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Service Learning

Higher Education

Service learning in higher education is an experiential learning pedagogy that balances the needs of student and community members involved, links the service and learning through reflective processes, and if skillfully managed leads to positive student personal, social or citizenship, career, and intellectual development.


The central claim of service learning is that both the quality of student learning and the quality of service to the community are enhanced when the two are combined. Although there are literally dozens of definitions of the term, the characteristics identified in the 1990 National and Community Service Act are central to most of them; this act describes service learning as an instructional method that accomplishes the following objectives.

  • Students learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that meet actual community needs and that are coordinated in collaboration with the school and the community.
  • Student's academic curriculum provides structured time for a student to think, talk, or write about what the student did and saw during the actual service activity.
  • Students are given opportunities to use newly acquired skills and knowledge in real-life situations in their own communities.
  • Enhancement of what is taught in school is accomplished by extending student learning beyond the classroom and into the community and fostering of the development of a sense of caring for others.

While most service-learning programs are part of the school or college curriculum, cocurricular programs in which there are intentional goals for student learning and in which efforts are made to assist students in reflecting on their experience also qualify. The term, however, is also commonly applied to a variety of activities that do not meet these standards. Perhaps because of the growing popularity of community service for young people and because service learning sounds more important than volunteerism, the term is often applied to volunteer programs where there is very little formal attempt to facilitate learning through reflection. Service learning is also sometimes confused with traditional field-based instructional programs such as clinical experiences for those studying to be nurses, social workers, teachers, or other human services professionals. In an attempt to sort out the many programs that involve students in the community and draw a distinction between service learning and related activities like volunteer service and internships, Andrew Furco (1996) has suggested an approach to assigning programs to categories along two dimensions: the balance between goals (i.e., of service or learning) and the primary intended beneficiary (service recipients or students).

Service-learning programs are designed to equally benefit both the provider and recipient of service and to focus on both the quality of the service and the learning. This is most often accomplished when the service learning is part of an academic course. It is easier to achieve this balance if service is a required part of the class, and all students participate in projects where the service is closely tied to the subject matter goals for the course. For example, a course on program evaluation in which students develop an evaluation plan for a local nonprofit agency program is easily designed to benefit both students and the agency. Discussion and analysis of the class service project can serve as a central part of the course. Other examples of tight subject matter/service links include the following: (1) courses in women's studies where students work with victims of domestic violence; (2) Spanish courses where students assist new immigrants in learning to negotiate the community; (3) sociology classes where students conduct needs-assessment activities for a mayor's office that is considering new services for the homeless; or (4) a botany class where students classify and remove invasive non-native species from a park.

Many service-learning classes do not integrate the service program into the regular course of study, but make service an option for extra credit or a substitute for a research paper or other assignment; some provide an additional course credit for those choosing that option. Unless the professor plans carefully to incorporate the service work of these students into class discussion and activities, and plans for continuous individual reflection activities for students choosing service, these classes often fail to maximize either the service or the learning. Without reflective integration with the substance of the course, add-on service options become simply classes plus volunteerism. Since some resistance to service learning comes from people who feel that providing course credit for volunteerism is inappropriate, it is important to draw a distinction between volunteerism and service-learning experience, which has an academic focus and yields measurable learning outcomes. And it is important to reserve the label service learning for experiences in which intentional efforts are made to link the two through discussion, assignments or other forms of reflective activity.

Of course, students may also learn from volunteer service and community service programs. These are valuable experiences for students and may contribute to their personal development and commitment to active involvement in the community. The primary focus is on service, not learning, and the primary intended beneficiaries are the service recipients, not the students. Some students who have a naturally reflective bent may be motivated to explore questions that arise from their service, but the programs themselves provide little or no challenge to make that happen. Many colleges and universities have volunteer service centers that develop opportunities for students to serve, and hundreds of thousands of hours of community service are donated each year by these students.

