Service-learning is a form of experiential education that involves students providing help to people in need (community service) and benefiting themselves from a unique learning experience. One theory, notably, holds that such a direct interaction with disadvantaged individuals can help students think critically about their own prejudices, as well as enhance their social justice beliefs.
To test this hypothesis, a team of researchers studied 60 Chinese students enrolled in a Developmental Psychology course and randomly split into 3 groups, 2 of which only completed 18 hours of community service.
To measure their participants’ social justice beliefs (before and after the intervention), the team used a subscale of Moely’s Civic Attitudes and Skills Questionnaire--8 items measuring the respondents’ stance on such questions as the origins of poverty and misfortune or the way social problems should be solved.
In addition, the participants were asked to keep reflective journals, which were later analyzed to extract qualitative information about their experience.
Confirming the initial hypotheses, results indicated that both service-learning groups saw a 20% to 33% increase in their social justice beliefs, and that this change in attitude was due to a critical assessment of their previous opinions.
The authors write: “With an increased understanding of their clients, college students were gradually aware of their inappropriate and stereotypic beliefs and attitudes and then changed their former opinions and prejudices towards their clients”.
For instance, one participant explained that, while they used to think of people with cerebral palsy as “mentally disabled” and “a burden to society”, they now saw them as “normal children.”
More generally, “When interacting with their clients, college students not only analyzed these disadvantaged groups’ problems in depth but also realized the potential of the clients.” Consequently, “the students augmented their awareness and sensitivity to inequality, which drove them to struggle for social justice”
Reference: Li, Yao, Song, Fu, and Chen (2018), “Building a just world: the effects of service-learning on social justice beliefs of Chinese college students”, Educational Psychology.