The Benefits of Service Learning Across Disciplines

Lindsey Jarrett Winnie Dunn, Scott Tomchek , Megan Reynolds & Nicole Mercer
University of Kansas, USA


This descriptive research study involves the collection of quantitative data using cross-sectional methods to measure the benefit of service learning across multiple college disciplines. After completing service learning and related coursework, students (n=42) completed a survey modified from the Thriving Quotient (Schreiner, 2010) and Service Learning Benefit scale (Toncar, Reid, Burns, Anderson, & Nguyen, 2006) to assess benefits related to personal and professional growth, among other outcomes gained from service learning. Researchers found that students from each discipline reported benefits from service learning experiences. However, no significant differences in service learning benefit exist between the represented disciplines. This study provides data to support the continued implementation of service learning in higher education as a tool for student engagement and interprofessional education.


For decades, the graduation rate among American college students has hovered around 50% (IPEDS, 2014Ishitani & DesJardins, 2002Laird, Chen, & Kuh, 2008Lockeman & Pelco, 2013). Some researchers hypothesize that this graduation rate is related to increasing financial costs of higher education (Education, 2013Hacker & Dreifus, 2010Selingo, 2013).  Another hypothesis argues that college students are unable to see the relationship between higher education and career outcomes (e.g., college degree, sustainable employment). Current research suggests that college student engagement in educationally purposeful activities significantly contributes to successful college and life outcomes (Hu & McCormick, 2012G. D.  Kuh, 2008George D Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2011Quaye & Harper, 2014).

The purpose of this study was to investigate the benefits of service learning across various disciplines.  Specifically, the study set out to explore the impact of service learning on students in particular disciplines. We hypothesized that the service learning benefit would differ across disciplines. Through the measures in this study, we expected to find differences across students who experienced service learning in areas of personal growth, professional and clinical development, which prepare students for graduation. This study provided pilot data for a larger study aimed at assessing the benefits of service learning on lifelong learning in a sample of college graduates. Findings on service learning outcomes across disciplines may inform tailored service learning opportunities for students across college campuses.


To prepare college students for a career after college, instructors are responsible for providing intentional, reflective and connected educational experiences (Youatt & Wilcox, 2008). Learning derived from lived experience (i.e. experiential learning) is a stark contrast to lecture and classroom learning (Dewey, 1938Kolb, 2014). Specifically, experiential learning directly connects the learner to the lived experience of the content studied , which is quite different to the learner who only reads about, hears about and talks about these experiences (Keeton & Tate, 1978). By the 1980s, experiential learning had become an accepted term in education (Boyer, 1994Fowler, 2008), gaining momentum through activities coined as service learning (Harkavy & Hartley, 2010;Warren, 2012). Rooted in experiential learning principles, service learning provides students the ability to learn course content as they serve the community and reflect on connections between course content and their experiences in the field (Bernard, Giraud, Rouby, & Hartung, 1963). Further, evidence suggests that service learning has become a popular pedagogical approach for enhancing student learning by involving college students in community service within their educational experiences (Chupp & Joseph, 2010).

Specifically, college programs across disciplines have used service learning as an educational tool to situate student learning in communities. The service component of this type of learning differs from community service in that service learning directly connects traditional curriculum with concern for one’s community (Kaye, 2004). Service learning is not a new approach, but has gained new interest as higher education has assumed leadership as a social system (Harnish & Bridges, 2012).  Service learning provides numerous benefits by helping students develop practical skills, learn to work with others in completing tasks, gain satisfaction in giving to their communities, and continue personal growth (Toncar et al., 2006). Additionally, students indicated development in professional skills, especially after completing service learning experiences with other peers in a group setting (Bazyk, Glorioso, Gordon, Haines, & Percaciante, 2010Lu & Lambright, 2010).

Further, those involved in creating educational experiences in higher education are tasked with developing the tools necessary for students to connect learning in the classroom to their responsibilities in the community. Institutions are providing increased opportunities such as service learning to foster community engagement for students (Davis, 2013) without restricting the curriculum to a specific discipline, classroom or concept (Jacoby, 2003). The intention of service learning is to engage students in developing the skills and fostering their commitment to connect with society’s complex problems (Donahue, Fenner, & Mitchell, 2015), yet there is not a standardized definition of service learning across disciplines (Butin, 2006Holsapple, 2012). Due to the lack of standardization of service learning across discipline, the study team anticipates differences of service learning benefit across the various service learning experiences.

