Service-Learning in Economics

Initial Publication Date: November 30, 2010

Service learning is an experiential pedagogy that, through critical reflection, enables students to integrate their study of economics in the classroom with service activities in their communities. Carefully constructed service-learning activities require students to think and act as an economist would in ways that take into account real world complexities and which benefit actual communities. Key components of a service-learning experience include economic content from the classroom, meaningful service activities in the community and critical reflection activities that support classroom learning and community service goals. Learn more about what is service-learning

Benefits of Incorporating Service-Learning in Economics Classrooms

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. While some may argue that demands on faculty time drive this reliance on lecture based methods, Becker and Watts (2000) suggest there is evidence that current practices are "...established by convenience, custom and inertia rather than efficiency or, especially, by what represents effective teaching practices in today's undergraduate curriculum" (p. 4). Service learning can increase effectiveness in economic classrooms because service-learning:
  • promotes deep learning and can lead to enhanced learning gains for economics students in both scope and depth of learning
  • addresses student complaints about the abstract nature of economics by providing them with opportunities to address real world economic issues in their communities
  • addresses complaints that training in economics is self-serving
  • can make economics classrooms more accessible to increasingly diverse students by using student experience as an additional 'text' in the course
  • facilitates the expansion of course content because of the range and diversity of student experiences and service sites
Learn more about the benefits of service-learning in economics in the context of economics education literature.

How to Use Service-Learning in Economics Classrooms

Adding a service-learning component to an economics class is more than just a service activity add-on. Effective service-learning experiences link the economic content and learning objectives of your course with clearly defined service activity in the community. Developing a service-learning course involves four steps:
  1. preparing and designing a service-learning course
  2. implementing a service experience
  3. learning through reflection
  4. summative and formative assessment of learning and service activities and outcomes Learn more about how to use service-learning

Service-learning is a flexible pedagogy that has been used in both small seminars and large lecture classes in economics.

  • Service-learning can be used in introductory or intermediate economic theory classes:
    • Arthur Caplan (2002) had his nearly 100 principles students help local health agencies administer survey to under served members of his community
    • KimMarie McGoldrick and colleagues (2000) describe their use of student-based instruction in a service-learning experience that involved students in a managerial economics class developing curriculum and teaching elementary student basic economic concepts
    • Gail Hoyt (2002) used service learning in a business and economics statistics course to teach regression analysis. Students partner with community agencies to analyze data and conduct research projects of interest to their community partners
  • Service-learning is often useful in upper level field courses in economics:
    • Mary Lopez (2009) describes how her students in her Economics of Race and Gender course used a variety of active learning techniques to introduce local high school students to topics of race and gender in local housing and labor markets Learn more
    • Leah Greden Mathews (2002) describes how her students in a Land Economics course volunteered at various community agencies (housing agencies, conservation groups, zoning agencies) to undertake a variety of research projects in conjunction with their community partners
  • Service-learning has been used in capstone courses to help students synthesize skills across the major:
    • Nancy Brooks and Richard Schramm (2007) develop a course in which students combined research, service and classroom learning to document and better understand the effects of University of Vermont's hiring and purchasing decisions on the local economic community Learn more
    • Alejandro Mungaray and colleagues (2008) describe how economics majors served as 'economic consultants' to micro enterprises in Mexico. Students reported on the economic performance of the their community partner and provided in situ assistance to enterprises as problem arose

Faculty interested in incorporating service-learning in their teaching will find Checklist for Service-Learning in Economics a helpful place to start.

Resources for Economists

This bibliography includes references to articles cited on the Service-Learning in Economics site as well as articles describing service-learning applications in economics.

These examples help you get started incorporating service-learning in your classroom.