With the pressure of exams, why do Service Learning? A World of Responses!

May 21, 2015

WellingtonIt all began at Wellington College in England, a beautiful and historic school serving children age 13 through high school graduation. On May 20, 2015, a conference on Service Learning was arranged for educators from schools in England and beyond—we had two attendees from Transylvania. I led the attendees through a full day of ideas and experiences to gain depth of understanding about service learning that will lead to best practices.

During the conference a question was asked with much relevance for all attending: With all the pressure regarding exams and academic achievement, why integrate service learning particularly when there is no “time” for this, when success with exams are the measure of success?

Of course I have my response, however lately I have been posting such questions on Facebook and Twitter to generate ideas and to gain the benefit of collective wisdom from educators across the globe. What we have now is a WORLD of responses! Worth the time, worth the read. And the last one from Singapore—that’s a wonderful gift! I do add my “two cents” or “two pence” at the end.

Mexico: If we don’t make room and time for service learning and if we don’t link our service learning to our curriculum we do not have a complete academic program. Without service learning we are missing CORE components from our curriculum!

Costa Rica: Because service learning provides opportunities for students to apply knowledge and make it meaningful, rather than just studying for tests. It’s not “extra” work either because the whole idea of service learning is integrating the curriculum.

NYC: It is because these are real skills that the kids will use. Problem solving skills are lacking in most of these kids and in the real world you need to be able to work at a problem and find a solution! Testing is not the real world and by no means measures success. Service learning provides the opportunity for students to acquire all of the skills that students need to be successful not only on high stakes exams, but more importantly, in life.

Michigan: We recently held our academic awards and although GPA was a huge indicator, what our selection committee wanted to see were well rounded individuals with varied experiences in and out of the classroom, service experiences, and leadership skills. All things service learning does! What we often don’t realize is that in addition to these real world skills, it boosts their GPA as well because they are connected and engaged!

North Carolina:  Because in the real world beyond the school many of the “tests” are the social and emotional learning that is facilitated through service learning. Also it reinvigorates kids to enjoy learning for a purpose that they relate to rather than asking “is this on the test?” And tuning out if they believe it is not.

USA: Service learning helps to move the yardsticks that measure success. Also how you define learning objectives as a component of service learning is important.

The Hague: Exams are a measure of success of a specific content and knowledge. If we are concerned with the whole student, then service learning further draws together multiple abilities, skills and knowledge into a realised form

Ghana: 1.) It is not only about what students learn, but how they learn. 2.) Exams often measure content, while service offers skills. 3.) Service provides an additional measure of student learning—an authentic assessment of knowledge and skills in application.

Saigon: Exams are important, but communities and values are important too, and they’re not mutually exclusive. If students do well on exams, they can move on to the next level of learning, and then hopefully find some kind of career. Whatever people’s careers are, they basically boil down to identifying the needs of communities and meeting those needs in some specific way. Why should we make students wait until they’ve finished all of their institutional learning before they can learn about how to contribute meaningfully to their communities?

South Carolina: Experiences, especially those that impact the heart, embed learning forever, and learning theory supports this. Therefore, exam results will reflect that! Teach for better learning and the exams will take care of themselves. Thus the need to ensure the entire service learning experience is tied to the curriculum!

Lima: Everlasting knowledge is obtained by real experiences; tests are important but more important in life is to be able to overcome problems and be able to help others to improve their lives. We want people with values.

Palo Alto, CA: It allows people to step away from the exams and gain insight and experience that in turn informs learnings.

Mexico: Because we need good human beings who care about others not just smart kids with no heart and no values.

Minnesota: SL = authentic formative assessment opportunity.

California: Because service learning exponentially improves student engagement. Strong student engagement improves test scores, but more importantly because it improves the world we live in!

Ghana: Because it’s the right thing to do. School leaders are responsible for doing the right thing. A good school leader creates a culture where exam scores are not the only measure of success. Higher Education is always slowest to catch on, but when good schools continue to produce intelligent, well-rounded, compassionate young citizens, exam scores will no longer be the only measure of success for college entry. Great strides have already been made here. The change process has to start somewhere. Why not empower students to be change agents against this long outdated method of measuring success?

Johannesburg: Because it makes the learning meaningful: students are able to apply what is learned in real world contexts!

Texas:  Isn’t the point of school and tests to prepare kids to succeed in the real world? Why wouldn’t everyone incorporate service learning? It’s the only thing that makes sense to me!!!

New Jersey: It makes the educational experience more meaningful, engaging and students learn a lot more from this than “regular” classes.

Bali: I recently had two students on a trip with me. One recently graduated from an IB school with IB diploma. Another with a BS degree in bioengineering of some sort from a well-respected University in the USA. We were standing at the headwaters of a river about to go rafting and they asked “So, how does the water actually get in the river?” I was pretty flabbergasted!! I know for a fact they studied the water cycle in their classes and I know they could draw it on paper. But they had not and could not make the connection between the water cycle and a real life example at a real river! Exams can’t and don’t test for those connections between the classroom, academia and everything else that happens outside and outdoors. We MUST make time for this. Another example. Every year when I lead trips I have kids getting into a raft and asking, “So which direction do we go?” I know they can determine the rate of flow of a river and I know they can calculate the speed and velocity of the moving water or a ball tossed in the river. But since they’ve never been on a river they don’t ‘understand’ downstream. Exams and test can’t and don’t test for those connections so they don’t really measure success or understanding in a real life context.

