Service learning and the psychologically literate citizen

In addition to thoughtfully delineating learning outcomes in individual courses, psychology teachers should consider what their ultimate goals are for students at the conclusion of formal education. The “psychologically literate citizen” metaphor has been proposed to describe the ideal graduate educated in psychology: “Psychologically literate citizenship describes a way of being, a type of problem solving, and a sustained ethical and socially responsive stance towards others” (Halpern, 2010, p. 21). In a survey of undergraduate psychology departments, 90 percent indicated that some sort of internship, practicum or field experience was required (Norcross, Hailstorks, Aiken, Pfund, Stamm & Christidis, 2016). These applied learning experiences, which are focused primarily on preprofessional development, are only some of the ways to involve students in local communities. The American Psychological Association’s educational initiatives have also advocated incorporating service learning in the psychology curriculum as a means to better develop the civic outcomes of students and enhance their academic learning and personal development (e.g., Halpern, 2010; McGovern et al., 2010; Reich & Nelson, 2010).

Service learning is different from traditional applied learning. A formal definition of service learning characterizes it as a:

Course-based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students (a) participate in mutually identified and organized service activities that benefit the community and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of personal values and civic responsibility (Bringle & Clayton, 2012, p. 105).

This definition helps differentiate service learning from other types of educational experiences in the community and from volunteering. First, the definition identifies the unique contribution service learning brings to the psychology curriculum: civic education. Unlike many internships and applied learning activities, what service learning does better than any other pedagogy is not just have students “serving to learn,” which is applied learning, but also have them “learning to serve” (Bringle, Reeb, Brown & Ruiz, 2016). Service learning requires students think about, critically examine, evaluate and analyze their role in society with regard to civic, social, economic and political issues. Further, it develops students’ skills and dispositions to act on those roles. Thus, unlike many practica and internships, service learning has the intentional goal of developing civic learning of psychologically literate students, not just the academic learning or vocational preparation of students, which are the primary purposes of an internship in psychology.

Second, unlike volunteering, service learning represents academic work in which the community service activities constitute a “text” that is interpreted, analyzed and related to the course content in ways that permit a formal evaluation of learning — thus making it educationally meaningful community service. In service learning, students do not receive academic credit for engaging in community service; rather, academic credit is based on the demonstrated learning that results from engaging in community service and connecting it to course content. The service may be (a) working with residents or agency clients (direct service), (b) working with agency staff (indirect service), (c) conducting research with the community (research), or (d) advocating social change (advocacy) (Bringle et al., 2016).

The definition of service learning notes the importance of not just being active in the community, but also of students and instructors working with community members (e.g., staff at community organizations, residents, clients) to integrate community activities into a psychology course (or course sequence). Further, the definition recognizes reciprocity (i.e., mutual benefit of service learning to student, campus and community). For instance, Bringle et al. (2016) illustrate how service learning pedagogy can advance campus-community research, such as participatory community action research projects (e.g., Reeb, Glendening, Farmer, Snow & Elvers, 2014). A review of the literature suggests service learning pedagogy can have beneficial community outcomes (Reeb & Folger, 2013).

The definition also identifies reflection as a major component. Well-designed reflection activities should (a) intentionally link the service experience to course-based learning objectives, (b) be structured, (c) occur regularly, (d) allow feedback and assessment, and (e) include the clarification of values (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999). Bringle et al. (2016) provide sample service learning activities and reflection prompts that connect community service activities to the APA Guidelines 2.0 (APA, 2013) in the following courses:

  • Introductory psychology.
  • Abnormal, health and community psychology.
  • Personality, social and cultural psychology.
  • Developmental psychology.
  • Cognitive, learning and behavioral neuroscience.
  • Statistics, research methods and research capstone.
  • Learning communities, interdisciplinary courses, online courses, civic internships and study abroad.

For example, a new model proposed for teaching the introductory psychology course includes the recommendation that it contain an experiential or laboratory component (Gurung et al., 2016). Introductory psychology is well-suited for integrating service learning into it. Bringle et al. (2016) give the example of having college students provide assistance to elementary students (e.g., one-on-one tutoring, reading in small groups, helping with assignments) and connecting those experiences to the chapters of introductory psychology (learning, development, stress and coping, social psychology, personality). Examples are also given for how reflection activities can be structured to facilitate the connections between the community-based activities and academic learning, civic learning and personal growth.

Reich and Nelson (2010) summarize well the rationale for more extensively integrating service learning into the psychology curriculum: “a … basic reason for bringing socially responsive knowledge and service learning pedagogy into our curriculum is that in many situations they simply are a more successful way to reach our students” (p. 142). Service learning can improve disciplinary learning, create a more student-centered approach to learning, promote sensitivity to social justice issues and support democratic processes in education. A robust body of research leads to the conclusion that service learning can provide “value added” for reaching many of the learning outcomes identified by APA Guidelines 2.0 (Bringle et al., 2016). We heartily recommend that all teachers who are interested in the holistic development of students as psychologically literate citizens consider integrating service learning into their courses because it enriches the educational experiences of teachers, students and community partners.

Re-posted with permission from the American Psychological Association’s Psychology Teacher Network 


American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0. Retrieved from http: //

Bringle, R.G., & Clayton, P.H. (2012). Civic education through service-learning: What, how, and why? In L. McIlrath, A. Lyons, & R. Munck (Eds.), Higher education and civic engagement: Comparative perspectives (pp. 101-124). New York: Palgrave.

