9 Service Learning: An Opportunity for Personal and Professional Growth

Alisa Stanton

HSCI 449: Community and Health Service

Health Sciences 449 is a fourth-year seminar course that emphasizes participatory approaches to health promotion. It is designed to provide students with an opportunity to apply what they have gained through their studies in a practical setting. The course has 20 students and is open to all SFU students, but the majority are Health Sciences majors. I have been teaching it since 2013 and deeply enjoy the opportunity to give students a chance to learn by doing.

The course can be termed a service learning course because students develop personal, professional and civic skills through a combination of volunteer experiences, personal reflection and in-class discussion.  The service learning component includes 30 hours“Service learning combines community service with classroom instruction, focusing on critical, reflective thinking and personal and civic responsibility. Service learning programs involve students in activities that address local needs, while developing their academic skills and commitment to their community.” American Association of Community Colleges of volunteer work with SFU Health and Counselling Services, along with reflection activities such as classroom dialogue and journalling. Students participate in real-world team projects that allow them to apply health promotion skills related to community engagement, advocacy, health education and capacity building while making a difference to the SFU community. Through reflection, students develop their own meaning, knowledge and personal growth from their volunteer experiences.

My interest in service learning comes from my passion for health and well-being. I believe that when course content connects students to real-world contributions and practice, it not only deepens their understanding of the material, it contributes to student well-being and enjoyment of learning. Applying theoretical concepts in practical ways can clarify students’ thinking about potential career paths as they explore who they are and what they have to contribute. The experience gives them a chance to feel connected to others and to their field of practice while building confidence and professional skills.

The Service Learning Projects

Students in my class volunteer with SFU Health and Counselling Services on projects designed to improve health and well-being for SFU students. For any community-engaged learning initiative, it can be challenging to develop projects that are both relevant to students’ learning and also of value to the community organization. I am fortunate that in addition to my work as a sessional instructor for this course, I work as a health promotion specialist in Health and Counselling Services. This direct involvement allows me to design projects that are of genuine value to the SFU community while also providing students with a rich opportunity to apply theory and concepts in a real-world setting.

The partnership between the course and Health and Counselling Services has multiple benefits. For students, it provides an opportunity to practice skills, network with professionals, deepen learning and apply the ideas from readings and class while giving back to the campus community. For Health and Counselling Services, the partnership provides an opportunity to increase the student voice and student involvement in health promotion work on campus. At the end of the semester, students report on the impacts of their projects through a final presentation to the class and representatives from Health and Counselling Services.

1.  Mental Health and Well-being Consultation (2015) aims to understand how mental health could be better supported at the university. HSCI 449 students helped to plan and deliver several consultation events with the campus community such as hallway chats and online consultations. Students also helped create a video about the consultation. The data gathered by the students has been used as part of the consultation on mental health and well-being.

Consultation on Mental Health and Well Being
Learning by Doing:  HSCI 449 students work with Lisa Ogilvie from Health & Counselling Services on mental health and well-being consultation (2015).

2.  Well-being in Learning Environments (2013) was part of an ongoing initiative at SFU to identify how different types of learning experiences affect student well-being. Students in HSCI 449 chatted with students in the hallways, and used online surveys and engagement to gather feedback about the way learning experiences can support well-being at SFU. This feedback was incorporate it into the larger initiative on well being in learning environments.

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Enhancing the student voice: SFU student shares feedback about the way learning experiences can support well-being.

3.  Well-being Through Physical Spaces (2015) is a community engagement project to garner input from the Vancouver campus community about the renovation of a student lounge space at SFU’s Harbour Centre. Students looked at how new student spaces could be designed to enhance well-being. Surveys and informal hallway chats were used to gather ideas and identify needs, as well as to educate students about the links between physical spaces and well-being. See more information about principles of design for well-being through physical spaces.

4. Random Acts of Kindness (2014–2015) challenges students to create a culture of kindness on the SFU campus by planning and implementing a campaign to promote random acts of kindness.

Supporting a culture of kindness Students share positive messages with others at SFU’s Vancouver campus.
Supporting a culture of kindness:  Students share positive messages with others at SFU’s Vancouver campus.

Working in Teams

The team-based approach to learning is central to the student experience in HSCI 449. Teams of three to five students work closely with a point person from Health and Counselling Services to plan, design and implement their projects. Team-based learning requires students to develop good communication skills, team management skills and interpersonal skills. During class time in the first week, team members develop guidelines for working successfully together. Topics addressed typically include appropriate communication, respect, follow-through on tasks, maintaining a positive dynamic, professional conduct and supporting one another when needed. Each group shares its guidelines with the entire class so that all groups can learn from one another.

Students also use weekly journal assignments and in-class activities to reflect on how they are contributing to positive team dynamics within their groups. For example, students conduct a “team style inventory” and are then asked to reflect individually, and discuss in small groups, how their personal style contributes to their team (The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2004). I also lecture and provide readings  about group process so that students can assess their team dynamics in relation to theoretical models of effective teamwork (Bonebright, 2010). In addition, I emphasize  the importance of team skills in effective public health work so that they can appreciate why these skills will be important for their future careers.

Using an assessment rubric, students evaluate each other on professionalism, teamwork, initiative and division of work. The results count towards their individual participation grade. Students know from the start of the semester that their contribution to the group will be graded, and this knowledge helps to motivate them to take teamwork seriously and work to build effective team dynamics.

Reflection as a Key Learning Tool

To receive the full benefit of learning-by-doing activities, it is important that reflection be built into the process. At the start of the semester, students develop personal and professional goals, and then through the semester they reflect on how their volunteer activities impact or support these goals. Students also research the overall aims of their projects and consider how these can be achieved by applying the theoretical models and tools.

