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How to do Service Learning

(Before implementing a service/civc learning component or dimension to a course, please note the University's Risk Management requirements.)

Principles of Good Practice for Service Learning

(updated from the original:  J. Howard, 1993)  

Principle 1:  Academic credit is for learning, not for service.  Student learning arises from a blend of traditional learning resources and community service.  Credit is awarded for the student’s demonstration of civic and academic learning.

Principle 2:  Do not compromise academic rigor.  Service-learning students must not only master academic material as in traditional courses, but also must learn how to learn from unstructured and poorly-structured community experiences and to merge that learning with their learning from other course resources.  In service learning courses students must satisfy academic as well as civic learning objectives.

Principle 3:  Establish learning objectives.  It’s not possible to develop a quality service learning course without first setting very explicit learning objectives.  This principle is foundational.  Establishing priorities requires deliberate planning of academic and civic learning objectives.

Principle 4:  Establish criteria for the selection of service placements.  Requiring students to serve in just any community-based setting is like requiring students to read just any book as part of a traditional course.  Here are four criteria for selecting service placements:

  1. Confine the range of acceptable service placements to those that relate directly to the content of the course.
  2. Limit service activities and contexts to those with the potential to meet course-relevant academic and civic learning objectives.
  3. Link the required duration of service to its role in the realization of academic and civic learning objectives.
  4. Assign community projects to meet real needs in the community as determined by the community.

Principle 5:  Employ educationally-sound learning strategies.  Learning in any course is achieved through an appropriate mix of learning strategies and assignments that correspond with the learning objectives for the course.  In service learning courses we want to utilize students’ service experiences to achieve academic and civic learning objectives.  This means learning strategies must be employed that support learning from service experiences.  Learning interventions that promote critical reflection, analysis, and the application of service experiences promote student learning.  To make sure that service does not underachieve in its role as an instrument of learning, careful thought must be given to learning activities that encourage the integration of experiential and academic learning.  These activities include classroom discussions and other assignments that support analysis of service experiences in the context of academic and civic learning objectives.

Principle 6:  Prepare students for learning from the community.  Most students lack experience with both extracting and making meaning from experience and merging it with other academic and civic learning strategies. Faculty can provide: 

  1. learning support such as opportunities to acquire skills for gleaning learning from a service context (e.g., participant-observer skills), and/or
  2. examples of how to complete assignments (e.g., making previous exemplary student papers and reflection journals available to current students).  Menlo (1993) identifies four competencies that accentuate student learning in the community:  reflective listening, seeking feedback, acuity and observation, and mindfulness and thinking.

Principle 7:  Minimize the differences between the students’ community learning role and classroom learning role.  Shape learning environments so that students are both passive and active learners in both kinds of setting.  Instructors should “re-norm” the traditional classroom so that it values students as active learners.

Principle 8:  Rethink the faculty instructional role.  Service learning teachers should rethink their roles. The role most compatible with an active student role shifts the instructor away from relying on transmitting knowledge (the “banking model”) and toward mixed pedagogical methods that include learning facilitation and guidance.  Exclusive or even primary use of traditional instructional approaches diminishes the potential for learning in service learning courses. 

     Howard’s (1998) model of “transforming the classroom is helpful here.  This four-stage model begins with the traditional classroom.  In the second stage, the instructor moves toward a more facilitative role.  In the third stage, students begin to develop and acquire the skills and propensities to be active in the classroom.  (During this phase, faculty often become concerned that learning is not as rich and rigorous as when they control and direct the flow of information.)  In the fourth stage, instructor and students achieve an environment in which mixed pedagogical methods lead to students who are active learners.

Principle 9:  Be prepared for variation in, and some loss of control with, student learning outcomes.  Learning strategies largely determine student outcomes.  In traditional courses, the strategies are the same for all enrolled students.  In service learning, variability in service experiences and their role in student learning lead to greater heterogeneity in individual student learning outcomes.  Classroom discussions will be less predictable and content of student writing and projects less homogeneous than in courses without a service assignment.

Principle 10:  Emphasize the responsibility of the community.  Purposeful civic learning requires designing classroom norms and learning strategies that not only enhance academic learning but also encourage civic learning.  Most traditional courses are organized for private learning by the individual student.  Service learning instructors should consider learning strategies that will complement and reinforce the civic lessons from the community experience, e.g., moving from individual to group assignments, and from instructor-only to instructor-and-student review of student assignments by re-norming the teaching-learning process to be consistent with the civic orientation of civic learning.