Currently, service learning research is predominately measured by student and faculty reflection and lacks a consistent assessment tool to ensure educational and personal development outcomes (Bazyk et al., 2010Maloney & Griffith, 2013). Research is limited in systematically accessing the service learning experience (Toncar et al., 2006). Additionally, limited research has investigated how service learning benefits students across disciplines and how personal characteristics affect service learning outcomes among students. While both quantitative and qualitative research offer valuable information about student engagement outcomes from service learning, this study aims to provide measurable, quantitative assessment.


This study was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the University of Kansas. The research team recruited students and course instructors (mentors) from the University of Kansas who participated in or taught a service learning course during the summer or fall semesters of 2014. Researchers used the university’s website and the Center for Civic and Social Responsibility to gather names of course instructors for all service learning courses listed for each semester. Initially, instructors from courses listed as an internship, practicum or student teaching credit on the university’s website were excluded. The research team contacted 44 course instructors through publicly available university email addresses to recruit participants. Researchers communicated via email, certain inclusion criteria to the course instructors. Inclusion criteria included: (1) service learning activity occurred more than once per semester, (2) service learning activity occurred mainly (at least five class sessions) on-site of a community partner  and (3) service learning activity was not used for an internship, practicum or student teaching credit. Course instructors who met inclusion criteria and agreed to participate in the study were sent recruitment materials to forward to the students who participated in their service learning course in 2014 summer and/or fall semesters.


Researchers used The Thriving Quotient (TQ) (Schreiner, 2010) and the Service Learning Benefit (SELEB) scale (Toncar et al., 2006) to determine students’ perceptions of their higher education experience and specifically, their perceptions of service learning.

The TQ is a 35-item instrument that reliably (Cronbach’s alpha=0.89) measures five factors to explain the element of academic, intrapersonal or interpersonal thriving in college students (Schreiner, 2010). For the purpose of this study, the research team used an additional 24 questions from the TQ related to campus involvement, personal activities and demographics. We used the TQ to gain insight into the other factors, besides traditional measures of grades and graduation rates, which also may contribute to a successful college experience (Schreiner, 2010).

The SELEB scale is a 32-item scale that reliably measures the benefits of service learning (Cronbach’s alpha range 0.78-0.84) related to professional, clinical and personal growth (Toncar et al., 2006). Currently, the SELEB scale and the TQ have not been used together to document the experiences across disciplines. For the purpose of this study, the research team used both instruments to better understand how students perceive and engage in their college experience, including service learning, which may not be currently available through one assessment.

Participants completed a cross-sectional Research Electronic Data Capture (REDCap) survey developed specifically for this purpose. REDCap is a secure, web-based application for building and managing online surveys and databases. REDCap  is a secure, web-based application designed to support data capture for research studies, providing: 1) an intuitive interface for validated data entry; 2) audit trails for tracking data manipulation and export procedures; 3) automated export procedures for seamless data downloads to common statistical packages; and 4) procedures for importing data from external sources (Harris et al., 2009). Researchers combined the TQ, SELEB scale and additional questions to gather detailed information about the college experience, course curriculum and service learning outcomes. Since the survey contained questions which may be perceived as sensitive, some questions contained a “prefer not to answer” option and not all questions were marked as required. Study data were collected and managed using REDCap electronic data capture tools hosted at the University of Kansas.

Statistical Analyses

Researchers conducted a nonparametric test since service learning benefit was given as a rank order score of one to seven (1=not at all to 7=very much so). Specifically, we used a Mann-Whitney U test, designed to test the null hypothesis, that the distribution of service learning benefit is the same across two independent groups (Occupational Therapy/OT and Other Disciplines). The study team anticipated the number of participants may vary across disciplines, resulting in unequal sample sizes across groups. The Mann-Whitney U test is a nonparametric procedure that does not require the groups to be of the same size (Portney & Watkins, 2008).  We reported frequencies to describe the demographic and educational information of the participants. Researchers used SPSS 20 to complete all data analyses (SPSS, 2011).


