Service-Learning & Academic Success

By Amy Meuers, Interim CEO

High school graduation rates are on the rise, yet nearly 20% of high school students still are not graduating (“High-School-Graduation,” 2016). Students who drop out of school are more likely to end up needing government assistance, commit crimes, and are less likely to be involved in their community (Bridgeland, Dilulio, & Wulsin, 2008). Young people who engage in service-learning during their high school careers will be more likely to graduate high school and will see themselves as agents of positive change in their communities because they feel connected to what they are learning, see teachers as mentors, and have a voice in their education.

Learning occurs best … when the learning has a distinct purpose.

Service-learning has numerous definitions but all agree that service must be connected to academic outcomes otherwise students are participating in community service. Service-learning is an approach to teaching and learning in which students use academic knowledge and skills to address genuine community needs. Outcomes for students from implementing service-learning practice into classrooms include character, civic, and academic. Service-learning has also been found to be an effective strategy in developing students’ leadership skills as well as a strong predictor of a commitment to civic participation (Furco & Root, 2010). The practice of service-learning is grounded in the philosophy that “learning occurs best when students are actively involved in their own learning and when the learning has a distinct purpose” (Billig 2000). Service-learning is different from community service in that it is tied to learning goals and results in academic outcomes for students that service alone cannot achieve.

Service-learning is similar to other educational strategies in the need to align curriculum with academic goals and objectives. According to Shelley Billig, Ph.D., service-learning has six elements that, when executed well, lead to positive student outcomes. These elements include investigation, planning, action, reflection, demonstration and celebration (2011). These elements are meant to guide instruction but do not replace various teaching styles such as authority, demonstrative, etc.

The first element of the implementation is investigation. Investigation allows students the opportunity to do research, create surveys, analyze data, and observe behaviors, all as a means to identify a community issue that they can address. During investigation students take on leadership roles within the classroom while developing communication and team-building skills. Planning happens next. During this element of the process students will create a plan to address the community issue they identified in the investigation stage. Students may identify community partners, do additional research, and learn to work cooperatively as they decide together the best approach to solving their community need. The next element is action. This is where the service actually takes place. In this element students become agents of change in their community. They are empowered to make a difference and see the direct connection between academics and the real-world. Reflection is a key component of service-learning and should be integrated throughout the process. Reflection can happen in numerous ways including oral, written, and through the arts. Reflection connects students to the meaning of the service experience and to “higher order thinking skills” (Billig, 2011). The last two elements of service-learning are demonstration and celebration. During demonstration students show the impact of their findings. This could be through presentations, speaking engagements, video, etc. Advocacy can also be a part of demonstration, especially if the student action demonstrates a need for a new or change to an existing law. Celebration is the final step and, according to Billig, should be done with care so that students do not participate for the reward, but for the learning (2011). Celebrations can reconnect students to the community as well as with parents or guardians. Each element ensures the quality of the service-learning cycle for students, which in turn leads to greater academic outcomes.

Students who participate in deeper service-learning experiences appear to do better than students with just brief exposure to service-learning.

The quality of service-learning practice matters to ensure the best possible results for students. In addition to the six elements of service-learning, service-learning has indicators of quality known as the K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice. The Standards are the measure for how teachers should integrate service-learning into their subject areas and connect it directly to learning objectives. These standards include duration and intensity, meaningful service, link to curriculum, reflection, diversity, youth voice, partnerships, and progress monitoring ( Research has shown that student outcomes can be achieved without meeting all of the Standards but the best results happen when all of the Standards are present (Billig, 2011). In addition to the Standards, teacher implementation can affect the quality of practice. According to the article, The five rules for service learning leadership, to be successful teachers must have professional development in service-learning, just as they do for other instructional strategies and they need to learn how to implement quality practice to have the best possible impact on students (2010). Additional studies have shown that the quality in service-learning matters. If not done well, the positive effects of the practice are minimized. In fact, Billig states that when not done with quality you are “left with just the feel good and right thing to do arguments,” which do not get to desired outcomes for students (2010). In addition, Urban Matters states, “students who participate in deeper service-learning experiences appear to do better than students with just brief (few hours to a few days) exposure to service-learning” (2009). Quality service-learning as defined by the six implementation elements, the K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice, and teacher professional development are necessary to achieve the desired student outcomes. Service on its own will not achieve the same results.

Service-learning has been shown to have a positive effect on student attitudes toward school and learning and the community’s perception of young people. In the report Engaged for Success, 82% of students who participated in service-learning projects said that their feelings about attending high school became more positive, and more than half of at-risk students believed that service-learning could have a big effect on keeping potential dropouts in school (2008). Students drop out of school for many reasons but boredom is a key reason. In one survey it was reported that nearly half of students who dropped out of school said they left because school was not interesting (Bridgeland, Dilulio, & Wulsin, 2008). One of the standards for service-learning practice is youth voice. When youth are given the opportunity to lead in the classroom they are less likely to be bored (Billig, 2011). Youth voice can be implemented in many ways during a teacher’s service-learning practice. Youth can identify issue areas, plan in teams, recommend solutions, identify community partners, develop action plans, present findings, the opportunities are endless but key to successful engagement. In addition, student absences have been shown to reduce in classrooms where service-learning is utilized (Weah, Scales, Roehlkepartain, Simmons, & Hall, 2009). And, according to Billig, “service-learning leads to more positive perceptions of schools and youth on the part of community members (2000). Keeping students in school with a positive attitudes, translates to positive outcomes both in the classroom and in the community.

