Transformative Service-Learning

06 Jun 2018 10:00 AM | Anonymous
By Rachel Shor, Ph.D. Candidate, George Mason University

As instructors, we consistently endeavor to engage students in the classroom, in course material, and in the learning process in order to promote growth and deepen understanding of course material. One pathway to increase student engagement and comprehension is through experiential learning ─ and in particular though service-learning. Service-learning is conducive to building critical thinking skills, empowering students to take an active role in their learning and increasing understanding of material. In fact, there is a substantial body of literature highlighting how service-learning is a powerful educational tool that can have a transformative impact on students, for example, increasing self-esteem (e.g., Celio, Durklak, & Dymnicki, 2011), self-efficacy (e.g., Aston, 2000), as well as engagement in leadership activities (e.g., Astin et al., 2006), social skills, cultural competence, and social problem solving (e.g., Simons & Cleary, 2006).

Research on Service-learning

Service-learning courses educate students by engaging them in the classroom as well as the community, while educators facilitate students’ reflection on their experiences in both environments (Giles & Eyler, 1994; Cress, Collier & Reitenauer, 2005; Kiely, 2005). Broken into its simplest components, service-learning consists of a classroom component, a placement within a community organization typically outside of the college, and the students who engage in the course. Educators have significant control over the nature of the classroom and community placements, making those components especially important to study.

There are a number of different theoretical frameworks that describe the mechanics of change in a service-learning course. A shared theme among these theories is that through community service, students have critical experiences, or “disorienting dilemmas” (Mezirow, 2000), that shake-up how they think about themselves, others, or the world around them. Classroom work helps prepare students for disorienting dilemmas and helps them make sense of their experiences. However, the disorienting dilemma is most likely going to occur at the community placement.

Key Findings

The study I describe here (see Shor, Cattaneo, & Calton, 2017) was conducted with undergraduate students in a service-learning course on community engagement and social change. Using poverty as a semester-long case study, the course was designed to teach undergraduates that social problems have social causes, and to apply multi-level analysis to understand the impact of these social problems on individuals and communities. In addition to course readings, experiential classroom exercises, and class assignments, students also completed 20 hours of service with community partners (e.g., a local homeless shelter).

This study extended research on transformational service-learning by examining the impact that a community placement context can have on college students’ transformational processes. Using the consensual qualitative research (CQR; Hill, Thompson, & Williams, 1997) method of qualitative analysis, we examined 43 essays written by undergraduates taking the course, in which they described an experience they found to be “eye-opening” while learning about the development and maintenance of poverty in the United States.

Our findings suggest that working inside and outside of a community placement (e.g., a homeless shelter, in a community garden) shapes the types of disorienting dilemmas students’ experience. Students who engaged in service-learning at a homeless shelter, for example, identified experiences in which they learned more about clients’ current or past life difficulties. One student wrote:

A middle school girl was telling me how her 19 years old sister died giving birth to her baby, and how her three brothers died in war. Her parents and her three younger siblings came to United States 7 years ago. Her parents left three kids back in Somalia because they couldn’t afford to take the other kids with them.

In contrast, the students whose service-learning placed them outside of a facility identified disorienting dilemmas in which they made a personal connection to a client, but only 20% reported that they learned about the client's difficult life. For example, one student who worked an event that took place in the community wrote that,

To me this was an eye-opening moment as I got to make a connection with someone I never thought I would have. I did not realize how I had stereotyped and stigmatized the homeless by never thinking I could indeed have a stimulating conversation with them or relate to them. I failed to see them as regular people who have gone through tremendous difficulties in their lives.

One explanation for this contrast is that students and clients have different role expectations in the different settings. In a shelter, students are typically assigned administrative work and have rigidly defined job responsibilities; for example, they provide resources, open locked doors, answer phones, or tutor. Within the shelter context, students have a clear position of power relative to clients, many times with the physical barrier of a desk or table separating them. These physical and psychological barriers keep them somewhat removed from clients and put them in a position to observe others. Outside of the placement facility, though, role expectations may be less clear, and students and clients may have more opportunity to interact as individuals rather than as helper and client. These findings suggest that different contextual components may therefore expose students to different types of experiences, which potentially facilitate different pathways towards transformation.

Instructors have a profound impact on students’ classroom experience and choosing community partners, and these findings have the potential to allow educators to customize service-learning experiences for students. Educators may choose to foster specific community partnerships that emphasize home-based services rather than working at a shelter, knowing that interactions in and outside of an organization's physical location may lead to qualitatively different experiences. Alternatively, instructors may vary their in-class activities and course material based on the context of students’ placements to foster different reflection and critical thinking skills. Ultimately, these findings support the existing literature that service-learning with adequate reflection has the potential to transform students’ thinking and promote growth.

To read the full article on pathways of transformational service-learning, please refer to the following:

Shor, R., Cattaneo, L., & Calton, J. (2017). Pathways of transformational service learning: Exploring the relationships between context, disorienting dilemmas, and student response. Journal of Transformative Education15, 156-173. doi: 10.1177/1541344616689044.


Astin, A. W., Vogelgesang, L. J., Ikeda, E. K., & Yee, J. A. (2000). How service learning affects students. Los Angeles: University of California Los Angeles, Higher Education Research Institute. Retrieved from

Astin, A. W., Vogelgesang, L. J., Misa, K., Anderson, J., Denson, N., Jayakumar, U., Saenz, V., & Yamamura, E. (2006). Understanding the effects of service-learning: A study of students and faculty. Report to the Atlantic Philanthropies, 1–155. Retrieved from, Durklak, & Dymnicki, 2011

Cress, C., Collier, P.J., Reitenauer, V.L. and Associates (2005). Learning through serving: A student guidebook for service-learning across the disciplines. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Giles Jr., D. E., & Eyler, J. (1994). The theoretical roots of service-learning in John Dewey: Toward a theory of service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning1(1), 7-85.

Hill, C. E., Thompson, B. J., & Williams, E. N. (1997). A guide to conducting consensual qualitative research. The Counseling Psychologist, 25, 517–572.

Kiely, R. (2005). A transformative learning model for service-learning: A longitudinal case study. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 12, 5–22.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Simons, L., & Cleary, B. (2006). The influence of service learning on students’ personal and social development. College Teaching, 54, 307–319.


Rachel Shor is a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology at George Mason University. With experience as a trauma counselor and a doctoral student researcher, she has examined the impact of interpersonal violence and multicultural counseling. Rachel’s current research investigates the interpersonal dynamics of power, implicit social cognition, and disclosure during the process of help-seeking.

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