Relevance of Service-Learning in College Courses

Sally Cahill Tannenbaum, California State University, Fresno

Richard D. Berrett, California State University, Fresno

Sally Cahill Tannenbaum, Ed.D, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication, and Richard D. Berrett, Ph.D., is Professor in the Child, Family, and Consumer Science Department at California State University, Fresno.


This study analyzed student perceptions of the academic and social relevance of service-learning pedagogy, and how teacher adherence to best practices in service-learning may influence those perceptions. A total of 566 students in 19 classes that incorporated service-learning at a large university participated in the study. Survey results indicated that participation in service-learning courses impacted student perceptions of course content relevance. Analysis also suggested that faculty understanding and sophistication regarding service-learning impacted student perceptions and that faculty training and adherence to best practices is essential.


Hundreds of colleges and universities across the country have implemented service-learning courses seeking to improve student learning and social behavior skills. Indeed a significant body of research on service-learning indicates that service-learning is an effective tool for teaching academic course content as well as improving social behavior skills. Studies also suggest that effective service-learning pedagogy requires the adherence to best practices (Gibson, Kostecki, & Lucas, 2001; Katula & Threnhauser, 1999).Faculty training also appears to be an important ingredient in maximizing the impact of service-learning in college courses.

Impact on Academic Performance

A number of research studies demonstrate that service-learning improves students’ ability to learn academic content and complete course goals. Vogelgesang and Alexander (2000) at the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA conducted a longitudinal study of 22,000 students attending a cross-section of national colleges and universities. The study found that students participating in service-learning experienced positive outcomes in three academic areas: critical thinking, writing skills, and college grade-point average. Using the same student database, Astin, Vogelgesang, Ikeda, and Yee (2000) found that more than 80% of the students reported that service-learning participation made them more interested in course material. The study corroborated other findings on service-learning’s impact on academic achievement (Akujobi & Simmons, 1997; Astin & Sax, 1998; Batchelder & Root, 1994; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Kendrick, 1996; Keyton, 2001; Melchior, 1999; Motoff & Roehlin, 1994; O’Hara, 2001; Osborne, Hammerich, & Hensley, 1998; Strage, 2000). 

Impact on Social Behavior Skills

An even larger body of research suggests that service-learning improves students’ social skills. Osborne et al. (1998) found that students demonstrated positive changes in social competency, perceived ability to work with diverse others, self-certainty, and improved self-esteem after participating in service-learning. Myers-Lipton (1996) concluded that students who participated in service-learning perceived themselves more positively in self-worth and social competency and were more prepared to work with diverse populations than students who did not participate in service-learning. Melchior and Bailis (2002) reviewed the findings of three major national service-learning initiatives and found that students who had participated in service-learning consistently felt more confident in their ability to identify issues, work with others, organize and take action, and build a commitment to civic participation. Similar results were found in studies by Astin (1996), Kendrick (1996), Payne (2000), Rockquemore and Schaffer (2000), and Yate and Youniss (1996).

Characteristics of Effective Service-Learning Programs

While no definitive list of best practices for service-learning exists, a review of the literature shows that certain key practices are consistently needed for an effective service-learning program. These best practices include: (1) service that is connected to the curriculum; (2) service involving a specific action;  (3) student reflection at the end of the service; (4) ongoing reflection throughout the course; (5) student’s choice in selecting the service; (6) student training in the service area; (7) student involvement for a minimum of 10 hours; (8) faculty training in the use of service-learning; (9) ongoing communication between the faculty member and community service-learning partner; (10) assessment to determine if program outcomes were achieved; and (11) recognition of student contributions. (Astin, Vogelgesang, Ikeda, & Yee, 2000; Cumbo & Vadeboncoeur, 1999; Gibson, Kostecki & Lucas, 2001; Giles & Eyler, 1994; Honnet & Poulen, 1989; Learn and Serve America, 2002; Shumer, 1967; Stukas, Clary, & Snyder, 1999; Vernon & Ward, 1999; Whitfield, 1999; Yates & Youniss, 1996).



Data for this study came from a survey that was administered to students in 19 service-learning classes taught by 10 faculty members at a large Western regional university. A total of 566 students completed the survey. The demographic profile of the sample was diverse. Racial backgrounds were identified as 3.4% African American; 10.8% Asian American; 48.7% Caucasian; 30.5% Latino/Mexican American, and 6.6% Native American, International Student, or Other. Women made up 72.8% and males made up 27.2% of the sample.  Age groups also varied, with 14.4% aged 17-19; 35.2% aged 20-22; 25% aged 23-25; 9.3% aged 26-28, and 16% aged 29 years or older. Class levels were 10.8% freshman; 7.2% sophomore; 28.7% juniors; 46.2% seniors and 7.1% graduate students.

The nineteen courses were labeled A through S for comparison purposes and are listed below.

A: upper division puppetry drama class

B: upper division children’s theatre drama class

C: lower division introduction to the university class

D and J: upper division classes focusing on family communication

E, O, P, and S: upper division classes on children and families in crisis

F, G, and I: lower division small group communication classes

H: upper division class in multicultural perspectives on children and families

K: upper division business class

L and M: upper division sociology classes

N: graduate health science class

Q: upper division social science parenting class

R: upper division gerontology class.


Faculty members teaching courses that included a service-learning component were asked to participate in the study. Interviews were conducted with individual faculty members prior to administering the survey. Each instructor was asked to self-report on how service-learning was incorporated in his or her course design. Surveys were administered to the students in each class section toward the end of the fall and spring semesters. A follow-up interview with each faculty member was conducted. Survey results were shared and discussed.


