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Service-Learning: The Application of a Non-traditional Form of Undergraduate Research within an Existing Course


Service-learning is a method of experiential learning that links the classroom with the local community. It requires students to spend time in volunteer service and relate their experiences with the theories they learn in the classroom. Unlike classroom exercises and simulations that often deal with hypothetical problems, service-learning provides students ample opportunities to engage with the material in the context of actual issues and problems in their communities. This pedagogical technique is also unique in that it requires students to actually perform activities that economists would perform. During the service-learning project students identify economic issues, formulate hypotheses, gather evidence, develop economic explanations, link evidence relating their experiences with these economic theories and make policy recommendations. Thus, service-learning suggests an active approach to learning economic theory and conducting research. This case describes the integration of a service-learning project as an undergraduate research project developed for an existing course.

Women and Gender Issues in Economics is an elective course requiring both micro- and macro-economic principles. It is designed to point out differences in economic circumstances between men and women. Various theories are presented in order to explain these differences and students are expected to understand as well as contrast neoclassical, Marxist, institutionalist, and feminist perspectives. Topics covered in this course are similar to those covered in a traditional labour economics course (although focused on gender differences) including the definition of work, labour force participation, earnings differentials, discrimination, health and housing, poverty and policies.

Development of the service-learning research project is perhaps best described using three critical steps of the student process: identification of issues and organisations in the community; linking economic theory to issues and community activities; presenting research outcomes; and linking across organisations and thus economic theories.

Identifying the issues and organisations in the community

The community service project begins with the student identification of an organisation that has had an economic impact on women in the local community. In this stage of the project students put their foundational knowledge to the test by identifying an economic issue and formulating a question relating to how a specific community agency addresses this issue for women in the community.

Since this is a service-learning project, students are expected to learn, in part, through their interactions with and service to the community agency. Thus, 15 hours of community service are required. During these hours the students complete a variety of task including questionnaire construction, data analysis, tutoring, resume building, etc. While the exact task is not necessarily critical to the nature of the project, it is important that the students work on a specific project from which they can learn more about the organisation, its activities and the people it services as opposed to paper-pushing activities such as filing.

Consider, for example, the issue of homelessness. In the community in which these students interact, the Emergency Shelter is the key organisation because it provides temporary shelter to homeless women and their children, assists in locating resources necessary to correct their homeless situations, and acts as an information centre in areas such as employment, housing, financial assistance and counselling.

Linking economic theory to issues and community activities

Once students have identified a key issue and linked it to the community agency, the next stage in the research project is to begin an academic investigation of the economic perspectives regarding this particular issue. Continuing our example above, students are expected to link economic issues to the activities of the Emergency Shelter including those associated with education and skill acquisition, the human capital model, minimum wage issues, unemployment, occupational segregation, the cycle of poverty, child care, welfare policies and homelessness. Thus, students are developing skills such as undertaking and summarising a literature review, identifying an area of contribution (albeit by the community agency) and potentially analysing data.

Because the linkage of theory and practice is often a new endeavour for students, this process should include significant opportunities for formative feedback. As part of the design of this project, weekly journals are required in which students provide an update on their projects including their activities at the organisation, their thoughts on its impact and the evidence they are gathering in support of this assessment, and the status of the academic component of their research. Instructors can review these weekly reports and provide feedback for the students. Although weekly journal entries can be the sole method by which students identify relevant economic theory, develop data collection plans and describe their analysis, opportunities to share across students are also fruitful. In-class discussions that incorporate student reflections based on the projects for which topics are currently being covered provide additional opportunities for students to link theory and practice. This process also allows other students to rethink their own project development in light of the processes described by their peers.

Presenting research outcomes and linking across organisations

The final step in the service-learning research project focuses on students drawing conclusions as to the effectiveness of the community agency, linking their work to a broader policy issue and presenting their findings. Students are required to develop a 7-10 page report that includes an introduction of the organisation, details of its goals and programmes and proof of at least two economic impacts on women in the community. Students are also required to link their work with the theories discussed during the semester and investigated in their own supplemental research, evaluating this in light of broader policy perspectives. Ideally, the report includes a quantitative component that measures the impact of these programmes on the local economy. Given the considerable difficulty in obtaining such a measure, students are allowed to make an assessment of this impact via other quantifiable measurements. The number of community members served by agency programmes, the number of individuals able to find independent housing and jobs as a result of agency programmes and the budgetary records kept by the agency provide insight into the economic impact. This quantifiable component is then supplemented by a qualitative component including descriptions, verbatim quotations, etc. In this way students can draw from a wide range of evidence sources in support of their identified economic impacts.

