Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 9, Number 1

Diversity Digest
Volume 9,
Number 1

Download our print issue (PDF)
Campus-Community Connections
The Civic Work of Diversity
Educating Multicultural Community Builders: Service Learning at California State University Monterey Bay
Education for Democracy: Place Matters
In the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
Curricular Transformation
Narrative and Community: Civic Engagement and the Work of Diversity
Promoting Cross-Cultural Understanding for Students of Science and Technology
Research Shows Benefits of Linking Diversity and Civic Goals
Diversity and Civic Engagement Outcomes Ranked Among Least Important
Academic Service Learning for Effective Civic Engagement
Faculty Involvement
There Is No Substitute for Experience
Student Experience
The Personal Is Still Political: HIV/AIDS Education and Prevention
Institutional Leadership and Committment
Communicating Common Ground
Resources for Diversity and Civic Engagement
The Civic Engagement Imperative: Student Learning and the Public Good

Academic Service Learning for Effective Civic Engagement

By Janet Eyler, professor of the practice of education, Vanderbilt University

When you are in a class it is all kind of theory and ideas. . . it’s interesting but you don’t feel it—once you’re in a situation where you’re actually working with the people you’re talking about in class, it makes it much more real and more urgent to do something about.

When you feel more, then you think more.

—College Students in Service-Learning Class

Vanderbilt undergraduates engage in a service-learning project as part of a biological sciences course

Vanderbilt undergraduates engage in a service-learning project as part of a biological sciences course

These students’ musings on their service-learning experience capture some of the ways academic service learning prepares students for civic engagement. Students who are bored by what seems like abstract information unconnected to their lives often want to learn more and do more when they make personal connections with people in the community. Academic service learning that links community service projects to course subject matter not only motivates students to learn, but also provides experiences that facilitate the development of attitudes, skills, and intellectual abilities necessary for effective civic engagement.

My colleague Dwight Giles and I have conducted research that supports the link between effective service learning and student outcomes important for civic engagement. We have documented the impact of service learning on college students—and particular characteristics associated with high-quality service learning—in the first major national studies of this process. The largest of our studies was sponsored by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education and included a pre- and post-service-learning survey of 1,100 students participating in service learning on over twenty college campuses, along with four hundred nonparticipants. Sixty-five additional students on six campuses participated in hour-long pre- and post-service interviews, which assessed problem-solving capacity and critical-thinking capacity.

In another project sponsored by the Corporation for National and Community Service, sixty-six students were interviewed about reflection techniques used to enhance learning in community service and service-learning experiences on their campuses.

Efficacy and Commitment

Civic engagement begins with personal development—a sense of personal effectiveness, the sense that one is part of a wider community that can address problems, and a personal commitment to contribute to that community. We found that service learning was a significant predictor of students’ growth in personal and community efficacy and in commitment to future service. Students in placements that were challenging and engaging also reported increases in skills useful for civic involvement, such as leadership and communication skills.

Socially Positive Outcomes

While efficacy and commitment are important, we also hope that our students will pursue socially positive outcomes. The quality of the service-learning experience is associated with increased commitment to social justice and to related outcomes such as tolerance, appreciation for other cultures, empathy, and spiritual growth. Quality characteristics that make a difference include diversity (having a chance to work with people from other ethnic backgrounds than one’s own), application (connection between classroom study and the service experience), the nature of the placement (the importance and challenge associated with the work), and reflection (the frequent opportunity to discuss and write about the experience).

In a small pilot study with Vanderbilt students we were able to trace the perceptions of students before and after working in the community and found that students’ descriptions of community partners changed dramatically over the course of their experience. Open-ended descriptions were both more complex and more positive once students had had the chance to work closely with community members and experience diversity.

Knowledge, Intellectual Development, and Diversity

Personal confidence, reductions in negative stereotyping, and commitment to social justice are desirable but not adequate preparation for civic engagement. Students also need to have knowledge and the intellectual tools to deal with complex social problems. Most college students have not developed the capacity to reason effectively when confronted with ambiguity and complexity. In our intensive interview study we established that increasing the extent to which the subject matter of study and the experience are integrated through continuous challenging reflection leads to increased problem-solving sophistication and to higher levels of cognitive development. While volunteer service unconnected to the classroom can also contribute to personal and social development, development of the intellectual capacity to deal with complex social problems results from structured opportunities to think about the meaning of this experience. Students who experience this highly reflective service learning increase their ability to analyze ill-structured problems. They develop a more complex causal analysis, are able to integrate more perspectives, and develop more adequate solutions. At the same time, they demonstrate awareness of ambiguity and the need to continuously modify their thinking as new evidence emerges.

While reflection is central to increased problem-solving capacity, we also found in the larger survey that exposure to diversity and involvement in projects responsive to community voice contributes to students’ ability to see issues in new ways and to be open to different perspectives. Experiences with diversity during service learning break down stereotypes and contribute to personal growth, but also make a difference in the development of the critical thinking capacity necessary for effective civic participation.

Finally, students who have participated in reflective service learning are also likely to come up with better plans for practically addressing community problems. They think more clearly about social problems, and they know something about the ways communities are organized to cope with social issues. Consequently, they are better able to suggest sensible strategies for becoming involved in the process. The contrast in practical strategies between students involved in high-quality service-learning experiences and other students was quite startling. Students without these experiences were more likely to produce naive strategies that ignored groups already working in the community or were insensitive to multiple perspectives and the organizational challenges of working in the community.

Academic service learning gives students the knowledge, critical-thinking capacity, and practical strategic experience to act on their commitment. While service learning alone has some positive outcomes, high-quality reflective service learning is predictive of the broad range of important personal, social, and intellectual outcomes linked to civic engagement. n


Eyler, J., and Giles D. E., Jr. 1999. Where’s the learning in service-learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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