Student economic status has an impact on achievement but the evidence suggests that low-income students who participate in service will do as well or better than students from wealthier families. According to Urban Matters, service-learning has an even greater impact on students from low socioeconomically backgrounds (2009). There are several reasons for this including a greater sense of connection to the coursework, a sense of community within the classroom and the school, and the new type of relationship that is built between teacher and student. In addition, students can be motivated by service-learning because it “builds their self-confidence and develops a sense of empowering,” (Bridgeland, Dilulio, & Wulsin, 2008). When students are motivated and find the content interesting, they are more likely to come to school and engage in learning. They exhibit self-confidence that leads to more interactions with other students as well as adults. Teachers report that students who have never approached them before have turned up at their door, asking questions, looking for guidance (Bridgeland, Dilulio, & Wulsin, 2008). Service-learning creates a different classroom dynamic where teachers no longer just delivers information for student consumption but are seen as resources for problem-solving. As service-learning is implemented in classrooms students feel more empowered, this is especially true of low-income students who may have felt disenfranchised by traditional forms of teaching.

All this leads to students becoming agents of change and active members of a civil society.

Service-learning has a positive impact on academic achievement by connecting students to the community through positive, hands-on experiences. According to Engaged for Success, 81% of dropouts reported that schools should connect learning to the “real-world” (2008). Service-learning connects students to community through hands-on service activities. When students see the connections between their in-class work and their community, they will be more likely to engage in learning. Engagement means fewer absences from school and the greater likely hood that students will graduate. In addition, students see the direct impact they can have on their community. And, according to Billig, “service-learning leads to more positive perceptions of schools and youth on the part of community members (2000). All of this leads to students becoming agents of change and active members of a civil society.

Boredom and relevance were two key factors in student drop-out rates and in academic achievement. Quality service-learning has been shown to increase student engagement by connecting classroom learning to the real-world. Service-learning provides students with the motivation to learn by making learning relevant and meaningful. Students stay engaged because they have a voice in their classrooms and are seen as active contributors. The teacher’s role in the execution of service-learning in the classroom cannot be over emphasized. Quality service-learning needs to be tied to subject area goals and implemented with adherence to the K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice with an eye towards the six elements of implementation. Without quality, outcomes may be non-existent. Overall, quality service-learning has a demonstrated positive effect on student outcomes including academic achievement, dropout rates and for students to be seen as contributing members of their community and as agents of change.

Student disengagement effects school climate which in turn effects performance. Service-learning appears to have a strong impact on school culture, particularly as it relates to low-income students. According to Urban Matters, students “bonding to school” increased from 48% to 63%, a 15% increase for low-income students and from 53% to 71% for high income students, a 18% increase (2009). These numbers are relevant in that less than half of low-income students and just over half of high-income students did not feel connected to their schools. Service-learning brought both groups connection to their school community to well over half the student population.

Behavior issues play an important role in academic success. Students who misbehave may be asked to leave the classroom or even expelled from school. Both lead to more absences which can lead to students dropping out because of a feeling of not being able to catch-up. Classroom disruptions interrupt learning for other students as well, making it difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn. The article Research on K-12 School-Based Service-Learning reports that service-learning increases kindness and lessons the numbers of behavior issues in classrooms implementing service-learning (2000). Engaged for Success reports that “service activities lowers behavior problems by 15 percent” and service-learning has a significant impact on the lowering of bad behavior of boys (2008). The research also suggests that service-learning impacts the ability of students to interact with culturally diverse groups, increases empathy, and trust (Billig, 2010). Each of these elements increase a student’s ability for interpersonal communication and in effect, lessons the reasons for acting out.

Engagement, self-confidence, connectedness, relevance, behavior, and communication all play a key role in academic success. As outlined above, service-learning has been shown to have a positive impact in each of these areas, however student and teacher success is measured by test scores. Research directly linking service-learning and increased test scores is minimal. The article, Research on K-12 School-Based Service-Learning reports that of service-learning schools studied, moderate to strong gains were seen in achievement tests in language arts or reading. In addition, students who participated in service-learning earned higher standardized test scores and it was reported that grade point averages improved 76% of the time (2000). Researchers Andrew Furco and Sue Root report that in one study service-learning students did better on reading and language arts Basic Skills tests and that students themselves had reported “that they had learned more in their service-learning classes than in nonservice-learning classes (2010). More research has been conducted at the college level where Vogelgesang and Astin’s report shows that the effect of service-learning is stronger for both writing skills and college GPA than from community service alone. The report also concluded that there is a growth in critical thinking skills as well and that when service is connected to academic content, it does increase the development of cognitive skills (2000). Another key indicator that service-learning will increase test scores is the evidence that shows student’s commitment to classwork increases in service-learning classes as does the students desire for better grades (Furco & Root, 2010). In addition, according to Urban Matters, urban principals believe that service-learning plays a role in student success (2009). Though much less researched, all evidence suggests that service-learning will in fact increase student test scores on subject matter tests and evaluations.

Students who participate in service-learning as part of their school curriculum are more likely to graduate high school because they are more engaged, see how learning is relevant, and feel connected to their school, community, and teachers. The action of service within service-learning connects students to their community and helps them see themselves as agents of positive change. Current research has been done on small groups of students or “presumes a relationship based on mediating factors” (Bridgeland, DiIulio, & Wulsin, 2008). Additional research is necessary to investigate how and why service-learning is related directly to graduation rates, not just the factors that affect academic success. To advance service-learning as an effective teaching strategy more evidence is needed that meets the U.S. Department of Education’s research standards.

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Furco, A., & Root, S. (2010, February 01). Research Demonstrates the Value of
Service Learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 91(5), 16-20.
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Weah, W., Scales, P., Roehlkepartain, E. C., Simmons, V. C., & Hall, M. (2009). Urban Matters: Improving City Schools and Bridging the Achievement Gap Through Service-Learning.
National Youth Leadership Council