Students’ Perceptions of Service Learning as a Group Project

Michael S. Scales, Ed.D., Assistant Professor of Business Studies
The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey


Service learning is becoming a significant component in American colleges and universities. The growing popularity of service learning has been a response, in part, to social and economic changes that have led higher education institutions to rethink their roles and responsibilities relating to their surrounding communities. Another key reason for the growth of service learning has been higher education’s renewed commitment to student learning. This study examines the perceptions of student-participants in an introductory management course before, during, and after engaging in a group service learning project during the fall 2004 semester.


In 1990, Ernest Boyer addressed service learning in his book Scholarship Reconsidered. He criticized the narrow definition of research and was concerned with other forms of scholarship. He argued that scholarship of application was best suited to address society’s problems, and he challenged colleges to rethink their troubles facing the public and focus their efforts on developing the proper resources needed to combat them.

Service learning is becoming a significant component in American colleges and universities. Service learning as pedagogy is useful across a wide variety of disciplines and types of institutions (Eyler & Giles, 1999). The growing popularity of service learning has been a response, in part, to social and economic changes that have led higher education institutions to rethink their roles and responsibilities relating to their surrounding communities (Edwards & Marullo, 1999). Another key reason for the growth of service learning has been higher education’s renewed commitment to student learning. This may also be inspired by the increase in the number and diversity of Americans enrolling in colleges and universities, changes in skills and abilities required in the workplace, and political pressures on higher education for greater accountability (Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoecker & Donohue, 2003). Today’s society is also calling for graduates to be prepared to contribute to civic life in a meaningful way. Boyer (1990) explained that service learning has been widely used as a strategy to help higher education acquire a leadership role in addressing extensive social problems and to prepare students to meet the needs of a ever-changing democratic society.

This study examines the perceptions of student-participants in an introductory management course before, during, and after engaging in a group service learning project during the fall 2004 semester. The purpose of this study was to explore students’ perceptions of a group service learning in four areas: 1) the students’ perceptions of service learning prior to the start of the project, 2) peer building/social integration effects of group participation, 3) facilitating faculty relationships through service learning, and 4) overall satisfaction from contributing to a service learning project. Through the use of weekly reflective journal entries, students explained their thoughts throughout the service learning process.

Review of the Literature

As early as 1916, John Dewey suggested that education is where democratic participation is best learned. He warned about the importance of linking learning and knowledge to activity and social inquiry (Dewey, 1938). Since that time, educators have been aware that students learn better when their learning is not bound by classrooms, textbooks, and memorization in order to reproduce information on exams. Some believe the best and most effective learning takes place when reflection and practice are intertwined (Kolb, 1984). Service learning is typically defined as a ‘course-based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students participate in an organized service activity that meets community needs, while the students reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of the course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility’ (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996, p.112). As service learning gains momentum, there are many efforts to document, through research, its pedagogical value as a teaching strategy as well as its impact on students and their learning (Strand, et al., 2003).

The learning component of service learning is significant in that it ranges from changes of values, beliefs, and internal feelings to various types of interpersonal skills and self-discipline specific learning (Strand, et al., 2003). Service learning has been determined to affect students through personal skills development such as personal worth, spiritual and moral development, and personal identity. Through service learning, students also develop their interpersonal skills, such as the ability to work well with others, effective communication, and the ability to exercise leadership (Edwards & Marullo, 1999). Students who have been involved in service learning show higher levels of cultural understanding, lower rates of racism, a heightened commitment to community service, more confidence engaging in civic activities, and increased concern for the common good (Eyler & Giles, 1999). Students have also reported that they enjoy service learning projects and that these activities enhance their interest in college, courses, and learning in general (Eyler & Giles, 1999).

As traditional age students enter college, they are often faced with new and confounding adjustments. New living arrangements, leaving friends and family behind, personal responsibility, and academic pressures are just a few of the challenges facing these students. Evidence suggests that many first-year college students are particularly isolated and disoriented (Tinto, 1997). A successful student must be able to quickly learn to maneuver into unfamiliar academic and social communities. A student’s failure to establish membership in either of these communities may result in withdrawal from college (Tinto, 1997).

