What is Service-Learning?

Bridging theory and practice

Service-learning is a pedagogy that integrates meaningful community-engaged service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities (National commission on Service-Learning, 2002).  The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) has identified Service-Learning as a "High Impact Educational Practice" for teaching and learning. Service-learning provides college and university students with a community context to their education, allowing them to connect their academic coursework to their roles as civic-minded professionals and citizens in a democracy.

Service-learning is characterized as a teaching and learning approach that is developed, implemented, and evaluated in collaboration with community stakeholders. It emphasizes reciprocity and responds to community-identified needs by attempting to balance the service that is provided with the learning that takes place.  In service-learning, learning objectives are directly tied to the service experience. Structured reflection is employed as a means for helping students derive learning and meaning from their experiences. Credit is not granted simply for completing hours in the community, but for the learning that takes place.

Service-learning differs from other forms of experiential education such as internships or field studies because it:

  • addresses community-identified needs;
  • involves the community in course design, implementation and evaluation;
  • employs critical reflection to enable learning;
  • focuses on the development of civic skills;
  • and offers a balance between service and learning outcomes.

Approaches to Service-Learning

Traditional Service Placements

This is the most frequent type of student placement that matches each student with individual agencies. In this approach, students seek out agencies on their own through CORE based on certain guidelines and criteria established by the faculty member that align with the course content and learning objectives.  For example, a management course focusing on healthcare administration may require students to learn and understand the social issues facing the aging population within the healthcare industry through 15 hours of direct service in a geriatric facility.  Students then seek out volunteer opportunities in such agencies, submit for approval by their faculty member, submit all required documentation and execute pre-service trainings and clearances, and document 15 hours of service over the semester through the CORE service management system.  Faculty and students often appreciate the flexibility, choice, and feasibility associated with this approach.  However, the variety of individual student experiences often poses greater challenges for faculty in achieving deeper critical reflection and connecting experience to course content due to greater heterogeneity overall in students' service experiences. The release of burden for faculty in setting up pre-arranged partnerships for their students in this approach is commonly offset by an added degree of work in designing learning strategies that will facilitate deeper learning among students whose individual service experiences may be significantly different from those of their peers.

Customized Service Placements

This approach more intentionally customizes and aligns the service learning course objectives with the needs and interests of select community agencies or community-based groups.  Customized service may take the form of conducting community-based research for a local agency, the development of a tangible product (i.e. video, website, database), or execution of a project with or on behalf of an agency (i.e. quality assessment, internal audit, ethnography, fitness training program, etc.). Customized service approaches may also take creative forms such as advocacy or creating social awareness about salient social issues through public performance (i.e. dance, music, theater), hosting resource fairs, or hosting art production events and/or exhibitions.  Typically, partnerships are developed and pre-arranged between the faculty member and 1-3 partnering agencies (often over the long-term). Students often work in small to medium-sized teams and typically carpool or take university-sponsored transportation to service sites.  Faculty, students and agencies often report greater overall satisfaction and mutual benefits and learning from projects done through this more customized approach.  However, customized service approaches take greater time and energy to set up and implement, and faculty are encouraged to begin 2-3 months in advance in order to achieve success and best overall impact and results.