November 9, 2007

Service Learning: Bringing Real-World Education Into the B-School Classroom

By Govekar, Michele A Rishi, Meenakshi

ABSTRACT. Service-learning pedagogy that supports community involvement values and promotes leadership development offers more effectiveness and efficiency for management educators interested in incorporating real-world learning into their courses than traditional internships and cooperative education (P. C. Godfrey & E. T. Grasso, 2000). In this article, the authors argue for service learning as means of integrating real-world learning into curricula. They describe 2 longitudinal examples in an economics course and a management course from 2001 to 2004. Beyond qualitative data from student reflective journals, essays, and anonymous comments, the authors present quantitative evidence of significant differences that support arguments in favor of service learning. Keywords: longitudinal, management, qualitative, quantitative, service learning

Copyright (c) 2007 Heldref Publications

Real-world education in the business school classroom is based on imparting "learnings that are dynamic, emergent, context-sensitive, and holistic" (Billimoria, 1998, p. 266). The expected outcomes from this type of learning include (a) enhancement of knowledge by which students can learn to balance theory and practice of business concepts, (b) development of good teamwork and communication skills, (c) ability to readily adapt and respond to changing conditions in the business environment, and (d) constant emphasis on innovation. Judging by these criteria, many critics still consider the business school curriculum narrow and largely indifferent to the external environment of business (ACNielsen, 2000; Emiliani, 2004; Lorange, 1994).

The past several years have produced new initiatives by business schools to complement traditional chalk-and-talk learning environments with real-world learning experiences. Many scholars have noted that this emphasis on real-world learning has shifted business schools' focus from classroom-based instruction to experiential instruction and has resulted in a "diasporic shift" (Billimoria, 1998, p. 265) in management education (Angelidis, Tomic, & Ibrahim, 2004; Billimoria; Hervani, & Helms, 2004; Klink & Athaide, 2004; Madsen, 2004; McCoskey & Warren, 2003; McIntyre, Webb, & Hite, 2005; Still & Clayton, 2004; Tschopp, 2004). Examples include student teamwork projects, integrative coursework activities and capstone courses, entrepreneurial opportunities in the curriculum, course-related internships, formal practitioner mentorships, and increasingly popular volunteerism and service- learning activities.

Increasingly, experiential pedagogies have been hailing service learning as a means of linking formal classroom instruction with real-world learning that occurs beyond the classroom and involves the community (Godfrey, Illes, & Berry, 2005; Rama, Ravenscroft, Wolcott, & Zlotkowski, 2000; U.S. Department of Education, 1999). As business educators and service-learning practitioners, we concur and argue that servicelearning activities can indeed offer "powerful experiential alternatives to the exclusive classroom model" (Waddock & Post, 2000, p. 49). In this article, we briefly review recent literature on service learning and its benefits. Then we describe two separate courses over 4 years, report qualitative and quantitative evidence that demonstrates the efficacy of service learning in meeting our learning outcomes, and conclude with reflections and lessons learned.

Service Learning: Background and Benefits

Although researchers have defined service learning variously in the literature, they have recognized service learning as an educational approach that combines community service projects with creditbearing educational experience. Furco (1996) distinguished service learning as "balanced" (p. 5) pedagogy anchored in reciprocity: The service-learning experience benefits students (providers) and community (recipient). Unlike internships, where the intended beneficiary is the student, service-learning programs "ensure equal focus on both the service being provided and the learning that is occurring" (Furco, p. 5). This balance helps distinguish service learning from volunteerism, where the community recipient is the primary beneficiary. Service programs do incorporate some principles of service learning but are different because they lack classrooms' focus on competency. Similarly, field experience shares some methods with service learning but often lacks a requirement for reflection and in-depth integration. Reflection also distinguishes service learning. Both formal (journal or essay) and informal (1-min paper or discussion) types of reflection ultimately ensure that the project provides real learning in addition to the service experience (Dubinsky, 2006; Eyler & Giles, 1999). Dewey (1938) provided early philosophical justification for service learning by suggesting that projects enable participants to broaden educational and civic horizons.

