Citizenship and Service Learning


Tamara Ann Waggener, Sam Houston State University


Tamara Ann Waggener, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science



Research on service learning often fails to distinguish between service learning projects that increase students’ social connections to their communities and service learning projects that deepen students’ political connections to their communities. This paper (1) explores the social and political components of citizenship (2) discusses the results of two service learning projects and (3) argues for the importance of designing service learning projects that cultivate both the social and political components of citizenship.



If universities are to reach their goal of promoting citizenship, educators must take into consideration the different components of citizenship. Traditional service learning projects typically involve service learning projects that require students to volunteer services and time to community organizations. These types of service learning projects certainly strengthen students’ connection to their communities and thus play an important role in the civic education of students. However, attention must also be given to service learning projects that focus more directly on students’ understanding of government, their ability to use various political tools to influence government, and their desire to engage in direct political action. A combination of service learning projects that promote both the social and political components of citizenship is necessary if universities are to fulfill their goal of creating better citizens.


Student Patterns of Participation

Certainly the social component of citizenship is important. Universities’ commitment to citizenship and service learning may be partially responsible for the high rates of volunteerism seen among today’s college students. However, these high rates of volunteerism are not connected with high rates of political engagement. Scholarly work on youth and political activism indicates that the rate of political participation among America’s youth has declined since the 1970s. A contradiction exists in students’ current pattern of civic engagement: they volunteer at higher rates than previous generations, but they are less likely to vote and have less knowledge of government than previous generations (Hinds 2001).


Research on Service Learning and Citizenship

This contradiction in students’ patterns of participation has been noted by researchers and many of the same researchers argue that service learning needs to be reconsidered in light of these research findings (Ball 2005; Hepburn, et al 2000; Hunter and Brisbin 2000; Kahne and Westheimer 2003). Editors from The Michigan Journal of Service Learning, one of the more comprehensive and well known journals in the area of service learning, addressed “the need to distinguish service learning activities aimed at promoting charity and volunteerism from those concentrating on root causes of social problems, politics, and the need for structural change” (Kahne, et al 2000, 44). The authors arrived at this conclusion in part because their exploration of research on citizenship and service learning uncovered a conception of citizenship “that privileges individual acts of compassion and kindness over social action and the pursuit of social justice” (Kahne, et al 2000, 45).


Of course a model of service learning that stresses the political component of citizenship is open to criticism. As one critic noted, “a fundamental problem for the civic model is its obvious ideological preferences. The desire to correct social injustices is the product of a liberal or radical ideology” (Codispoti 2004, 101). However, civic oriented service learning projects need not include ideological underpinnings. As will be shown later in the paper, service learning projects can be designed to teach students about the structure of government and avenues available for political participation as well as to encourage students to gain a greater sense of political power. Lessons such as these are not inherently ideological and are indeed commonly included in most college level introductory American government courses.


Universities, Citizenship, and Service Learning

The need for further exploration into citizenship and service learning is particularly important in today’s academic climate. Interest in the theme of citizenship and service learning continues to receive a great deal of attention in part due to universities’ growing commitment to producing students with strong citizenship skills. This commitment expresses itself in a variety of ways. First, a number of universities promote initiatives designed to enhance students’ sense of civic engagement. At some universities these initiatives have led to the creation of an additional college focused on citizenship such as the case of Tuft University and its recently created University College of Citizenship and Public Service.  Secondly, academic associations have developed civic oriented projects. For example, The American Association of State Colleges and Universities, an association with over 400 participating colleges and universities, adopted the American Democracy Project, which seeks to encourage students to participate in the democratic process through leadership and activism. The mission statement of Campus Compact, an academic association with over 950 participating universities and colleges, expresses a similar set of goals. [1]


Service learning has proven to be an important component of the drive towards more civic-oriented students. The vast majority of university initiatives include a strong emphasis on service learning. Some colleges and universities such as California State University at Monterey Bay require students to complete a certain number of service learning courses before graduation. Other colleges and universities have established centers responsible for facilitating the process of service learning. Some of the duties of such centers include: acting as a liaison between students and community organizations, maintaining informational resources about service learning, organizing conferences on service learning, and reporting student service learning activity for transcript purposes.


Two Case Studies

The remainder of this paper addresses two courses which included service learning components. The first course is a political science research course designed to educate students in the area of basic research methods and concepts, in particular survey research methods. The course service learning project required students to conduct a survey of residents in Huntsville, Texas. The projected involved several phases including: designing a questionnaire, obtaining a representative sample, implementing the survey, analyzing the survey data, and presenting the data to city government officials. The first phases of the project required students to apply the course material to a real research project. The last phase of the project required students to interact with city officials and participate in the policymaking process. This service learning component was geared towards the political component of citizenship.


The second course is a political science grant research and writing course designed to inform students of various grant opportunities and give them the skills necessary to complete grant applications. The course service learning project required students to meet with the leaders of the Sustainable Guilds Association (a non-profit organization operating in the local community) and discuss the Association’s needs. After gaining an understanding of the Association’s needs, students were required to locate grant opportunities appropriate to the Association needs and submit a grant on behalf of the Association. This service learning project was geared towards the social component of citizenship.


Upon completion of the course requirements, students in both classes were asked to complete a questionnaire consisting of open-ended questions designed to capture changes in students’ attitudes towards the community and local government.


The Political Component of Citizenship

Several of the assignments in the political science research course required students to contact city officials, write up survey reports tailored to the specific needs of individual city officials, and enter into policy discussions with city officials. Students’ strong performances on these assignments are evidence that their overall knowledge of local government increased as a result of the politically oriented service learning project.


