Service Learning: The Ultimate Active Learning Opportunity

"It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." -William L. Watkinson

This is the quote my students see at the end of their reflection on service learning.  For five percent of their grade, my students are required to log at least 12 hours in service with a pre-approved and vetted agency that serves the hungry, homeless or those grappling with mental illness in our community.

Why do I assign this work?  What do I hope my students get out of it?  In short, the service learning requirement is aimed at growing a student’s empathy, humility, real-world learning and problem-solving.  I have not been disappointed. This summer, a student reported that his service learning was the “single most important and effective thing we did” in our class.  The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) lists Service Learning and Community-Based Learning among its “High-Impact Practices” that are “widely tested and have been shown to be beneficial for college students from many backgrounds, especially historically underserved students, who often do not have equitable access to high-impact learning.” (

Service Learning also offers the opportunity for students to reflect on their career/life path.  Since I started teaching Economics in 1995, students have changed; they are more stressed and career-focused than ever. Although they remain as polite and conscientious as ever, a general education class like mine is often viewed as irrelevant to students’ career goals and is seen as a necessary evil along the path to their various degrees and career goals.  High and rising student debt also stifles consideration about anything but getting that good-paying job. Your students and institution are undoubtedly different than mine; but I suspect that you face the same basic challenges I do: lack of engagement and increasing stress.

Connection and collaboration are proven stress-reducers, and Service Learning offers stressed students the opportunity (and nudge) to go outside of their normal environment and interact with people they don’t normally see.  Further, students often become aware of careers in the non-profit sector. Last year, a finance student reported that she was now seriously considering switching from corporate finance to non-profit work.  

Of course this Service Learning requirement also helps expand the capacity of the service agencies.  The community non-profit enterprises that my students volunteer with are often faced with very small budgets and are staffed by volunteers. Service Learning classes like mine provide these agencies with the ability to serve more people, and occasionally relieve overstretched volunteers and staff.

I teach (Principles of Macroeconomics, also Economics of Poverty, Discrimination and Immigration) and I have no problem finding agencies that help deliver opportunities for an immersive, active-learning exposure to the core learning objectives of our class.  I am supported by our new “Center for Service in Action” funded by the university with several staff and students that help with communications and liability and legal aspects. Whatever you teach, and whatever the support system (or lack thereof) at your university, it’s not too difficult to find service agencies thrilled to work with students.  In some cases, agencies are brought into the classroom and students complete projects and solve problems with the agency on campus.

Service Learning is an obvious win-win for me: Students win by virtue of the broadening of their views about the world, stress is lowered as community and empathy are developed, and “real-world” active learning is provided.  The service agencies win by virtue of gaining volunteers and capacity, and I win by having more engaged and enlightened students. 

At the end of the day, I know my students won’t remember how to graph the income and substitution effects of immigration policy, but they will remember their service learning experience.  It’s the ultimate example of active and immersive learning.

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