What is Service-Learning?

What is Service-Learning? The National Center for Service-Learning defines service-learning through three key characteristics:

  1. Service-Learning constitutes activity that is focused on meeting a human need in the community where that need has to do with the well-being of individuals and/or of the environment in which they live.
  2. Key academic and/or civic objectives to be achieved through combining service with learning have been identified prior to the activity.
  3. Opportunities for students to reflect on their experience and its connection to specific academic/civic objectives are incorporated into the activity.

Please visit the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse website for other definitions and characteristics of Service-Learning:

Download What is Service-Learning? (PDF)

Principles of good practice 

Combining service and learning

An effective and sustained service-learning program:

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

Jane Kendall & Associates (1990). Combining Service and Learning. Raleigh, NC: National Society for Internships and Experiential Education (Now named: National Society for Experiential Education).

Retrieved from: http://www.compact.org/publications/detail2.php?id=5

Service-Learning Benefits

Service-Learning benefits students by:

  • Linking theory to practice
  • Deepening understanding of course materials
  • Enhancing the sense of civic responsibility through civic engagement
  • Allowing students to explore possible career paths
  • Stressing the importance of improving the human condition
  • Developing relevant career-related skills
  • Providing experience in group work and interpersonal communication
  • Promoting interaction with people from diverse backgrounds 
  • Instilling a sense of empowerment that enhances self-esteem

Service-Learning benefits faculty by: 

  • Providing exciting new ways to teach familiar material
  • Offering professional development challenges
  • Engaging faculty in meaningful interactions with the community at large
  • Encouraging faculty to form close, interactive, mentoring relationships with students 
  • Reminding faculty of the direct consequences of their teaching for society
  • Connecting faculty across academic disciplines through a shared approach to teaching

Service-Learning benefits communities by:

  • Forming partnerships that foster positive campus-community interactions
  • Providing access to faculty experts and the next generation of experts
  • Identifying, addressing, and solving local problems in effective, creative ways
  • Cultivating future generations of engaged citizens
  • Encouraging multi-generational and cross-cultural interactions
  • Establishing cooperation and collaboration as values within the local culture

Service-Learning outcomes for learners:

  • Learning does not necessarily come from the experience of service alone, but from reflection on and creating meaning from that experience
  • Service-learning can help young people grow from the natural dependence and egocentrism of childhood into mature personal interdependence and engagement in community 
  • Young people who serve learn holistically. All functions of personality contribute to development of the self
  • Students learn and grow as they feel and think about service experiences (i.e., through behavior, affect and cognition). Because learning begins with behavior, students gain efficacy and self-direction
  • Service-learning empowers youth to become service-oriented citizens and leaders
  • Students who serve develop communication and leadership skills which aid in their ability to apply what they learn to the "real world" 
  • Service-learning participation has an impact on such academic outcomes as demonstrated complexity of understanding, problem analysis, critical thinking, and cognitive development
  • Service-learning contributes to career development

Service-Learning outcomes for education:

  • Service-learning addresses many key education reform objectives
  • Benefits to schools include provision of valuable services and an enhanced school climate
  • Partnerships between schools and communities, which result in citizen and community development, enhance public relations
  • Service-learning can improve student satisfaction with the college
  • Students engaged in service-learning are more likely to graduate

Service-Learning outcomes for the community:

  • Service-learning contributes to community development and renewal
  • Recipients of service benefit from direct aid, human involvement, and personal empowerment
  • Agencies receive an infusion of creativity and enthusiasm from participating students
  • Service-learning helps students become invested in their communities as community-minded citizens
  • As students contribute through service to meet a community need, they are seen to be one of the community's greatest resources

Social outcomes of Service-Learning:

  • Service-learning has a positive effect on reducing stereotypes and facilitating cultural and racial understanding
  • Service-learning may subvert as well as support course goals of reducing stereotyped thinking and facilitating cultural and racial understanding
  • Service-learning has a positive effect on sense of social responsibility and citizenship skills
  • Service-learning during college has a positive effect on commitment to life-long service and volunteering

Retrieved and compiled from:

Cairn, R. & J. Kielsmeier, eds. (1995). Growing Hope: A Sourcebook on Integrating Youth Service into the School Curriculum. St Paul, MN: National Youth Leadership Council.
Eyler, J., D. Giles, C. Stenson, and C. Gray. (2001). At a Glance: What We Know about the Effects of ServiceLearning on College Students, Faculty, Institutions, and Communities. Vanderbilt University.