Printer Friendly

Service learning's impact on civic engagement.


A historic mission of higher education has been to produce citizens, yet traditional measures show that citizenship is declining. Educators are seeking pedagogical methods to increase civic engagement in students. One method that has received much attention is service learning, yet results have been mixed. The link between service learning and civic engagement may emerge, however, when the definition of engagement is expanded.


Often the rhetoric around the benefits of civic commitment development in college students revolves around the need of society to have engaged citizens so that our democracy is strengthened (Westheimer & Kane, 2004). When service learning is the vehicle through which this civic engagement develops, the impact on the individual through such experiential learning student can be deepened. Yet in higher education, little is known about citizenship development through service learning. Much of the research that has been done is mixed in the findings about whether service learning fosters such citizenship (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 2000; Perry & Katula, 2001), and of that research, much of it has been done in primary and secondary educational settings (Battistoni, 1997; Kirlin, 2000). Some of the confusion seems to stem from a lack of consensus about the definition of civic engagement. When the evidence for what counts as civic engagement is focused entirely on behaviors such as campaigning for a favored politician, then researchers (Batttistoni, 1997; Walker, 2000) find that the connection between service learning and this type of civic engagement is weak or nonexistent. Yet there seems to be more than just traditional civic behaviors that define community engagement. A definition of civic engagement that is so focused on one aspect of engagement may obscure a more subtle and fluid continuum of caring about community that is escaping detection when the focus is entirely on such actions. Focus also needs to be brought to the changes in awareness of community that are necessary for an individual to take action. Walker argues that "feeding the hungry does nothing to disrupt or rethink poverty or injustice" (2000, p. 647), yet if a person is not even aware of the levels of poverty in the community then it is unlikely that the person will act to disrupt them. Before one can commit to civic engagement, one must have knowledge of the need for engagement.

Perhaps one approach to redefining the role of service learning in civic engagement development lies in broadening the complexity of our definitions of citizenship. Taking this approach, some researchers have begun to categorize citizenship by degrees of community involvement (Allen, 2003; Battistoni, 1997). One recent approach has been developed by Westheimer and Kahne (2004) who presented three profiles of citizenship. The personally responsible citizen "acts responsibly in his or her community by, for example, picking up liter, giving blood, recycling, obeying laws ... contributes to food or clothing drives when asked and volunteers to help those less fortunate" (The Personally Responsible Citizen section, para. 1). The participatory citizen actively participates "in the civic affairs and the social life of the community at the local, state, or national level." While the personally responsible citizen would "contribute cans of food for the homeless, the participatory citizen might organize the food drive" (The Participatory Citizen section, para. 1). Finally, the justice-oriented citizen goes beyond just helping. These citizens "emphasize social justice" and focus on eliminating "root causes of problems." While the participatory citizens are "organizing the food drive and personally responsible citizens are donating food, justice-oriented citizens would be "asking why people are hungry and acting on what they discover" (The Justice-oriented Citizen section, para. 1). Looking at degrees of engagement can change the question from whether civic engagement is fostered through service learning to what type of civic engagement is fostered through service learning? To this end, I designed this study to ascertain what type of citizen may be enhanced by higher education through participation in service learning.


Over the last 11 years, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has provided Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) sponsored grants to 38 community colleges for development or enhancement of service learning. Over each three year grant period, service learning coordinators have been provided with resources to develop quality service learning programs. During the latest grant period (2003-2006), AACC's director of service learning required the eight service learning coordinators to assess civic engagement development in service learning students as one of the outcome measures for the CNCS. Additionally, she invited the thirty coordinators from the previous grant periods to participate as well. I was brought into the project to help design the measure of civic engagement and then to analyze the surveys.

In order to get a broad range of civic engagement indicators, I examined existing civic engagement surveys and conducted a literature review. The existing surveys provided relevant question topics, but none of the surveys were useful for this assessment as they either were focused on secondary education students, or were too long to ask students to complete in a class setting. I used the literature to support the question topics that the AACC director and I chose from the existing surveys. After compiling a list of questions, we then asked other researchers for feedback on the wording and scope of the questions. From this, we created two surveys with 27 questions that were identical except for the addition of seven questions to one of the surveys. This survey became the post-course civic engagement survey. We created the pre-course civic engagement survey so that both service learners and non-service learners could be compared on their civic engagement activities before any student participated in a service learning experience.

