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What is the difference between civic engagement and service learning?

Civic engagement has its roots in service learning.  Service learning, in turn, grew out of voluntary community service:  work performed by students, faculty, or other members of the University that contributes to the quality of life in the community.  When voluntary community service is incorporated as an element of academic course work, and when the service activity relates directly to the content of the course, it becomes service learning.

The CSU has urged its member campuses to not “rest content with the successes we have achieved through our commitment to service learning,” but to also incorporate “a broader spectrum of community engagement efforts that advance our purpose as public institutions that serve the public good.”  An important clue to what the CSU means by “broaden” community engagement” comes from its strategic planning effort, Access to Excellence, which “focuses on the intersection of CSU with the economic, political, and social environment of the State of California, anticipating what the people of the State will need from the CSU in the next decade, and how best to position the institution to meet those needs.”  Civic engagement thus encompasses not just service learning, but all collaborative undertakings through which the University helps the public identify and respond to the economic, public policy, and social needs of California communities.

We define civic engagement as “…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.”  ( strategic_plan_summary.pdf) 

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.”  (

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.” (  Service learning might be characterized as a form of learning in context of learning by doing.  It is 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.  (  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.

Return to the Frequently Asked Questions page.