10 ways in which 'Service Learning' impacts 'Student Learning'

Many educators will be able to relate this idea to their experience of schools. Can you recall a staff meeting where senior leadership reveal a new school-wide initiative whilst colleagues are sat whispering to one another “Why are we doing this?” Or a lesson where students, unconvinced of the teacher's enthusiasm for circles theorems have questioned “why are we learning this?”


We often start with 'the what.' 

Sinek suggests we must start with 'the why.'


As a teacher, I believe that student learning should be the key driver of every change we decide to implement and every strategy we decide to amplify. The only acceptable answer to the inevitable, and important, Why are we doing this? Should be “Because of its impact on Student Learning.”

The Golden Circle - Simon Sinek


In his influential Ted Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”, Simon Sinek’s suggests that every organisation on the planet knows what they do, some know how they do it, but very few people or organisations know why they do what they do.

In order to address the question “Why engage in Service-Learning?” this article draws from a range of research to outline 10 ways in which service learning positively impacts student learning. Limitations in the findings and implications for future service learning programs are considered at the end of the post.

1. Combat 'Otherism'

Arguably, one of the biggest problems facing our society today is the casting of aspersions on other groups of people because they somehow differ from ourselves. In 2014, the National Citizen Service (NCS) Evaluation found that 8 in 10 participants felt more positive towards people from different backgrounds after their participation in the programme1.  Students’ attitudes towards people such as the elderly, those with disabilities and those whom society labels as disadvantaged, were seen to be significantly more positive once they had spent time with such groups through a structured service learning program. Some studies suggest that up to 71%2 of students felt the experience broadened their perspectives whilst other studies have evidence to suggest that these experiences go on to influence who students socialise with in the future.

2. Increased Self-worth and Self-awareness

Service learning has been shown not only to affect the way in which students view others, but also the way in which they see themselves. Research in the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning suggests that when compared to control groups, students who had been actively involved in implementing social action projects showed significant positive improvements in terms of social competence and self-worth in social situations.3 Whilst it is hard to prove a causal link, these positive changes in self-esteem have been particularly observed in projects that give students large amounts of autonomy over their choice of project, and that have a measurable impact on their communities. Some research suggests that Service learning experiences which engage the most disaffected young people see the biggest gains in emotional growth.4 An increase in self-awareness has been particularly noted in programs which contain ongoing reflection as a central feature of the student experience.5

3. Deeper Critical Thinking

Projects which required students to follow a systematic, process-driven approach such as Cathy Berger Kaye’s five stages of Service Learning, were seen to increase the participants’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Eyler & Gilles, suggest that one reason for this could be that “Experiences of service learning give students a more nuanced way of analysing the complexity of the world,”6 encouraging students to consider effects on multiple stakeholders as well as how the problem sits within the bigger

geopolitical landscape. In particular, programs which sought to interweave service learning opportunities into the academic curriculum and promoted discussion on the application of learning saw students “develop a more systematic locus for causes and solutions of problems.”7

4. Increased Academic Motivation

Increased educational motivation as a result of engagement with youth social action programs has been both self-reported by students, as well as observed by non-participant researchers. Eyler’s, Where’s the learning in Service Learning? Suggests that structured social action helps students “connect their learning to personal experience.”8 This is seen to be particularly true when staff facilitators have consciously used reflection as a “means of connecting the service experience to the academic course material.”9  Other research, commissioned by groups such as the Department of Education, suggests that an increase is educational engagement has resulted as a by-product of an increase in other qualities that service learning is seen to nurture.10 These include emotional, behavioural and social wellbeing; greater levels of confidence and curiosity evidenced by students taking the initiative to ask questions more often; improved problem-solving skills; and higher rates of attendance.11