Academic adjustments to college usually force students to become self reliant in selecting classes, managing their schedules, and experiencing coursework that is delivered differently than in their high school backgrounds (Furco, 2002). This can cause students to become disengaged from their academic requirements and reduce their motivation to learn. Eventually, if students do not adjust quickly, their capacity to fully benefit from academics may diminish (Boyer, 1990). Service learning engages students by incorporating classroom teachings with ‘real-life’ challenges utilizing critical and analytical thinking.

Students must also be able to join in a college’s social community and establish a sense of belonging. Insecurity and low self-esteem that can cause anxiety and stress for students often accompanies a student’s inability to gain access to a social environment (Furco, 2002). Seeking out alliances with students who have similar interests is often how students learn to overcome the lack of a sense of belonging (Upcraft, 1994). A student’s inclusion in a school’s social community can boost social, personal, and academic competence and reduce the high levels of self-consciousness and the sense of alienation (Furco, 2002). Service learning provides students with an environment in which they can become engaged with each other in order to create peer groups. Tinto (1997) observed that pedagogical techniques that engage students also strengthen their bonds to their campuses and their decisions to persist. Engaged, active students are more likely to thrive academically and socially and to persist toward graduation (Astin, 1984; Billson & Brooks-Terry, 1982; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).

Service learning can also produce positive outcomes for the college and the community. Utilizing readily available resources for the good of the community is in itself a lesson in civic duty and pride. Students have many positive experiences throughout the process and the school and community benefit (Astin, 1984; Godfrey, 1999; Tinto, 1997). However, the most learning occurs when each participant reflects on the process and the outcomes. Reflection is the point at which all involved can see the true benefits of their accomplishments. Students will learn not only from their experiences, but also from the intimacy and immediacy of their personal reflections (Godfrey, 1999). Reflection is the essential component for learning and growth in service learning (Shinnar & Young, 2003). Reflection can take many forms: oral or written, formal or informal, class presentations, papers, interviews, or journals. The reflection should be required in the course and it should also challenge the students to critically think about the linkage between the academic and service components of the course (Godfrey, 1999).

Service learning in higher education has many beneficial qualities for universities, communities, and students. These projects manage to push students out of their comfort levels and stimulate a heightened awareness of self, diverse life-styles, civic duties, problem solving skills, critical thinking skills, and team building practices (Edwards & Marullo, 1999). Students can also overcome campus-community dissatisfaction through the student peer engagement component of service learning (Tinto, 1997). Service learning also increases a student’s ability to link ‘real-life’ experiences with classroom teaching and theories. Both student social engagement and academic engagement contribute to one’s decision to persist towards graduation (Tinto, 1997).

By creating a group service learning project, I was interested in examining student engagement. Student engagement as discussed can be defined as the quality of effort students themselves devote to educationally purposeful activities that contribute directly to desired outcomes. The most important of these are time spent studying, interaction with faculty and peers regarding educational topics, and use of institutional resources (Astin, 1984; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). For this study, I was particularly interested in investigating student engagement, specifically as it refers to interaction with other students and faculty.


While many courses that include service learning require the students to volunteer at an organization for a predetermined number of hours, for this study, I chose to develop a group project in which the students would select the project and work together as a class throughout the implementation of the project, with the students providing me with a weekly reflective journal entry to better understand each individual during the process. The journal would also ensure strict confidentiality of the participants. The data was collected solely through these reflective journals.

An introductory management course in a small public liberal arts institution on the east coast served as the setting for this research study. The idea of incorporating a service learning project was introduced to the 24 students during the fourth week of a fifteen-week semester. They were given some background about service learning from the literature and the positive effects it has on students. They were informed that they would be responsible for writing weekly reflective journal entries pertaining to the project. The students unanimously agreed to go forward with the project.

The first assignment was to present ideas for projects to the class. Several ideas were presented the following week and again a unanimous vote was reached for a project that focused on requesting used bed linens (blankets, sheets, pillows, towels) from area hotels and distributing those to area homeless shelters. The students each chose hotels, made appointments with managers, and personally visited them with their requests. As a group, a letter was prepared for the hotel managers defining the goals and purpose of the project. Students were also responsible for contacting shelters and informing them of their intentions as well as seeing if they were in need of such supplies. Target dates were set for pick-up, for repackaging, and for distribution of the linens.

