What is Service-Learning?

Service-learning is increasingly becoming an avenue used to provide students with “real- life” experience by linking students with local communities and community service providers.  Definitions of service-learning vary and the term is often mistakenly used interchangeably for volunteerism and community service.

One Definition of Service-Learning:

“Service-learning is a credit bearing, educational experience in which students participate in organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflects on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility.”
Robert Bringle & Julie Hatcher, Office of Service Learning, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

  • credit bearing: For the purposes of the university, there is a credit based incentive attached to service- learning.
  • organized service activity:  Activities are thought out and organized with community partners so that there is a deliberate relationship connecting the service opportunity with course material.     
  • identified community needs:  Projects meet need(s) identified by community partners.  Projects do not attempt to create a need for the results of service-learning.  Instead, projects assist organizations with needs they already have.  Communication with community partners is essential.
  • reflects:  Time is spent specifically on reflecting and analyzing the volunteer experience in relation to course content and personal experience. 
  • course content:  Service is not simply an added component of a course, but integrated into the course as a tool used to reach course goals.
  • civic responsibility:  Explores the social connections to scholarly research and academic exploration.

Principles of Good Practice in Combining Service and Learning

An effective and sustained experience:

  1. Engages people in responsible and challenging actions for the common good.
  2. Provides structured opportunities for people to reflect critically on their service experience.
  3. Articulates clear service and learning goals for everyone involved.
  4. Allows for those with needs to define those needs.
  5. Clarifies the responsibilities of each person and organization involved.
  6. Matches service providers and service needs through a process that recognizes changing circumstances.
  7. Expects genuine, active, and sustained organizational commitment.
  8. Includes training, supervision, monitoring, support, recognition, and evaluation to meet service and learning goals.
  9. Insures that the time commitment for service and learning is flexible, appropriate, and in the best interest of all involved.
  10. Is committed to participation by and with diverse populations.

Ellen Porter Honnet and Susan J. Poulson. Wingspread Principles of Good Practice for Combining Service and Learning. The Johnson Foundation. 1989.

Principles of Good Practice in Community Service-Learning Pedagogy:

  • Academic credit is for learning, not for service.
  • Do not compromise academic rigor.
  • Set learning goals for students.
  • Establish criteria for the selection of community service placements.
  • Provide educationally sound mechanisms to harvest the community learning.
  • Provide supports for students to learn how to harvest the community learning.
  • Minimize the distinction between the student’s community learning role and the classroom learning role.
  • Re-think the faculty instructional role.
  • Be prepared for uncertainty and variation in student learning outcomes.
  • Maximize the community responsibility orientation of the course.

Jeffrey Howard, ed. Praxis I: A Faculty Casebook on Community Service Learning. Ann Arbor, MI: Office of Community Service Learning Press, University of Michigan. 1993.

Service-learning is an effective pedagogical tool through which students:

  • experience a positive impact on their problem analysis, critical thinking, cognitive development, and understanding of academic subject matter
  • report stronger faculty relationships than those not involved in service-learning, and improved satisfaction with college, and therefore retention
  • enhance their sense of social responsibility and citizenship skills
  • reduce stereotypes and increase cultural and racial understanding
  • develop their leadership and communication skills
  • experience positive effects on interpersonal development & the ability to work with others

Material gathered from Introduction to Service-Learning TOOLKIT. Providence, RI: Campus Compact

Models of Service-Learning:

The practice of service-learning can come in many forms.  Heffernan (2001, p. 2-8) suggests six basic categories of service-learning:

  1. “Pure” Service-Learning: Focus of the course is on service to communities (generally not discipline specific) with class content centering around the service experience.
  2. Discipline-Based Service-Learning: Discipline course content serves as basis for analysis and understanding of service experience.
  3. Problem-Based Service-Learning: “(S)tudents (or teams of students) relate to the community much as ‘consultants’ working for a ‘client’. Students work with community members to understand a particular community problem or need. This model presumes that the students will have some knowledge they can draw upon to make recommendations to the community or develop a solution to the problem (p. 4)”.
  4. Capstone Courses: Typically for majors and minors in their final year who can synthesize their knowledge to address an area of service in their discipline.  “These courses offer an excellent way to help students transition from the world of theory to the world of practice by helping them make professional contacts and gather personal experience (p.5).”
  5. Service Internships: Similar to traditional internships with the addition of regular, on-going reflective opportunities to synthesize experiences using “discipline-based theories” (p.5).
  6. Community-Based Action Research: “A relatively new approach...similar to an independent study option for the rare student who is highly experienced in community work...In this model, students work closely with faculty members to learn research methodology while serving as advocates for communities (p. 6)”.
    Heffernan, K. (2001). Fundamentals of Service-Learning Course Construction. Providence, RI: Campus Compact.

Some suggest an additional category of service-learning:

  1. Participatory Action Research (PAR):  “PAR is a process of systematic inquiry in which those who are experiencing a problematic situation in a community or work-place participate collaboratively with trained researchers as subjects in deciding the focus of knowledge generation, in collecting and analyzing information, and in taking action to manage, improve, or contribute to a just and sustainable society”.


For more information contact: G.N. Rangamani, Ph.D., Faculty Liaison for Service-Learning, at 320-308-3898 or s-l@stcloudstate.edu.

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