Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Using Service Learning to Teach Classic Learning Theories

20 Jul 2016 6:14 PM | Anonymous
Using Service Learning to Teach Classic Learning Theories

Vicki Sheafer
LeTourneau University

            Service learning is an educational experience that involves an organized service activity with structured reflection to guide students’ learning (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999). This embeds teaching and learning in a social context larger than a classroom (Conway, Amel, & Gerwien, 2009). Good service learning represents a partnership between the campus and the community, with the faculty member responsible for fitting the service learning experience to the course objectives, and community agency staff ensuring that the students’ service learning experience is commensurate with their goals (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999).

            This definition also highlights the importance of reflection as “. . . the intentional consideration of an experience in light of particular learning objectives” (Hatcher & Bringle, 1997, p. 153). Service learning works because it supports the construction of knowledge through students’ reflecting on experience, developing new conceptualizations, and experimenting with their new conceptualizations (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999; Conway et al., 2009). Reflection assignments direct the students’ attention to new ways of looking at events and provide a way through which service learning can be studied and understood (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999).

            John Dewey’s work provides a philosophical underpinning for reflection’s role in the learning process as a connection between experience and theory (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999; Hatcher & Bringle, 1997). Personal experiences, such as those gained during service learning, allow theory to take on deeper meaning when reflection activities support an examination of the learning opportunity. When faculty members present theory in the context of course material, or assign it as a set of text readings, students often see it as information that has no personal or contemporary relevance.  Through service learning, students make connections between abstract theory and personal experience, thereby deepening and strengthening their learning. Experience becomes educational when students’ practice critical reflection that generates new perspectives and leads to growth (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999).

            There have been many course specific examples of the application of service learning to the discipline of psychology (Conway et al., 2009). Kretchmar’s (2001) general psychology students mentored at-risk school children and tutored boys in a transitional living facility.  Lundy’s (2007) life-span developmental psychology students volunteered in an agency relevant to the course, such as a day care facility, preschool, retirement home, or assisted living facility. Wilson’s (1998) psychology of learning students volunteered with an agency relevant to the course, such as Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, a children’s hospital, or a local elementary school. Examples also exist for applied animal behavior, cognition, research methods, psychology ethics, and pediatric psychology courses (Conway et al., 2009).         

            In their meta-analysis of service learning’s effects on academic, personal, social, and citizenship outcomes, Conway et al. (2009) found large changes in academic outcomes (cognitive and academic changes involving knowledge, the ability to apply knowledge, cognitive processes, and the motivation to learn), and reflection was generally associated with larger effects. Reflection included assignments such as journals, group discussion, debates, research and/or reflection papers, and oral presentations.

The Service Learning Project

            I designed this assignment to apply empirically tested service learning principles to the mastering of classic learning theories in a Learning and Cognition course.  I have used this assignment twice thus far, with similar results each time.  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/or 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 the 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.).  The majority of the students fulfilled their community service hours at the Boys and Girls Club, or at other sites that I approved in advance of their service.

Student Response to the Service Learning Project

            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. I examined this section of each student’s paper for themes using qualitative research strategies (Elliott, Fischer, & Rennie, 1999). Two main themes emerged.  The first theme was the value of seeing learning theories in action. 


The service learning activity at the Boys and Girls Club provided numerous opportunities for me to see learning at work. It’s one thing to read in a textbook about learning, but quite another experience to actually visually observe learning taking place. This activity was a wonderful experience in which I myself grew in greater understanding. (SJ)

In addition, there are definitely academic motives for serving. 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.  Really, having the ability to serve should be seen as a privilege. (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)

Jesus is the source from which all knowledge, all wisdom, all love come from in the first place. Put this together with the fact that he has called his children to be his hands and feet to the rest of the world, and this only underscores the way in which one needs to approach even small things like a Learning and Cognition assignment. I am so grateful that I was given the opportunity to reach into the lives of these kids even while working on an assignment. (KF)


            The hands-on, practical application of academic knowledge really made an impact on students.  Students believe that service learning helped them gain a better understanding of classroom material, and helped them grow as citizens of their local community, and for many of them, in their faith.  Many student comments connected their service learning experience with the structured reflection assignment of the paper. It was through writing that they were able to integrate their observations and their classroom learning.

            The students’ evaluations provided the overall impression that the service learning project was fun, valuable, enlightening, and educational. Service learning may not work for every faculty member, every course, or every student, but these programs model the idea that giving something back to the community is an important educational outcome, and that working with community partners is good preparation for citizenship, work, and life (Kuh, 2008). Service learning can be a part of the essential learning outcomes (Kuh, 2008) for which college studies should prepare students as they face the challenges brought on by the twenty-first century and our ever shrinking world. Service learning can help promote knowledge of human cultures, intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility, and integrative and applied learning. As Psychology faculty, we are in a great position to leverage the power of service learning for our students, ourselves, and our communities.  


Author note

            Portions of this essay were presented at the National Institute for the Teaching of Psychology annual conference.  St. Pete Beach, FL, January 2016.


Bringle, R.G., & Hatcher, J. (1999). Reflection in service learning: Making meaning of experience. Educational Horizons, 77, 179-185.

Conway, J.M., Amel, E.L., & Gerwien, D.P. (2009). Teaching and learning in the social context: A meta-analysis of service learning’s effects on academic, personal, social, and citizenship outcomes. Teaching of Psychology, 36, 233-245. doi: 10.1080/00986280903172969

Elliot, R., Fischer, C.T., & Rennie, D.L. (1999). Evolving guidelines for publication of qualitative research studies in psychology and related fields. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 38, 215-229. doi: 10.1348/014466599162782 

Hatcher, J.A., & Bringle, R.G. (1997). Reflections: Bridging the gap between service and learning. Journal of College Teaching, 45, 153-158. doi:10.1080/87567559709596221

Kretchmar, M.D. (2001). Service learning in a general psychology class: Description, preliminary evaluation, and recommendations. Teaching of Psychology, 28, 5-10. doi: 10.1207/S15328023TOP2801_02

Kuh, G.D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges &Universities.

Lundy, B.L. (2007). Service learning in life-span developmental psychology: Higher exam scores and increased empathy. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 23-27. doi: 10.1080/00986280709336644 

Wilson, T.L. (1998). The psychology of service learning: More than Pavlov’s dog. Eye on Psi Chi, 2(3), 22-23.



Vicki Sheafer received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  She is currently Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Undergraduate Programs in Psychology & Counseling at LeTourneau University (Longview, TX).  She typically teaches undergraduate courses in social psychology, learning and cognition, personality theory, physiological psychology, psychology of gender, research methods, and statistics.  She serves students as the faculty advisor for Psi Chi, the International Honor Society for psychology.  Her research interests revolve around the scholarship of teaching and learning in psychology. She is also a secondary investigator on an NSF grant exploring creativity in engineering design.

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