Service Learning

What is service-learning

By December 10, 2019 February 4th, 2020 No Comments

What is service-learning?

Many folks often ask , “What is service-learning?”. The easiest way that we can explain it is that service-learning connects service, community collaborative and partnerships, and teaching and learning together:

what is service-learning

Service Learning focuses on creating student engagement within the community that will allow for personal growth, skills and dispositional development such as empathy  to have a meaningful effect on their lives. Educators can use service learning pedagogie to facilitate experiential learning. This connects what students are learning inside the classroom with what is happening outside the classroom in their community to meet a verified need.

You may still be asking yourself, what does this look like within a curriculum? Jagla, Furco and Strait (2015) reference a very operational definition in their book, which may give a better understanding of the concept:

“Service-learning is a course-based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students (a) participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and (b) reflect 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 personal values and civic responsibility.”[1]

The take away from this is that service-learning is built into the curriculum. It is structured and has a measurement value associated with it that involves student engagement and reflection. Many liken service-learning to community service. But they are both very different, with the main difference being that community service is usually based on volunteerism, is a once off, and the needs of the community are not clearly understood. This differs to service-learning which is built into units of conceptual inquiry based on the needs and goals of the partner organization, it is a key learning connected to the curriculum.

Tools used to facilitate service-learning

Service-learning uses five stages to guide learning. There are many instructional tools that students can use to guide their learning. See our free resources on our website:

Service learning needs to be built into all school curriculums for personal development and growth in students and communities. Over the past couple of years, there has been extensive research done on service-learning and its benefits. Much of this research has been as a result of some harsh criticism of current school curriculums which focus on building the academic, sport and cultural sides of a student, but do not necessarily focus on the personal and interpersonal development of students.

Service-learning aims to correct this imbalance through experiential education. Experiential learning occurs through a scale of action and reflection, not by simply being able to recount what has been learnt. Experience enhances understanding and understanding leads to more effective action[2]. Creating an environment where students are learning through an activity or experience is more likely going to stay with them, especially if they are engaged in the subject matter.

Another central element to service-learning is the link between personal and interpersonal development with academic and cognitive development. This element links the head and the heart in a holistic way and examines values and ideas in the process[3]. Our aim with service-learning is to give students a better understanding of the world around them, how they fit into that world and how they can ultimately work at making it a better place.

What is service-learning and what does it look like in a learning environment?

Service-learning allows opportunities for learning and ongoing reflections, which is structured as part of a unit/course. Depending on the school, its students and their needs this could focus on intellectual, social, civic, ethical, moral, spiritual, intercultural or personal outcomes for students. Additional learning outcomes can include but are not limited to, deepening understanding of academic content, applying theory into proactive, increasing awareness of strengths and limitations, addressing social issues, understanding human differences and commonality, exploring options for future individual and collective action to solve community problems and developing a wide range of practical skills. [4]

*Download a sample curriculum here to get a practical example of service-learning in Stage 1 of a unit of conceptual inquiry 

Service-learning objectives

Jacoby and Howard point out that service-learning assists students in learning complex subjects and to gain a deeper understanding of fundamental principles that need to be applied later. It is particularly effective for achieving learning objectives that involve [5]:

  • Critical thinking

    The synthesis and analysis of information to solve complex problems with multiple possible solutions

  • Problem-solving

    The application of concepts and knowledge to practice in new contexts

  • Communication skills

    Effective written, oral and visual communication

  • Teamwork

    Working collaboratively with others, especially across difference and diversity

  • Responsibility

    Exercise well-reasoned judgement and taking ownership of learning

  • Citizenship

    Using the disciplines knowledge base to address social issues and developing the skills and habits for critical reflection

Teaching strategies

Why service-learning is necessary

Service-learning provides students with the tools needed to be well-rounded, responsible and accountable people. Service-learning will give students a different perspective on their lives, the challenges faced by others and encourage them to get involved in their community. It fosters passion and empathy and provides students with the knowledge and skills to take what they have learnt in the classroom and apply it in the real world. 

So when answering the question, what is service-learning?, we are able to state that service-learning empowers students to be responsible global citizens who understand diversity, embrace challenges, use knowledge and skills to be able  to collaboratively find solutions to problems with community.

[1] Jagla, V.M, Furco, A, & Strait, J.R. (2015). Service-Learning Pedagogy: How Does It Measure Up?. United States of America: Information Age Publishing Inc. PG 145

[2] Astin,A,W, Eyler,J, & Dwight, E,G Jr. (1999). Where’s The Learning In Service-Learning?. United States of America, Jossey-Bass. PG 8

[3]   Astin,A,W, Eyler,J, & Dwight, E,G Jr. (1999). Where’s The Learning In Service-Learning?. United States of America, Jossey-Bass. PG 9

[4] Jacoby,B, Howard,J. (2015).Service-Learning Essentials: Questions, Answers and Lessons Learned. United States of America, Jossey-Bass. PG3.

[5] Jacoby,B, Howard,J. (2015).Service-Learning Essentials: Questions, Answers and Lessons Learned. United States of America, Jossey-Bass. PG81

Tara Barton

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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