Alabama: The satisfaction, success, and overall good feeling students get from completing service learning work is a tremendous motivation for students to achieve academically. It puts the “book knowledge” into perspective for my kids.

California: Service learning allows for the connection of heart, mind, and academia.

Dubai: Because test scores are not what’s important. Transferable skills are: learning how to think, ask questions, research, plan, and work together. Nothing teaches that better than service learning.

Ohio: Because service learning isn’t extra. It is the way to teach so children can learn the academic skills they need in an authentic setting.

Ghana: Service Learning is learning for life, not just for an exam. They can gain great insight into their abilities to answer questions on exams through authentic service learning tied to curriculum.

Washington DC: Because business (not to mention governments and communities) need young people who are critical thinking, creative, collaborative employees, with strong communications skills. Most schools don’t teach these 4C skills; but you cannot do effective service learning without them. Oh, and it’s REAL. AUTHENTIC. VITAL. GENUINE

Mexico: Are we programming efficient machines or educating human beings?

New Zealand:  Effective learners use personal experiences to provide supporting evidence in their responses. Insightful responses show critical thinking and the deeper learning that service learning encourages. Life and learning is about making connections and service leaning certainly encourages that. Have never been able to understand the views of educators who cannot see value in service learning in their specialised subject areas.

Ghana: Maybe it is my age but David Brooks a journalist writes about people who radiate inner light. These people seem deeply good, they listen well, and think of others. When you meet them, your whole day brightens up. How do we continue to achieve this generosity of spirit and this depth of character? This is the type of person I strive to be. Brooks mentions two sets of virtues, the resume virtue and the eulogy virtue. So let’s look at these virtues. The resume virtues are the skills (Approaches To Learning) and strategies we bring to our work place and the skills and strategies we mostly teach at school, and that we believe students need for their success in a career. The eulogy virtues are the ones talked about at our funeral: was the person kind, courageous, honest, capable of empathy and giving. The question I ask is not what I want from life, but what is life asking of me? Service learning helps create the eulogy virtues.

Illinois: Exams potentially measure success in that moment and on “content” determined by someone else. Service learning can be used as an authentic assessment and since it translates into real life, it helps the student build a true sense of self. Students who participate in service learning typically have a life experience they will always remember; who the heck remembers the last standardized test they took or even the score” I am for authentic assessment.

Mexico: Because we need good human beings who care about others not just smart kids with no heart and no values.

Costa Rica: Because when they are passionate about what they are learning about they are more successful.

Madagascar: Students as “whole” people. Service learning not only applies what they have learned in the classroom but is healing for the body and the soul, too.

Singapore: Because we are preparing our next generation for the test of life, not a life of tests!

This last one—which could easily be quoted again and again, is from friend and colleague J.D. Lee.

And for my reasoning: Service learning provides an authentic opportunity of self-discovery for students, and to discover and come to know the world around them. This cannot be accomplished solely through a classroom environment, even with the best of teachers. And when done well with curricular integration, service learning allows the teacher to work smarter not harder by enlivening the content that supports deep understanding, and providing the process of the five stages of service learning as a replicable process young people can use again and again to take action for causes that matter. Consider that without service learning young people may only be considering What is in this for me? And that also makes sense; they are adolescents figuring out their place in the world. However with service learning, students also find out What matters to me? 

When done well, service learning provides students with a range of experiences that are challenging, significant, engaging, real, and purposeful. They have a voice and a choice. They show up not because they have to but because they want to. Every person deserves opportunities to see how they can contribute to the world around them.

When the sole measure of a person’s worth involves a score, what are we telling that person? When the measure of a person is self-determined by knowledge of being a part of improving the common good, and seeing this as part of a personal life script, we have accomplished our role as educators.

Thank you ALL for your thoughtful participation!

Thank you for reading. Please send your comments to, or post on Facebook or Linked In (Cathryn Berger Kaye) or Twitter @cbkaye. Also, please join me at one of my two Summer Service Learning Institutes—click here for details!

All the best in service,


Cathryn Berger Kaye, M.A.

Follow me on Twitter @cbkaye, and on Facebook and Linked In at Cathryn Berger Kaye. Read more articles on our website, and more blogs on a range of topics (check out the archives for many service learning stories and education ideas and best practices). Browse our ABCD Books Catalogue for titles to enliven learning and service.

UPcoming calendar items–contact me at for more information on speaking dates. 

Announcing Two Summer Service Learning Institutes!  

Education as Action: Foundations of Service Learning Institute, June 30-July 2, 2015 hosted at The Westminster School, Atlanta Georgia

An Advanced Service Learning Institute: Academics, Engagement and Purposeful Action–July 20-22, 2015 Carey Conference Center outside Albany, NY hosted by the New York State Association of Independent Schools

Credit available for international school educators.

Let me know your service learning questions and stories; you may inspire a blog–like this one!