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Overview of Service Learning

image of hands reaching to pull someone out of waterWhat is Service Learning?

Over the past twenty-five years, practitioners have devised many definitions of Service Learning. Most address the integration of classroom instruction and community service and emphasize students’ roles as an active learners, critical thinkers and civic participants. While there is no one definitive definition, the following selections are well regarded in the field. You may use them as a way to begin thinking about what Service Learning can be in your classroom. 


  •  "Is an educational practice that combines academic instruction with community service,
  •  Uses reflection and critical thinking to emphasize personal growth and civic responsibility." 1 (Pasadena City College)
  •  Is "any carefully monitored service experience in which a student:
      • Has intentional learning goals and
      • Reflects actively on what he or she is learning throughout the experience."

        (National Society for Experiential Education, 1994)

  • Is "a method under which students learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences:
      • That meet actual community needs,
      • That are integrated into the students academic curriculum or
      • Provide structured time for reflection
      • And that enhance what is taught in school by extending student learning beyond the classroom and into the community."

    (Corporation for National Service, 1990)

Service Learning has been defined as both a program type and a philosophy of education.

  • As a program type, service learning includes myriad ways that students can perform meaningful service to their communities and to society while engaging in some form of reflection or study that is related to the service.
  • As a philosophy of education, service-learning reflects the belief that education must be linked to social responsibility and that the most effective learning is active and connected to experience in some way."

    (The Research Agenda for Combining Service and Learning in the 1990s)

"Service-learning programs are explicitly structured to promote learning about the larger social issues behind the needs to which their service is responding. This learning includes a deeper understanding of the historical, sociological, cultural, economic and political contexts of the needs or issues being addressed."

(Jane Kendall, NSEE, 1990)

What are the benefits of service learning for students?

  • A connection of theory and practice that puts concepts into concrete form and provides a context for understanding abstract matter. This provides an opportunity to test and refine theories as well as to introduce new theories.
  • A use of knowledge with a historical understanding or appreciation of social, economic and environmental implications as well as moral and ethical ramifications of people's actions. This involves a strong use of communication and interpersonal skills including literacy (writing, reading, speaking and listening) and various technical skills.
  • An opportunity to learn how to learn -- to collect and evaluate data, to relate seemingly unrelated matters and ideas, and investigate a self-directed learning including inquiry, logical thinking and a relation of ideas and experience. A transference of learning from one context to another will allow for the opportunity to reflect, conceptualize and apply experience-based knowledge.
  • An emphasis on diversity and pluralism that lends to empowerment in the face of social problems; experience that helps people understand and appreciate traditions of volunteerism; and a consideration of and experimentation with democratic citizenship responsibilities.

*From Brevard Community College, The Power. July 1994.

Alexander Astin’s UCLA study revealed several ways that Service Learning benefits students. Specifically it helps students to:

  • Improve academic performance (GPA, writing skills, critical thinking skills),
  • Increase sense of personal efficacy,
  • Increase awareness of the world,
  • Increase awareness of personal values
  • Increase engagement in the classroom experience.
  • Develop a heightened sense of civic responsibility
  • Develop commitment to activism and to promoting racial understanding

What are the principles of good practice for combining service and learning?

The Wingspread Conference Principles

From 1987-89, seventy-five national and regional community service and experiential education organizations collaborated on a set of principles for combining service and learning. This document, created at the 1989 Wingspread Conference, sponsored by the Johnson Foundation includes the nationally recognized "best practices" in the Service Learning field.

An effective program:

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

Principles Of Good Practice In Community Service Learning Pedagogy

While The Wingspread Principles define an effective Service Learning program, they do not address the specifics of Service learning pedagogy. To remedy this, Jeffrey Howard of the University of Michigan came up with the " Principles Of Good Practice In Community Service Learning Pedagogy ." Widely used in the field, these principles can serve as a guideline for first time teachers or as a reminder for experienced practitioners who combine classroom learning with service experiences.

  1. Academic Credit Is For Learning, Not For Service.
  2. Do Not Compromise Academic Rigor.
  3. Set Learning Goals for Students.
  4. Establish Criteria For The Selection Of Community Service Learning Placements
  5. Provide Educationally Sound Mechanisms To Harvest The Community Learning
  6. Provide Supports For Students To Learn How To Harvest The Community Learning
  7. Minimize The Distinction Between The Students' Community Learning Role and The Classroom Learning role
  8. Re-Think The Faculty Instructional Role
  9. Be Prepared For Uncertainty And Variation In Student Learning Outcomes
  10. Maximize The Community Responsibility Orientation Of The Course

For the full text see: Jeffrey Howard. (1993). Community Service Learning In The Curriculum. Praxis I, A Faculty Casebook On Community Service Learning. OCSL Press. Ann Arbor, Michigan.

What are some effective ways to offer service learning?

Service Learning as an Option

Service is an option for partial fulfillment of course credits. Students who do not choose the service-learning option are given an alternative assignment. Experienced practitioners in the field recommend that the service assignment not be offered as extra credit, which can result in hurried last minute efforts, but integrated into the regular curricular offerings. While respecting the right of individual teachers to construct their own classroom policies, the Service Learning center recommends this practice which keeps an element of volunteerism in the service assignment.

Service Learning as a Requirement

These courses are similar to the Optional Model, except that service is mandatory for every student.

What are some effective models of service learning projects?

Just as there are many ways to offer Service learning in a class, there are also many different ways to set up the projects. Three of the most common are individual, small group and "one shots" or one time projects.

  Description Examples
Individual Service Project:

Students select a nonprofit agency or a school whose aims can be directly related to their course content and agree to volunteer there. They complete a service-learning agreement that outlines their goals and objectives for the particular project. Service is usual scheduled at a regular time and the student performs about 10-15 hours of service. During the service assignment, students engage regularly scheduled reflection on their service through journals and class discussions

Student works as a literacy tutor

Student designs a web page for a daycare center



Small Group Service Project: Students form small groups in class and pick a community service project to perform that can be directly related to their course content. They complete a service-learning agreement that outlines their goals and objectives for the particular project. Service times are scheduled by the students and usually require from 10 -15 hours to complete. During the service assignment, students engage regularly scheduled reflection on their service through journals and class discussions.

Group designs a brochure for a nonprofit group such as Friends of the LA River.

Group creates a nutritional needs assessment survey for an agency such as Union Station, that serves homeless children

One Shots: Students volunteer for a prescheduled one-time event such as a beach cleanup that can be directly related to their course content. They complete a service-learning agreement that outlines their goals and objectives for the particular project. Service times are prescheduled by teacher and usually require from 8-10 hours to complete. Before and after the event students reflect on concepts and information from the class that apply to the service project.

Students organize or assist in a hunger banquet.

Students organize or assist in a blood drive.

Students organize or assist in a community forum.


These are just a few examples of Service Learning projects performed in Community Colleges. For more examples see: http://csf.colorado.edu/sl/

ANTHROPOLOGY Students at Kapa `Olani Community College study kinship systems while working with the elderly.
BIOLOGY Pasadena City College biology students do beach cleanups.
CHEMISTRY Students at Glendale College perform chemistry experiments for local elementary students.

Pasadena City College students lead discussion on diversity and tolerance at a local middle school.

Glendale College English students write brochures for a homeless activist group.

Students at Kapa `Olani Community College lead teen reading groups.


Pasadena City College ESL students translate brochure materials from the Friends of the LA River into their native language.

Glendale students serve as conversation partners with senior citizens.


Glendale students tutor local middle school and high school students in algebra basics, which helps them understand the fundamentals of algebra.


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