Researchers sent the survey link and instructions to 10 course mentors found eligible in participating in the study. A total of 10 course mentor participants represented 10 different programs including Journalism, Honors, Mechanical Engineering, Music Education/Music Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Visual Art, Applied Behavioral Science, Architecture, Entrepreneurship and Health. For the purpose of this study, course mentor survey data was not analyzed, but provided researchers with frequencies necessary for recruitment and course description. For recruitment purposes, course mentors sent their respective students a link to and directions for the student survey. Course mentors reported emailing the directions and survey link to a total of 200 students. Researchers excluded one participant after finding the survey to be blank. A total of 42 (21%) student participants are included in the analyses. Survey participation flow diagram is shown in Figure 1. Sample size (n) varied depending on the question analyzed since the participant was not required to answer all the questions. Researchers report specific demographic and educational information to provide a description of the study population.

Figure 1. Flow of Study Participants

Demographics and educational information

Students who answered demographic information included 30 total respondents. Seventy-seven percent of students describe themselves as Caucasian/White, and 93% report being female.  The following age groups of the study population include; 21 to 25 years old (63%), while 37% are between the ages of 18 and 20. Thirty-seven percent of students reported having a household income of less than $30,000 per year. As shown in Table 1, study participants include students from the following disciplines: Architecture, Music education and Music therapy, Occupational Therapy, Women’s Studies, and Other/Discipline not listed. Additionally, the study population consists of the following student classifications: Freshman (33%), Junior (3%), Senior (43%) and first-year Graduate students (20%).

Table 1: Disciplines of Student Participants

Course Disciplines Frequency Percent
Architecture 3 9.1
Music Education and Music Therapy 12 36.4
Occupational Therapy 14 42.4
Women's Studies 3 9.1
Other Course/Department not listed 1 3
Total Respondents 33  

Questions related to student outcomes from the college experience are necessary in understanding the student population. All students (n=40) reported full-time enrollment at the time of the survey, with 55% working towards a master’s degree. Sixty-seven percent of students (n=36) reported being at least satisfied with their overall experiences with the university. Forty-three percent of students (n=40) reported “thriving most of the time” in their college experience (Schreiner, 2014). The majority (95%) of students (n=40) reported receiving mostly A’s and mostly A’s and B’s in their coursework.

Community experiences and service learning

Researchers found college students participate in service related opportunities in addition to traditional college coursework. Students (n=37) reported frequently (27%) and very frequently (22%) engaging in “community service” activities.  Students (n=30) reported working at part-time jobs off-campus (47%), six (20%) students reported doing the same on-campus, while eight (27%) reported having no employment.  Specifically related to service learning, all students (n=33) reported participating across the fall 2014 semester (94%) and summer 2014 semester (6%).

To report the median service learning benefit across disciplines, researchers used findings from the Mann-Whitney U analysis. For the purposes of the Mann-Whitney U analysis, researchers form two groups: OT students (n= 13) and students in other professions (n=18) to measure the service learning benefit.  The Mann-Whitney U test results reveal no significant difference in the service learning benefit between OT students (Md=5.85, n=13) and students of other disciplines (Md=5.7, n=18), U=103.5, z=-.541, p=.594, r=.097.


Specific findings from the study suggest that students across disciplines benefit from service learning participation (mean=5.75). Students reported high degrees of benefit across areas of practical skills, interpersonal skills, citizenship and personal responsibility. Demographic information allow for a better understanding of the factors that may influence service learning benefit. The sample population lacks diversity, yet echoes national statistics. The majority (93%) of student respondents identified as female. Although this may be in part due to the disciplines represented in this study, females are filling college campuses. For example, “at a typical four-year college you’ll count 127 women for every 100 men (Hacker & Dreifus, 2010, p. 181).”  Most (77%) study participants classified themselves as “Caucasian/White” which is consistent with national data of those enrolled in college (73%) and overall population (72%) (Bauman & Davis, 2013Bureau, 2012). Although demographic information may have a role in studying service learning benefit, we consider the impact of service learning across disciplines is influenced by student experience.