Students also gained a sense of the relationship between elected officials and their constituents, particularly in regards to representation. The service learning project showed students how public opinion may be divided among social groups and the need for elected officials to reach out to all groups of residents. Of the differences in opinion and elected officials’ responsibility to reach out to the entire community, one student wrote;


City Council members often cited radically different views toward aspects of city services such as the police department and library than, say, individuals living near Sam Houston State University or those living in a less affluent part of the city. Yes -- a research methodology textbook might discuss how survey results often have strong correlations to particular demographic variables.  Nevertheless, these textbooks are unable to demonstrate the authentic impact such "correlations" may have on policy.  Members of the city council began discussing the implications of this data, and this led to a dialogue about reaching all the shareholders in the Huntsville community.  


Perhaps most importantly, the service learning project strengthened students’ sense of political efficacy. As one student wrote;


By analyzing the city survey data and making a presentation to the Huntsville city council, I experienced a lesson in political efficacy that I firmly believe no textbook or teacher-centered university course could have provided me.  Yes – at first, I felt small in a room of the supposed movers- and-shakers of Huntsville.  But with rather concrete data in my hands and with the analysis derived through collaborative discussion with other members of the research team, I felt prepared to deliver a cogent presentation regarding public opinion in Huntsville – and more importantly, I embraced the possibility that this data could shape the future of policy in Huntsville.  This was an exercise in authentic learning; I experienced the fruits of my learning not as a result of a professor’s assessment of an essay, but rather through the possibility of policy change as a result of my and my colleagues’ hard work. 


City officials offered similar opinions about the impact of the project on students’ sense of political efficacy. After the survey was completed, city officials were interviewed about the project. Former Mayor Bill Green stated;


I'm sure that the project was not only valuable to the City, but also valuable to the students that worked on the project.  They got to deal with real issues, present their finding to City Council and City staff, but also see the information they provided resulted in real action on the part of City Council and staff [sic]. 


Equally important, the project provided several benefits to the city. Like many small towns, the Huntsville city budget is not large enough to cover the costs of a residential survey. Thus the project provided officials with information that otherwise would not be available to them. The survey data also revealed community issues in need of attention. The quality of the survey as well as the productive working relationship between students and city officials was noted by Green;


The information gathered by the students as part of the Service Learning Project was extremely valuable.  The survey provided an independent source of community attitudes and assessments of quality and availability of City services.  The information allowed City Council and City staff to address a variety of issues in a timely way that would probably have not been addressed without the information provided through this project.  I would like to see these types of service learning projects continue.  Both the City and the University have much to gain from this type of partnership.


The Social Component of Citizenship

Students enrolled in the grant writing course demonstrated an increased awareness of the needs of voluntary programs in the community. For example, one student wrote,Seeing the volunteering that is needed to run certain programs was shocking to me.” However, this awareness of community needs was not coupled with an increased awareness of local government and the various forms of political participation open to residents in the community. When responding to a question about how the course impacted her thinking about different political avenues available for changing city policies, the same student wrote, “I don't think in this class I thought about the avenues available for changing the policies.”


The theme of volunteerism expressed in the written comments of students enrolled in the grant writing course also appears in other case studies of courses designed around traditional service learning projects. For example, in their article on service learning and citizenship, Susan Madsen and Ovilla Turnbull wrote about their students’ experiences with a service learning project that required the students to work with non-profit organizations. The authors provided evidence of the students’ increased concern for volunteerism and more in depth understanding of community needs. However, there was no evidence of an increased understanding of the operation of local government or a desire to use political mechanisms to change public policy (Madsen and Turnbull 2005).



An evaluation of the impact of different types of service learning projects on students’ civic engagement is needed if educators are to promote both the social and political components of citizenship. Traditional service learning programs certainly benefit students and their communities by increasing rates of volunteerism and strengthening ties between students and their communities. However, more attention must be given to service learning projects that teach students about the structure of governments and encourage students to engage in political action.



[1]   For more information about The American Association of State Colleges and Universities and Campus Compact see and


Works Cited

Codispoti, Frank. “A Justification of the Communitarian Model,” in Bruce W. Speck and Sherry L. Hoppe, eds. Service-Learning: History, Theory, and Issues. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2004.


Ball, William. “From Community Engagement to Political Engagement.” PS: Political Science and Politics 38, no. 2 (April 2005): 287 – 291.


Hepburn, Mary, Richard Niemi, and Chris Chapman. “Service Learning in College Political Science: Queries and Commentary.” PS: Political Science and Politics 33, no. 3 (September 2000): 617 - 22.


Hinds, Michael DeCourcy. “Youth Vote 2000: They’d Rather Volunteer” [online magazine] Carnegie Reporter 1, no. 2 (Spring 2001). Available from gopher: Internet.


Hunter, Susan and Richard Brisbin. “The Impact of Service Learning on Democratic and Civic Values.” PS: Political Science and Politics 33, no. 3 (September 2000): 623 - 26


Kahne, Joseph and Joel Westheimer. “Teaching Democracy: What Schools Need to Do.” Phi Delta Kappan 85, no. 1 (September 2003): 34 – 66.


Kahne, Joseph, Joel Westheimer, and Bethany Rogers. “Service Learning and Citizenhsip: Directions in Research.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning Special Issue (Fall 2000): 42 – 51.


Madsen, Susan R and Ovilla Turnbull. “Teaching Citizenship through Service Learning.” Academic Exchange Quarterly 9, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 11 – 15.