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Theories & Approaches

All Theories & Approaches

Service Learning

This article is divided into the following sections:

  • A description of service learning
  • Research findings on the impact of service learning,
  • Information on TOP, a service learning program
  • Resources for more information on service learning


Service learning is a type of experiential education that integrates community service with learning to benefit both students and community. Over the last three decades, there have been periods of increased interest in getting students involved in their communities. In the current climate of community-building and volunteerism, there is renewed interest in the benefits of service learning, both for youth and the community. Although much of what has been documented about service learning is school-based, many after-school programs have effectively integrated service into their programs.

Service learning is part of a youth development philosophy that promotes engaging youth in constructive activities that build on their strengths and interests. Youth development programs hold promise for reducing teen pregnancy because they attempt to increase teens motivation to delay childbearing by providing positive alternatives and leadership opportunities (Brindis & Davis, 1998; Kirby & Coyle, 1997).

Although research on youth development programs is still scarce, there is some evidence that programs that include service learning can improve students academic performance and life skills, increase their hope for the future, and reduce rates of sexual activity, pregnancy, and childbearing (Allen, Philliber, Herrling, & Kuperminc, 1997; Waterman, 1997).

Many lessons have been learned about how to build and sustain a successful service learning program. First, students should be involved in selecting the site and the task. For example, students who recognize a lack of after-school programs for children may volunteer to tutor them at their school.

Second, the project should be designed so that youth can make a real contribution to the agency or community.

Third, if the service is done as part of a classroom project, the goals and practice of doing service must be integrated into the school infrastructure, and there must be buy-in from teachers, administrators, and school leaders.

Fourth, service experiences must build on and enhance specific knowledge or skills. For example, a school history curriculum on the Depression Era could be enhanced by visiting a nursing home to talk to senior citizens about their lives, and a social studies class on social issues could be enhanced by serving food and speaking with clients at a homeless shelter.

To get the most out of the service experience, students should receive adequate preparation about who they will be working with, as well as supervision during the service. There must also be structured time for students to reflect on their experiences, through writing, talking, drawing, acting, or reading. Reflection projects include group discussions, keeping a journal, making a video, or creating a school mural.

Students will benefit the most from service if they form a connection with an adult in the school or the community, as these relationships are the cornerstone of positive development. Finally, students should serve for at least 20 hours in order to see that they have made a contribution, and develop a relationship. To be effective, service learning programs should incorporate as many of these components as possible.



Because service learning programs vary so greatly in their goals, methods, projects, and the population studied, it is difficult to make broad conclusions about their impact (Williams, 1990).

The research findings vary depending on the methods used, and the age, gender, and risk profile of the students. However, several programs that include service projects have had a positive impact on birthrates and sexual risk-taking behaviors. These include the Teen Outreach Program (Allen, Philliber, Herrling, & Kuperminc, 1997), the Quantum Opportunities Program (Hahn, Leavitt, & Aaron, 1994), and the Reach for Health Community Service Learning Project (O'Donnell, Stueve, San Doval, et al., 1999).

Other positive effects of service learning include increased civic responsibility and intention to make positive choices about the future (Youniss & Yates, 1997), increased school engagement and higher grades (Melchior, 1997), improved communication with others, knowledge about careers, and higher self esteem (Hedin & Conrad, 1990; Shumer, 1997). Service learning also has benefits for teachers, schools, and communities (Conrad & Hedin, 1990).


Teen Outreach Program (TOP)

What is the Teen Outreach Program?
The goals of the Teen Outreach Program are to:

  • Promote young people's healthy behavior for successful achievement in school and attainment of their life-long goals
  • Help young people acquire valuable life skills to develop the necessary competencies and capacities to grow into healthy, self-sustaining adults
  • Give young people a sense of purpose through authentic opportunities that allow them to contribute in meaningful ways to their communities.

These goals are achieved through the implementation of two program components: a service learning component and a classroom based component.

The Service Learning Component helps young people prepare for and participate in volunteer community service. Youth have an opportunity to share their volunteer experience through discussion, research activities, writings and/or creative presentations. As part of this sharing, youth receive consistent messages about the values that underlie the program.

These values include such concepts as adult responsibility for supporting young people through difficult times, respect for diversity and intolerance for prejudice and discrimination, responsibility for our own actions and their consequences, and an obligation to promote our own well-being and that of our community.

Service learning projects initiated by TOP's youth range from serving as aids in hospitals to participating in a walkathon to tutoring peers. Each TOP site conducts a community mapping exercise with program youth to identify possible sites for group and/or individual service projects as a first step. Youth then decide as a group or individuals the type of volunteer service they want to do.

The Classroom Based Component consists primarily of small group activities and discussion on topics of special interest to young people. The current Changing Scenes curriculum is divided into four levels. Level I is designed for ages 12-13, Level II for 14 year olds, Level III for 15-16 year olds and Level IV for 17 year olds.

The curriculum focuses on the building of knowledge and skills related to self esteem, values, relationships, sexuality, decision-making, communication and other topics that address the goals of the program. Each level contains 30-40 lessons of 30-50 minutes in length. While TOP has generally been implemented in a school setting, it has also been adapted to out-of-school settings. TOP has recently become available in Spanish.