In addition to students keeping reflective journals, students also participated in weekly group planning discussions. Each week, one class period was dedicated to group discussions of the progress each student was making. These discussions sometimes lasted the entire class time (75 minutes). From the collected journal data coding was utilized to better understand and organize the data. A coding system began with rephrasing or abbreviating the data and creating and coding categories based on recurring themes or patterns (Bogdan & Biklen, 2003). I then combined the categories to label the four emerging themes 1) the students’ perceptions of service learning prior to the start of the project, 2) peer building/social integration effects of group participation, 3) facilitating faculty relationships through service learning, and 4) overall satisfaction from contributing to a service learning project.


I categorized four themes that together, characterize participants’ perceptions of the service learning experience. These themes are identified and described below, each with accompanying quotes from journal entries.

The Students’ Perceptions of a Service Learning Project

A frequently cited explanation in support of community service/service learning was experiences with the participants’ families.

One student journaled:

I have an extremely positive opinion of community service. I have been involved in doing community service since the age of nine thanks to my mother’s membership in Rotary Club. My individual donations of time to Rotary are too many to list.

Another student wrote:

I believe community service is something an individual can do from the goodness of their heart. My family was very active in community service in the past. We volunteered a lot of time and effort for a local church in our town.

A third student communicated:

My interest level in our community service project is high, mainly because of the fact that my mother has been involved in the First Aid Ladies Auxiliary – which is voluntary – along with community awareness teaching about AIDS to local PTA members. Also, my sister, who is a doctor, has been involved in donating medicine to third world islands in the Caribbean. I would say my family is involved in community service and I think it’s great that it’s being included in our course work. I enjoy hands-on and getting involved so mixing in the field service learning with lectures and discussion makes for a positive learning experience.

While yet another student participant wrote:

When it comes to community service I feel this is a wonderful program, not only does it benefit the community aesthetically, it also benefits the community financially. My initial involvement with community service was to cut lawns and do general clean-up for a local community center. My brother and sisters also participated. This occurred about ten years ago and left a positive impression with me. I enjoyed cleaning up the community and seeing the finished product.

Service Learning Facilitates Social Integration

The second emerging theme was that of peer building and social integration. In a journal entry written at the end of the project, one student wrote:

This project enabled me to talk with people in class that normally I might not have had any interest in. Due to the nature of the project and the size of the class, I find that I do not really have any stage fright in class. Group projects force you to work as a team to get a goal accomplished and this will help for your future career. If given the chance I would probably perform another act of community service.

While another student explained in her journal, ‘I never talked to [another student] before this class, and we had been in a couple other classes. I think she’s pretty cool now and we hang out sometimes.’ Still another student journaled, ‘I usually hate to ask questions and talk in class, but this class was easy. I made a lot of friends and I would do this again.’ One more participant communicated, ‘I didn’t want to do this at first because I’m so shy. Now I talk to everyone in the class. I’m taking classes with a couple of people next semester.’

Service Learning Helped Students Develop Personal Relationships with Faculty

In addition to facilitating relationships with peers, these service learning participants developed personal relationships with the faculty member inside and outside of the classroom.

In a final journal entry a student wrote, ‘Some professors just talk and talk, its so boring. In this class [the faculty member] was really cool. [The faculty member] let us just say what we wanted and [the faculty member] kept the conversation on track.’ Another wrote, ‘I hate taking like a million notes in class. Sometimes I just fall asleep. This class was more like our class and our professor just listened to us as we discussed the process.’ One student journaled, ‘Before the project I was scared of most professors. [Our professor] made us laugh and it made it easy to talk to him. The project just made it more fun than most classes.’

Another participant related through her journal entry:

I have some teachers that don’t know my name and I don’t know theirs, I hate that, you pay a lot of money here and the teacher should know you. [Our professor] knows us and we all joke with him, because [the faculty member] showed us how to work as a team. I go to his office a lot just to talk.

Students Feel a Sense of Satisfaction

The vast majority of the student participants emphasized the benefits of service learning in their final journal entries. Some students reported that the bonds forged with faculty and other students progressed beyond social ties to a genuine sense of community. These students wrote about the sense of trust and teamwork they shared with their service learning cohorts. Students also related feelings of empowerment during the project. Many equated the overall experience as a lasting positive means of non-traditional classroom learning.