Although the first two goals of this final step could be satisfied simply through a written report, there is significant added benefit associated with the presentation. The poster session requires students to create a summary display of their work including a description of their organisation, the programmes it provided and their statements identifying economic impacts. During this class session students shared a narrative of their experiences with classmates as well as invited faculty. The poster session also provides an opportunity for students to learn about the economic issues relating to and impacts of other community organisations. Students are encouraged to wander the room and share their experiences with classmates and to compare economic issues identified. For example, students who had volunteered at the Emergency Shelter are able to learn about the experiences of students who had volunteered at the Community Fitness Programme. This organisation provides services, such as financial counselling and resource identification, for those women who have moved out of the Emergency Shelter and into independent housing. During this poster session, the information exchanged about these two community organisations allows students to further explore the cycle of poverty. The integration of issues addressed by these two organisations provides a more long-run view of the steps available to break out and remain out of the cycle of poverty.

Some practical issues

To ensure the completion of the required hours of service and hold each student responsible for the assistance or task promised to the organisation, a contract detailing their service commitments is signed by the organisation staff, the student and the instructor. (An example of such a contract is provided at the end of this case study.) The formality of a contract is designed to ensure a level of accountability for the promised involvement of each student. Additionally, it makes clear to the organisation that students will be asking for information as well as providing their services. This contract is an important component of the service-learning project because it reinforces the serious nature of this work to both the student and agency and reduces the likelihood of failed projects because the relationship between the student and agency breaks down.

As with any significant research project, completing quality work in a single semester is a challenge. This is no less true in the case of a service-learning project. Additional logistical issues may arise as well including transportation to the community site and scheduling of volunteer time. Addressing these issues with students early on in the semester will minimise their impact on the project. Additional steps taken over the semester ensure that students are meeting their obligations and correct any problems that might arise. A strict timetable is provided including deadlines associated with choosing an organisation, completing the contract and service hours, turning in a final paper and developing their poster report. A mid-semester interview is also scheduled with each student to check on their progress and provide additional guidance for their papers.


Student reactions to the application of service-learning have been overwhelmingly positive. As one student recorded in her journal, 'I think it was a very interesting and rewarding experience. I got a look at homelessness that I never would have gotten elsewhere.' Another student suggested, 'The welfare discussions and welfare reform debates were made very real by my experience.' Other exit interview comments included, 'They are all unique - the "stereotypical" homeless person does not apply to any of the people I met. I admire their steps to get back on their own.', 'I've just finished my 15 hours tonight. I'm going to go again...because I'm having fun.... As far as the link to class goes, it's very disturbing to talk about poverty. It's so much easier to ignore its existence and live my selfish happy little life.'

Student exit interviews also suggested that although little formal incentive for further integration or application was provided, students had already considered this process. 'This experience is proving to be valuable in terms of opening my eyes up to a potential senior project for leadership studies. I would probably never have stumbled onto this opportunity as the subject for my senior thesis if it wasn't for this project!' All six volunteers at the Emergency Shelter intended to continue their volunteering beyond the course requirements.

Faculty reactions to the poster session were also overwhelmingly positive: 'A great way to engage students in their learning.'; 'A great idea to demonstrate a higher level of student participation in social/public service which affects women in society.'

Integrating Service-Learning Projects across the Curriculum

Service-learning projects have two additional characteristics that might encourage faculty to integrate them into existing courses: they are grounded in learning theory and they come in many forms. Because the development of service-learning projects is not motivated solely through the development of an undergraduate research project, it has a wider potential for adaptation to existing courses. For example, the project described above was motivated by the desire to better link pedagogical practices to learning theory and to challenge the 'realities' attributed to standard theory; a more detailed description of such is included in McGoldrick (1998). Additionally, the wide range of forms of service-learning provides ample applications from which to choose. McGoldrick (1995) argues for the integration of four forms of service-learning (community service, student-based instruction, action research and community problem-solving seminars) into a variety of economic courses ranging from principles to capstone courses.

