Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring    2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  1

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Teaching Citizenship through Service-Learning

Susan R. Madsen, Utah Valley State College

Ovilla Turnbull, Utah Valley State College


Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of management. She teaches, publishes, and consults in the areas of service-learning, leadership, and change. Ovilla is a pedagogical researcher and also works in human resources.



Academic service-learning has been described as a way to respond to the continual concerns regarding the loss of a sense of community in this country. This paper will discuss this pedagogy and present the results of a qualitative research study that explored the citizenship-related perceptions, experiences, and reflections of students who participated in a service-learning project for a business management course in 2003 and 2004. The paper will also provide implications for faculty interested in facilitating learning through this teaching methodology.



Academic service-learning is a relatively new pedagogy that is now being used in college and university courses across the country. It has been cited, in a 1995 speech by D. M. Shafer, as a “means of responding to concerns about the loss of a sense of community and concurrent citizenship behaviors in the country” (Easterling & Rudell, 1997, p. 59).  Although some would purport that the trend toward decreased civic engagement among the teens and young adults of today is unique, Dewey (1938) had these similar concerns nearly seven decades ago.  He explained:

The society is a number of people held together because they are working along common lines, in a common spirit, and with reference to common aims. The common needs and aims demand a growing interchange of thought and growing unity of sympathetic feeling. The radical reason that the present school cannot organize itself as a Natural social unit is because just this element of common and productive activity is absent. Upon the playground, in game and sport, social organization takes place spontaneously and inevitably. There is something to do, some activity to be carried on, requiring natural divisions of labor, selection of leaders and followers, mutual cooperation and emulation. In the schoolroom the motive and the cement of social organization are alike wanting. Upon the ethical side, the tragic weakness of the present school is that it endeavors to prepare future members of the social order in a medium in which the conditions of the social spirit are eminently wanting. (p. 11-12)

In short, Dewey taught that students should be active participants, engaged in the learning process. He felt that students should learn through experience and that these well-designed engaging activities could link a student with opportunities for community involvement and civic engagement. Academic service-learning appears to be a teaching methodology that does just this.


The purpose of this paper is to discuss the link between service-learning and citizenship by presenting the results of a qualitative research study that explored the civic engagement and citizenship-related perceptions, experiences, and reflections of students who participated in a service-learning project for a business management course in the spring semesters of 2003 and 2004. In addition, this paper will also provide implications for faculty interested in facilitating learning through this teaching methodology.


Academic Service-Learning

Academic service-learning is now being considered an educational pedagogy that can assist students in gaining a sense of community, increasing positive citizenship activity and behaviors, enriching sympathetic feelings, becoming engaged in their education, and preparing to become life-long learners, and active community members (Zlotkowski, 1996). Informal lessons of citizenship and justice (regardless of the course topic) can be taught and learned by students, faculty, and community partners through participation and engagement in academic service-learning (Rama, Ravenscroft, Walcott, & Zlotkowski, 2000).


Generally speaking, academic service-learning is a multi-dimensional pedagogy (a form of experiential learning) that is integrated within a credit-bearing course in the form of an organized, thoughtful, and meaningful project (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995). Students are paired with agencies or organizations that have specific needs related to the content of a particular course. Students then perform the needed community service while, at the same time, utilizing course content and reflecting on their experiences for enhanced learning.



The literature on service-learning largely separates course content (the specifics related to course objectives) and collateral learning (the learning that takes place through study and activity, but is outside of defined course purposes). Included within collateral learning would be various competencies such as leadership, communication skills, civic engagement, tolerance, and citizenship—all of which are cultivated by good service learning projects. Dewey alleged that “collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learning. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future…the actual conditions of living has given them the precious gift of ability to learn from the experiences they have” (p. 49).


