Benefits of Service-Learning in Economics

Initial Publication Date: November 30, 2010
In addition to benefits applicable for all disciplinesbenefits of service-learning, service-learning has specific benefits for economics students:

Leads to enhanced learning

Salemi (2002: 721) notes:
"Hansen (1986) argues that economics majors should be able to gain access to existing knowledge, display command of it, draw it out, use it to explore issues, and use it to create new knowledge."
Service-learning promotes deep learning and helps students become proficient in the ways that Hansen argues they should. Drawing out knowledge, exploring issues, and creating new knowledge requires practice. It requires students to do economics. Service-learning requires student to do just that: by applying knowledge learned in the classroom to address a community need or understand a community problem,---students gain the necessary practice required to 'do economics.'

Increases participative learning, addresses 'real world' concerns, and increases student civil engagement

Concerns about the curriculum typically taught in economics classrooms have been raised by the economics profession:
  • Increasing participative learning
Becker and Watts (2001, 1996) encourage professors to move away from standard "chalk and talk" lecture techniques to more participative learning techniques. Indeed Hansen, Salemi and Siegfried (2002) encourage economics teachers to allow for more active learning techniques even at the expense of reduced course content. Adopting service-learning directly responds to these concerns.
  • Addressing 'real world' concerns
Students and community members have also voiced their concerns about the curriculum. Students often complain that economics education is abstract and too far removed from the 'real world.' By placing students in their communities and asking them to provide meaningful service informed by their economic studies, service-learning directly address these complaints.
  • Increasing student civic engagement
Some member of our communities complain that the traditional training of economics students in our departments and business schools create citizens more interested in their own personal gains than in being contributing members of their communities. Indeed Frank (1993) finds evidence that economists behave less cooperatively that non-economists along a variety of dimensions and that these differences are at least in part caused by training in economics (p 170). Using service-learning in our classrooms can counter these effects and better prepare our students to be engaged citizens of their communities.

Increases Diversity in the Classroom

Historically women and people of color have been underrepresented in economics classrooms (Albelda 1995; Siegfried 1995). Ziegert (2000, 1999) finds evidence that differences in personality traits lead to differences in learning styles. Bartlett (1996: 148) indicates that "European-American females, Hispanics, and African-American students tend to be concrete active experimenters. Traditional lecture based classrooms will not engage members of these groups. However active, experiential pedagogies such as service-learning can make economics more appealing to a diverse student body. As McGoldrick (1998: 366) notes:
"Experiential learning reaches a broader base of students by providing an active participatory environment that begins with a concrete experience..."
Service- learning makes student experiences in their community service an additional 'text' in the course which enables all students to more fully participate. Research in service-learning outcomes suggest that participation in a service-learning experience can reduce stereotypes and facilitate cultural and racial understanding.

Finally, service-learning allows for a broader, more diverse economic content . Because diverse students in diverse service settings use their service experiences as the starting point for hypothesizing and theorizing, this allows for a more pluralistic consideration of economic theories beyond the dominant neoclassical paradigm. Peterson and McGoldrick (2009) argue that this is exactly what is needed to better prepare economics students to participate in the world after graduation.