Service Learning - Everybody’s Doing It! You Should Too.

Posted June 22, 2016

By Vicki Sheafer

1. I hook you with important and frustrating questions

How many times have you heard students ask some variation of the following question, “What does this have to do with the real-world?” Or, “When am I ever going to use this information outside this classroom or this test?” I’m assuming that you, like me, have fielded that lovely question more times than you care to admit. Do you have a good answer? Or are you fantasizing secretly about smacking the smirk off that smart-alecks face? (I may have just revealed too much about my level of frustration around this subject.)

Maybe students don’t feel empowered in the traditional classroom. What if the classroom actually separates students from the means of empowerment? The problem of empowerment may be related to the perceived separation of an unreal world of education from a real world context. Can it be argued that traditional education keeps students from participation in civic life? Does higher education really give students the skills and knowledge they need for such participation?

2. I answer with profound(!) wisdom

Do I have a solution for you? (Well, yes I do, or I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.) Service learning is a way to overcome the separation of the unreal and the real through integration and engagement. Service learning brings together research, teaching, and service. It combines community work with classroom instruction. It prepares students to participate meaningfully in civic life, thus uniting theory and practice. When students have opportunities to actively use classroom knowledge, they develop an understanding of when and how knowledge can be applied. This deep approach to learning teaches students critical thinking skills, integration of knowledge, and moves them up from the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy to the higher levels of analysis and synthesis.

There are a lot of definitions and descriptions about service learning, so I am going to combine what I like about the various things I have read and bless you with the Sheafer synthesis of service learning (that’s some serious alliteration there folks). Service learning is a course-based educational experience in which students participate in an organized service activity that meets community needs and is integrated with educational objectives. In order for students to benefit from service learning, reflection is an imperative part of the process, because this is the bridge between community service activities and the educational objectives of the course.

At this point, the literature in support of service learning is overwhelming, so let me summarize some of the highlights of what we know so far.

  1. Service learning has positive effects on students’ personal outcomes, such as personal efficacy and identity, spiritual growth and moral development, interpersonal development, leadership, and communication skills.
  2. Service learning has positive effects on students’ social outcomes, such as reducing stereotypes and facilitating cultural and racial understanding, developing a sense of social responsibility, and a commitment to service.
  3. Service learning has positive effects on students’ academic learning (course grades, GPA), their ability to apply what they have learned, and on thinking skills (complexity of understanding, problem analysis, critical thinking, cognitive development).
  4. Service learning has positive effects on students’ career development.
  5. Service learning also has positive effects on students’ relationship with your institution, such as stronger faculty relationships, satisfaction with college, and higher graduation rates.

But wait, the benefits are not just for students or the institution. If you act now, you can receive the following: faculty using service learning report increased satisfaction with quality of student learning and faculty using service learning report a commitment to research that informs and improves their teaching.

Are you convinced yet, because I could go on…and on…and on. (My students are nodding their heads in agreement.) And I think I shall, because psychology has a long history of using service learning. I have found studies on service learning related to just about every psychology course you could think of. Here’s a partial list (because I got tired of looking at the computer screen as my eyes screamed enough’s enough):

  • Developmental (lifespan, child and adolescent, aging)
  • Social
  • Research Methods
  • Abnormal
  • Learning
  • Cross-cultural
  • and Intro (see the reference list below)

3. I share the vast wealth of my experience with Service Learning

My journey into service learning began in the spring 2013 semester. I decided to use a service learning assignment in my Learning and Cognition class. The first part of the class is an exploration of three learning theories—classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and social learning theory. I have found, in teaching this course through the years, that students have a hard time grasping the intricacies of each theory. I have tried to use a wide variety of handouts, examples, and demonstrations, but I found my students continue to struggle with keeping the theories straight and being able to apply those theories to real-world contexts. This first group of students gave very positive feedback about their experiences, so I decided to continue to use the assignment with subsequent Learning and Cognition classes.

I required my students to participate in a service learning project that had two components, a minimum of three hours of community service and a written paper. The paper had three sections:

  1. A description of the service site and the services provided at the site,
  2. An application of learning principles (classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and social learning theory) from their textbook and classroom lectures at their community service site, and
  3. A reflection on lessons learned during the service learning experience. The grading rubric (which is included in my syllabus) also has points dedicated to certain aspects of APA Style that I want them to practice (title page, reference page, in-text citations, etc.). Since students just love mastering APA style, I try to throw that in wherever I can.

I also included a service learning timesheet in the syllabus which requires the signature of a staff member at the community agency to verify their service learning hours. This page contains a statement linking falsification of the timesheet to our University’s academic honesty policy with its responsibilities and consequences. The student also signs the page. The majority of the students fulfilled their community service hours at the Boys and Girls Club, which is a five minute drive from our campus. I have also approved other sites in advance of student service.

Students filled out a 15-question survey to evaluate the service learning project after they completed their service hours and reflection paper. Results showed that their perception of the project was positive. All items were above the mid-point of the scale (1 “strongly disagree” through 7 “strongly agree”), and four of the items had means above six. These items were

  1. The Professor should continue to use this project in the future with other students,
  2. This project was an interesting learning experience,
  3. I gained a deeper appreciation of service learning as a result of completing this project, and
  4. Writing the paper reinforced what I had learned in class about learning theories.

Part of the student written paper was a reflection on what was learned through the service learning project. Two main themes emerged. The first theme was the value of seeing learning theories in action.