5. An increased sense of workplace readiness

Self-reported evaluations of UK social action programmes show young people consistently feel more confident about securing a job in the future after taking part in social action.12 Research from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) suggests that possible reasons for this could include the fact that social action “increases an individual's networks and connections,” as well as increasing an individual’s experience or useful skills, and training.”13 According to a 2014 British Chamber of Commerce survey, 88% of employers felt that school leavers were not prepared for work with 57% commenting on the lack of soft skills, such as communication, team-working and resilience. Evidence suggests that service-learning could go some way developing these skills in students. Research from the Behavioural Insights Team showed that students involved in particular social action projects showed statistically significant improvements in empathy (11%), cooperation (11%) and a sense of community (16%) when compared to their counterparts in control groups.14 Research carried out on behalf of the Institute for Volunteering suggests that employers themselves have noted the value of volunteering in improving “communication skills, leadership, teamwork, self-confidence and initiative.”15

6. Greater Awareness of Career Options

Research commissioned by the UK Workforce hub (2006) suggests that students who undertake high quality Service Learning experiences whilst at schools have an increased knowledge of career possibilities and a greater awareness of what they want and are able to do once they have finished with their formal education.16 In a study of 1,400 graduates from Canada’s national Katimavik programme, 72% of participants “reported that they had directly changed their career trajectory as a result of the social action experiences they had.”17 So what types of careers are socially engaged students opting for? Epstein’s longitudinal study of graduates of the AmeriCorps program found that the number of students entering careers in social service (46%), was much greater than those in the control group (33%).18

7.  Empathy and Activism

One of the most significant areas of emotional growth for students involved in social action is empathy. Students are seen to develop a more considered understanding of how other people lives align with and differ from their own, and how it might feel to live another’s existence. Some studies suggest that the students’ increased awareness of “the vast differences in physical environments and resources available to people”19 might be one reason why service-learning students view themselves as social activists, empowered to take a stand against inequalities. For students involved in service-learning, “post-test data showed significant increases in students’ concern, activism, and attitudes”20 relating to global issues such as those which the sustainable development goals seek to eradicate. Some studies suggest that “more than four service-learning students in five felt that their service “made a difference"21, whilst others show - students who engage in service-learning feel empowered to make a difference in the future.22

8. More Politically Engaged

Numerous studies suggest that engagement in service learning at a young age can foster an interest in society and politics which is sustained into later life. Research by, Rhoads (1997), suggests that students’ interactions with community members they otherwise would not have engaged with, allowed them to “put faces on statistics and policy discussions”23 resulting in more sophisticated understandings of sociohistorical contexts. Increased political attentiveness and a desire to be more politically active has been evidenced by several longitudinal studies through analysis of students’ engagement with electoral processes. An analysis of City Year found participants were 19% more likely to vote than a comparison group.24 This political efficacy has been seen to continue into later life with one study concluding that young people who engage with social action projects were “more likely to vote 15 years after their participation than those who did not participate”.

9. Happier and more Fulfilled

According to the 2016 National Youth Social Action Survey26, the mean average life satisfaction score (out of 10) for students participating in social action was seen to be 8.6 whilst non-participants were seen to have a mean score of 8.0. Other measures, including the ‘mean life worthwhile score’ showed similar differences between participants and non-participants (8.7 vs 7.9) The differences are significant and are similar to the differences in life satisfaction scores between those in permanent employment and those who do not have a job and are seeking work. It is however, worth noting that the survey data was unable to establish causality “(i.e. whether happier, better-connected people are more likely to do social action, or whether social action leads to increased happiness and better social connections).”

10. Committed to Further Service

The benefits of social action as outlined in this article are likely to benefit participants not just whilst they’re students, but also into adult life. This is because those who have been involved with such projects at school at significantly more likely to volunteer later in life. Whilst many students reported that “service-learning made them more interested in seeking future volunteering opportunities,”27 research which has tracked participants over a number of years show their intentions to be true. Research from various US Universities suggest that “the most important predisposing factor for students to participate in college-level service-learning, was whether they had volunteered in high school.”28 Studies have found that between 69% and 75%29 of students who are currently enrolled in volunteering programs at university, are from high schools where community service programs were offered. This trend continued past their further education with studies showing that “nine years after graduating, the frequency of volunteering still correlated with the amount of volunteering during high school.”30

Implications for Future Practice 

Although the research suggests many positive outcomes of service-learning, it is important to look critically at the studies and the conclusions they draw. Here I note a few observations that come to mind when considering how the research might affect my future practice.