I provide several tools to help students develop their skills in critical reflection. For example, they learn about Kolb’s experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 2014), which outlines how reflection on experience is an integral component of the experiential learning process. Students also use a tool known as What, Gut, So What, Now What (Stanfield, 2015), which prompts them to move beyond simple observation towards more interpretive and decisional reflections, through which deeper learning can occur.

Students record their challenges, successes and experiences in weekly journal entries and share them in class discussions. They are asked to relate their experiences to their initial goals and the theoretical ideas of community health services. Students also write two summary entries using a highlighted journal approach (Jones, 2015) as a means of reviewing and synthesizing the weekly entries for themes related to their personal, professional and theoretical learning. They submit both the weekly journals and the two summaries so that I can see what work they have done, but only the two summaries contribute to their overall grade. These activities are excellent for helping students to become reflective practitioners who can contribute meaningfully to the goals of whatever organizations they work with in the future. Below are some examples of their journal entries.

Entry in Student Reflective Journal

My volunteering experiences have definitely contributed to my growth as a human being. The push to leave my comfort zone was difficult at first since I am introverted. However, the outreaches helped me build confidence in myself, which is necessary for my future (2013).

Entry in Student Reflective Journal

In the Random Acts of Kindness project, I pulled from theories such as community engagement, and strengthening community action. I wanted to engage students by having them come over to our table and… to make them a part of the conversation of a healthy campus community. After having a chance to talk to them, I wanted to use the ideas outlined in the Ottawa Charter surrounding strengthening community action to empower students. The key was to let students know that we are all a part of the campus community and we have the ability to change things (2015).

Impact on Students

I have seen students grow tremendously through their participation in the volunteer projects. Students become more confident in their skills and abilities and seem to be more in tune with their ownThe material learned really impacted how I see my own future… and public health research as well. I feel like my self-esteem got higher and I feel more confident I learned what I was supposed to. learning processes when they apply the ideas and concepts of health services in a practical setting.

Numerous students commented on how they gained both knowledge and confidence that would help them in their future endeavours. Students were able to deepen their understanding of the theoretical ideas and develop a sense of connection and personal accomplishment.

Each week the students share their challenges and successes and begin to see commonalities in what they have learned.

Theories were better understood because of application in the group project.

Our projects allowed us to give back to SFU and others while developing skills, experience and relationships.

The sense of accomplishment in knowing that I was part of a community-changing movement and the involvement in a recognized organization boosted my self-esteem.

The journals helped a lot to reflect on our personal development and showcase how our knowledge in the classroom is applied into real life settings.

This class offered me a sense of belonging. It gave me confidence in a future in health.

This course definitely contributed to my sense of personal goal. Everything was applicable to real life.

Links Between Learning Experiences and Well-being

A big part of my passion for this work lies in exploring the links between learning environments and student well-being. Like workplace environments, the experiences students encounter within their learning environment can contribute to their well-being. I have been part of a collaborative research partnership, Fostering Student Well-Being and Engaged Learning Through Supportive Classroom Settings, between SFU Health Promotion and Dr. David Zandvliet of the Faculty of Education/Faculty of Environment. Fourteen SFU courses were involved in a community-based participatory research project to explore how learning experiences are correlated with student well-being. The study considered factors within the learning environment, such as opportunities for social interaction and student involvement, relative to student well-being outcomes such as emotional well-being and satisfaction with learning.

In tandem with this research, SFU Health Promotion has been working with the Teaching and Learning Centre and SFU faculty members to create and enhance conditions for well-being within learning environments. Faculty members have shared their own examples, tools and resources on our website. I have adapted and incorporated many of these resources into my own teaching practice and have received very positive feedback from students. For example, the team style inventory and the class guideline activity mentioned above are resources from this website. These tools can help to set a positive and supportive tone within the class and within the group project work.

Final Thoughts

Among the teaching tools and practices that have contributed to effective learning and student development in the class are the following:

  • An opportunity for students to apply their knowledge through 30 hours of volunteer work with SFU Health and Counselling Services
  • Journal reflections as a core component of the students’ experience and learning
  • Weekly practical experience and reflection activities
  • Team-based projects to help students learn about working successfully in teams
  • Sharing my own perspective on how what they are learning could be applied in their future careers
  • A positive and collegial classroom environment

Based on student feedback and my own observations, I believe this applied learning model is very beneficial for students as they near graduation and explore how they can apply what they have learned in their studies to a meaningful career. Service learning helps students gain confidence in themselves as practitioners who are capable of apply theoretical concepts in real-world settings. It also provides an opportunity for students to make a valuable contribution to the SFU community and develop civic skills by giving back to their community.


Alisa Stanton, Health Promotion Specialist at SFU Health and Counselling Services, and PhD Candidate and Instructor in SFU Health Sciences



American Association of Community Colleges (2015, April 30). Service learning. Retrieved April 30, 2015.

Bonebright, D. (2010). 40 years of storming: a historical review of Tuckman’s model of small group development. Human Resource Development International 13 (1): 111–120.

Jones, R. (2015, May 1). Service-learning reflection activities. Retrieved May 1, 2015.

Kolb, D. (2014). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Stanfield, B. (2015, May 2). The art of focused conversation. ICA Associates: Canada. Retrieved May 2, 2015.

The McGraw-Hill Companies. (2004). Human relations strategies for success: The team style inventory. Retrieved Dec 23, 2015.


Experiential Learning Casebook Copyright © 2014 by Alisa Stanton. All Rights Reserved.


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