Professional and Alumni

The Psychology of Service Learning: More Than Pavlov's Dog

Reprinted by permission of Psi Chi Honor Society.

The Psychology of Service Learning:
More Than Pavlov's Dog

Thomas L. Wilson, PhD
Bellarmine College

Current and future members of the Psi Chi Chapter at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky, learned more than cold facts about Pavlov and principles of reinforcement in their learning class. In performing service projects and relating their experience to the course material, the students learned many lessons about themselves and their capacity to give.

There has been much recent interest in an alternative form of learning activities, collectively known as service learning, across the country. These educational experiences typically involve some volunteer service that students perform, as individuals or in groups, for their immediate or surrounding communities. At our small liberal arts college, the psychology program has a tradition of offering students many opportunities to learn through hands-on experience, like internships in the mental health community and various research projects. As the resident experimental psychologist on campus, I teach our standard course on learning and behavior. I'm also the faculty advisor of Bellarmine's Psi Chi chapter. Last year I offered students in my course the opportunity to do service learning, and chapter members both present and future thus became involved in the project.

The course, titled The Psychology of Learning, proved to be an ideal context in which students could involve themselves in service learning. As students of psychology all over the world know, fundamental learning processes are at the heart of such a course. I found that the experience of service learning gave students a much deeper and more direct understanding of the principles of learning and behavior. At the same time, to our surprise, the students' lives were changed by their community service.

When the spring semester approached, I decided to change the usual term project component of the course to something new. Why not try this service learning so many educators were talking about? Maybe there are more real-world examples of human learning in such an experience than doing an individual behavior modification project. Maybe the students will learn the course material better in community service. I set about by reviewing some literature on the topic of service learning, and it became apparent to me that service learning is not simply learning how, where, and why to serve in the community, i.e., being a volunteer. Service learning is an experience in which educational goals are met through volunteer service. My understanding is that service learning is a twofold process: performing significant acts by which one learns of the importance of community service while applying course material to the service experience as a teaching methodology. One could say the students learn to serve and serve to learn at the same time.

When I gave my students this new assignment I did not anticipate that the combination of service learning and a psychology course on human learning would be greater than the sum of those parts. At the start of the term, students were instructed with regard to where they could find an extensive list of volunteer agencies, addresses, and phone numbers, and they were encouraged to begin looking for any kind of service they would like to do. Students were also given the telephone numbers of larger agencies such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, etc. They were informed that their project could involve as little as one evening of work or a weekend, or as much as an ongoing weekly commitment. This way students had a choice and could volunteer to do as much service as they wanted.

The specific objectives of the project included performing a service in the community and identifying, in a term report, the behavioral principles at work during their community service and the ways in which their own behavior was modified from the experience.

When all the projects were finished, the members of Psi Chi who were involved said that the experience exceeded their wildest expectations. It turned out that, in an almost tangible way, their lives were changed by performing service for others. Some students wanted to join Psi Chi to do more projects! For example, one student helped in the building of a home for a homeless person. Another student made weekly visits to children with cancer. Others volunteered several hours in a girls' home, at a local grade school to help with reading time, in soup kitchens, and with flood relief agencies. One student baked cookies and took them with her on visits to apartment-bound seniors:

I discovered, by talking with my grandmother, that many elderly people are moved into an apartment by their families and then forgotten. Society always seems to do service for the homeless and the poor, so I just assumed that [elderly] people who could afford rent would be well cared for and have a very contented life. I went to the grocery store and purchased everything needed to bake a large batch of chocolate chip cookies. I filled 11 bags. The next day I went to the El Patio Apartments with my bags of cookies. In almost every instance, when I knocked on a door, a scowling person answered with, "What are you selling?" or "I don't want any!" Past experience must have taught these people that people who come to their doors want something. It is operant learning of an escape response. When I told them my name and that I had brought cookies, they remained skeptical. However, with persistence they saw the cookies I had brought and then relented and let me in.

They began to trust me a little at a time. . . . As we sat down and talked in each apartment, I observed a major change in their overall mood. They wanted to know everything about me. . . . every person I visited eventually welcomed me into their home. This project changed my attitude toward elderly people. I really never thought about them being so alone.

Other students indicated similar changes in themselves. One student wrote, "It's funny how taking a college class can change your whole view of the world." Another said she "witnessed a lot of change in myself as well as in the clientele at the residence for girls." A premed student ended up with bedpan duty and discovered he had a deeper appreciation for the nurse's job! And a young woman who volunteered to cut hair in a retirement home said, "Soon, the Tuesdays that I thought would most certainly be of little enjoyment actually turned out to be the mornings I looked forward to."

I can say with delight that reading the students' reports was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had as a teaching professor. I believe the students felt the experience was rewarding, even though I heard some groans when it was first assigned. Several students thanked me for the experience when the class was finishing. Now that doesn't happen for just any assignment! Because of the success, the officers are planning more service projects for Psi Chi and I will be sure to include service learning in my course again. The members of the Bellarmine College Chapter of Psi Chi recommend service learning to you and your chapter. We found there is much psychology in the service of others.

Thomas L. Wilson, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Ky., and serves as Psi Chi faculty advisor. Prof. Wilson became a member of Psi Chi in 1985 at California State University, Northridge, where he received his bachelor's degree under the extraordinary mentorship of Dr. Michele A. Wittig in 1986. He continued his studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he received the master's degree in 1988 and the doctorate in human experimental psychology in 1993 under the direction of Dr. Edward J. Shoben.

Professor Wilson's teaching and research interests are in human learning and memory, research methodology, and cognition. Prior to his appointment at Bellarmine College, Wilson taught for two years at Monmouth College in Illinois where he created a cartoon character named "Burrhus," a white rat in a laboratory coat, that still graces the walls of the psychology area to this day. Since arriving at Bellarmine in 1993, Wilson has come to be known by students as the professor who hands out graduate school material to anyone who is interested and notebook stickers that read, "I Can Succeed In College" every semester around midterm. An advisor to several psychology students and collaborator with many in research projects, Wilson sponsors several students each year at the Mid-America Undergraduate Psychology Research Conference. He also serves as director of the college peer tutoring program and frequently delivers workshops on study skills and test-taking strategies. His enthusiasm for psychology, and for what a knowledge of psychology can do for students' lives and possible career paths, is only equaled by his passion for oil painting, thoroughbred racing, and demystifying the role of the unconscious mind.


Spring 1998 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 22-23), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 1998, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.