Even a "Done-in-a-Day" Service Activity Can Make a Difference

Posted December 1, 2016

By: Sadie Leder-Elder


A few years back I taught my first service learning class. From that experience I learned two things. The first was that incorporating service into my teaching left my students and myself enriched both educationally and personally. Secondly, teaching a service learning class can be very difficult.

During the period of our collaboration, my service-learning partners experienced a great deal of turnover in leadership. This led to frustration as students’ experiences were often discrepant and at times their service efforts did not align with the material we were discussing in class. All in all, the benefits outweighed the costs, but it wasn’t long before I started thinking, “There has to be an easier way.”

My Done-in-a-Day Activity

The desire to incorporate service in a more manageable fashion led to the development of a number of possibilities, including a one-day service activity in my Introduction to Psychology course. When covering the material on altruism and pro-social behaviors in the social psychology chapter, I ask students to select and participate in a hands-on demonstration of helping.

Past projects have included donating holiday gifts through the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program, sending care-packages to victims of Hurricane Sandy, collecting school supplies for a local elementary school, creating coloring books for the Children’s Miracle Network, making blankets for local hospitals through Project Linus, and sending over a thousand thank you cards and letters of support to US troops stationed around the globe.

Each semester I observed my students’ interest and engagement in the activity and noted how it also appeared to connect them with the course. It wasn’t long until I began to tout my efforts as a success. Unfortunately (but in hindsight, perhaps quite fortunately), my bravado was diminished when a colleague asked the million dollar question, “Do you have any data to show that this activity is actually benefiting your students?” At the time I did not.

Does It Work?

Since then, I have collected Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) data on the impact of my Introduction to Psychology Helping Behavior Activity. I’m thrilled to say that this project, which requires merely one class period, can yield a number of the benefits associated with a semester-long service learning course. For instance, following participation in this activity students reported more ethical awareness and increased participation in volunteer activities. Students also reported higher intrinsic motivation for the class and greater endorsement of the belief that the course contributed to their overall development.

If you are like me and love the idea of teaching students through the incorporation of service, but are not able to devote an entire semester to a service learning partnership, you are in luck. Instructors may be able to harness some of the important benefits affiliated with experiential and service-based instruction by employing a much more manageable Done-in-a-Day Activity. Although I have yet to collect data on the sustainability of the benefits associated with my Done-in-a-Day Activity, this work suggests that it may be easier for instructors to encourage a sense of social responsibility and greater ethical awareness in their students than previously believed.

Suggestions for Implementation

The beauty of this project is its simplicity. If you can spare one day of class, then you have the potential to substantially enhance not only your students’ academic, but also personal growth and development. Although I have used this Done-in-a-Day Activity in my Introduction to Psychology course, I feel confident that it can be applied to a number of classes. For those interested in trying it out, here are a few suggestions:

  • Allow students to select the service activity, but provide guidance about what is realistic for one class period.
  • Help students explicitly make connections between the class material and the service activity.
  • When possible, partner with an established organization so your efforts are part of something sustainable.
  • Know that even this activity will be more work than you imagine, but it’s worth it!

In order to make my Done-in-a-Day Activity a success, I start by building excitement for it from the very first day of class. I then have several days where students can nominate potential class activities, and periodically we have brief discussions about the feasibility of and interest level in the suggested projects. Finally, we pick the activity and I work to explicitly tie it to the course material, both before and after participation. Where possible, I even try to bring in speakers that help students understand the impact of their efforts. Although students are quite literally done with this activity in a day, the impact that participation has on them appears to be extensive. In past semesters, I have even had students begin working with the organizations that we’ve partnered with, sometimes for a number of months or years.


Sadie Leder-Elder received her Ph.D. in Social/Personality Psychology from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at High Point University in High Point, North Carolina. Her research and teaching are focused on the study of close relationships. Sadie is a celebrated educator, having received numerous teaching awards, including being named the national recipient of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s Wilbert J. McKeachie Teaching Excellence Award in 2010 and the Jane S. Halonen Teaching Excellence Award in 2014. 


Leder-Elder, S. (2016, January). Teaching psychology through social action: Even a done-in-a-day activity can make a difference. Poster presented at the annual meeting for the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, St. Pete Beach, FL.