What students learn in the classroom becomes more meaningful and easier to understand when they see it demonstrated in real life. Illustrations offered in class or through a textbook can offer this too, but it is not the same thing as being there yourself, seeing it firsthand, or even living it. (CM)

The second theme was the value of serving one’s community. Students’ eyes were opened to the needs of the community in which their university is located. They took on a new and bigger perspective. Students also realized that they can contribute to their community in ways that make a difference in the lives of children—teaching, loving, and encouraging them. Many students also mentioned the impact of this experience on their faith.

The reality is that there are kids, less than five minutes driving distance of me, who need love, acceptance, and praise. They are precious to God, which makes them precious to me. I have been reminded of the bigger picture. (HB)

4. Here’s how you can share the wealth to create your own SL experience

Now that we have defined service learning, explained why it is effective, and talked about my experiences with service learning, it is time to talk about issues involved with designing service learning experiences. All of the women reading this blog post know that one size does not fit all no matter how much they say it does. The men may not understand this analogy because for some reason men’s clothes never say “one size fits all.” Seriously, what shirt is going to fit every woman in this country? Sorry, I digress.

There is no one way to do service learning. The flexibility is actually a great strength. However, I believe that there are some basic tips that will help service learning to benefit the student, the faculty member, and the community partner alike.

The faculty member needs to set clear learning goals for the student. These goals need to be tied to at least one course objective, preferably several course objectives. It is important that the student understands the purpose of the service learning experience and does not see it as just “one more thing they have to do.” The faculty member also needs to establish criteria for the selection of the community partner/placement. The criteria used for selection should again be connected to the course objectives. It would make little sense for my learning and cognition students to be placed at a community agency where they could not observe learning in action.

It is also important to develop projects that are appropriate for linking service learning to the course in which it is embedded. Any activity should encourage students to use material from the course. My learning and cognition students start their service learning hours after we have covered the three learning theories in class. Now they are prepared to look for and understand examples of learning in action. Their reflection paper then ties these real life examples to the theories they read about in their textbook and talked about in class.

Each faculty member will have to consider how best to integrate the service learning activities into the course and into classroom activities. The faculty member also needs to make decisions about how many points the activities will be worth and how many hours of service will be required. My service learning paper was worth 15% of their overall course grade for learning and cognition. I started on the low end of what I have read about in researching service learning. I have seen anywhere from 3 hours to 100 hours of required service time. I started with three hours, and none of my students have complained about that being unmanageable. In fact, many of them actually recommended I increase the service time. I am going to increase my requirement to five hours the next time I teach the course and see how that is received. Content does not need to be sacrificed to free up time for service learning activities when the service learning activity itself is linked to course objectives.

I have also learned that it is important to encourage students to reflect on the service activity in multiple ways throughout the semester. This helps to reinforce the importance of service learning to the course. I am going to add more discussion time the next time I teach the course. The experience is something that I, and the students, referred to throughout the semester, but I am going to add an entire class period dedicated to reflection about the experience when the paper is due. This is yet another way the students can connect the learning objectives to the service learning activity.

Incorporating service learning into courses requires effort. Establishing a relationship with community partners takes time. It will require some meetings prior to, and possibly, during and after the semester. Once the relationship(s) has been established, this concern becomes less time consuming. If your university has existing relationships with community agencies, you may be able to tap into that already functioning relationship. For my students and me, the relationship with the Boys and Girls Club and our university had long been established, and the agency had a number of excellent experiences with our students. When I went to meet with the Director for the first time, I had a foot-in-the-door and good will already engendered. When I found out that she was a psychology major as an undergraduate and a member of Psi Chi, the deal was done! Agencies and universities may differ on how formal the relationship needs to be. Make sure you check with both to see if forms need to be developed and signed, if students need background checks, etc.

5. I’m bringing it home with a stirring conclusion!

By now, we should all agree that service learning is the best thing since sliced bread, or air conditioning. I do live in Texas after all. And since everyone is doing it—you should too. In my mind, my childhood-self is saying this to my mother, and she is telling me something about a bridge and everyone jumping off it. I think her point was that I wasn’t supposed to jump off a bridge even if everyone was doing it. In no way, do I want to argue with my mother (you know she is going to read this—I love you, Mommy), but I think the use of service learning is an exception to the bridge rule. This is something that everyone can incorporate in some way in some course at some time. Consider it another empirically supported best practice for your toolbox. For some of you, this just confirms what you and your students have known all along-- service learning benefits students, faculty, and community partners in many, many ways. For the rest of you, now is the time to get on board. You may be late to the party, but everyone is welcome!


Vicki Sheafer received her B.S. in psychology and sociology from Union College in Barbourville, KY, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She is currently Professor of Psychology and Chair of Undergraduate Programs in Psychology & Counseling at LeTourneau University in Longview, TX. Her research interests revolve around the scholarship of teaching and learning in psychology, specifically digital storytelling, service learning, and the use of social media in the classroom. She is also involved in interdisciplinary research with an engineering colleague investigating creativity in engineering design. The project was recently awarded a three-year National Science Foundation grant.

Additional Resources

Web sites

1. Using Service Learning to Teach Classic Learning Theories by Vicki Sheafer (Listserve requires a password)

2. National Service Learning Clearinghouse

3. Campus Compact

4. Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE)

Service Learning in Psychology Courses

Connor-Greene, P. A. (2002). Problem-based service learning: The evolution of a team project.

Teaching of Psychology, 29, 193-197. doi: 10.1207/S15328023TOP2903_02