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Service Learning Has Positive Impact on Key Student Learning and Diversity Outcomes

In its report, American Pluralism and the College Curriculum released in 1995, the national panel guiding AAC&U's American Commitments initiative recommended that all undergraduates be provided with experiential or service learning opportunities that introduce them to community-based efforts to pursue justice, expand opportunity, and build healthy and diverse communities.

Throughout the 1990s, campuses have continued to expand their service learning programs. Many are now explicitly connecting these programs to efforts to diversify their curricula. While more research is needed to determine the impact of explicitly addressing diversity or justice issues in service learning programs, current research reveals that existing programs are having a positive impact on students' attitudes and abilities.

According to a new study by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles, 30 percent of more than 22,000 students surveyed nationwide had participated in course-based community service during college, and an additional 46 percent participated in some other form of community service. The study also found that service participation had a significant positive impact on several different outcome measures including academic performance, critical thinking skills, leadership, and students' commitment to activism and to promoting racial understanding. Qualitative findings from the study also suggest that both faculty and students involved in these programs develop a heightened sense of civic responsibility and personal effectiveness through participation in service-learning courses.

HERI collected data longitudinally from college undergraduates, most of whom had entered college as freshmen in the fall of 1994. The study included both quantitative and qualitative data and involved in-depth case studies of service learning on three different campuses.

Connecting Service Learning to the Curriculum

The HERI study provides strong support for the notion that service-learning courses should be specifically designed to assist students in making connections between their service experiences and their academic course work. The study revealed that performing service as part of a course adds significantly to the benefits associated with community service for all outcomes measured except interpersonal skills, self-efficacy, and leadership. Not surprisingly, benefits associated with course-based service were strongest for the academic outcomes, especially writing skills. One of the crucial components of course-based service learning experiences seems to be the opportunity provided in class for students to process their service experience with other students.

Student Support and Ingredients for Success

Students overwhelmingly support including service learning in the college curricula. Better than four service-learning students in five felt that their service "made a difference" and that they were learning from their service experience. The single most important factor associated with a positive service-learning experience was the student's degree of interest in the subject matter. This factor is also especially important in determining the extent to which the experience enhances understanding of the "academic" course content and is viewed by the student as a learning experience. The study's authors suggest that these findings provide strong support for the notion that service learning should be included in the student's major field.

How professors prepare students for their service learning experience and coordinate those experiences with in-classroom activities also seems to be important to the success of service learning initiatives. The study found that the second most significant factor in a positive service-learning experience is whether the professor encourages class discussion.

Impact Beyond College

The HERI study also found that students' career choices are particularly sensitive to participation in service learning. The effects seem to operate in two ways. Students initially pursuing non-service oriented careers switch their choice to service careers, and students interested in service careers are reinforced in their plans. Service learning opportunities open up possibilities for students. As one student interviewed put it: "the service thing kind of turned on the light. There was so much more out there that I didn't even know existed....It just kind of flipped on this light above my head and all of a sudden I realized everything I could do with my life. I wanted to work hands-on, making a difference, being involved working directly with people."


Authors believe that the study's most important contribution may be to the pedagogy of service learning. The study reinforces the important role that reflection plays in enhancing learning by connecting course material to service experiences. The findings also underscore the importance of the reciprocal influence of "academics" and "service." The quality of service is clearly enhanced by directly applying the academic course material to the service experience, and learning is enhanced by drawing on the service experience to understand the course content.

Clearly, service learning can be a powerful learning experience and seems especially important as a curricular option for those interested in advancing students' understanding of the diversity of their communities and their commitment to civic responsibility and justice-seeking.

To see an Executive Summary of the HERI study, "How Service Learning Affects Students," see http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/slc/rhowas.

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Communication tips

Public opinion research has shown that many Americans think learning on campuses is largely unrelated to life in the real world in general and the business world in particular. Promoting stories on service learning--especially course-based service learning--can help dispel that myth and bring public impressions into sync with the realities of campus life today.

Service learning also provides an opportunity to amplify the voices of students, whose views are often absent from public debate about higher education. Recent graduates whose service learning experiences helped shape their career choices and prepare them for employment can be particularly effective spokespersons on these issues, on talk shows and through letters to the editor and other editorial outreach.