Further Reading

  • Work Booklet for Constructing a Course  (pdf)
  • Howard, J.  1993. Principles of good practice in community service-learning pedagogy. Praxis I, A faculty casebook on community service-learning.  Ann Arbor: OCSL Press.   5-9.
  • Mintz, S. & Hesser, G. 1996.  “Principles of good practice in service-learning.”  In B. Jacoby & Associates, Service-learning in Higher Education. San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Types of Service Learning

The chief categories of service learning activities are direct service, indirect service, and community-based research.  

Direct Service

Direct service activities are those that require personal contact with people in need of assistance.  This type of service is generally the most rewarding for students because they receive immediate positive feedback when helping others. Examples of direct service activities include students working with senior citizens in an intergenerational project and reading to small children.  Direct service teaches students to take personal responsibility for their actions.  Students also learn that they can make a difference in the lives of others.

Indirect Service

Indirect service involves gathering or applying resources to a problem or need rather than working directly with persons who would benefit from the service activity.  Indirect service is usually performed by working with others, especially members of community groups, organizations, or institutions.  Examples of indirect service include collecting food or toys for disadvantaged families and participating in landscaping a community park or in other environmental projects.  It also includes building relationships within the community, informing and educating the community, supporting the efforts of organizations and institutions that serve the community, and contributing to the making of sound public decisions and policies.

Community-Based Research

Community-based research is research conducted by a partnership of students, faculty, and community partners who collaborate for the purpose of generating information or knowledge relevant to the solution of a problem or need affecting members of the community.  Students work closely with faculty members to learn research methodology and apply it.  Typical projects include evaluating new or existing programs, assessing the impact of policies, establishing the nature or extent of a problem or need, running independent tests, and developing or applying qualitative and quantitative research tools.

Direct service, indirect service, and community-based research can take different forms: 

Discipline-based Service Learning

Whether the service they render is direct or indirect, students reflect on their practical experiences in light of course content with a view to enhancing their understanding of disciplinary knowledge. 

Problem-Based Service Learning

In instances of direct service, students may perform in the role of an adviser or expert.  They work for a community organization, agency, or group in much the same way that consultants work for clients:  as a source of expert analysis, information, or advice.  Problem-based service learning depends on students having, or acquiring, knowledge or skills they can draw upon with the guidance of their instructor to provide assistance.

Whether students perform as few as 15 or 20 hours of problem-based service or as many as a semester-long internship typically entails, they may be charged with producing a body of work that is of value to the community.   Extended service learning allows for regular and continuing reflection that helps students analyze their experiences using discipline-based theories, concepts, principles, and knowledge. 

Capstone Courses

Capstone courses ask students to draw upon the knowledge they have gained over their studies and combine it with relevant service work in the community.  The goal is either to explore a new topic or to synthesize students’ grasp of their discipline.  Capstones generally offer communities the services of students with specific skills who can invest a substantial amount of time conducting research or providing assistance. 

Models of Service Learning

Service learning can be integrated into all disciplines (though not necessarily into all courses).  Course level, size, student demographics, and learning objectives will determine the style of service learning that might be appropriate. (The following models were adapted from The Service Learning Center at Virginia Tech with sample courses that have been taught at Colorado State University.)

Group Study Model


Example #1

Example #2

Selected students participate in one or more service experiences related to a discipline as a whole or to an academic topic area.  The students meet regularly with the instructor to plan, execute, and reflect on the service.

     This arrangement usually describes a 1-credit course, though more credits may be offered.

PHYS 181:  Physics Teaching Experience involves students in a hands-on teaching experience. The group meets every other week for planning and reflection while students facilitate “Little Shop of Physics” lessons in K-12 classrooms.

BIOL 380:  Biology students give presentations to K-12 students on topics or problems relating to anatomy, physiology, etc. and lead interactive dissections.  In a weekly recitation, students participate in discussion, exercises, critiques, and reflections.

Consulting Model


Example #1

Example #2

In a consulting design, all students enrolled in a course  participate in a community project by bringing disciplinary expertise to a need or problem.  The service may be rendered to one or more organi-zations, groups, or agencies or to an entire community.  Students meet regularly with the instructor to reflect on the service and its con-nection to the academic content of the course.

