Community Service Learning: Testing the Indirect Effects on an Undergraduate Social Determinants of Health Class

Grant recipients: Kelly Anthony, School of Public Health and Health Photo of Kelly Anthony, Jenna Van Draanen, Thivaher ParamsothySystems; Jenna Van Draanen, Evaluation Centre for Complex Health Interventions, St. Michael’s Hospital; and Thivaher Paramsothy**, School of Public Health and Health Systems; 

Project team members: Kelly Anthony, Jenna Van Draanen, Thivaher Paramsothy**, and Katherine Lithgow (CTE)

**Undergraduate Student

(Completed.  Project timeline: January 2013 - June 2014)

Project description

Research has shown that community service learning (CSL), a form of experiential learning, offers a host of benefits to students who undertake CSL projects. However, there is less known research on the effects of CSL on surrounding learners not directly involved in the CSL projects. We hypothesized that having a few CSL learners amongst non-CSL learners can have an indirect but nevertheless strong positive impact on the entire classroom of learners. The project was conducted by having some students participating in community service projects in the intervention class only. An experimental pre-test/post-test research design with a qualitative component and focus groups was used to test the benefits of CSL. The intervention class was compared with a control class to determine if incorporating community service learning would significantly increase breadth and depth of learning for the entire class.

Project goals

Short-term goals of the project included increased student engagement in the form of enhanced quality of classroom discussions for the entire class. Intermediate goals were to increase several of the Undergraduate Degree Level Expectations (UDLEs) for the entire class. The long-term goals were to develop a model for implementing CSL in a large university classroom, and to share lessons learned across disciplines to promote an overall deep learning culture at UW

Research objectives

The overall research question was: what is the impact of a small group of students engaged in community service learning (CSL) on non CSL-engaged students in a medium-sized health studies class?  The specific research objectives related to teaching and learning were:  1) to determine if providing CSL opportunities for a small group of students is able to enhance student experience and engagement in class for both CSL and non-CSL students, 2) to determine if CSL is able to increase UDLEs for both CSL and non-CSL students: specifically depth and breadth of knowledge, application of knowledge, and awareness of the limits of knowledge, 3) to test a model that investigates the potential impact of a modified CSL model in terms of maximizing benefits and minimizing additional instructor time/resources


Qualitative data from a smaller class setting revealed that students enjoy the CSL model and benefit from the: 1) class discussion 2) placements, or other students’ reports about the placements and 3) the journaling and structured critical reflection.  Students spoke about transformative learning experiences in the class and are highly supportive of the continuation of the model. However, students were uncertain about the feasibility of this model in a class >30 students and speculated that the success of the model was partially dependent on instructor characteristics.

Quantitative data from pre-post surveys done with students in a larger class revealed a significant change in key concept areas for the SDH course. For example, significant improvement was observed in knowledge of political influences on health outcomes, increased understanding of the connection between early childhood experiences and health and the limited control people have over their own health outcomes.

Overwhelmingly, students felt that the peer interactions and in the course strongly improved the quality of the learning experience. Students also reported that the CSL learners enriched all students’ experiences in the class.  This model appears to be beneficial in facilitating an enhanced learning experience for students and should be expanded beyond a pilot project to be tested more definitively.

Dissemination and impact

  • At the individual level: There is a blog post that summarizes our work to reach more non-academic audiences
  • At the Department/School and/or Faculty/Unit levels: The results were discussed with students in the undergraduate SDH class.
  • At the institutional (uWaterloo) level: The findings were also disseminated at the Centre for Teaching Excellence in March 2013 at a special session devoted to our work (CTE716, University of Waterloo).
  • At the national and/or international levels: We also presented our findings at an invited session at the Teaching and Learning Conference- Empowering Students to Learn on May 14-15 at Oakland University/Windsor University.   The attendees’ feedback from the session was excellent (4/5 for excellence of the session); SOTL colleagues from the US and Canada described it as very helpful. Finally, we have submitted an abstract to present the findings at the ISSOTL 2014 meeting in October.


References (pdf)

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