In a cross-disciplinary survey of research on service learning and student outcomes, Rama et al. (2000) highlighted the potential of service learning to enhance technical and cognitive capabilities and citizenship skills among students. Other researchers have shown the significant impact of service learning in enhancing student competencies (Friedman, 1996; Zlotkowski, 1998), developing a sense of responsibility (Boss, 1994; Eyler & Giles, 1999), and promoting self-efficacy (Moore & Sandholtz, 1999; Shalaway, 1991). Also, researchers have hailed service learning as a pedagogy that improves relationships among students, school, and community (Arney, 2006; U.S. Department of Education, 1999).

Relevant business education literature indicates that some educators favor adopting service learning because of its practical ability to provide students a direct link to real-world work skills, enabling the students to enhance and practice the concepts taught in class (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996; Hingorani, Sankar, & Kramer, 1998; Kenworthy-U'Ren, 2000). Waddock and Post (2000) noted that meaningful service learning can spark appreciation of corporate social responsibility among students. On the whole, business schools have been slow in embracing and implementing service-learning activities in curricula (Gujarathi & McQuade, 2002).

Although business educators may be tentative about service learning, they are increasingly interested in moving into the real world of organizations. It is not hard to understand this shift in perspective because complexities of the global economy require managers to possess several competencies: (a) ability to apply balanced academic rigor in a practical setting, (b) individual and teamwork skills, (c) problem-solving ability in a dynamic organizational setting, (d) understanding of diversity, and (e) ability to consider multiple points of view simultaneously.

In this article, we make a case for service learning for these reasons as a means to bring real-world learning into the business school classroom. We argue that service learning helps directly address interests of management educators as it expands learning spatially and temporally beyond the traditional classroom, partially replicating a real-world setting for students. Service-learning projects can effectively engage students in the uncertainties, difficulties, and complexities of present-day management and better prepare them for graduate school and future careers.

In the following section, we provide details on the application of service learning to two distinctly different courses over a 4- year period in the college of business administration at a Midwestern, medium-sized private university: money and banking class and nonprofit management class.

Service-Learning Experiences: Two Courses at a Business College

Service Learning in Economics

The choice to incorporate service learning into the money and banking course was based on a number of factors. First, in addition to faculty interest in experiential pedagogies, the university was investigating enhancing student outcomes through service learning on campus partly because the Higher Learning Commission's reaccreditation was approaching. Second, the College of Business Administration was trying to meet the suggestions of some advisory executive focus groups. Although these factors are not necessary for a service-learning decision, they diminished the usual complications of adopting this more demanding experiential pedagogy. Third, service learning offers exactly the active techniques that enable learning economic theory through realworld experience.

In money and banking, an upper level required or elective economics course that applies both micro- and macroeconomic principles, the professor explicitly tried to develop an understanding of the theory and practice of banking. In the course, the professor aimed to equip students with skills of financial data analysis that encouraged them to connect current economic conditions and relevant data. To meet their specific learning objectives, professors emphasized operation of the Federal Reserve System and made students well-informed so they could discuss financial aspects of the global economy in any forum.

To examine the efficacy of service learning in delivering real- world learning, the instructors planned general learning outcomes of critical and creative thinking skills, the ability to respond to change, exposure to real-world diversity, and better understanding of classroom concepts through the experience of teaching others. In addition, the course's designers intended the group-based nature of these activities to promote teamwork and communication skills among the participants. These general outcomes addressed concerns of college advisory focus groups that identified deficiencies in four key areas: (a) written and oral communication skills, (b) commitment and work ethic, (c) teamwork and team skills, and (d) cultural awareness and sensitivity to diversity. Planned service-learning projects for the money and banking course (fall and spring 2001; spring 2002, 2003, and 2004) constituted 25% of the total course grade. In 2001, the class's students offered tutorial assistance to children and financial planning basics to adult clients at a nearby community service agency. During 2002-2004, the class's students taught economics and finance fundamentals to an economics class at an area high school.