A popular program is the Alternative Spring Break (ASB) where college students travel in student-led teams to international and domestic sites to undertake a week of community service. Break Away, founded in 1991 at Vanderbilt University, is the national organization that provides technical assistance to college and university ASB programs; they estimate that in the spring of 2001, 30,000 American college students spent their spring break in an organized service project. College community service programs like ASB do often devote some attention to providing guidance to programs leaders on how to develop reflection sessions for students, and occasionally such programs become service-learning opportunities by being integrated into an academic course or what has been called a curriculum-based alternative break. Most of these programs are probably best placed in the community service rather than service learning category.

Field-based study, clinical practice, and internships all provide useful service to communities, but have as their primary purpose student learning. Student teachers spend time in the classroom to master instructional skills. Student nurses may spend time in clinics giving vaccinations, conducting well baby examinations to master nursing skills. Many students spend a semester in a business internship to develop skills and contacts necessary to move their career forward. All these students also provide a service, but the intended beneficiary of such programs is the student, who develops professional skills.

Benefits of Service Learning in Higher Education

Service learning is a form of experiential learning and is built on the assumption that learning occurs through active engagement and application of academic subject matter to real world problems and vice versa. Many of its founders were followers of John Dewey who believed that for an experience to be educative, it needed to engage students in significant worthwhile activity that leads to curiosity and sustained inquiry. Service learning is thought to enhance learning partly because students become highly motivated to learn when they work with people in the community and see how their efforts can make a difference. Cognitive psychologists are discovering that learning that is absorbed and can be transferred to new settings is best developed through repeated engagement in complex realistic situations.) Community projects used in service-learning programs offer this opportunity.

The dramatic increase in interest in service learning in higher education in the late 1980s and into the twenty-first century may have occurred because it is an approach to learning that seems to answer many criticisms of higher education. The experiential, interdisciplinary, and communitybased nature of service learning addresses criticisms that American colleges and universities have created compartmentalized, sterile bodies of knowledge that students have difficulty integrating or applying in their lives in the community. It is also responsive to concerns that the academy is divorced from society and has abdicated its traditional role of service and community citizenship. Concern with these issues led both college leaders and the federal government to create institutions to support development of community service and service-learning programs.

Service learning was first identified as a type of instruction in the mid-1960s but has become visible and grown dramatically since the founding of Campus Compact in the mid-1980s. Campus Compact is a national coalition with more than 750 colleges and universities as members that has provided visibility and support for the development of community service and service-learning programs on campuses.

The goals participating faculty have identified as most important include promoting active engaged learning, developing citizenship skills and responsibility, developing critical thinking capabilities, addressing campus responsibility to community, taking social action, providing opportunities for career development, exposing students to diversity, and promoting moral and religious development.

Service-learning classes are most likely to be in education or the social sciences but there are many examples of courses being developed in the sciences, engineering, the humanities and business as well. The passage of the National and Community Service Act in 1990 and the National and Community Service Trust Act in 1993 and the subsequent creation of the Corporation for National Service provided additional resources to train faculty, support startup costs for new programs, and provide an infrastructure to disseminate information on best practices for these programs.

Impact of Service Learning on Students

An analysis of research conducted by Eyler, Giles, Stenson, and Gray during the 1990s identified more than 100 higher education studies completed during this period that provide considerable support for the power of service learning. While most of this research has involved evaluation studies or programs in single institutions, there have been several that were national in scope. Most have focused on student outcomes with a lesser number exploring institutional or community impact.

These studies provide evidence of growing presence of service learning on campuses, student endorsement of this pedagogy, and of general satisfaction of community agencies with student contributions. Studies of student impact have consistently shown small but significant effects on personal and social or citizenship development; evidence of academic or cognitive impact is less consistent.

Given the very wide range of experiences labeled service learning, it is not surprising that the quality of the program also makes a difference in its impact on students. High quality community placements, in which students are challenged, have opportunities to interact with members of the community and engage in interesting work lead to positive outcomes. Other measures of quality include the quantity and quality of reflective activity (such as discussion and written analysis of the service), application (i.e., the degree to which the service and course of study are related), the duration and intensity of the experience, diversity (i.e., the opportunity to interact with people from different ethnic, racial, or social groups), and community voice (i.e., participation of the community partners in shaping the nature of the service). Some of what is known about the effects of service learning on students including effects of quality is summarized below.

