Service Learning & Student Success

What is the Evidence for Service-Learning and Student Success?

There is a growing body of evidence of the efficacy of service-learning programs on areas of particular interest to UK, most notably recruitment, retention, and overall learning.


According to the Higher Education Research Institute’s (HERI) 2015 report on The American Freshman, incoming first year students are reporting a rise in social concerns and civic responsibility behaviors:

Nearly three-quarters (74.6%) of freshmen in 2015 consider helping others in difficulty to be a “very important” or “essential” personal objective…..students in recent years have increasingly rated helping others in difficulty as an important goal, and, in 2015, the item has achieved its greatest level of support since we first began asking it in 1966. Two other items have reached all-time highs with the 2015 administration. More students than ever before indicate that becoming a community leader represents either a “very important” or “essential” life objective (39.8%), up 3.4 percentage points over 2014…..students in 2015 place greater emphasis on wanting to help promote racial understanding (41.2% rating “very important” or “essential”) and wanting to influence social values (43.9% rating “very important” or “essential”). Students also seem to be substantially more committed to political engagement, as 22.3% report influencing the political structure as a “very important” or “essential” life objective. Roughly four in 10 students (40.4%) also indicate that keeping up to date with political affairs represents a “very important” or “essential” objective (p. 8-9).

The Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) President Schneider wrote in 2006 “…that a growing number of students arrive at college ready to become involved in community service. While earlier studies suggest that too few students sustain such commitments into their advanced college years, these new data should encourage educators to redouble their efforts to create new connections between academic study and challenges in larger society.” Similarly, in their article on students’ transition from high school service to college service-learning, Ross and Boyle (2007) note that “increased commitments and enhanced expectations for community involvement cannot help but have ramifications across the higher education spectrum, including for faculty teaching service-learning courses” (p. 53).


As a result of a multi-year study drawing on data collected through the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and by AAC&U (2007), service-learning was identified as a high impact pedagogy that has a demonstrable effect on student persistence, satisfaction, and learning (Kuh, 2008). The high impact educational practices that increase the likelihood of student success include: high expectations that they will succeed, curricular and behavioral integration, pedagogies involving active learning and collaboration, frequent feedback, time on task, respect for and engagement with diverse groups, frequent contact with faculty, connections between academic and non-academic experiences, and an emphasis on the first year of study (Ewell & Wellman, 2007). Well-designed service-learning programs (curricular or co-curricular) encompass these educational practices and, therefore, can increase rates of student retention and success.

Service-learning courses can significantly increase student-faculty interactions and researchers have reported that these kinds of interactions are a powerful form of engagement that leads to academic and intellectual growth (Graham & Gisi, 2000; MacFadgen, 2008; Lebeau, 2012; Wyatt, 2011). Students engaged in service-learning report stronger faculty relationships than their peers who are not involved (Astin & Sax, 1998; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Lebeau, 2012), and service-learning improves student satisfaction with their college (Berson & Younkin, 1998). Bringle, Hatcher, and Muthiah (2010) also found a positive relationship between enrollment in service-learning and intentions to continue at the same campus. According to Lockeman (2012):

The differences shown in graduation rates between S-L students and non-SL students are dramatic … Discrete-time survival analysis shows that service-learning is a significant predictor for completion when data are analyzed using longitudinal methods. In addition, among students who completed their degree within six years, service-learning was a significant predictor of time to completion. (p. 97).

Learning, Development, and Achievement

Several studies and meta-analyses, a few of which are summarize here, have documented the impacts of service-learning on student learning, development, and achievement:

  • A widely cited investigation of student outcomes achieved through service-learning is Astin et al’s How Service Learning Affects Students (2000), which documents increases in interest in the subject matter, sense of personal efficacy, awareness of the world, engagement in the classroom experience, sense of civic responsibility, interest in careers in a service field, writing skills, and critical thinking skills.
  • Synthesizing findings across several studies that compared outcomes among service-learning students with those of non-service-learning students, Eyler (2010) found that service-learning “contributed to political interest and efficacy, a sense of connectedness to community, social responsibility, future intent to participate in community life, and life skills” (as summarized in Felten & Clayton, 2011, p. 80).
  • In a meta-analysis, Celio, Durlak, and Dymnicki (2011) evaluated effect sizes for service-learning outcomes in 62 studies with control group designs. Outcomes fell into five categories: attitudes toward self, attitudes toward school and learning, civic engagement, social skills, and academic achievement. Of these five areas, the largest average effect size was demonstrated for academic achievement, providing strong evidence that service-learning can be an effective practice for facilitating academic success.
  • Multiple studies report that service-learning has a positive impact on students’ academic learning and critical thinking (e.g., Ash, Clayton, & Atkinson, 2005; Balazadeh, 1996; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Mpufo, 2007; Strage, 2000; Vogelgesang & Astin, 2000; Ward, 2000).
  • Service-learning has been shown to have a positive effect on students’ ability to work with others, interpersonal development, empathy, and leadership and communication skills (e.g., Astin & Sax 1998; Dalton & Petrie, 1997; Keen & Keen, 1998; Lundy 2007) and on reducing stereotypes and facilitating cultural and racial understanding (e.g., Astin, Sax, & Avalos, 1999; Boyle-Baise, 1998; Eyler & Giles, 1999, Potthoff, Dinsmore, Eifler, Stirtz, Walsh & Ziebarth, 2000).
  • Eyler & Giles concluded in Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning? (1999) that, based on analysis of pre- and post- problem-solving interviews, “participation in well-integrated and highly reflective service-learning courses was a predictor of increased complexity in analysis of both causes and solutions to social problems” (p. 75).
  • Researchers have found that, upon completion of service-learning, students report an increase in self-efficacy, a sense of confidence, a tendency to include service work in their career, a feeling of being connected with individuals and communities, and a greater understanding of diversity (e.g., Carrilio & Mathiesen, 2006; Malmgren, 2008; Phillips, 2011; Teranishi, 2008).