It is often hard to identify a causal relationship between participation in service-learning programs and the positive characteristics seen in this list. Greater clarity regarding whether the programs were voluntary or mandatory for students would make it easier to conclude whether the perceived benefits were seen in students as a result of their service-learning experiences, or whether the students that opted for the programs had an existing propensity to these positive traits.


Studies often had small sample sizes and investigated one particular program. Arguably, the results of these studies are bound by the context in which they were carried out, and hence any conclusions from the research can not be generalised to other service-learning scenarios. Given that I am based in the UK, it is of particular interest to note that much of the research on Service-learning originates from studies carried out in the US. The extent to which the suggestions from these studies is transferable to a UK context/culture needs to be considered further.

I would welcome your thoughts on the extent to which you feel the 'whys' outlined above merit a school-facilitated service-learning programs. Does your school already support Youth Social Action? What strategies could schools implement to successfully support service-learning programs? What might be some other ways in which your students have benefitted from service-learning? Or has service-learning ever had a negative impact on students?


You can connect me at nicolajcoles@gmail.com or leave a comment below.


1.Birdwell, Birnie & Mehan. The State of The Service Nation: Youth Social Action in the UK. 2013.


2. Greene & Diehm. Educational and Service Outcomes of a Service Integration Effort.

Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. 1995.


3. Osborne, R. E., Hammerich, S., & Hensley, C. Student Effects of Service-Learning: Tracking

Change Across a Semester. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. 1999.


4. Behavioural Insights Team. Evaluating Youth Social Action. 2013.


5. Austin, A. et al. How Service Learning Affects Students. 2000.


6. Eyler, J & Giles, D. Where's the Learning in Service-Learning? 1999


7.  Ibid [6]


8. Ibid [6]


9. Austin, A (n 5)


10. Department for Education. The Impact of Pupil Behaviour and Wellbeing on Educational Outcomes. 2012


11. Billing, S. Research on K-12 School-Based Service-Learning: The Evidence Builds. 2000


12. Birdwell, Birnie & Mehan (n 1)


13. Corporation for National and Community Service. Volunteering as a Pathway to Employment. 2013


14. Behavioural Insights Team. (n 4)


15. Hill, M & Russell, J. Young people, volunteering and youth projects: A rapid review of recent evidence. 2009


16.  UK Voluntary Sector Workforce Hub. Pathways into employment in the voluntary and community sector. 2006


17.  Birdwell, Birnie & Mehan (n 1)


18.  Birdwell, Birnie & Mehan (n 1)


19. Rauner, J. The Impact of Community Service-Learning on Student Development, as

Perceived by Student Leaders.1995.


20. Nnakwe, N. Implementation and Impact of College Community Service and its Effect on the

Social Responsibility of Undergraduate Students. Journal of Family and

Consumer Sciences. 1999.


21. Austin, A (n 5)


22.  Billing, S (n 11)


23. Rhoads, R. Explorations of the Caring Self: Rethinking Student Development and Liberal

Learning. 1997.


24. Birdwell, Birnie & Mehan (n 1)


25. Billing, S (n 11)


26. Ipsos MORI. National Youth Social Action Survey. 2016


27. Billing, S (n 11)


28.   Eyler, J & Giles, D. At A Glance: What We Know about The Effects of Service-Learning on College Students. 2001


29. Fitzgerald, T. M. The College Student Community Service Volunteer: High School Program,

Locus of Control and Field Dependence-Independence. 1996


30. Austin, A (n 5)

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