The AACC director and I ran a pilot study in spring 2004 and made adjustments to the survey over the summer. At the beginning of the fall 2004 academic year, the AACC service learning director posted both surveys, an informed consent letter, and a letter of instructions to the grant's listserv so that the college program coordinators would have them available at all times. I specified the importance of having the same students take the post-course survey that took the pre-course survey to rule out differences between pre-course survey scores and post-course survey scores due to the possibility that students who dropped out during the semester were different in civic engagement than students who finished the class. The coordinators asked faculty at their colleges to administer the surveys in both the fall 2004 and spring 2005 terms. The coordinators then sent the surveys to me for analysis. By the end of the spring 2005 semester, I had received 166 matched pre- and post-course civic engagement surveys from a total of six colleges. Of these, 107 were from service-learners and 59 were from non-service learners. As a note, all program coordinators from the current grant did send surveys to me in both semesters; however, only matched surveys with accompanying signed student consent forms were analyzed.


When the surveys were analyzed, I found that 17 of the 59 non-service learners, and 42 of the 107 service learners indicated that they had taken at least one previous class in which service learning was offered. To ensure that I was indeed comparing students who had no exposure to service learning to students who had one semester or quarter of exposure, I only analyzed surveys from the 42 non-service learners and 65 service learners who indicated that they had taken no previous classes in which service learning was offered.

The demographics presented here are for the 65 service learners and the 42 non-service learners with no previous service learning exposure. Demographics included age, enrollment status, and employment status. The two groups were similar on the first two demographics, but not on employment status. Service learners were typically less than 25 years old (71 percent), full-time students (80 percent), and part-time workers (61 percent). Non-service learners were also typically less than 25 years old (79 percent) and full-time students (74 percent), but were almost equally likely to be employed full-time (36 percent), part-time (33 percent), or not work at all (31 percent).

One assumption of this study is that at the beginning of a course, students will have a diverse array of civic engagement involvement, but by the end of the course, students who participated in service learning activities will report increased civic knowledge and commitment when compared to non-service learners. To test this assumption, I conducted t-tests comparing the pre-course survey scores of the service learners to the pre-course survey scores of the non-service learners for each of the three types of citizenship described by Westheimer and Kahne (2004).

The t-tests revealed that the assumption of between-group similarity was upheld for two out of the three citizen types. The pre-course survey t-test comparison for the personally responsible citizen showed no statistically significant difference, t(105) = 1.54, p = .13 (two-tailed), a = .05, between service learners (n = 65, M = 1.45, SD = .94) and non-service learners (n = 42, M = 1.17, SD = .88). The t-test comparison for the participatory citizen also showed no statistically significant difference, t(105) = -0.81, p = .42 (two-tailed), a = .05, between service learners (n = 65, M = 3.28, SD = 2.01) and non-service learners (n = 42, M = 3.62, SD = 2.28). The comparison for the justice-oriented citizen, however, revealed a statistically significant difference, t = -3.57, df = 105, p = .00 two-tailed, a = .05, on the pre-course survey scores between the service learners (n = 65, M = .74, SD = .78) and the non-service learners (n = 42, M = 1.29, SD = .77) on the pre-course survey scores.

To compare the changes in scores from the pre-course surveys to the post-course surveys between the service learners and the non-service learners, I conducted a ANCOVA for each of the three types of citizens. In these analyses, only the comparison for the personally responsible citizen was statistically significant. The ANCOVA results indicated that statistically, service learners (n = 65, adjusted M = 1.77) were significantly more likely to engage in activities representing a personally responsible citizen than non-service learners (n = 42, adjusted M = 1.35), F(1) = 3.74, p = .03 (one-tailed), a = .05.

The ANCOVA results for questions representing the participatory citizen and the justice-oriented citizen were not statistically significant. Service learners (n = 65, adjusted M = 3.90) were not more likely than non-service learners (n = 42, adjusted M = 3.22) to engage in activities representing a participatory citizen, F(1) = 2.20, p = .07 (one-tailed), a = .05. Service learners (n = 65, adjusted M = .82) were also not more likely than non-service learners (n = 42, adjusted M = .92) to engage in activities representing a justice-oriented citizen, F(I) = .27, p = .30 (one-tailed), a = .05.