Stevens (2001) argued that service-learning, which combines a curriculum of learning with performing necessary services in the community, can be pivotal in the continuing need to build character, citizenship, and a sense of ethics. Other authors have similarly asserted that through participation in service learning activities, students are exposed to individuals different from themselves and develop tolerance and understanding for those whom they serve. In 1987 Ernest Boyer, for example, emphasized that the act of service introduces students to new people and new ideas. It further establishes, according to Boyer, connections between academics and society at large and is inherent to the mission of higher education (cited in Vernon & Foster, 2002, p. 208).


Research Methods

A service-learning project was designed and implemented in a new compensation and benefits course taught at Utah Valley State College during the spring semesters of 2003 and 2004. It was an elective course for business students interested in human resources. The classes were small and 25 students completed the projects during these two semesters. Notably, this was the first service-learning experience for most of the students. The academic service-learning projects took students 20 to 40 hours (throughout the semester) and accounted for nearly one-third of their final grade. During the first month of the semesters, the students were asked to self-select into groups of three based on class and work schedules and to choose one of a number of non-profit organizations interested in having students perform course-related service projects. The instructor had previously met with organizational contacts and briefly described the projects.


The service-learning project consisted of job analyses and evaluations for the non-profit organizations. Included in the overall project was an initial proposal, final report, reflective journal, oral report to the class, and presentation to the site contact. The final report was to include all pertinent information gathered throughout the project which included the following: a) the project proposal; b) detailed job evaluations of two or more positions; c) a list of salary survey websites with descriptions; d) a compensation and benefit comparison with similar non-profit and for-profit positions; e) for analyzed positions, recommended compensation and benefits package (with supporting evidence) for both full-time and part-time workers; and f) any other supporting information and paperwork produced that may be helpful for the organization.


At the conclusion of the first semester, student participants were interviewed to explore their perceptions about service-learning. These interviews were transcribed and data were analyzed through theme generation. All citizenship-related passages were reviewed separately. Students also kept reflection journals of their experiences. The second semester students wrote five two-paged reflective essays strategically assigned throughout the experience to collect data on their perceptions and experiences. Of the 25 participants, eight were women and 17 were men. Ages of the participants included 14 who were 21 to 25, six who were 26 to 30, and five who were over 30 years of age. Fourteen students were currently married, five were separated or divorced, and six were single and had never been married. All but three were seniors. Notably, this was the first service-learning experience for most of the students.


Specific questions regarding civic engagement and citizenship were not asked in the interviews or reflection assignments; however, all students talked or wrote about their experiences and perceptions in this area. This data was extracted from the transcripts, essays, and assignments and compiled.



Every student who completed a service-learning project appeared to have feelings and experiences with regard to citizenship. Most expressed a desire to continue community service after the semester was over. Most were moved by their experiences and had an increased desire to do more for the community and individual members in need. One student explained, “It was a good experience because I knew I was helping somebody who needed it. They were excited to have us there and treated us like we have something valuable to give them.” Another stated,

Because of this service-learning experience, I am now volunteering my time. Tomorrow night I am going to help with “Project Read” which is where I volunteer to teach the illiterate adults how to read. I am also doing a mentor program where they’ll set me up with a child between the ages of 5 to 18 and we’ll spend an hour or two each week just playing games or going out so they feel like they have a father figure. I know now that I am needed.


Students also wrote (possibly with surprise) that their civic work specifically related to the content of this course, actually helped them learn larger important life lessons. First, one woman in her thirties explained,

I work for a successful company and employees get paid pretty well and have fantastic benefits. Yet, these community partner employees made hardly anything. They worked there because they felt good and wanted to make a difference. They were happy to work for so little. I found myself wondering, “How can you do that?” and “Is this really fair in our society?” It was humbling. I want to understand this feeling and this sacrifice. I think now that I could really make a difference in this community. I’m not sure how, where, or when—but I now have the desire.

Second, near the first of the semester, during a class discussion, a particular young man expounded his views on money; he felt it was truly the only motivator for performance. However, during the last week of the semester he wrote the following: “I thought that money was the only motivator for employees—I was wrong. I have just spent months watching unbelievably talented, overworked people work for half of what they could make in a for-profit company. These people are happy and fulfilled. Making a true difference is so satisfying for them. I need to rethink what I want to do with my life.”