Students like service learning. Service learning is popular with college students. Students report that they have good community experiences, they learn more, and are more interested and motivated to work hard in these classes than in their traditional classes. Not surprisingly, service learning that includes strong community placements and is well integrated into coursework through reflection and application is more highly regarded than experiences of lower quality.

Stronger connections to college or university. College students tend to do better academically and graduate when they are engaged in college social and academic life, and when they have close personal ties to faculty members. There is evidence that students who are active in community service during college are more likely to persist to graduation, but this has not yet been established for academic service learning. There is a growing body of evidence however, that suggests that service learning contributes to engagement with college life and satisfaction with the college experience. Students who participate in service learning report closer ties to faculty than those who do not. Closeness to faculty and the amount of time spent in interaction with faculty members are also affected by the quality of the service-learning experience. Courses that involve strong community placements and include a lot of discussion about the service experience and its relationship to the course of study are more likely to build close relationships with faculty members. Service learning can be a powerful tool for creating conditions that enhance college impact on students.

Personal development. The college years are an important time for the development of personal identity and the skills needed to function effectively in social groups. Service learning has long been valued because the personal connection students make with diverse others in the community is thought to contribute to personal development, motivation to learn, and commitment to do something about social problems. The research suggests that both community service and service learning lead to increased personal confidence and sense of efficacy; students develop a stronger sense of personal identity, and increased cultural understanding and empathy. Some students report that service learning also leads to their spiritual development. There is also evidence that participation in service learning increases interpersonal and leadership skills.

The quality of service learning may enhance the impact of service on personal development. The two most important factors for increasing personal outcomes are the quality of the placement itself and the degree to which the service is relevant to the subject matter being studied. When students have the chance to work with people from different ethnic groups than their own, they are also likely to show an increase in cultural understanding, identity development, and spiritual growth.

Career development. Students who participate in service learning report a greater confidence in their choice of major and in their career choice. They also indicate that they feel better prepared for work than do their peers who do not participate. Alumni also report that their community service during college has increased the likelihood of incorporating service into their career development.

Academic or cognitive development. Students who are engaged in community service during college are likely to get higher grades than those who are not. Faculty and students who participate in service learning report that students learn more from the experience than they do in traditional classes, but research on the impact of service learning on achievement as measured by grades is mixed. Some experimental studies have shown that service-learning students achieve at a higher level; others show no real difference on these traditional academic measures.

Grades might not be the best measure of the intellectual impact of service learning, however, because they are often not based on the outcome-smeasures that service learning is best designed to affect. Studies that have analyzed student essays before and after service or that have used taped and transcribed problem-solving interviews have shown that highly reflective service learning, especially when the problems assessed and the service are closely related, has a positive impact on the quality of student understanding of complicated social problems. Similar in-depth analysis of changes in student thinking over the course of a semester shows increases in cognitive development (i.e., the ability of students to use critical thinking to analyze issues that don't have clear answers).

Citizenship and social responsibility. Advocates for service learning are convinced that it improves the quality of the college or university's citizenship within its community and that it also helps students develop the skills and commitments necessary for effective community engagement. Participation in service learning increases the sense of social responsibility felt by students and their commitment to community service. It also enhances their sense of engagement in their community and their confidence that community members can solve problems. Many studies show students active in service learning report that they intend to participate in future service. Growing evidence in studies of alumni shows that these students are in fact more likely to become actively engaged in their community after graduation.

Values and commitment–for example, the belief that one ought to and will become involved in the community–is not sufficient, however, for effective citizenship. In fact all outcomes of service learning summarized previously contribute to effectiveness. Confidence that one can make a difference, personal efficacy, knowing how to work with others on community tasks, understanding complex social issues, and having the critical thinking skills to make good decisions all form part of the contribution of service learning to preparing students for active citizenship. Students who have had service-learning experiences are more likely to feel that they ought to participate in their communities, know how to participate, and understand issues so that they can participate in intelligent ways.


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