Various service learning benefits exist for students across educational programs. For example, service learning provides health education students with hands-on experiences in the community to enhance learning by supporting engagement and participation in education. (Hansen et al., 2007Seif et al., 2014The American Occupational Therapy Association, 2014). This connection may allow the exposure necessary in understanding the differences vital to working within the community. Current research suggests that students in health professions gain benefits across areas of diversity, such as cultural competence, practice and advocacy (Flinn, Kloos, Teaford, Clark, & Szucs, 2009Holsapple, 2012). This study informs service learning research by arguing that since similarities exist across disciplines, a shift in research methodology may be needed to understand the meaning of service learning outcomes for students.

Experiences as noted through reflective writing may add depth to the various benefits for service learning. Reflection is a vital and ongoing process of service learning that connects learning to experience through awareness, positive cognitive outcomes and personal growth (Kaye, 2004). Specifically, reflection allows students to connect classroom learning with community experiences by increasing the development of problem solving, critical thinking, and receptiveness to real world concepts (Eyler, 2002Hansen et al., 2007). Further, service learning addresses educational stakeholders’ concerns about the lack of connection between classroom curriculum and lifelong learning and participation (Eyler, 2002).

As service learning develops as an educational tool for students, it is crucial to implement consistent models for students, instructors and administrators. The types and models of service learning provide a framework, which may be useful in examining benefits across college campuses, disciplines and individual courses. Instructors have the choice to use various types of service learning when situating students in the community such as, direct service, indirect service and advocacy (Heffernan & Compact, 2001Responsibility, 2015). To establish intentional relationships with the community, instructors implement specific models of service learning. The following models may be used independently or in combination: “pure” service learning, discipline-based service learning, problem-based service learning, capstone courses, internships, and undergraduate community-based action research (Heffernan & Compact, 2001Responsibility, 2015). Service learning is a complex pedagogical tool with various parts embedded in theory, practice and implementation (Felten & Clayton, 2011). This complexity allows for flexibility in the establishment of specific outcomes.


Our study has several limitations. First, the course mentors recruited the student population, which limited the researchers’ recruitment strategies with potential student participants. This error in study design may have impacted the sample size. Direct recruitment strategies may make it possible for students to decide about participation; a common data base for all service learning would make this type of recruitment possible. When researchers can track their contact with students, they can ensure consistency of messages across all potential participants. Secondly, participants had the freedom to leave sensitive questions blank, which changed our overall response pattern. Additionally, researchers adapted some questions by creating groups (e.g., age), which may have limited the ability to understand age correlated to service learning. Future research should look at the correlation of age and service learning benefit to better understand how age impacts the service learning experience (Lu & Lambright, 2010).  Lastly, researchers created two groups for analysis due to unequal distribution of participants across disciplines. Current studies employed similar methodological strategies (Seif et al., 2014), but further research may consider additional strategies.


A study of 217 college students participating in service learning revealed higher satisfaction with their course, higher levels of academic learning related to their field and community than the 324 students not participating in service learning (Moely, McFarland, Miron, Mercer, & Ilustre, 2002). This finding suggests the importance of researchers to connect service learning benefit to the measurement of overall academic learning. By connecting both outcomes, educators bridge service learning activity outcomes and traditional course curriculum outcomes. Measurable scales, such as the SELEB scale, quantify the benefit of service learning; when combined with student reflections may provide evidence to advance service learning quality with mixed methods designs. To effectively measure the strength and duration of service learning effects, future research might also link to other college outcomes (retention, career choices and community service) as well as evaluations unrelated to the student’s grade in the course (Holsapple, 2012Moely et al., 2002). Measuring effectiveness of higher education methods must also extend past graduation, such as studies related to the impact of service learning on employment choices and career trajectories.

