value of responsive curricula and pedagogy is imperative to the creation, design and implementation of this idea. With this, further inquiry into the effects of responsive curriculum and pedagogy is warranted.

Limitations and directions for further research

It is recognised and acknowledged that the development and delivery of a responsive curriculum such as CHCH101 is highly dependent on local context and within an immediate time frame. Thus, any working and emergent conclusions, as suggested above, are just that—working and emergent—and are likely to change over time as the need for a responsive curriculum (in this case, to address an opportunity for thousands of students who provided immediate service after earthquakes) changes from response to recovery.

The limitations of the ideas in this article, then, are also the foundation for further research into this area. While it appears that the responsive curriculum of CHCH101 provided an immediate need—much like the students’ service—and led to measurable, positive outcomes from data collected after the first offerings of the course, it remains to be seen what the longer lasting and transferable effects will be on students who engaged in this course. Questions around whether or not this kind of experience has any bearing on students’ later choices with regard to courses, degrees, vocations, civic engagement are all worthwhile directions for future research and align with the explorations of scholars in the field of service-learning. The answers to those questions must be addressed in order to fully determine whether a responsive curriculum becomes a transformative curriculum.


Australian Council for Educational Research (2008a). Attracting, engaging, and retaining: New conversations about learning. Victoria, Australia: Author.

Australian Council for Educational Research (2008b). Australasian Survey of Student Engagement. Victoria, Australia: Author.

Astin, A., Vogelgesang, L., Ikeda, E., & Yee, J. (2000). How service-learning affects students. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute.

Bobbitt, F. (1918). The curriculum. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Butin, D. (2005). Service-learning as postmodern pedagogy. In D. Butin (Ed.), Service-learning in higher education (89–104). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Carney, J. (1979). Past, present, and future of experiential learning. Paper presented at the North Carolina Conference on Experiential Learning, Burlington, North Carolina.

Carr, R. (2011). Vice-Chancellor’s Welcome. Canterbury Magazine, December, 1.

Chickering, A., & Gamson, Z. (1999). Development and adaptations of the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39, 3–7.

Ehrlich, T. (2000). Civic responsibility and higher education. Westport, CT: Oryx Press/Greenwood Publishing Group.

Eyler, J., & Giles, D. (1999). Where’s the learning in service-learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fisch, K., McLeod, S., & Brenman, J. (2009). Did you know? Retrieved from

Fritz, C. (1996). Disasters and mental health: Therapeutic principles drawn from disaster studies. Newark, DE: Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware.

Furco, A. (2003). Self-assessment rubric for the institutionalization of service-learning in higher education. Providence, RI: Campus Compact.

Hicks, M., & Lee, P. (2008, July). Transforming teaching and learning at an institutional level. Paper presented at the Higher Education Academy Conference, Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

Kendall, J., & Associates. (1990). Combining service and learning: A resource book for community and public service, Vols. 1 & 2. Raleigh, NC: National Society for Internships and Experiential Education.

Kuh, G. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Kuh, G., Kinzie, J., Shuh, J., Whitt, E., & Associates. (2005). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Moely, B., Mercer, S., Ilustre, V., & McFarland, M. (2002). Psychometric properties and correlates of the civic attributes and skills questionnaire (CASQ): A measure of students’ attitudes related to service learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 8(2), 15–26.

Nelson Laird, T., Chen, D., & Kuh, G. (2008). Classroom practices with higher than expected persistence rates: What student engagement data tell us. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 115, 85–99.

O’Steen, B., Perry, L., Cammock, P., Kingham, S., & Pawson, E. (2011). Engaging students and teachers through service-learning. In P. Coolbear & K. Weir (Eds.), Good practice publication grants e-book. Wellington: Ako Aotearoa.

Pascarella, E., & Terenzini, P. (2005). How college affects students, Volume 2: A third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perry, L. (2011). A naturalistic inquiry of service-learning in New Zealand university classrooms: Determining and illuminating the influence on student engagement. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Canterbury, Christchurch.

Pinar, W., Reynolds, W., Slattery, P., & Taubman, P. (1995). Understanding curriculum: An introduction to the study of historical and contemporary curriculum discourses. New York: Peter Lang.

Puccio, G., Murdock, M., & Mance, M. (2007). Creative leadership: Skills that drive change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rendon, L. (2009). Sentipensante pedagogy: Educating for wholeness, social justice and liberation. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Simons, L., & Cleary, B. (2006). The influence of service learning on students’ personal and moral development. College Teaching, 54(4), 307–318.

Stanton, T. (1987). Service learning: Groping toward a definition. Experiential Education, 12(1), 2–4.

Stanton, T. (2009). Community engagement and critical analysis: Essential elements for character building education in the United States and South Africa. In G. Chaun, V. D’Rozario, A. Heong & C. Mun (Eds.), Character development through service and experiential learning. Singapore: Prentice Hall.

Stanton, T., Giles, D., & Cruz, N. (1999). Service learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The authors

Billy O’Steen is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Canterbury. His teaching and research focus on how experiential education theory and practice affects student engagement. He has been a middle school creator and principal, high school teacher, and multi-cultural educator in Brazil. He and his wife and daughters have lived in New Zealand since 2005.


Dr. Lane Perry is currently the Director of the Center for Service Learning at Western Carolina University in North Carolina. He earned his BBA and MEd at the University of Central Oklahoma and has spent the past 4½ years at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he completed his PhD in Higher Education and served as a faculty member in the College of Education. He is the founding coordinator of the Emerging Leaders Development Programme.