Service Learning Research Paper

Assessment and impact

At a Glance: What we Know about the Effects of Service-Learning on College Students, Faculty, Institutions and Communities

Author: Janet S. Eyler, Dwight E.Giles, Jr., Christine M. Stenson, and Charlene J. Gray
Source: Vanderbilt University, August 31, 2001
Summary: "At A Glance" summarizes the findings of service-learning research in higher education over the past few years and includes an annotated bibliography. It is designed to provide a quick overview of where we are in the field today and a map to the literature.

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Impact of Service-Learning and Social Justice Education on College Students’ Cognitive Development

Author(s): Yan Wang and Robert Rodgers
Source: NASPA Journal, 20, Vol. 43, no. 2
Summary: This study used the Measure of Epistemology Reflection to explore the impact of service-learning and social justice education on college students’ cognitive development. Six service-learning courses taught with or without a social justice emphasis were studied. Results showed that service-learning courses in general had a positive impact on students’ cognitive development, while service-learning courses with a social justice emphasis appeared to have more impact on students’ cognitive development than those without a social justice emphasis.

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Service-Learning and Academic Success: The Links to Retention Research

Author: Dan Simonet
Source: Minnesota Campus Compact, May 2008
Summary: Emerging research on service-learning validates a longstanding philosophy: integrating academics and community service delivers greater student leadership development, enriched learning, and improved academic performance. By relating the growing evidence of service-learning’s benefits to the theoretical explanations of student retention, we can craft an even clearer vision of how each field may enhance the other. By fusing the best of both disciplines, we can begin expanding the boundaries of student retention to make visible new ideas; create stronger, more seamless institutional practices; further embed effective practices of civic engagement; and establish new, positive relationships among different departments of higher education. This brief provides a general overview of the relationship that exists between these two fields. It argues, that service-learning should be thought of as a process that creates greater student engagement, which in turn results in the product of student retention. The overall intent is to provide a clearer foundation in the research that supports the way that service-learning is related to student success. In doing so, we will encourage dynamic collaborations between our offices of civic engagement and our institutional initiatives to improve retention.

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Service-Learning in Life-Span Developmental Psychology: Higher Exam Scores and Increased Empathy

Author: Brenda Lundy
Summary: This article describes research conducted to evaluate the impact of service-learning on exam scores and emotional empathy in a life-span development course. Service-learning was one of three project options offered in the course; others included an interview project and a research paper. With the exception of the first exam, scores were significantly higher for the service-learning students compared to those who completed other projects. In addition, only the service-learning group demonstrated a significant increase in emotional empathy as measured by the Emotional Empathetic Tendency Scale (EETS; Mehrabian&Epstein, 1972). I discuss the results in terms of the relations among practical experience, reflection, and emotional empathy.

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Implementing Service-Learning in Higher Education

Author(s): Robert G. Bringle and Julie A. Hatcher
Source: The Journal of Higher Education, Vol.67, No. 2 (Mar. - Apr., 1996), pp. 221-239
Summary: The current interest in service-learning provides universities with a unique opportunity to engage their students in community service, expand their educational agenda, and build reciprocal partnerships with the community. This article discusses the implementation of service-learning by delineating a set of activities for four constituencies: institution, faculty, students, and community.

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The Impact of Service-Learning on Ethnocentrism in an Intercultural Communication Course

Author: Amanda Welch Borden
Source: Journal of Experiential Education, 2007, Volume 30, No.2 pp. 171-183
Summary: This study analyzes a project involving students enrolled in an intercultural communication class that employs service-learning. Participants were given the Generalized Ethnocentrism (GENE) scale developed by Neuliep and McCroskey at the beginning and conclusion of a semester of service-learning with a cultural group different than their own. Results indicate a significant decrease in ethnocentrism from the beginning to the end of the semester. Analysis of students' written reflections about their service experiences reinforces the conclusion that service-learning played a part in reducing ethnocentrism. Although further research is needed to provide a control for the manipulation, there is a preliminary indication that service-learning with diverse cultures may provide a type of consistent, deep, and meaningful contact that leads to lower levels of ethnocentrism. 