Through this project, students also learned more about the community partners and what they offered. One student exclaimed, “I am astounded at the number of programs United Way offers for the betterment of the community. I am excited to be able to help them in some small way.” Another reflected, “I have spent some time at United Way and am greatly wishing I had time to give more to the community. They do so much for the benefit of humanity—it is borderline impossible to be present there for any amount of time without beginning to have your most sincere desires of charity and selflessness start to rise up inside.” A man in his late twenties stated, “I think there’s a lot more students like me who would love to be involved with service, especially for class projects. I have talked to a lot of them about getting involved and doing community service. I believe more students would become more involved with the community if they had experiences like the one we had.”


One young man chose to work with his group in a non-profit organization that assisted many disabled adults. For his job analysis work, he spent one evening observing an employee who facilitated activities. However, instead of just observing he was asked to help facilitate. As he explained, he clearly learned concepts and applications beyond the course content: “I am one of those people that will be very nice and cordial to individuals that are mentally challenged, but I am glad when our interaction is over. But this project has already begun to change that—especially after Tuesday night when I had an opportunity to interact with them and break down some of the barriers that my mind had created out of ignorance.” He also spoke about this experience during his group’s final presentation to the class. As he began reflecting on this life-changing experience, he became emotional and expressed his gratefulness for the competence and knowledge he gained about the course content but, more importantly, the opportunities he had to change his assumptions and perceptions about those who are mentally challenged and his opportunity to contribute.


Many students provided reflections that seemed to embody their feelings about the experience as a whole, and two will be shared here. One student stated, “When compared with other projects I’ve done at this college, I feel this project was much more worthwhile for me as well as the agency. This project was meaningful. The experience with service-learning was definitely more applicable and organized than any other. I feel a sense of ownership for this work, and I’ve created a meaningful relationship with this community partner. This feels good. I need to do more.” And, finally, one student summarized his service-learning experience eloquently:

A lot has taken place this semester. Every piece of this experience has contributed to the overall grand experience the service learning project has been. Yes, it does take time away from our busy schedules to meet with the clients and group members, but the knowledge and practical skills gained from the various activities associated with this project far outweigh the costs of time, effort, and cognitive devotion.


Implications and Conclusion

This article reports student’s experiences and perceptions with regard to two sections of a business management course. Importantly, the course is not typically a course in which citizenship concepts would naturally be taught in the formal curricula. Although citizenship was not specifically discussed during class period lectures or discussions, it appears that important related lessons in this area were learned solely through student’s involvement in a well-designed service-learning project. It is clear, from this case as well as others discussed in the literature (e.g., Rama, Ravenscroft, Walcott, & Zlotkowski, 2000; Zlotkowski, 1996), that students could learn civic engagement and citizenship through involvement in service-learning even though the course content may seem unrelated. According to Barber (1994), “without schools that take responsibility for what goes on beyond as well as in the classroom, and work to remove the walls that separate the two worlds, students will continue to bracket off all that they learn from life and keep their lives at arms’ length from what they learn” (p. 92).


In this study, most students learned lessons related to citizenship, and it was even a life-changing experience for some. In fact, it became a transformation learning experience for many of these students. Clark (2000) and others have agreed that “programs that integrate service with strategies to develop the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary for active citizen participation” (p. 164) are powerful tools in empowering college and university students in becoming more civically engaged. Since service-learning can be integrated into any college or university course, the possibilities for student development in this area are limitless. Faculty in higher education must rise to the challenge and begin, in larger numbers, addressing competency development (including citizenship) outside of specific course content. Assisting students in developing the desire and skills to become more involved and active as citizens can only lead to stronger communities. We purport that it is the responsibility of all educators to provide these types of developmental opportunities for all students, and academic service-learning is a powerful vehicle to help students begin and continue this journey.



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