The University Record, March 15, 1993

Markus: Community service participants are better scholars

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

College students who take part in community service end up earning better grades than students who spend all their time cracking the books, a U-M study shows.

The study, conducted by political science Prof. Gregory B. Markus, a researcher at the Institute for Social Research, is one of the first to link good deeds in the community with good grades in a college course.

Jeffrey P.F. Howard, director of the Office of Community Service Learning, and David King, assistant professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, collaborated on the study with Markus.

For the study, the 89 undergraduates enrolled in Markus’s course on “Contemporary Political Issues” were randomly assigned to one of two sections: the traditional group, which prepared a term paper requiring 20 hours of library research, or the service group, which provided 20 hours of service with a community service agency.

There were no significant differences in background characteristics between the 52 students assigned to do library research and the 37 assigned to community service. All the students attended the same lectures, were assigned the same course readings, and took the same mid-term and final exams.

At the end of the term, Markus found clear-cut differences between the two groups in grades and class attendance. Students who did library research earned an average grade of 6.42 (B to B+), while students who worked in the community averaged 7.47 (B+ to A-).

On average, 78 percent of the students who did library research attended the biweekly discussion sessions of the course, compared with 85 percent of the students doing community service. At class lectures, the pattern was similar, with 58 percent of the library researchers and 65 percent of the community activists attending. “Lectures were held at 9 a.m.,” Markus notes.

Students engaged in community service also were more likely than others to feel that their course performance was up to their potential, that they had learned to apply principles from the course to new situations and that they had developed a greater awareness of societal problems, Markus says.

Markus regards his study as a good example of President Bill Clinton’s idea that “community service enriches education” by helping students “not only take lessons they learn in class out into the community, but bring the lessons they learn in the community back into the classroom.”

Markus hopes that other faculty members will replicate the study in their own courses. Still, he notes, the current results suggest that students serving others may also be serving themselves by increasing the odds they’ll get good grades.

Markus also has a few suggestions about how to maximize the academic value of student participation in community service.

“It’s important that the service not be a stand-alone activity,” he says. “Instead, it should be integrated into the course, through regular discussions that give students a chance to reflect upon what they’re learning in the field and how it relates to what they’re reading or hearing in lectures.”