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Principles and best practices

Building Effective Partnerships in Service-Learning

Source: National Service-Learning Clearinghouse, 2008.
Summary: Effective partnerships between agencies, schools, colleges or universities, businesses, government, and residents for the benefits of the community are a vital part of youth service in America. This fact sheet provides resources that will get you thinking about how to develop and sustain these partnerships.

Building Effective Partnerships in Service-Learning

Connecting Communities with Colleges and Universities

Source: America’s Promise—The Alliance for Youth
Summary: Strategies to Strengthen Local Promise Efforts Through Higher Education Involvement.

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Embedded Engagement: Communities Magnify the Value of Engaged Practices 

Author: Zoe Freeman
Source: Campus Compact
Summary: This paper is written from a community partner perspective and reflects Freeman’s convictions, gained over 14 years of working with service-learning students at the Pike Market Senior Center in Seattle. Freeman speaks of a vision for the future of our cities and communities, where issues of social inequity and environmental degradation are met with informed, lasting solutions.

Embedded Engagement: Communities Magnify the Value of Engaged Practices

How Higher Education is Integrating Diversity and Service-Learning: Findings from Four Case Studies

Author: Lori J.Vogelgesang, with research support from Marcy Drummond and Shannon K. Gilmartin
Source: California Campus Compact, 2003 

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Research University Engage Scholarship Toolkit 

Source: Campus Compact, Update 2010
Summary: This toolkit offers a guide to the best resources on engaged scholarship, along with models, exemplars, and original essays. Developed by The Research University Civic Engagement Network, for which Campus Compact serves as coordinator, the toolkit offers information and resources for all institutions seeking to implement or expand engaged scholarship on campus. 

Research University Engage Scholarship Toolkit

What is Experiential Learning?

Author: James W. Gentry
Source: Guide to Business Gaming and Experiential Learning, 1990.
Summary: This chapter has delineated several criteria which can be used to help evaluate whether a particular teaching methodology can be classified as facilitating experiential learning. Experiential learning is participative, interactive, and applied. It allows contact with the environment, and exposure to processes that are highly variable and uncertain. It involves the whole person; learning takes place on the affective and behavioral dimensions as well as on the cognitive dimension.

The experience needs to be structured to some degree; relevant learning objectives need to be specified and the conduct of the experience needs to be monitored. Students need to evaluate the experience in light of theory and in light of their own feelings. And, process feedback needs to be provided to the student to complement (and possibly supersede) the outcome feedback received by the student. A wide variety of pedagogies have been labeled as involving experiential learning; the use of the criteria can help evaluate their experiential learning potential. Approaches such as computer-assisted instruction may fall short on the “experience” Criteria (contact with environment, variability, uncertainty, interactive, etc.). On the other hand, approaches such as internships are strong on the experience criteria but may yield highly variable learning due to the lack of structure and to the difficulty associated with providing process feedback. Approaches such as live cases would appear to meet most of the criteria easily.

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Syllabus and course design


Source: Campus Compact
Summary: In this section, you will find more than 300 exemplary service-learning syllabi across a wide variety of disciplines.

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To Hell with Good Intentions

Author: Ivan Illich
Source: Volunteer Bolivia
Summary: An address by Monsignor Ivan Illich to the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on April 20, 1968. In his usual biting and sometimes sarcastic style, Illich goes to the heart of the deep dangers of paternalism inherent in any voluntary service activity, but especially in any international service "mission." Parts of the speech are outdated and must be viewed in the historical context of 1968 when it was delivered, but the entire speech is retained for the full impact of his point and at Illich's request.

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Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work

Author(s): Fay Hanleybrown, John Kania, and Mark Kramer
Source: Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2012
Summary: An in-depth look at how organizations of all types, acting in diverse settings, are implementing a collective impact approach to solve large-scale social problems.