MKTG 479:  Marketing Strategy and Management is a capstone course that requires students to write a full marketing plan for one or more organizations or agencies, or for the  community as a whole.  Clients are selected and receive a thorough organi-zational analysis, marketing plan, and budget.

BUSI 355: Business Database Systems engages students in custom database development for non-profit organi-zations. Each semester the student group works with a new agency identified as needing a system to improve services to clientele.

Partnership Model


Example #1

Example #2

In the partnership model there is an ongoing relationship between a  department or faculty member and the community group, organization, or agency where students perform a service.

ENGL 405: Adolescents’ Literature has students participate in the Book Club Project with local schools.  English department students design and facilitate discussions of high-interest, high-quality literature for weekly meetings with small groups of reluctant readers.

EDUC 466:  Methods and Assessment in Art Education places art students from a range of art courses in an after-school K-12 enrichment program.  University and K-12 students work on art and literacy projects together.

Individual Placement Model


Example #1

Example #2

All students in a course are required individually to fulfill the service learning requirement for course completion.  Students select service sites from a menu of placements and complete the service hours and assignments specified by the instructor.

RECR 363:  Outdoor Recreation Programming arranges for a variety of local environmental organizations to work with students in designing and imple-menting special events such as Earth Day activities, tree plant-ings, trail clean-up, wilderness preservation training, and out-door programs for adolescents.

COMM 317:  Women in Communication requires all students to choose from a menu of placements where they work with women, children, and members of underserved populations.  The experience is designed to help students examine the effects of culture, language, and education on the ability of women and others to communicate their needs, concerns, interests, aspirations, and demands to the dominant culture.

Community Action Model


Example #1

Example #2

Students work on a social/ com-munity issue or problem  alongside or independently of staff  from a community group, organization, or agency.

SOCI 205: Contemporary Race and Ethnic Relations requires students to undertake research and/or action on a topic or topics such as racial injustice, human trafficking, child labor, inden-tured servitude, police mis-conduct, immigration, etc.

POLS 420: Political Communication requires students to prepare written materials for consumption by members of the media and the public generally of analysis (of a problem, issue, or policy),  advocacy, or neutral public discussion concerning topics such as human rights, immigration, national security, education, family planning, health, housing, environment, taxation, transportation, criminal justice, etc.

Constructing a Course with a Service Component or Dimension

All service learning courses have the following characteristics:
  •  The service experience is clearly and logically integrated into the academic curriculum and linked to explicit learning objectives.
  •  Students participate in structured reflection on their service experience (before, during, and after) in light of the course’s particular learning objectives.
  •  Service-learning activities are designed in collaboration with community representatives and serve genuine community needs.  They promote a “partnership of mutual benefit” between students, faculty, and community collaborators.

The guidelines below for incorporating service into courses will help faculty create high-quality service learning experiences:

  1. The syllabus is developed and revised to incorporate the service experience into the teaching of the course and to connect it with course learning objectives.
  2. Partner agencies define their needs and are included in planning for the service.
  3. The faculty member becomes acquainted with each community agency that students are placed with, understanding the agency mission, clientele, location, and student role.
  4. Preparation for the service activity addresses student training, clarification of responsibilities, and risk management issues.
  5. Students are introduced to the partner agency before the service begins, including orientation to the issues being addressed.
  6. Students are involved in at least 5 hours of service in the community for each hour of credit they receive for the course.
  7. Academic credit is awarded for the learning gained from the experience, not for the service itself.
  8. The service experience is connected to the course through readings, work assignments, and reflection.
  9. Reflection on the service experience is on-going and includes dialogue about community issues, the need for the service, and the responsibility of disciplinary experts to help meet that need.
  10. Students, faculty, and community representatives participate in the evaluation process.

Community Partners

For a list of registered and potential partners, see The Commons Database.  (forthcoming, August 2012) 

Recommended Resources

Work Booklet for Constructing a Course (pdf)

A Student Learning Plan (pdf)

Further Reading

  • Checkoway, B.  1996.  “Combining service and learning on campus and in the community.”  Phi Delta Kappan 77:  600-606.
  • Hurd, Clayton.  "Is Service Learning Effective?  A look at the current research.
  • Enos, S. & Troppe, M. 1996.  Curricular models for service learning.  An International Forum, 7 (1):  71-84.
  • Zlotkowski, Edward. 2001. “Mapping New Terrain: Service-Learning Across the Disciplines.” Change.  January/February:  25-3.