To ensure successful completion of hours pledged and hold each student responsible for promised services, the client organization and the student participants signed a contract detailing their service commitments. Also, students maintained and turned in a reflective journal detailing their experiences. The reflective journal directions presented the following four sets of questions: (a) "What happened? What did you see? What did you do?"; (b) "How did you feel, react? What did you learn about yourself, your biases, and your assumptions?"; (c) "Were you able to 'learn' money and banking through this experience? Given constraints on your time, were you able to try something new and different in your presentation? Explain."; and (d) "In rank order, write the five best and worst things about this case as compared to another 'classroom- based' case."

Service Learning in Management

Choosing service learning for the nonprofit management course was easy. University program interest was strong in the first years of the course, with a university volunteer for Volunteers in Service to America [VISTA] to help. The ideas of the business college's focus group carried over to ease the decision. The business college had been exploring the possibility of adding a 4-year service or service- learning requirement, but staffing issues delayed that decision. Last, the primary purpose for the course was to train business undergraduates for future positions as community leaders (the college mission), when they would serve on nonprofit community organization boards. Because preparing students for future service was the purpose of the course, having them apply service learning became an obvious step.

Nonprofit management is an upperlevel management elective course requiring students to apply understanding of management concepts to management challenges in the third sector. The specific learning objectives of (a) understanding special management problems of nonprofit organizations, (b) gaining experience in this dynamic and important sector, and (c) preparing for future service as board members link with the general learning objectives of enhanced critical thinking, applying course concepts to serve a real nonprofit, adapting to change, building teamwork and communication skills, and raising awareness of diversity beyond campus.

Service projects for nonprofit management also counted for 25% of the total course grade, with reflective project logs earning another 12.5%. In 2001 and 2003, students in groups of 3-5 worked with members of nonprofit boards and their stakeholders to examine concerns, evaluate processes, and prepare reports. In 2002, students partnered with the local nonprofit hospital to revise its new orientation manual for employees or volunteers, with each student group having separate chapter responsibilities. In 2004, the instructor secured client agencies, and student groups negotiated their own projects. Groups organized a campaign for a Friends of the Library program; planned, researched, designed, developed, and published a Web page for a local county hospital; conducted a membership survey for the county Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA); and participated in the annual fundraising and grant cycle as full members of Kiwanis for 10 weeks. Students developed contracts with their clients and with each other, and peers evaluated individual participation. The instructor called for reflective journals and project logs at three intervals during the course.


This section presents qualitative and quantitative evidence assessing servicelearning student outcomes. Qualitative evidence comes from anonymous postcourse student evaluations of teaching, students' reflective journals, project logs, and take-home essays. Quantitative assessment comes from surveys (pre- and post-) completed by students in both courses (questions and data are available from Michele A. Govekar).

Qualitative Evidence

Reflective summaries from student journals, essays, and postcourse teaching evaluation comments indicate that the service- learning projects had addressed most-if not all-learning outcomes (see Tables 1 and 2). Students in money and banking noted "better understanding of financial concepts." Analysis of comments in reflective journals indicated that in 2001, 89% of the class reported that their experience at an adult and teen learning center had enhanced personal understanding of general economics. During 2002-2004, when student teams taught a high school class, approximately 80% of participants indicated improved understanding of financial topics because "being able to and in fact explaining a concept to somebody else truly enhances your own comprehension as well." Reports from 21 of 28 students who completed the servicelearning experience in 2004 noted that the experience eased their nervousness and made them more relaxed about reading and discussing topics pertinent to money and banking. In all of the planned service-learning experiences over 2001-2004, students indicated that their team worked well in planning and executing the activity.

Nonprofit management students' journals and reflective essays showed similar linkage of service projects to classroom concepts, but also showed intent to apply classroom ideas in furthering the projects. The 2001 board assessment drew comments such as, "I learned a lot about boards that I never knew before this course" and "I liked sitting in on board meetings and getting a real-life experience of what we were learning." Working with Memorial Hospital drew comments indicating that "working with a real organization in the community,""hands on stuff," and "being able to help the XYZ community . . . [allowed] seeing how a non-profit organization works." Entries recognized the value of real-life experience in doing something that made a difference in the community. At least 80% of reflections used concepts from core courses (e.g., leadership, coordination, attitude, organizational change) to explain the experience.

