Service-learning collaboration helps improve WSU students grades and retention

Students volunteer on a food gleaning project with the Community Action Center in Pullman.
Students volunteer on a food gleaning project with the Community Action Center in Pullman.

A partnership between Washington State University’s Center for Civic Engagement and the LAUNCH Program is bringing service-learning into the classroom, with positive impacts on student success.

During the fall 2023 semester, CCE and the LAUNCH Program (part of the Transformational Change Initiative in the provost’s office) collaborated on an effort to include service-learning in Psychology 105 and Human Development 200 courses. Over 800 students were asked to engage in service-learning projects then reflect on the experience as part of their course curriculum.

“The partnership has been very successful,” said Jessica Perone, assistant director of engaged learning with CCE. “It gave these students, many of whom are first-year, first-semester, more support for engaging with their community, and we received great feedback from them.”

The service-learning project was part of a series of scaffolded experiences built into the courses. Students were first tasked with identifying their personal strengths, then worked with peer facilitators to outline their “best self” ideals and map out goals to achieve those ideals. CCE staff then visited classes to talk with students about service-learning opportunities, and the facilitators (who participated in a project themselves to get familiar with the experience) encouraged students to choose an opportunity that aligned with the strengths and ideals they had outlined.

Students selected a variety of projects, Perone said, including Bishop Place Senior Living, Community Action Center, Whitman County Humane Society, and Pullman Parks and Recreation. Giving the students agency to choose their own projects was a key part of the program.

“We wanted students to choose projects they felt connected to, which helps service-learning feel less like a task and more like an opportunity,” Perone said. 

Once they completed their service-learning project, students were asked to reflect on the experience.

“Our goal was to give students the space and opportunity to think about who they are, where they want to go, and what learning experiences could help them in that developmental process,” said Samantha Swindell, associate dean of undergraduate studies and professor in the Department of Psychology. “For several years, the LAUNCH program has been working to promote the value of experiential learning and helping students find opportunities that match their unique interests, strengths, and goals. In partnering with CCE, we were able to take the next step by actually engaging students in a service-learning experience as a component of the program.”

Boosting retention and success

Service-learning doesn’t just give students an opportunity to live their values – it also has a substantial impact on their success.

A study conducted by biology faculty and CCE staff during academic years 2017-18 and 2018-19 found that students who participated in a similar service-learning project received an academic boost: end-of-semester grades for participants were almost 10% higher than non-participants’ grades, and participants’ fall-to-fall retention was 9.3% higher. The impact was particularly pronounced among students of color.

Though it is too soon for the CCE and LAUNCH teams to assess the fall 2023 semester cohort data in the same way, they anticipate the results will be similar.

“We have every reason to believe that the benefits of service-learning are as true for our students as they were in the group that was studied,” Swindell said. “Service-learning helps students be more civic-minded, feel more like a member of the community, improves self-efficacy, and is great practice in stepping into an unfamiliar situation and seeing it as a learning opportunity.”

The partnership is continuing in spring 2024, and the CCE and LAUNCH teams are both eager to work together again to create positive outcomes for students.

“We wouldn’t be able to do this without CCE,” Swindell said. “They’re doing all the heavy lifting of forming partnerships and creating service opportunities so that on the academic side, we get to focus on how we see those opportunities aligning with learning outcomes. This partnership has been a great way to bridge Academic Affairs and Student Affairs to create a holistic student experience.”

Faculty interested in integrating service-learning into their courses can find more information on the CCE website or contact Perone (Jessica.perone@wsu.edu).

Learn more about the LAUNCH Program on the Transformational Change Initiative website and service-learning on the CCE website. Students, faculty, and staff can find community service activities on GivePulse.

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