Leadership Studies Ed.D. Dissertations


The Impact of a Problem-Based Service-Learning Course on the Improvement of Behaviors Reflecting Positive Character Traits on Students Considered At-Risk in a Suburban High School

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)


Leadership Studies

First Advisor

Judy Jackson May

Second Advisor

Marjori Krebs (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Patrick Pauken (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Mark Earley (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Eric Worch (Committee Member)


The purpose of this mixed methods embedded design study was to learn if engaging in a problem-based service-learning course could improve the demonstration of behaviors reflecting positive character traits in junior and senior high school students who are considered at-risk. Additionally, the investigation sought to determine the extent to which students could articulate the applicability of the problem-based service-learning course to their lives. A problem-based learning approach is one where students learn about a topic in the context of solving real-life problems. The service-learning methodology links academic learning to service that meets an authentic community need (Billig, 2002). This study successfully implemented a proactive curricular approach in an attempt to deter negative student behaviors as students learned how to display positive character traits in different situations. This embedded design study utilized mostly qualitative data with a quantitative component. The study was guided by three research questions and student discipline data was collected from both an experimental and control group. In addition to the discipline data, students were interviewed, observed, and they completed course assignments to assess whether students improved their behaviors reflective of positive character traits by developing their social skills, problem-solving skills, and coping skills over a one semester term. The experimental group completed the course while the control group did not. The first question researched was (a) Does participation in a problem-based service-learning course reduce behavior incidents requiring discipline intervention of junior and senior high school students considered at-risk? This question was answered through analyzing quantitative data. The second question (b) Does participation in a problem-based service-learning course improve behaviors reflective of positive character traits of junior and senior high school students considered at-risk, was researched through a qualitative lens. A third research question was investigated as (c) What do these students report as the benefits and applications of the course to their lives? Results of the study indicated that the experimental group of students' behavioral incidents decreased and they demonstrated the positive character traits of attitude, empathy, respect, and preparation. In addition, the results revealed that the students articulated that they benefited from the course by enhancing their teamwork and communication skills, learning core academic content, and better understanding the consequences of their actions as the course prepared them for either college or a career field. Potential benefits of this study include providing school leaders with tools to (a) reduce behavioral incidents, (b) improve behaviors reflective of students' positive character traits, (c) teach students at-risk the life skills necessary to compete and be successful beyond high school, (d) meet both the demands from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and teaching students 21st century skills.