Discussion and Conclusions

Results from this study suggest that community college service learning may be linked to the personally responsible citizenship type described by Westheimer and Kahne, (2004). As mentioned earlier, previous research that just looked at the relationship between service learning exposure and the development of citizenship as defined by traditional political involvement found mixed results. Yet by opening up the definition of citizenship to include a range of civic engagement activities, the relationship that service learning may have with citizenship development may begin to emerge.

In the literature on service learning and civic engagement, the end of the citizenship continuum most documented as being related to service learning participation (Perry & Katula, 2001; Hunter & Brisbin, 2000) seems to be best illustrated by the personally responsible citizen that Westheimer and Kahne (2004) described. The results of the current study supported this conceptualization of service learning students' citizenship activities. These results seem solid in that the changes in scores occurred in students who had just experienced one semester or quarter of service learning. It is possible that even more exposure to service learning may be related to citizenship development further down the continuum of engagement, such as participatory citizenship or even justice-oriented citizenship. Further analysis of increased numbers of surveys in future semesters may be able to address the likelihood of that possibility.

Additionally, in exploring the idea of citizenship types, the results of this study may open up possibilities for service learning faculty to purposely link service learning work with the beliefs and skills needed to develop specific citizenship skills. Instead of believing that service learning exposure will relate to the development of some sort of civic awareness and civic responsibility after the class ends, faculty may now be able to identify the types of citizenship skills they wish to foster in students and design the service learning class component with that intent in mind. Certainly that is what the high school teachers did when designing and implementing the participatory and justice-oriented civic education programs studied by Westheimer and Kahne (2004).

I would also like to reclaim the importance of developing personally responsible citizenship in students as a possible first step for some students in moving on the continuum toward participatory and justice-oriented citizenship. In the literature, personally responsible citizenship is heavily criticized for being too individually focused and developing at the expense of increasing the power of groups to make changes in the community. While I acknowledge this criticism, I would prefer to foster the development of some civic awareness at the end of a service learning experience, even if it is simply at the level of feeling responsible for recycling newspapers or giving blood or donating food to the food pantry rather than no civic awareness. Certainly participatory citizenship or justice-oriented citizenship will not develop if an individual has not developed awareness of any connection or responsibility to community. An alternative is to see citizenship development as a journey. As a service learning faculty member, once I realize that I can play a role in fostering the development of some civic awareness in students, then it is only a step to recognizing that I can play a role in fostering specific types of civic awareness in students. If some students grow in participatory citizenship shills, while others only develop personally responsible citizenship awareness at the end of one semester of service learning, 1 can frame this is as not a failure to develop deeply engaged citizens but as a step on the journey to more deeply engaged citizenship. In accepting the role of higher education as fostering citizenship development in students, opening up definitions of what citizenship is and accepting that such development may need time creates for educators a path toward developing such citizenship skills in our students.


Allen, R. (2003). The democratic aims of service learning. Educational Leadership, 60, 51-54.

Battistoni, R. M. (1997). Service learning and democratic citizenship. Theory into Practice, 36, 150-156.

Delli Carpini, M. X., & Keeter, S. (2000). What should be learned through service learning? PS Political Science and Politics, 33,634-637.

Hunter, S. & Brisbin, R. A., Jr. (2000). The impact of service learning on democratic and civic values. PS: Political Science and Politics, 33(3), 623-626.

Kirlin, M. (2002). Civic skill building: The missing component in service programs?. PS: Political Science and Politics, 35, 571-575.

Perry, J., & Katula, M. C. (2001). Does service affect citizenship? Administration and Society, 33,330-333.

Walker, T. (2000). The service/politics split: Rethinking service to teach political engagement. PS: Political Science and Politics, 33,647-649.

Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2004). What kind of citizen? The politics of educating for democracy. American Educational Research Journal, 41(2), 237-269.

Mary Prentice, New Mexico State University, NM

Prentice, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Community College Leadership
COPYRIGHT 2006 Rapid Intellect Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Prentice, Mary
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
Previous Article:Early reading development in adult ELLs.
Next Article:Beyond facts: service-learning and Asian history.

Related Articles
Developing just citizens in Australia.
Service-learning and civic education.
Impact of reflection and training on S-L outcomes.
Professionalizing community-based research.
Service-learning & college student success.
Citizenship and service learning.
Service-learning and student attitudes.
The study of service-learning as a moral matter.
Community projects in a senior capstone course.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters