Digest No. 11 - August 2023

Service Learning as a Tool to Achieve Intercultural Effectiveness

Kilgo, C. A. 2015. “The Estimated Effects of Service Learning on Students’ Intercultural Effectiveness.” Journal of College Student Development.


This longitudinal study employing the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education dataset sought to determine the influence of service learning on the intercultural effectiveness of undergraduate students. Service learning is a form of pragmatic and experiential learning in which students learn about and help address the challenges a community is facing or learn about the goals of that community and meaningfully assist in achieving those goals. Examining 17 diverse institutions and nearly 2,000 students, the study revealed a strong positive association between participating in service learning and intercultural effectiveness. However, this effect appears to be entirely mediated by (that is, completely dependent upon) exposure to good practices in course design and pedagogy, such as having more positive interactions with diverse peers, more diversity experiences in general, experiencing greater academic challenge, and having integrated learning experiences.


How service learning is conducted matters more for helping students achieve outcomes than providing service learning itself. Generally, this study demonstrates that well thought-out activities that compel students to critically analyze their own thoughts and consider them in juxtaposition to alternatives are responsible for enhancing students’ intercultural skills. As demonstrated by other research on cognitive development, students should be offered the opportunity to refine their perspectives and connect their learning in an integrated manner in order to generate the strongest developmental effects.


As expressed by the author, “faculty who facilitate service learning experiences for students should strive to include these good practices within the implementation of service learning opportunities” (p. 869). Having positive interactions with diverse others, more academic challenge, more integrated learning, and more reflective learning leads to stronger intercultural skills. Service learning may be a vehicle well-suited to achieve these effects when designed thoughtfully and with academic rigor. Institutions may wish to conduct reviews of current service learning programs to ensure that this is the case, and campus leaders considering developing new service learning programs may wish to ensure that these good practices are embedded with the service learning experience. It may also be advantageous for current service learning programs to develop activities that place students in groups with diverse peers, challenge them to think critically, ask that they analyze their own perspectives, and allow them to reflect upon their learning and integrate it with their past knowledge and experiences.


Cindy Ann Kilgo is an associate professor in the Center for Postsecondary Research, Educational Leadership, and Policy Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington.


Astin, A. W., and Sax, L. J. 1998. “How Undergraduates Are Affected by Service Participation.” Journal of College Student Development, 39, 251-263.

Chickering, A. W., and Gamson, Z. F. 1987. “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” AAHE Bulletin, 39.7, 3-7.

Jones, S. R., and Abes, E. S. 2004. “Enduring Influences of Service Learning on College Students’ Identity Development.” Journal of College Student Development, 45.2, 149-166.