What is Service Learning?

At the highest level, service learning is distinguished from other types of experiential education by its emphasis on benefits to the community. Beyond this central criterion, service learning is defined in numerous ways, and the term is used in a wide range of contexts, both of which can complicate our understanding of the concept.

Amid the myriad of definitions currently in use, Furco (1996) offers one that is particularly useful and succinct:

Service-learning programs are distinguished from other approaches to experiential education by their intention to equally benefit the provider and the recipient of the service as well as to ensure equal focus on both the service being provided and the learning that is occurring.

Howard (in Billig and Vaterman 2008, 2) takes a further step by distinguishing “co-curricular service learning” from “academic service-learning” on the basis of the latter’s integration with the formal education curriculum:

Although all service-learning courses require community service, some instructors intentionally integrate the learning from the community with the learning in the classroom, whereas others do not. The latter practice is a compromised interpretation of academic service-learning, largely because the the community service and academic learning of the course function as parallel, rather than integrated, activities. High quality, academic service-learning initiatives in which the learning informs the service and the service informs the learning create a reciprocal and synergistic relationship between the two.


What service learning is NOT

Howard (n.d.) has identified four common myths and misconceptions about service learning:

1. The myth of terminology: “Community service” and “service learning” are not the same thing. There is no prescribed learning agenda for conventional community service, while learning is central to academic service learning.


2. The myth of conceptualization: While they are both forms of experiential learning, academic service learning and internships are markedly different. See Figure 1 above for a summary of distinctions.


3. The myth of synonymy: “Experience” within the community requires additional work in order to be transformed into “learning.”


4. The myth of marginality. “A traditional course with a community service requirement is not the same as academic service-learning. In the former, the service parallels the course, never intentionally intersecting the learning process.”


Key components of the service-learning process

1. Planning: Includes discussion of the concept of “community,” investigation of community needs, and feasibility assessment of proposed projects.

2. Action: Includes development of action plan to meet selected need(s), identification of learning objectives and connections to curriculum, and execution of planned activity.

3. Reflection: Identify impacts of service, assess achievement of stated goals/objectives, and make explicit connections to course content and disciplinary perspectives/theories.

4. Celebration/dissemination of results


External Links and Resources

Browse through the following resources to find case examples, ideas, best practices, and discipline specific strategies for designing and implementing service learning in your course:


101 Bright Ideas for Service Learning (from Georgia College)

Campus Compact, Resources for Faculty

Marquette University, Service Learning Program Overview

National Service Learning Clearing House

American Association of Community Colleges, Service Learning

What is Service Learning or Community Engagement? (from Vanderbilt University)


The documents attached below are provided by:

"Essential Elements of Effective Service-Learning Practice" - created by National Service Learning Cooperative

"Service Learning Manual for Faculty" - created by University of Michigan - Flint

Have more questions? Submit a request


Powered by Zendesk