Student reflective journals also provided examples of problem- solving skill development and ability to respond to change. Students noted that they had to change lesson plan emphasis, sometimes at the last minute, when told that an earlier group had gone over the same concept. Students who planned to use the computer classroom sometimes had to contend with uncooperative technology (business students found Macintosh technology uncooperative because they were trained to use personal computers [PCs]) and switch to a lecture- discussion format. The observation that the projects had challenged preconceived notions about inner-city teen groups or high school students appeared in a majority of reflective journals. Students appreciated exposure to a population that was different from what they were accustomed to and liked being in charge of the learning environment. Comments such as "I believe that this has taught me a lot about myself" indicated that students were able to expand their learning beyond the traditional environment. Last, students' description of activities designed for the classroom (financial monopoly, money and banking jeopardy), interactive financial Web sites, online quizzes on the Federal Reserve System, and handouts on the basics of budgeting and student loans indicated that the students thought creatively about otherwise possibly dull financial topics.

One of the nonprofit management students reported, "Working with the actual nonprofits was a great experience for the course itself and an opportunity to serve." Where teamwork skills were concerned, one student wrote about his high school presentation: "One member would answer and the group members would feed off that answer. . . . We worked well together." Tables 1 and 2 list other comments.

Quantitative Evidence

For quantitative assessment, both courses' students also completed a pretest and posttest survey in spring 2004. Survey questions, which we adapted from Eyler and Giles' (1999) Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) survey instrument, required respondents to use 5-point Likert-type scales to indicate respondent's degree of agreement from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree), rate themselves from 1 (much better) to 5 (much worse), describe themselves from 1 (not very well at all) to 5 (very well), and describe their experience from 1 (never) to 5 (very often). A recently published scale, Service Learning Benefit (SELEB), follows much the same method to propose a standardized assessment (Toncar, Reid, Burns, Anderson, & Nguyen, 2006).

Both instructors selected specific questions from the FIPSE survey that directly addressed course general learning objectives such as better understanding, application of classroom concepts, critical and creative thinking, ability to respond to change, better teamwork, better communication skills, and an awareness of diversity. The instructors asked questions in a variety of formats and compared responses as an internal check for self-reporting bias. For instance, the instructors measured leadership skills-important for management-by asking students to assess their "leadership skills,""ability to lead a group," and "knowing who to contact to get things done." Also, communication skills drew on "speaking in front of groups,""initiating talk,""listening skills, and "communicating my ideas." Further, diversity awareness items included, "affecting others' prejudices,""seeing others' side," and "understanding others . . . in their shoes." Students were free to answer or not. Random number codes allowed anonymous response, so instructors had no knowledge of participation or results until after completing course grades. In spring 2004, 43 students completed both pretests and posttests. Table 3 shows means, standard deviations, and statistically significant results of paired t tests comparing student assessments. It displays questions for which we expected posttest means to be lower numerically (because of question direction or coding reversal) with bold r. We found statistically significant differences between preand posttest responses on 15 items. All differences are in the anticipated direction, supported by similar differences in related questions.

Students assessed (a) their knowledge of the organization and (b) working in the organization as improved. They reported less discomfort in speaking in front of groups of those in authority and in initiating talk with unfamiliar people. They reported more deviation from planned formats and also more comfort in deviating. They reported increased ability to think creatively, engage in group discussion, lead a group, go beyond the textbook to find answers, communicate with others, and know whom to contact to get things done. Last, they reported significant improvement in keeping up with the news, feeling prepared to embark on a career, and-surprisingly- less likelihood to try understanding others through empathy. These changes were statistically significant across both courses. In addition, the posttest also assessed the overall experience. Nonprofit management students and money and banking students both applied things that they learned in the course and were very likely to apply things that they learned to service in the future. Of particular note, both money and banking and nonprofit management students assessed the items of "applied class to real problems,""it's rewarding to help others," and "working with others effectively" as close to very important.

