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Practical experience, improved self-esteem among benefits of service learning

This is an excerpt from Service Learning for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation by Cheryl Stevens.

Benefits of Service Learning

Service-learning experiences have multiple, proven benefits for students, teachers, communities, and learning institutions. Since service learning requires a great deal of effort from everyone involved, participants in a project can find motivation by learning about the potential benefits of a project before beginning it.

Benefits to Students

Service-learning projects allow students to develop in numerous ways that can have lifelong benefits. First, gaining practical experience puts education theory into practice and thereby makes it more relevant. Practical experience also allows people to learn in a variety of ways (Lee, Bush, and Smith 2005). Furthermore, real-world learning prepares you for further education, for careers, and for community involvement. It is difficult to overestimate the value of learning by doing. Students who transition well from high school to college and from college to the workplace are those who switch from being receivers of information to being seekers of information; they take responsibility for their learning. A student at the University of Minnesota (n.d.) recalls, "Service learning has given me the opportunity to give theory value and significance outside of the classroom. Through service learning, I have had to keep my books and mind open indefinitely. This is one of the most important lessons to be learned in life."

Second, those who engage in service learning tend to be more satisfied with their lives. Serving others makes the server feel good. Volunteer work has been found to enhance five aspects of personal well-being: happiness, life satisfaction, sense of control over life, physical health, and positive mood (Thoits and Hewitt 2001). Those who engage in shared tasks such as community service feel greater life satisfaction, personal control, vitality, and social support later in life (Harlow and Cantor 1996). At Arizona State University (n.d.), a student said, "I have never been more involved in the community than I am now. I am very grateful because service learning has taught me a great lesson in humility and kindness towards my fellow man and especially children."

Third, service learning has been shown to enhance knowledge and skills and to improve self-esteem when students enter the workforce (Higgs, cited in Lee, Bush, and Smith 2005). A National Commission on Service Learning report (2002) documented the benefits of service learning to K-12 students. Benefits included improvements in academic achievement, problem-solving skills, character, and social behavior. Additional benefits include being exposed to new careers, feeling stronger community ties, and feeling a desire for continued civic engagement. One student intern described the benefits he received in this way: "Service learning has more than proved itself to me to be a great experience for anyone. The communication and problem-solving skills it forces you to sharpen are valuable to anyone in any career . . . I will use the skills I learned this semester for the rest of my life" (Arizona State University n.d.).

Benefits to the Community and to the Educational Institution

Evidence shows that service learning is highly valued and that it is supported by governments, communities, and schools. Approximately $40 million in grants was made available through the Corporation for National and Community Service (n.d.). The money was used to support service-learning projects for school-based, community-based, higher-education programs, as well as for tribal and U.S. territory programs in 2006 to 2007. Dr. William Richardson, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (n.d.), believes that service learning improves communities because it fosters students’ sense of civic responsibility and their commitment to community involvement.

Communities and educational institutions openly value, support, and often reward those who work together to meet community needs. Today’s universities have been criticized for being out of touch, out of date, and unresponsive to society’s needs (Kellogg Commission 1999). Service learning, however, is a way for universities to meet a community’s needs by combining students and academic resources to address local problems.

Community agencies and community members benefit in a number of ways from service-learning partnerships. Many community agencies have too few resources to provide adequate services. Volunteers help these agencies, but service-learners are more than volunteers. In addition to improving an agency’s productivity, students can provide agencies with new knowledge, publicity, and evaluative reports; they might be able to arrange for access to campus facilities and resources; and they can help with grant-writing efforts.

In the words of noted anthropologist Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has."


This is an excerpt from Service Learning for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation: A Step-by-Step Guide.