A service-learning (action research) project developed for a capstone or economic theory and public policy course requires students to investigate a series of economic policy issues that have an impact on their local community. Issues related to welfare reform and the debate over national health insurance are such examples. Groups of students divide the responsibility of performing field work to identify individual and location-specific characteristics within their target community. This information is then combined with more formally presented economic theory in an assessment of the impact of economic policy changes or a plan of action for the community. For example, health care policy factors such as the extent of individual health care coverage, the availability and cost of state funded health care clinics and programmes, and current as well as proposed changes in federal, state and local health care policies are documented. Running concurrent with their field work, seminar classes develop alternative economic theories outlining the debate over national health care. Students then use these formal models to develop a plan of action specific to their community, suggesting the fiscal feasibility of state or locally funded health care facilities or documenting budgetary implications of a national health care system.

Those interested in learning more about this pedagogical technique are encouraged to review the volume edited by McGoldrick and Ziegert (2002). This text provides both a detailed presentation of the theory of service-learning specifically linked to economics and examples from those who have incorporated the practice of service-learning into their economics courses.


Ball, D., McNabb, E. and Whitt, C. (2002) 'Getting Started in Service Learning: Resources for Economists', in McGoldrick, KM. and Ziegert, A. (eds), Putting the Invisible Hand to Work: Concepts and Models of Service Learning in Economics, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, pp. 93-118.

McGoldrick, KM. (1995) 'Service-Learning: An Application for Economics Students', unpublished paper. Presented at the IAFFE Session of the Eastern Economic Association Meetings, New York, March.

McGoldrick, KM. (1998) 'Service-Learning in Economics: A Detailed Application', Journal of Economic Education, Vol. 29(4), pp. 365-376.

McGoldrick, KM. and Ziegert, A. (eds) (2002) Putting the Invisible Hand to Work: Concepts and Models of Service Learning in Economics, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Appendix 1: Sample Service-Learning Contract

Source: Ball, McNabb and Whitt (2002) pp. 110-111

Course: ___________________________________

Faculty Contact: ___________________________________

Address: ___________________________________

Phone/email: ___________________________________

Total Service Hours Required: _______________________

Part I: Contact Information

A. Name ___________________________________


Campus Address                    Home Address


_____________________________ _____________________________

_____________________________ _____________________________

_____________________________ _____________________________

B. Service Organisation/ Site ______________________________________

Name/position of supervisor ______________________________________

Address/phone ______________________________________

Your position title as volunteer ______________________________________

Part II: The Service Activity

A. EVALUATION: Please provide site supervisor with an evaluation form, to be returned to you by the end of semester. Include it in your portfolio for 20% of your grade.

B. JOB DESCRIPTION: Describe in as much detail as possible your role and responsibilities while service-learning. List duties, projects to be completed, deadlines, etc. if relevant.

C. SUPERVISION: Describe in as much detail as possible the supervision to be provided. What kind of instruction, assistance, consultation, etc. you will receive from whom, etc.

Part III: Learning Objectives / Learning Activities

A. LEARNING OBJECTIVES: What do you intend to learn through this experience? Be specific. Try to use concrete, measurable terms.


  1. On the Job: Describe how your service-learning will enable you to meet your learning objectives. Include projects, research, report writing, conversations, etc., which you will do while working, relating them to what you intend to learn.
  2. Off the Job: List reading, writing, contact with faculty, peer group, discussion, field trips, observations, etc., you will make and carry out which will help you meet your learning objectives.

C. EVALUATION: How will you know what you have learned, or that you have achieved your learning objectives? How do you wish to evaluate your progress toward meeting these objectives?

Part IV: Agreement

This contract may be terminated or amended by student, faculty sponsor or service site supervisor at any time upon written notice, which is received and agreed to by the other two parties.

Student Signature: ________________________________ Date: ___________

Service Site Supervisor: ____________________________ Date: ___________

Faculty Supervisor: ________________________________ Date: ___________

(Copies of this contract should be distributed to all parties)

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