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

Service Learning: A High-Impact Educational Practice for Students and the Community

03 Sep 2019 8:04 PM | Anonymous

Lisa H. Rosen (Texas Woman’s University)


Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

-Margaret Mead

            Margaret Mead’s powerful words suggest that students can work together to create change in their communities. I include this quotation in the syllabi of my service learning courses, and ask students to reflect on this sentiment throughout the semester. As an instructor, I have been continuously impressed by the positive change brought about through service learning for both my students and our community. In this essay, I set out to define service learning and provide examples of how service learning can be incorporated into a variety of psychology courses. Although there are many benefits of service learning that I note in this essay, there are also possible pitfalls for which I offer recommendations to overcome.

            At the simplest level, service learning enables students to learn about course content while engaging in meaningful community service. Service learning can be considered a field-based form of experiential learning and is a mutually beneficial process; students provide needed service to the community and completing the service activities enhances student’s educational experiences (Furco, 1996). The advantages of service learning for both students and the community are reflected in this often cited quote: “Service, combined with learning, adds value to each and transforms both” (Honnet & Poulsen, 1989, p. 1). The potential for students and the community to equally benefit is what differentials service learning from typical volunteerism and other forms of experiential education (Furco, 1996). Service learning is unique from other forms of community service because it is directly connected to course content and learning objectives and furthers progress toward academic goals (Bringle, Hatcher, & Jones, 2010).

Reflection is one of the key features of the service learning experience, and successful service learning assignments provide students ample opportunities for reflection throughout the process. In fact, service learning has been said to occur through “a cycle of action and reflection” (Barry, 2017, p. 127). Reflection is what brings about learning from the service experience (Eyler, Giles, Schmeide, 1999).

Service learning involves collaboration between students, faculty, and key community partners (Felten & Clayton, 2011). Working in the community provides students the opportunity to see the application of course material to a real-world setting (Baca, 2012). Service learning is also considered a high-impact educational practice as evidence consistently suggests that students benefit from its use (Kuh, 2008).

The nature of the service learning and how instructors guide reflection can take many forms. Service learning has been described as a flexible pedagogy (Savanick, 2018).  As such, service learning is a pedagogical technique that can be applied to almost any psychology course. To demonstrate the flexibility of this technique, I provide two very different examples of how I use service learning: one in a large undergraduate Psychology of Women course and the second in a small graduate Developmental Psychology course.

In my larger Psychology of Women course, I divide my class into smaller groups and each carries out its own project. At the start of the semester, I ask students to complete a survey assessing academic interests, hobbies, and availability. Based on these surveys, I divide the class into smaller working groups of four to six students. Students are then tasked with designing a service project that is directly connected to the themes of the course. I provide students a list of approved community partners, but also offer them the ability to select other agencies pending instructor approval. Students develop a proposal for a project that aligns with course objectives and share their proposal with the class. As part of the proposal, students describe the community need they wish to address, explain why the community need exists, and discuss how they see their service project benefiting individuals and the community. Students are also asked to articulate how the service learning project aligns with course material. Prior to conducting the service project, students engage in pre-reflection, writing about their perceptions and beliefs about the population they will be serving. Once the proposal is finalized, students implement the project and reflect on their experiences through both a presentation and paper assignment.

As students are encouraged to use their creativity and draw on their shared interests, I have seen a wide array of projects. Several groups have worked with a local organization that provides an emergency shelter for women who have experienced relationship violence. Students have been able to draw on their interests and expertise to work with women and children at the shelter. For instance, one group with a shared interest in music, made musical instruments with children at the shelter and did a sing-a-long. Another group had an interest in cooking and conducted a demonstration on preparing healthy food on a budget. Similarly, students have worked extensively with our campus afterschool program. Projects here have also been diverse and driven by student interest. As an example, several chemistry majors in my course conducted science demonstrations and taught about female scientists with the hopes of encouraging girls to pursue interests in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Beyond targeting the children, another group discussed balancing multiple roles with our university students whose children were enrolled in the afterschool program and tried to offer practical suggestions based on the literature on family-work balance.

I take a slightly different approach when integrating service learning in my smaller graduate developmental psychology course. In this case, we complete the project together as a class and organize a series of activities for a nursing home. Again, I allow student interest to guide the project. As we study the period of late adulthood, students apply the material to designing our class project. For example, as we discuss physical development, students come to see that it might be challenging for some residents of the nursing home to complete a finely detailed coloring page using color pencils. After we finish the project as a group, we discuss the experience in class and students write a paper about their experiences.

Service learning is associated with many benefits for students (Eyler, Giles, Stenson, & Gray, 2001). Consistently, service learning has proved a way to engage students at higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and is associated with deep learning of the course material (Kronick, Cunningham, & Gourley, 2011). Further, service learning promotes the development of communication and interpersonal skills such as team work and leadership (Eyler et al., 1999). Moreover, service learning promotes career exploration and students can include this experience on their resumes. Maybe more importantly, service learning promotes a sense of social responsibility; students demonstrate greater understanding of socially complex issues and are more likely to serve their community in the future following service learning (Felten & Clayton, 2011). As an instructor, I have seen the positive impact of service learning on my students and have included a few student quotes, which I believe demonstrate the benefits of this pedagogical approach.

“After completion of my service project, I now have a more comprehensive understanding of several academic concepts addressed in this course… my service learning project made the course material relevant”.

“My service project has benefitted many facets of my life including personally, academically, and occupationally”.

“I encountered situations that were unfamiliar, and I was challenged to see life from a different perspective. I do believe this type of project should be required in all colleges”.


Although service learning is associated with many positive outcomes, there are a number of well-documented implementation challenges (Kronick et al., 2011). As learning takes place in a real world setting, students are often faced with uncertainty because there are factors that affect their project, which are beyond their control. For many service projects, students do not know the exact number of attendees to expect given the complexity of working with community organizations. One year, a group of students planned to do a painting project with children at the emergency shelter but only adults attended. I find it helpful to address this uncertainty at the start of the semester and discuss some of the potential reasons for this complexity. Another challenge is that organizations may be hesitant to partner with students (Kronick et al., 2011). A strategy that I have found to be effective is to reach out to organizations in our community and create a list of community partners. Service learning does have its challenges and takes extra work on the part of the faculty. However, I encourage you to try service learning in your own courses as I have witnessed groups of students change our community for the better, semester after semester.


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