How has TOP Changed Behavior?
The Teen Outreach Program has shown, through evaluation, to have a positive impact on young people's behavior. In a 10-year evaluation of the program conducted by Philliber Research Associates, TOP students, when compared with a comparison sample, demonstrated a:
  • 60% lower school drop out rate o 33% lower pregnancy rate
  • 18% lower rate of school suspension
  • 8% lower rate of school course failure

Although four levels of the TOP currently exist, the research was conducted on a earlier version of TOP which was implemented with high school students in 25 sites nationwide from 1991-1994.

For a detailed description of the study and program results see "Preventing Teen Pregnancy and Academic Failure: Experimental Evaluation of a Developmentally Based Approach" by Joseph P. Allen, Susan Philliber, et al. in Child Development, August 1997, Volume 64, pages 729-742. In addition, a review of research on TOP Progress and Outcomes 1984-1996 is available from Philliber Research Associates, 28 Main Street, Accord, New York, 12404, (914) 626-2126.

What do I Need to Implement TOP in My Setting?
The successful implementation of TOP requires consistent financial support, a trained staff and collaboration with community organizations. More specifically, TOP needs:
  • A program coordinator to manage relationships between the implementing agency or school and the community-based organizations in which youth provide service
  • A classroom facilitator to implement the classroom component
  • Training for the program coordinator and facilitator
  • Program materials including copies of the Changing Scenes curriculum as well as other basic supplies needed for some program activities
  • Funds for travel to national trainings, and
  • Other costs such as refreshments at advisory board meetings, project materials, awards and certificates for program recognition events.

The TOP program can be purchased from The Wyman Center, 600 Kiwanis Drive, Eureka, MO 63025. For more information, contact Claire Wyneken at The Wyman Center at (636) 938-5245, ext. 236 or log on to The Wyman Center web page at



There are several resource centers across the United States that provide information about all aspects of service learning. They have guidelines for starting and sustaining programs, types of service, and related research and evaluation.

Constitutional Rights Foundation
601 South Kingsley Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90005

National Service Learning Clearinghouse
ETR Associates
4 Carbonero Way
Scotts Valley, CA 95066

National Service Resource Center
ETR Associates
4 Carbonero Way
Scotts Valley, CA 95066

Quantum Opportunities Program
Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America, Inc.
1415 Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122

Service Learning 2000 Center at Stanford University
800 Barron Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94306-2699

Teen Outreach Program
The Wyman Center
600 Kiwanis Drive
Eureka, MO 63025

Youth Service California
754 Sir Francis Drake, Suite 8
San Anselmo, CA 94960

For additional information about service learning and its impact on adolescent behavior, there are several books and articles.

Allen, J. P., Philliber, S., Herrling, S., & Kuperminc, G. P. (1997). Preventing teen pregnancy and academic failure: Experimental evaluation of a developmentally based approach. Child Development, 68, 729-742.

Brindis, C. & Davis, L. (1998). Linking pregnancy to youth development. Washington, DC: Advocates for Youth.

Conrad, D. & Hedin, D. (1990). The impact of experiential education on youth development. In J.C. Kendall & Associates (Ed.). Combining service and learning: A resource book for community and public service (pp. 119-129). Raleigh, NC: National Society for Internships and Experiential Education.

Gulati-Partee, G. & Finger, W. R. (Eds.) (1996). Critical issues in K-12 service learning. National Society for Experiential Education.

Hahn, A., Leavitt, T., & Aaron, P. (1994). Evaluation of the Quantum Opportunities Program (QOP): Did the program work? Waltham, MA: Center for Human Resources, Brandeis University.

Hedin, D. & Conrad, D. (1990). Rationale: Selling the youth service learning program. In J.C. Kendall & Associates (Ed.). Combining service and learning: A resource book for community and public service (pp. 507-518). Raleigh, NC: National Society for Internships and Experiential Education.

Kendall, J. C. & Associates (Ed.) (1990). Combining service and learning: A resource book for community and public service. Raleigh, NC: National Society for Internships and Experiential Education.

Kirby, D. & Coyle, K. (1997). Youth development programs. Children and Youth Services Review, 19, 437-454.

National Service Learning Cooperative (1998). Essential elements of service-learning for effective practice and organizational support. Roseville, MN: National Youth Leadership Council.

O'Donnell, L. O., Stueve, A., San Doval, A., Duran, R., Haber, D., Atnafou, R., Johnson, N., Grant, U., Murray, H., Juhn, G., Tang, J., & Piessens, P. (1999). The effectiveness of the Reach for Health community service learning program in reducing early and unprotected sex among urban middle school students. American Journal of Public Health, 89, 176-181.

Shumer, R. D. (1997). Learning from qualitative research. In A. S. Waterman (Ed.). Service-learning: Applications from the research (pp. 25-38). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Waterman, A. S. (Ed.) (1997). Service-learning: Applications from the research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Williams, R. (1990). The impact of field education on student development: Research findings. In J.C. Kendall & Associates (Ed.). Combining service and learning: A resource book for community and public service (pp. 130-147). Raleigh, NC: National Society for Internships and Experiential Education.

Youniss, J. & Yates, M. (1997). Community service and social responsibility in youth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.