Service Learning in the Classroom


Service learning is a teaching method that combines community service with academic instruction as it focuses on critical, reflective thinking and civic responsibility.  Service learning programs involve students in organized community service that addresses local needs, while developing academic skills, sense of responsibility, and commitment to the community. (Community College National Center for Community Engagement)

This pedagogy reflects John Dewey’s proponent of hands–on learning or experiential education.  He advised educators provide relevant educational content which contributes to the well-being of individuals and society through direct experiential education involving continuity and interaction.  Service learning is a combination of community service with stated learning goals, relying on reciprocal learning, reflection and experience to prepare students to meet relevant real-life community needs.

Reciprocal learning

Service learning differs from other approaches to experiential education such as volunteerism, community service, internships or field education in that the intention is to benefit both the provider and the recipient of the service equally.  This ensures equal focus on teaching, learning and civic engagement. Learning flows from those who provide service and those who receive it.

Reflection and critical thinking

Service learning provides structured critical reflection for students. There are four stages that student’s cycle through in this process:  concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation to ground this work in scholarship.

Relationship and Character Development

Service learning builds relational bridges within the college, community and world as it provides college students with a “community context.  Students become involved with community partners as they collaborate, design and implement projects. It provides them with a new vision of their roles as responsible citizens within their communities.  Service learning fosters character development and leadership as students learn to care for others in diverse settings.

Service Learning within Native Communities

Dr. Gregory Cajete, a Native American educator, believes that education in native communities is based on an ecological foundation of serving and caring for one another. Community relationships between people and the natural world are honored.  Education is interdependent in a community that involves all members in projects that are for the benefit of the people and the care of the natural world.  Service learning provides the opportunity for learning to take place within these relational systems of people and place.

Tools and Strategies

Research national resources

Programs have been developed at many schools and colleges.  Campus Compact and Learn and Serve America (see references below) have resources to help set up this pedagogy at an educational institution.

Seek institutional collaboration

It is best to start small with one or two courses and identify faculty fellows willing to work with this model.  A faculty team works well which comprises one or more faculty members, student services staff, and an academic dean.  Sharing responsibilities and bringing various perspectives strengthens the program. Engage students through student services, campus publicity and student clubs.

Develop service learning projects to match course goals and student outcomes.

  • Create explicit learning objectives which are linked with academic course work, planning, preparation and reflection.      This requires the instructor to guide the student in ongoing critical reflection as they shape and direct their learning in meaningful ways to course concepts and personal experience. The instructor’s role becomes a facilitator of knowledge rather than a controller of knowledge.
  • Identify and create relationships with agencies and non-profit organizations which are a natural fit for your students and course goals and outcomes.
  • Make written agreements which clarify roles and responsibilities for both the student and agency which includes length and dates of placement, number of hours service, orientation and on-site supervision, procedures for agency student assessment, ongoing communication between agency, student and faculty, legal issues linked to risk management and liability or background checks.

Create instruments of assessment and self-reflection

Students need to create an on-going critical reflection of what they are learning. Develop a rubric that itemizes student outcomes such as knowledge about the agency and community, improvement in personal skills, discovery, introspection, and critical thinking. This can be accomplished through journaling, in class discussions, reflection papers to address comprehension and application of course theories.

Celebrate and closure

Plan an event where students can present their work to the student body and/or community.  Follow up with agency supervisors with an expression of gratitude and assessment of experience.


Cajete, Gregory. (1994). Look to the mountain, an ecology of indigenous education,

Durango Colorado: Kivaki Press.

Campus Contact. Retrieved December 15, 2009 from

Davis, Barbara Cross, (2009). Tools for teaching, 2nd edition, San Francisco: Jossey Bass

Dewey, John. (1938). Experience and education London & New York: Macmillan.

Faculty toolkit for service-learning in higher education, edited by Sarena D. Seifer and Kara Conners.  (2007). Community-Campus Partnerships for Health for Learn and Serve America’s National Service-Learning Clearinghouse.

Introduction to service-learning toolkit, readings and resources for faculty, 2nd edition. (2003). Campus Compact/National center for Community Colleges.

Kolb D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Learn and Serve America’s National Service-Learning Clearinghouse site. Retrieved December 15, 2009 from

Through whose eyes; service-learning and civic engagement from culturally diverse perspectives. (2002). Campus Compact/National Center for Community Colleges.

We are all related, service-learning civic engagement, and connectedness. (2003). Community College National Center for Community Engagement.

Submitted by J.Ane Berrrett Dec. 2009

Tags: , , , ,

Comments are closed.


Recent Comments

    Spam prevention powered by Akismet