A final journal entry explained:

I think that lectures, tests, etc. are imperative, however, a hands-on experience is usually something you do not forget for years. Whereas, you might forget the information you wrote on a test a few months later.

Another wrote:

It is probably one of the more unique things that a student can add to his or her resume and hopefully differentiate him or herself from the rest of the field. I will certainly always remember this project.

While another student journaled:

The trip at the end of the semester to deliver the linens was probably one of the greatest field trips I’ve ever been on. I talked with people in class, which is unusual and we won’t forget how appreciative the shelters were to receive blankets just before winter.

Still another participant communicated:

This is one experience that I know I will remember because I got such a great feeling knowing I was doing something good and helping others out. I believe that through the project we were all able to associate with everyone more so then before the project because we all had a common goal and discussed what we were doing for the project. I actually feel that I would like to take another service learning course.

Finally, a student explained:

I will definitely remember this experience because it was always interesting. I did interact a little bit more with people in the class than I normally would have. It (service learning) does promote a sense of community and camaraderie inside the classroom, that’s definitely a great thing to have.


Based on the findings of this study, a number of conclusions and recommendations are warranted. First, the results of the study revealed students’ willingness to participate in service learning. All participants wrote very positive journal entries prior to the start of the project. Many had some past experiences with community service and felt it was a worthwhile endeavor. Eyler and Giles (1999) found that most students take pleasure in service learning and that it adds to their ability to better participate in class.

Second, the qualitative findings from this study are consistent with and clarify data collected by other researchers. For example, data indicates that service learning increases students’ contributions to the classroom and their ability to engage with other students by developing interpersonal skills (Edwards & Marullo, 1999; Tinto, 1997; Upcraft, 1994). Many student participants stated similar feelings in their reflective journals that they felt more comfortable speaking in class and with classmates outside the classroom. The data collected in this study suggests that group service learning participation enhances students’ chances to become acquainted with others and that a common interest is developed.

Third, the results concluded that the student participants became more engaged in the learning process and saw themselves as joint participants with each other as well as the faculty member in creating this project. Just as students became more comfortable speaking with and socializing with other students, they felt just as comfortable with their professor in and out of the classroom. Although the project was completely voluntary and no grade was attached, through journal entries the group acknowledged the increased communications as well as the development of peer norms. These traits have also been found by researchers Edwards and Marullo (1999).

Lastly, the overall response to the project was positive. Participation in this service learning group project, many students stated, would remain with them as one of the most memorable learning experiences in their higher education career. Although most student participants expressed in their initial journal entries their discomfort with the reflective process, they later reported realizing its importance. Kolb (1984) explained the importance of the reflective process in the overall learning process in service learning. Many of the participants shared that they would get involved in community service in the future.

Given the myriad of potential benefits of student participation in service learning, more educators are preparing courses offering a service learning component. Institutions of higher education that become involved in service learning should be commended in following their missions for the betterment of society. Some colleges have gone so far as to change their mission statements to include their commitment to community service (Boyer, 1990). The implementation of collaborative programs such as service learning that enable colleges and universities to better meets the needs of the surrounding communities allows the institutions to ‘practice what they preach’ and improves of ‘town and gown’ relationships (Strand et al., 2003). Employers of graduates are also interested in students with improved critical thinking abilities and those who are more civic minded (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996). Collegiate service learning programs contribute greatly to surrounding communities. An appreciation for colleges and universities can be instilled into the psyche of community members by making improvements to these communities with very limited resources.


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About the Author:

Michael Scales is an assistant professor in Business Studies at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He previously held the position of assistant professor at Widener University in the School of Hospitality Management. Michael has worked for the DuPont Company, Aramark, and Sheraton Hotels. Professor Scales is a member of the Political Engagement Project, a sister project of the American Democracy Project sponsored by The New York Times and the Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching. He is currently the president of the Hospitality Educators Mid Atlantic Region and has made service learning one of his initiatives for the organization. You can reach Michael Scales at PO Box 195, Pomona, New Jersey 08240, 609/626-6838,, or Fax 609/652-4858.

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.