Since students in our study report similar levels of service learning benefit across various disciplines, researchers might also focus on interprofessional opportunities. Our sample also included graduate students (20%), which is an important consideration for service learning as it is not currently a focus in service learning research. Future research is crucial in understanding service learning not only as a connection to civic engagement, but also as a tool in creating your professional role after graduation. Further, instead of examining how students perceive their own service learning experience, researchers may gain more meaningful insight into how service learning as an activity adds to the value of higher education as a foundation to successful career outcomes. Service learning experiences may help prepare students for a  successful transition into their career (Bazyk et al., 2010), but only few studies have examined potential impact.  For example, Seif et al. (2014) found that students who participated in service learning within interprofessional settings reported increased team collaboration and clinical reasoning skills. The foundational principles of service learning, such as real-world application, civic engagement and leadership may provide students with lifelong tools as they transition through their career post-graduation. Further, service learning may create opportunities to learn how to work with other people outside of their discipline, which is most often a skill necessary in most careers. Future research may support interprofessional curriculum as a key piece to service learning.

Limited research shows that certain types and models of service learning may facilitate specific outcomes for students, course instructors and community partners (Brown & Roodin, 2001Jacoby, 2003Meyers, 2009). If future studies about service learning employed established models, it would be easier to compare findings across studies and partnerships (Bazyk et al., 2010Felten & Clayton, 2011Furco, Jones-White, Huesman Jr, & Gorny, 2012Torres, Schaffer, & Compact, 2000), thus allowing for a standardized framework of service learning that could be deployed across institutions.


In conclusion, those involved in higher education have a distinct responsibility to engage students in activities that foster growth in professional development, cultural awareness and civic responsibility in addition to their responsibilities for curricular content. This study informs stakeholders in higher education of the value of service learning as a tool for student engagement. Students across disciplines highly benefit from service learning activities, which allows for the opportunity to connect course curriculum to lived experiences. Service learning may be an integral part of the connection between higher education, community involvement and career development.


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This study was made possible by the generous support provided by the University of Kansas’ Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, Mark A Burghart, MOT, OTR/L of the University of Kansas Department of Occupational Therapy Education, University of Kansas Clinical Assistant Professor Dory Sabata, OTD, OTR/L, SCEM and the University of Kansas study participants. The study team utilized REDCap (CTSA Award # UL1TR000001) to distribute and collect online survey data. This research was supported by the Ringle Health Professions Scholarship and was conducted as part of dissertation requirements for Lindsey Jarrett from the University of Kansas.

About the Authors

Lindsey Jarrett, PhD

Lindsey Jarrett, is a recent graduate of the Department of Occupational Therapy Education at the University of Kansas. She has been involved in health services, community advocacy and family services for over a decade, currently employed by a large health IT corporation. Additionally, Mrs. Jarrett has been involved in mentoring students through service learning activities for the last 5 years.

Winnie Dunn, PhD, OTR, FAOTA

Winnie Dunn, PhD, OTR, FAOTA is Professor and Chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy Education at the University of Kansas.  She has been involved in community based services for children, families and schools for 4 decades. She is the author of the Sensory Profile measures, which characterize children and adult’s responses to sensory experiences in everyday life.

Scott Tomchek, PhD, OTR, FAOTA

Scott Tomchek, PhD, OTR, FAOTA is Associate Research Professor in the Occupational Therapy Education Program at Kansas University Medical Center and Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Assistant Director of the Weisskopf Center at the University of Louisville.  He also services as the co-clinical director of the U of L Autism Center at Kosair Charities. Dr. Tomchek has over 20 years of pediatric clinical practice supporting children and families in various settings.

Megan Reynolds, MOT, OTR/L

Megan Reynolds, MOT, OTR/L is a graduate of the Department of Occupational Therapy Education at the University of Kansas. She received her Certification in Service Learning (CSL) through the University of Kansas after participating in service-learning at a community organization for adolescents. She presented on service-learning activities at the Kansas Occupational Therapy Association Annual Conference (2013).

 Nicole Mercer, MOT, OTR/L

Nicole Mercer, MOT, OTR/L is a graduate of the Department of Occupational Therapy Education at the University of Kansas. She received her Certification in Service Learning (CSL) through the University of Kansas. Nicole presented about the service-learning and the evaluation processes at a student-run free clinic (JayDoc) at the Kansas Occupational Therapy Association Annual Conference (2013).

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.