Creating Meaning, Addressing Needs


Research suggests that meaningful service perhaps is the most important of the K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice

It might be obvious that any valuable service-learning experience should be meaningful — yet it is far from self-evident what the term “meaningful” implies. But the substantial positive impact meaningful service can have on students’ academic, civic, and developmental outcomes (Neal, Leeper, and Root 2009) calls for an examination of the ingredients required to reach true meaning.

Though meaningful service implies service that is perceived as beneficial to its recipients and to the larger community, this article will focus on the importance of meaningfulness as defined by the service providers.


A number of factors have to be in place for a service-learning experience to be perceived as meaningful by students, i.e., the providers of the service. The first dimension relates to the way the experience allows for personal growth. Yates (1995) noted that opportunities to take on adult responsibilities and receive respect for doing work well “may lead [students] to think about who they are and who they can be.” Furco (2002) found that the students who were most strongly influenced by their service experiences were engaged in meaningful service activities that challenged them to some degree or ones in which they had responsibility and interest. The students’ sense of engagement was enhanced when they felt they were treated with respect by members of the community. To reach such outcomes, the service experience must be developmentally-appropriate — that is, it must deal with an issue that can be understood by learners, and they must be reasonably well able to perform the corresponding service activity.

A second dimension relates to how students perceive their relationship with recipients of the service they provide. Root and Billig (2008) affirmed that students found meaning in their service when they interacted with individuals faced with personal difficulties, confronting examples of injustice, or encountering inefficient policies. Direct contact “enabled [students] to connect to larger issues, both in the community and more generally in society.

Reconnecting Youth and Community

A third dimension relates to how the service experience changes the way students see themselves in the community or the wider society. While a number of studies have established that many young people feel disconnected from their community and might have an egocentric way of viewing the world, effective service activities engage students emotionally with their communities (Root and Billig 2008). Catalano and colleagues (2004) showed that participation in communities helped students develop stronger connections to the community norms and values, thereby contributing to community cohesion.

Local Action, Global Meaning

While a meaningful project can have a lasting impact on students as well as recipients, it has the potential to serve an even higher purpose if it is firmly placed in its appropriate wider context. Students should be encouraged to analyze how the need they are addressing is but one step toward a broader vision of tackling the problem on the local, national, and global levels.

Thus service-learning projects that adhere to the K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice help develop civic awareness and democratic citizenship (Root and Billig 2008). Through learning and reflection, students are capable of comparing their life situations to those of the people they serve and they place any need or problem in local and global contexts. Once students start to consider the possibility of changing social problems, they realize the importance of the learning component. It takes service to meet needs, but knowledge and skills to end them.

Catalano, R. F., Haggerty, K. P., Oesterle, S., Fleming, C. B., and Hawkins, J.D. (2004). The importance of bonding to school for healthy development: Findings from the Social Development Research Group (pp. 252-261). Journal of School Health, 74(7).
Furco, A. (2002). Is service-learning really better than community service? A study of high school service program outcomes. In A. Furco & S. H. Billig (Eds.), Advances in service-learning research: Vol. 1. Service-learning: The essence of the pedagogy (pp. 23-50). Greenwich, CT: Information AGe.
Neal, M., Leeper, T., and Root, S. (2009). Attributes of quality service-learning in respondents’ past service experience: new findings from NYLC’s Transitioning to Adulthood Survey. In Growing to Greatness 2009 (in press), St. Paul, MN: NYLC.
Root, S., and Billig, S. H. (2008). Service-learning as a promising approach to high school civic engagement. In J. Bixby & J. Pace (Eds.), Educating democratic citizens in troubled times: Qualitative studies of current efforts (pp. 107-130). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Yates, M. (1995). Community service and identity development in adolescence. Dissertation. Catholic University of America. Washington, DC.