Feedback from partner organizations has also been encouraging. One agency completed an evaluation form rating students' performance as "very professional" and expressed a keen desire to continue the program with future classes. The high school service-learning experience appears to have been equally rewarding for the partners. The high school economics teacher noted that students came to look on the university students as role models and mentors. All students completing the nonprofit management course received individual personal letters detailing their contribution and thanking them for their work. Those students used these letters in seeking jobs to differentiate themselves from other applicants.

Reflection and Lessons Learned

Service learning has the potential to transform business undergraduate education. Service learning affects major areas such as theory-to-real-world linkage, ability to change with the environment, and capacity to foster innovation. These areas prepare students for postgraduate programs and future careers. In this article, we made a case for servicelearning pedagogy as one means of integrating real-world learning into the business curriculum.

As we noted in the previous section, Tables 1 and 2 map evolving student experiences and learning outcomes for both courses over 4 years. Samples describe mostly positive student responses and surprising successes in achieving the intended learning outcomes. As further evidence of criticalthinking skills development, four students in the 2002 money and banking community service endeavor collaborated to research and present a paper at the state-level Campus Compact conference. One 2001 student wrote that the experience made her "more patient with people and more accepting of racial and economic diversity." That several nonprofit management graduates are now working in nonprofit organizations supports the potential of service learning to engender a lifelong commitment to service. We were delighted at the depth of upbeat student comments.

However, some student comments also indicated dissatisfaction with the ambiguity that was inherent in the projects and the time that was involved in trips to client organizations. To deal with these issues, both instructors took time to emphasize that ambiguity was designed into the projects as part of the real-world experience. Both professors set extra office hours to deal with the stresses that arose during each servicelearning experience.


As we look forward, we can draw several conclusions. First, student evaluations of our courses have consistently improved with repeated applications of service learning. It appears that faculty members need practice to get it right. Second, comparing service leaning with other modes of teaching these courses, we gained more personal satisfaction in terms of worthwhile outreach and close coaching relationships with students. Last, to facilitate broader faculty involvement, implementing service learning requires multiple community partners, significant institutional involvement, and better ways to demonstrate outcomes to counter skepticism from faculty and curriculum committees. Future researchers may meet this final need as service learning in the business disciplines flows from practice to practical research (e.g., Toncar et al., 2006).

Of course, there are costs in adopting service learning to address the needs of today's students. Startup costs are significant, and finding potential clients takes time, energy, and resources. Clients' wants may not match what students need to learn. Establishing the project, maintaining records, coaching student teams, and providing continual constructive feedback take time and energy. Monitoring board meeting schedules and student attendance can require several days of telephone tag for faculty committed to teaching other courses, until one learns to help students self- monitor. Student comments in teaching evaluations that pertain to client issues can seem unfair at times, and untenured faculty in particular should consider potential impact on student evaluations. A poorly executed service project could risk positive social capital that the university has in its surrounding community. Finally, there are the direct costs such as those of transportation, printing, and postage.

Although the costs of service learning may be high, management educators should explicitly assess the costs of not moving classroom learning beyond a chalk-and-talk environment into the real world, which is replete with complexities; not teaching students about the dynamic nature of the business environment; and not emphasizing innovation. Perhaps such reflection would inspire management educators to develop curricula that not only enhance undergraduate competencies but also foster linkages among faculty, students, the local community, and the university.


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Dr. Michele A. Govekar is an associate professor of management at Ohio Northern University. She teaches courses in strategic management, project management, corporate citizenship, and nonprofit organizations and general management. Her academic research and publications focus on the management and history of the U.S. firms' international operations, corporate and nonprofit interactions, nonprofit organizations, and assessment.

Dr. Meenakshi Rishi is an associate professor in economics at Seattle University. She teaches courses in macroeconomics, international political economy, and international business. Her research interests are development economics, international finance, and pedagogy.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Michele A. Govekar, 525 S. Main St., Ohio Northern University College of Business Administration, Ada, OH 45810

E-mail: [email protected]

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