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Margaret Mead

What is Service Learning?

“Students are unlikely to be effective citizens without the ability to understand complex social problems, apply what they learn, and have the critical thinking ability to make adequate judgments about the information they receive.”

— Janet Eyler and Dwight Giles, Where is the Learning in Service Learning? (1999)

Introduction

Academic service learning, or “service learning,” is a form of experiential education, one that enhances academic learning while helping students and faculty connect with needs in the world outside the campus.  From the faculty member’s point of view, service learning is a pedagogical practice that integrates service and academic learning to promote increased understanding of course content while helping students develop knowledge, intellectual skills, and attitudes that prepare them to respond effectively to the problems and issues facing their communities and society. 

Service learning is an approach to facilitating student learning that emphasizes contextual experience, and reflection upon that experience, as an important strategy for motivating students to learn.  It affords students the opportunity to learn actively through meaningful experience that is situated in a “real-world” context.  Encountering issues and problems in such settings helps students achieve a deeper understanding of subject matter, an introduction to the interface between disciplinary knowledge and public decision-making processes, and practice in transferring knowledge and skills between the classroom and the complex, fluid, and messy world of human interactions.

Effective service learning uses experience to expand and sharpen academic learning, not to take the place of it.  When service learning activities are thoughtfully designed, they combine content-driven, outcomes-based learning goals with students’ natural curiosity and desire to solve problems that are “relevant” to their lives.

In sum, service learning is:

  • a high-impact pedagogical practice that enhances student engagement with and under-standing of academic content;
  • a learning experience that strengthens the developing citizen’s sense of responsibility to his or her community and society;
  • community work linked to academic study through structured reflection concerning hands-on experience so that each reinforces the other, facilitating mastery of the subject matter and a sense of civic responsibility.

Official Definitions

Civic engagement is “…the collaboration between higher education institutions and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.” (cite

Community service is a form of civic engagement.  It is “any work provided by individuals that contributes to the quality of life in the community.  Community service work can be provided in several ways and for different purposes.  Students may be involved in community service on their own, with a group or club, or through academic course work.  When the community service is part of the academic course work, and when the service relates directly to the course content, it is considered service learning.” (cite)

Service learning is a form of community service.  Specifically, it is “a teaching method that promotes student learning through active participation in meaningful and planned service experiences in the community that are directly related to course content.  Through reflective activities, students enhance their understanding of course content, general knowledge, sense of civic responsibility, self awareness, and commitment to the community.” (cite)  Service learning might be characterized as community-based experience in which students learn by doing good for people.  It is essentially philanthropic.  It builds ethical character.

Civic learning is a form of service learning that emphasizes active participation in efforts by members of a community to work together to make public decisions and establish public policies. (cite)  In civic learning, students learn by working with others, on a basis of civic equality, to advance the common good.  It is essentially democratic.  It builds civic character.

Both moral character and civic character are desirable; each promotes the other.  But there are civic beliefs, attitudes, dispositions, and skills that can be learned only through the experience of acting in the democratic public arena.

Four common misunderstandings about academic service learning:

  1. “Academic service learning is the same as student community service and co-curricular service learning.”  FALSE.  Student community service rarely involves a learning agenda.  Co-curricular service learning, illustrated by many alternative spring break programs, similarly lacks an academic learning component.  Academic service learning uses the service experience as a course “text” for both academic learning and civic learning.
  2. “Academic service learning is another name for internships.”  FALSE.  Generally speaking, internships are not about service or civic learning.  They socialize students for a profession or a career, and do not address student civic development.  They also emphasize student benefits more than community benefits.  Service learning is equally attentive to both.
  3. “Community experience is synonymous with learning.”  FALSE.  Although experience is a necessary condition of learning (Kolb, 1984), it’s not sufficient.  Because learning requires more than experience, one cannot assume that student involvement in the community automatically yields learning.  Learning requires purposeful, intentional efforts.  These efforts are often referred to collectively as “reflection” in the service learning literature.
  4. “Academic service learning is the addition of community service to a traditional course.”  FALSE.  Grafting a community service requirement or option onto an otherwise-unchanged academic course does not constitute academic service learning.  Doing so marginalizes the learning in, from, and with the community, and precludes transforming students’ community experiences and learning.  To realize service learning’s full potential as a pedagogy, community experiences must be considered in the context of, and integrated with, the other planned learning strategies and resources in the course.

Learn How to do Service Learning