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Reflection: Linking Service and Learning—Linking Students and Communities

Author: Janet Eyler
Source: Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 58, No. 3, 2002, pp. 517—534
Summary: While research on service-learning has been mixed, there is evidence to suggest that service–learning programs which thoroughly integrate service and academic learning through continuous reflection promote development of the knowledge, skills, and cognitive capacities necessary for students to deal effectively with the complex social issues that challenge citizens. While there is not much research in the service–learning literature that specifically addresses techniques of reflection, evidence from studies of problem–based learning, situated cognition, and cognitive development suggests approaches to reflection that will enhance the power of service-learning in attaining these important goals which facilitate full community participation. This review presents concrete suggestions about this type of program.

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Modified by Anne Wyscocki for the Corporation for National Service
Source: Career and Community Center, University of Minnesota
Summary: This section describes a process that faculty can use for structuring the reflection process. The approach described in the following section can be used regardless of specific S-L educational outcomes. However, before following the process outlined in this section, faculty must carefully consider the links between service-learning outcomes, reflection, and assessment.

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What is Service Learning or Community Engagement?

By Joe Bandy, Assistant Director, CFT

Community engagement pedagogies, often called “service learning,” are ones that combine learning goals and community service in ways that can enhance both student growth and the common good.  In the words of the National Service Learning Clearinghouse, it is “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”  Or, to quote Vanderbilt University’s Janet S. Eyler (winner of the 2003 Thomas Ehrlich Faculty Award for Service Learning) and Dwight E. Giles, Jr., it is

“a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students. . . seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves. In the process, students link personal and social development with academic and cognitive development. . . experience enhances understanding; understanding leads to more effective action.”

Typically, community engagement is incorporated into a course or series of courses by way of a project that has both learning and community action goals.  This project is designed via collaboration between faculty and community partners, such as non-governmental organizations or government agencies.  The project asks students to apply course content to community-based activities.  This gives students experiential opportunities to learn in real world contexts and develop skills of community engagement, while affording community partners opportunities to address significant needs. Vanderbilt University’s Sharon Shields has argued that service learning is “one of the most significant teaching methodologies gaining momentum on many campuses.” [1] Indeed, when done well, teaching through community engagement benefits students, faculty, communities, and institutions of higher education. Below are some of the benefits that education researchers and practitioners have associated with community engaged teaching. [2]

Student Benefits of Community Engagement

Learning Outcomes

  • Positive impact on students’ academic learning
  • Improves students’ ability to apply what they have learned in “the real world”
  • Positive impact on academic outcomes such as demonstrated complexity of understanding, problem analysis, problem-solving, critical thinking, and cognitive development
  • Improved ability to understand complexity and ambiguity

Personal Outcomes

  • Greater sense of personal efficacy, personal identity, spiritual growth, and moral development
  • Greater interpersonal development, particularly the ability to work well with others, and build leadership and communication skills

Social Outcomes

  • Reduced stereotypes and greater inter-cultural understanding
  • Improved social responsibility and citizenship skills
  • Greater involvement in community service after graduation

Career Development

  • Connections with professionals and community members for learning and career opportunities
  • Greater academic learning, leadership skills, and personal efficacy can lead to greater opportunity

Relationship with the Institution

  • Stronger relationships with faculty
  • Greater satisfaction with college
  • Improved graduation rates

Faculty Benefits of Community Engagement

  • Satisfaction with the quality of student learning
  • New avenues for research and publication via new relationships between faculty and community
  • Providing networking opportunities with engaged faculty in other disciplines or institutions
  • A stronger commitment to one’s research

College and University Benefits of Community Engagement

  • Improved institutional commitment to the curriculum
  • Improved student retention
  • Enhanced community relations

Community Benefits of Community Engagement

  • Satisfaction with student participation
  • Valuable human resources needed to achieve community goals
  • New energy, enthusiasm and perspectives applied to community work
  • Enhanced community-university relations

Models of Community Engagement Teaching

What does community engaged teaching look like in practice?  There are many variations and each have their usefulness for different applications.  According to Kerissa Heffernan, there are six general models. [3] Click on the tabs to explore each model.


Discipline-Based Model

In this model, students are expected to have a presence in the community throughout the semester and reflect on their experiences regularly.  In these reflections, they use course content as a basis for their analysis and understanding of the key theoretical, methodological and applied issues at hand.