Bringle, R.G., & Hatcher, J.A. (1999). Reflection in service learning: Making meaning of experience. Educational Horizons, 77(4), 179-185.

Bringle, R.G., Reeb, R., Brown, M.A., & Ruiz, A. (2016). Service learning in psychology: Enhancing undergraduate education for the public good. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Gurung, R.A., Hackathorn, J., Enns, C., Frantz, S., Cacioppo, J.T., Loop, T., & Freeman, J.E. (2016). Strengthening introductory psychology: A new model for teaching the introductory course. American Psychologist, 71(2), 112-124. doi: 10.1037/a0040012.

Halpern, D.F. (Ed.). (2010) Undergraduate education in psychology: A blueprint for the future of the discipline. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

McGovern, T.V., Corey, L., Cranney, J., Dixon, Jr., W.E., Holmes, J.D., Kuebli, J.E., Ritchey, K.A., Smith, R.A., & Walker, S.J. (2010). Psychologically literate citizens. In D. F. Halpern (Ed.), Undergraduate education in psychology: A blueprint for the future of the discipline (pp. 9-27). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Norcross, J.C., Hailstorks, R., Aiken, L.S., Pfund, R.A., Stamm, K.E., & Christidis, P. (2016). Undergraduate study in psychology: Curriculum and assessment. American Psychologist, 71(2), 89-101. doi: 10.1037/a0040095.

Reeb, R.N., & Folger, S.F. (2013). Community outcomes in service learning: Research and practice from a systems perspective. In P.H. Clayton, R.G. Bringle, & J.A. Hatcher (Eds.), Research on service-learning: Conceptual models and assessment (pp. 389-418). Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.

Reeb, R.N., Glendening, Z., Farmer, C., Snow, N., & Elvers, G. (2014, October). Behavioral activation in a homeless shelter: An interdisciplinary service-learning community-based research project. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Association for Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement, New Orleans.

Reich, J.N., & Nelson, P.D. (2010). Engaged scholarship: Perspectives from psychology. In H. E. Fitzgerald, C. Burack and S. D. Seifer (Eds.), Handbook of engaged scholarship: Contemporary landscapes, future directions. Volume 2: Community-campus partnerships(pp. 131-147). East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press.

About the Author

Robert G. Bringle, PhD, PhilD, is chancellor’s professor emeritus of psychology and philanthropic studies and senior scholar in the Center for Service and Learning at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. From 2012-15, he was the Kulynych/Cline visiting distinguished professor of psychology at Appalachian State University. He served as executive director of the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Center for Service and Learning from 1994-2012. Bringle was awarded the Thomas Ehrlich faculty award for service learning, the iupui chancellor’s award for excellence in teaching and the legacy of service award from Indiana Campus Compact. In 2004, he was recognized at the 4th Annual International Service-Learning Research Conference for his outstanding contributions to the service learning research field. The University of the Free State, South Africa, awarded him an honorary doctorate for his scholarly work on civic engagement and service learning.
Margaret A. Brown (BS, MS, PhD, psychology, University of Washington), is a professor of psychology, director of the Center for Scholarship and Faculty Development and assistant provost at Seattle Pacific University. She is an experienced service learning practitioner who has won awards for excellence in teaching, including the distinguished teaching award from the University of Washington and the endowed Patricia M. Bentz Teacher of the Year Award from Seattle Pacific University. She is the recipient of a National Science Foundation fellowship. Brown’s research interests are in service learning, self psychology and the intersection of prosocial behavior and intergroup relations. She is the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters and most recently a text on service learning in psychology and a text on self psychology. Her rigorous, theory-based, experimental research on service learning as a form of counter-normative prosocial behavior has revealed its impact on social justice attitudes.
Roger N. Reeb, PhD, is a professor of psychology and Roesch Endowed Chair in the social sciences at the University of Dayton. He received a PhD in clinical psychology (1993) from Virginia Commonwealth University. After completing a predoctoral internship at Brown University Clinical Psychology Internship Consortium in 1993, Reeb joined the faculty at the University of Dayton, where he served as director of graduate programs in psychology from 2006-14. Reeb published “Community Action Research: Benefits to Community Members and Service Providers” (2006) and recently coauthored “Service Learning in Psychology: Enhancing the Undergraduate Curriculum for the Public Good” (2016). He has published over 30 peer-reviewed articles, conducted over 80 professional conference presentations and received many awards. He also serves on the editorial board for a number of professional journals, including the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning.
Ana I. Ruiz, PhD, received her doctorate in developmental psychology from Cornell University, MA in cognitive development from the Federal University of Pernambuco and BS from Catholic University of Pernambuco, Brazil. She is a professor of psychology at Alvernia University, where she has been involved in the teaching and learning of service learning in research and multicultural courses and received a teaching excellence award. her publications include the books “Service Learning in Psychology: Enhancing Undergraduate Education for the Public Good” (2016) and “Service-Learning Code of Ethics” (2005), chapters and articles on ethical issues in international service learning and research on service learning, impact of service on alumni career development and intelligence. She is the co-creator of the online resource Teaching Ethics to Undergraduate Psychology Students.