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"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
Margaret Mead

Why Service Learning?

1.  Service learning increases student engagement with and understanding of course content:

According to George Mehaffey (2010), increased retention and improved student performance depend on faculty in higher education engaging students more effectively.  Engagement is the key to better learning outcomes. 

What engages students?  In a word, doing.  (Recall the ancient wisdom:  “Tell me and I will forget.  Show me and I will remember.  Involve me and I will understand.”)  The point is, undergraduate students learn better when they learn in context.  Opportunities for experiential learning supply context. 

1.  Students who participate in community service substantially increase their academic progress, gain life skills, and develop a feeling of responsibility for their community and society.   Astin, Alexander W. and Sax, Linda J.  1998. 

2.  Service and civic learning improve students’ ability to apply learning in “the real world” and have a positive impact on complexity of understanding, problem analysis, critical thinking, and cognitive development.  Billig, Shelley.  2003.

3.  Service and civic learning:

  • help students develop stronger relationships with faculty.
  • improve students’ satisfaction with college.
  • increase the likelihood of graduation.
  • aid in student retention.   (cite)

4.  Combining students’ academic coursework with opportunities for authentic (“relevant”) experience enhances both their academic development as well as their readiness to take up their responsibilities as adult members of a democracy. Academically, they demonstrate significant improvement in several areas (Wolf, Thia et al.  2010):

  • information literacy;
  • articulated thinking about civic engagement;
  • understanding of the connection between the university and public life;
  • academic engagement; 
  • civic efficacy; 
  • positive social and self-perceptions; and
  • research-based writing. 

2.  Service learning teaches students that, as citizens knowledgeable in disciplinary content, they bear a special responsibility for the quality of public problem-solving and decision-making in their community and society.  

Human beings construct the world they live in.  Recognizing that the social, economic, and political reality of our communities, society, and world is largely of our own (collective) making and to some important degree within our control to change, we must strive to help students build new, expanded, or revised models they can enact.  Enacting a new reality requires not only knowledge, but also relevant experience, motivation, skills (e.g., communication, negotiation), and a host of character “assets,” such as empathy, determination, self-discipline, patience, flexibility, ingenuity, and respect for others.  These are best acquired—perhaps only acquired—through community-based experiential learning.

Participation in community service when people are young helps them construct an image of themselves as adults who are responsible for sustaining their community’s well-being and who are able to take effective action.   Youniss, James and McLellan, Jeffrey A.  1997.

3.  Service and civic learning make faculty more effective, more interesting, and more satisfied teachers.

Faculty benefit through:

  1. Inspiration and invigoration of their teaching methods.
  2. Increased student contact resulting from a greater emphasis on student-centered teaching.
  3. A new perspective on learning and an enhanced understanding of how learning occurs.
  4. Connecting the community with curriculum and becoming more aware of current societal issues as they relate to academic areas of interest.
  5. Opportunities to tap into expertise of community agencies as co-researchers and co-teachers.
  6. Identifying areas for research and publication related to current trends and issues, including student learning.

Further Reading:

National Service-Learning Clearinghouse.  Impacts and Outcomes of Service Learning in Higher Education:  Selected Resources.  (Cite)  A bibliography of research and documentation of impacts and outcomes of service-learning in higher education settings.

Astin, Alexander W. and Sax, Linda J.  1998.  “How Undergraduates Are Affected by Service Participation.”  Journal of College Student Development, 39(3): 251-263.

Billig, Shelley.  2003.  “Impact of Service-Learning on Michigan Students’ Academic Outcomes.”  Denver, Colorado:  RMC Research Corporation.  www.servicelearning partnership.org/site/ DocServer/MEAP_Evaluation_SB.ppt?docID=321 

Hurd, Clayton A.  2006.  “Is Service Learning Effective?  A look at current research. (pdf) ”  Ft. Collins:  Colorado State University.   http://tilt.colostate.edu/sl/faculty/Is_Service-Learning_Effective.pdf

Mehaffey, George.  2010.  “Medieval Models, Agrarian Calendars and 21st Century Imperatives.”  Teacher – Scholar:  The Journal of the State Comprehensive University.  Fall 2010.

Wolf, Thia et al.  2010.  “Public Sphere Pedagogy”:  Toward a Renewal of the Civic Mission of the American University.”  Proposal to the Keck Foundation.  Chico, CA:  California State University

Youniss, James and McLellan, Jeffrey A.  1997.  “What We Know About Engendering Civic Identity.”  The American Behavioral Scientist.  Mar/Apr 1997.  Vol. 40.  No. 5.