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Service Learning

Reciprocity – How to go about setting up sustainable partnerships

By January 27, 2020March 25th, 2021No Comments

In order to sustain service-learning within an integrated curriculum, there needs to be reciprocity. By this, we mean an ongoing collaboration that is meaningful for both learners and community partners. It is important that the benefits of service-learning are felt on both sides. Not only does this ensure long-lasting sustainable relationships between students and the community around them, but it creates a positive attitude and meaningful interactions for both.

What is reciprocity in service-learning?

In their research on this subject, Henry and Breyfogle defined reciprocity as two or more parties that come together to take collective action toward a common purpose, and in the process, the parties are transformed by this collective action in a way that allows for increased understanding of a full variety of life experiences, and overtime works to alter rigid social systems.[1]

Bailey, Carpenter and Harrington propose a simpler definition in their work and define the concept of reciprocity as the integral involvement of community partners, and the addressing of community needs or concerns[2].

From the above, we understand that reciprocity is an interaction between two or more parties. This interaction needs to be mutually beneficial, where each will play a role in the interaction. It is interaction that is placed on the basis of “you do something for us, and we will return the favor and do something for you”, thereby answering each other’s needs. Often with community service it is one sided “we will do something to/for you”, the shift towards reciprocity happens when we understand the assets of the community partner and learn from them.

What does reciprocity look like as part of the social psychology in service-learning?

Reciprocity has always been attached to service-learning, and it is often noted that service-learning is “premised on reciprocal learning”[3]. Service-learning refers to a method of teaching under which students learn and develop through thoughtfully organized service that: is conducted in and meets the needs of a community, is coordinated with an institution of education and with the community; helps foster civic responsibility; is integrated into and enhances the academic curriculum of the students enrolled, and includes structured time for students to reflect on the service experience[4].

One of the most important elements to note from the above, in terms of the relationship between reciprocity in service-learning, is the need to thoughtfully organize service. This refers to the process of meeting with community organizations, discussing their needs, assets, challenges, goals, and what opportunities are available in their organizations that can be incorporated into a service-learning curriculum. The activities decided on need to meet the needs of a community and this process needs to be a mutually beneficial, symbiotic experience for both. Learners and the receivers of the service-learning activities need to benefit in one way or another for the partnership to be sustainable.

How to ensure that you are creating meaningful service-learning partnerships?

There are many ways in which to ensure that you are creating meaningful service-learning partnerships within your community. Here are a few things to remember when starting the process of finding community partnerships[5]:

  • The educator needs to make sure that there is a criteria for the selection of community partners. These criteria need to be connected to the course objectives for the partnership to be effective.
  • Students are able to develop service projects that will be able to link service-learning to the course in which it is part of.
  • Building relationships with community organizations and partners takes time. Make an effort, go and meet with the partners, understand their needs, determine if there are going to be any restrictions and build the service-learning activities into this.

For a service-learning community partnership to be effective and sustainable, the following principles need to be followed[6] [7]:

  • An agreed partnership interchange between the school and the organization must be arranged including how, when, where, and  why the service learning will take place.
  • Some organizations and types of service (e.g. domestic violence shelters) may be problematic in terms of safety and the strong personal emotions that may be aroused. Ideally, these issues would be anticipated and thoroughly discussed well before the service experience begins.
  • The importance of respectful attitudes and behavior from the students toward organizational personnel should be emphasized.
  • Academic criteria and expectations must be clearly presented in order for both the students and the community partners to know what the outcomes are of the activity and the timeline.
  • Activities must engage people in responsible and challenging actions (direct, indirect, advocacy, and research) for the common good and reciprocity.
  • Needs to clarify the roles and responsibilities of each person and organization involved.
  • Must match service providers and service needs through a process that recognizes changing circumstances.
  • Should expect genuine, active, and sustained organizational commitment.
  • Needs to include training, supervision, monitoring, support, recognition, and evaluation to meet service and learning goals.
  • Will ensure that the time commitment for service and learning is flexible, appropriate, and in the best interest of all involved.
  •  Will be committed to program participation by and with diverse populations.

For service-learning to be sustainable, there needs to be reciprocity. A mutually beneficial relationship needs to be developed between the educational institution and the community partners. When developing this partnership, all needs and requirements must be discussed and outlined from the beginning. The needs of both parties should be identified and incorporated into the service-learning curriculum.


[1]  Henry, S & Breyfogle, M.(2006). Toward a New Framework of “Server” and “Served”: De(and Re)constructing Reciprocity in Service-learning Pedagogy. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 18.

[2] Bailey, S, Carpenter, D & Harrington,P. (2002). Theoretical Foundations of Service-Learning in Nursing Education.  Journal of Nursing Education. 41(10):433–436

[3] Sigmon, R. L. (1979). Service-learning: Three principles. Synergist, 8(1), 9-11.

[4] Petri, A. (2012). Reciprocal Exchange: Understanding The Community Partner Perspective in Higher Education Service-Learning.  A Dissertation in Education Presented to the Faculty of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

[5] Sheafer,V. (2016, June). Service Learning – Everybody’s Doing It! You Should Too.

[6] Raupp, C. D., & Cohen, D. C. (1992). A thousand points of light, illuminate the psychology curriculum: Volunteering as a learning experience. Teaching of Psychology, 19(1), 25-30.

[7] Honnet, E. P., & Poulson, S. J. (1989). Principles of good practice for combining service and learning. (Wingspread Special Report). Racine, WI: The Johnson Foundation.



Tara Barton

Tara brings passion and a deep understanding of service learning, rooted in years of experience, to her training. Her training builds bridges from theory to implementation while generously sharing her resources and knowledge to ensure our success. Tara works with the whole school (administration, teachers, students, and SL leaders) to build a sustainable program that is embedded in the curriculum and tied to the mission. She energized a faculty on a Friday afternoon, no easy feat, leaving them with a desire to learn more about SL and to become more involved. I cannot recommend Tara highly enough.

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