Students were asked to respond to 15 statements relating to their service-learning experience using a five-point Likert scale. Responses ranged from strongly agree to strongly disagree. This instrument was designed by one of the authors by compiling common elements from prior service-learning studies (Driscoll et al., 1998; Furco, 2000; Shumer, Duttweiler, & Furco, 2000). Responses to each statement were tabulated and aggregated for the entire sample (N  =  566) by class section (k =.19) and six demographic factors (age, gender, ethnicity, class level, number of enrolled units, and number of hours of outside employment). For each of the 15 statements in the questionnaire, an asymptotic Kruskal-Wallis H-test was conducted to determine if the differences among the groups could be considered statistically significant or might be attributed to chance variation. [The Kruskal-Wallis H test is a non-parametric alternative to the One-Way ANOVA, and is typically used when dealing with ranked data. When the number of groups is more than three (k > 3) and the size of each group is larger than five (n[i] > 5) asymptotic test procedures are used to compute the test statistic (Mundry & Fisher, 1998)].

Survey Results

Overall survey results indicate that the majority of students surveyed appeared to find that the service-learning assignments increased the academic relevance and understanding of course content. Responding to the statement “the service-learning assignment helped me to see how the content of this course can be applied in everyday life,” 73.8% of the students agreed or strongly agreed. In response to the statement concerning whether or not the service-learning helped students “better understand the lectures and readings in the course,” a slight majority, 53.4%, agreed or strongly agreed.

The service-learning assignments also appeared to increase social awareness for most students. In response to the statement “the service-learning assignment expanded my understanding of people in general,” 79.8% agreed or strongly agreed. An even higher percentage, 81.8%, agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “the service-learning assignment showed me how I can become more involved in my community.” In response to the statement “the service-learning assignment enabled me to learn more about diversity,” 73.2% of the students surveyed agreed or strongly agreed and, in response to the statement “the service-learning assignment helped me become more aware of the needs in my community,” 79.8% of the students agreed or strongly agreed.

Students also appeared to perceive service-learning as a useful pedagogical methodology. Over half of the students, 56.1%, agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “service-learning should be used in more classes.”  A high percentage of students, 71.3%, agreed or strongly agreed that “the service-learning assignment had positively impacted [their] self-esteem”.

Based on information reported during instructor interviews, the service-learning best practices mentioned by each instructor for each course were recorded. While the original study was not designed to evaluate whether or not faculty adherence to best practices nor whether faculty training impacted student perceptions, a post comparison analysis was done.  Students in courses where faculty adhered to a greater number of best practices and had training in service-learning pedagogy tended to positively correlate with more favorable perceptions of the service-learning experience.


Survey results indicated that participation in service-learning did positively impact students’ perceptions of academic relevance and understanding of content in these courses.  Students not only appeared to gain a clearer understanding of class assignments, but also reported seeing a connection between subject matter and everyday life.  These findings, consistent with previous research in service-learning, provide encouragement to instructors who want their students to understand the practical importance of the concepts they are learning.

Student perceptions of the social relevance of course material were also impacted by participation in service-learning.  Students felt that they had learned more about diversity, expanded their understanding of people in general, become more aware of the needs of their community, had a clearer grasp of how they could become more involved in their community, and felt the experience had positively impacted their self-esteem.

The information obtained by comparing student surveys with instructor self-reports suggested that there was a correlation between student perceptions and faculty utilization of best practices in service-learning. Students were more likely to agree or strongly agree with survey statements in courses in which instructors reported incorporating a large number of best practices, Student perceptions were more positive when instructors spent class time introducing students to the service ethic, had frequent class discussions that meaningfully connected course content with the service being performed, provided numerous opportunities for student reflection about the service-learning experience, required that students complete at least ten hours of service, and communicated regularly with the community service agencies.  Instructors in courses in which instructors reported incorporating fewer best practices in service-learning, students were less likely to agree or strongly agree with survey statements. These observations appear to reinforce the viewpoints of Katula and Threnhauser that service-learning is most effective when instructors contextualize and  “facilitate student comprehension of the intellectual basis and meaning of such experiences. (2001, p. 252).”  The authors agree that best practices can and should be utilized by all service-learning practitioners if students are to have an optimum learning experience.

One of the most interesting observations to come out of this study was that there also appeared to be a correlation between student perceptions and faculty service-learning training. Students were more likely to agree or strongly agree with survey statements in courses that had instructors trained in effective service-learning pedagogy or instructors who were being mentored by individuals who had been trained. Knowledgeable service-learning practitioners were more likely to incorporate best practices such as having class requirements that included an orientation to the service setting and the nature of service-learning, provide an opportunity for the community based organization to formally assess student work, and formally recognize student contributions. Instructors in the courses in which students were less likely to agree or strongly agree with survey statements had received little or no formal training. These observations are also consistent with Katula and Threnhauser who argue that it is critical that “faculty are properly trained in the Principles of Best Practice (2001, p. 252).”   While a number of colleges and universities are providing faculty with instruction in the use of service-learning, the authors suggest that formal training be universal.  They also believe that a program that provides mentoring and ongoing assessment will provide maximum benefits to both students and instructors participating in service-learning. 


Student responses in this study substantiate previous research that found service-learning improved the academic and social relevance of course content for students. Perhaps even more important, the study suggests that if service-learning is going to have optimum impact on students, it must occur in classrooms where teachers are trained and successfully adhere to best practices in service-learning.

A number of the instructors who participated in this study have subsequently received service-learning training and ongoing mentoring. Replicating the survey in the same courses with instructors who have been trained would provide insight as to whether or not faculty training changed student perceptions in those courses. Follow-up interviews with instructors would also provide information as to whether or not course design, implementation, and faculty satisfaction has changed subsequent to faculty training.


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