Problem-Based Model

Students relate to the community much as “consultants” working for a “client.” Students work with community members to understand a particular community problem or need.  This model presumes that the students have or will develop capacities with which to help communities solve a problem.  For example: architecture students might design a park; business students might develop a web site; botany students might identify non-native plants and suggest eradication methods.

Capstone Course

Capstone Course Model

These courses are generally designed for majors and minors in a given discipline and are offered almost exclusively to students in their final year. Capstone courses ask students to draw upon the knowledge they have obtained throughout their course work and combine it with relevant service work in the community. The goal of capstone courses is usually either exploring a new topic or synthesizing students’ understanding of their discipline.

Service Internship

Service Internship Model

This approach asks students to work as many as 10 to 20 hours a week in a community setting. As in traditional internships, students are charged with producing a body of work that is of value to the community or site. However, unlike traditional internships, service internships have on-going faculty-guided reflection to challenge the students to analyze their new experiences using discipline-based theories.  Service internships focus on reciprocity: the idea that the community and the student benefit equally from the experience.

Undergrad Community-Based Action Research

Action Research Model

Community-based action research is similar to an independent study option for the student who is highly experienced in community work.  This approach can be effective with small classes or groups of students.  In this model, students work closely with faculty members to learn research methodology while serving as advocates for communities.  This model assumes that students are or can be trained to be competent in time management and can negotiate diverse communities.

Directed Study Extra Credit

Directed Study Additional/Extra Credit Model

Students can register for up to three additional/extra credits in a course by making special arrangements with the instructor to complete an added community-based project.  The course instructor serves as the advisor for the directed study option.  Such arrangements require departmental approval and formal student registration.

Ways to Integrate Community Engagement into an Existing Course

There are many ways to integrate community engagement into an existing course, depending on the learning goals, the size of the class, the academic preparation of the students, and the community partnership or project type.  Below are some general tips to consider as you begin: [4]

  • One-time group service projects: Some course objectives can be met when the entire class is involved in a one-time service project. Arrangements for service projects can be made prior to the semester and included in the syllabus. This model affords the opportunity for faculty and peer interaction because a common service experience is shared. One-time projects have different learning outcomes than ongoing service activities.
  • Option within a course: Many faculty begin community engagement with a pilot project. In this design, students have the option to become involved in the community-based project.  A portion of the normal coursework is substituted by the community-based component.  For example, a traditional research paper or group project can be replaced with an experiential research paper or personal journal that documents learning from the service experience.
  • Required within a course: In this case, all students are involved in service as an integrated aspect of the course. This expectation must be clearly stated at the first class meeting, on the syllabus, with a clear rationale provided to students as to why the service component is required. Exceptions can be arranged on an individual basis or students can transfer to another class. If all students are involved in service, it is easier to design coursework (i.e., class discussions, writing assignments, exam questions) that integrates the service experience with course objectives. Class sessions can involve agency personnel and site visits. Faculty report that it is easier to build community partnerships if a consistent number of students are involved each semester.
  • Action research projects: This type of class involves students in research within the community. The results of the research are communicated to the agency so that it can be used to address community needs. Action research and participatory action research take a significant amount of time to build relationships of trust in the community and identify common research agendas; however, community research projects can support the ongoing research of faculty. Extending this type of research beyond the confines of a semester may be best for all involved.
  • Disciplinary capstone projects: Community engagement is an excellent way to build upon students’ cumulative knowledge in a specific discipline and to demonstrate the integration of that knowledge with real life issues. Upper class students can explore ways their disciplinary expertise and competencies translate into addressing community needs. Other community-based classes within the department can prepare the student for this more extensive community-based class.
  • Multiple course projects:  Community engagement projects with one or more partners may span different courses in the same semester or multiple courses over a year or longer.  These projects must be broad enough to meet the learning goals of multiple courses over time, and because of this they may have a cumulative impact on both student learning and community development that is robust.  Such projects may be particularly suited to course clusters or learning communities within or across disciplines, or course sequences, say, within a major, that build student capacity towards advanced learning and community action goals.

Other CFT Guides About Community Engagement Pedagogies


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