Service learning is a type of experiential learning activity where students apply academic concepts to practical situations that involve addressing community needs. The last component of this definition (addressing community needs) is key.
This component is what distinguishes service learning from other pedagogical approaches such as performance-based or project-based learning.
Service Learning Definition
Definitions of service learning usually emphasize a combination of academic outcomes, benefit to the community, and developing a sense of civic responsibility.
One of the key service learning theorists is Robert Bringle. Here are two definitions he provides (with colleagues):
- “students participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and 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 civic responsibility.” (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996, p. 222)
- “Service learning classes engage students in service activities that simultaneously pursue two goals: (a) benefit to community stakeholders (e.g., agency, clients, neighborhood 4 residents) and (b) academic learning outcomes.” (Bringle, Phillips, & Hudson, 2004, p. 5)
For a newer definition, we can turn to Capella-Peris and colleagues:
- “to a teaching methodology that seeks to develop academic competencies and increase reflection while providing a community service to meet social needs.” (Capella-Peris, Gil-Gómez & Chiva-Bartoll, 2020, p. 102)
Service Learning Examples
- Voter registration: Students in a political science class volunteer to help with voter registration targeting the elderly that also involves conducting interviews and surveys assessing their needs and opinions regarding various political issues.
- Books in schools: Students pair up with local charities and churches to run a campaign to improve the school library’s book offerings.
- Rural community service: Nursing majors hold health fairs in rural areas to disseminate information regarding healthy habits and perform basic health checks for attendees.
- Recycling programs: Mechanical engineering students use recyclable materials to construct playgrounds in inner cities and analyze the physics of each piece of equipment.
- Migrant support: IT majors teach courses to immigrants on web design and e-commerce as part of group projects assessing the functionality of various web design software programs.
- Supporting budding businesses: Business majors work with local small businesses on strategic planning, marketing, and hiring practices to improve revenue. The students create portfolios documenting their experiences.
- Websites for businesses: A group of digital marketing students are asked to connect with local businesses to help them to develop a web presence and consistent brand image.
- Addressing local tax changes: An accounting class works with local businesses to help them implement standard accounting principles and understand the local tax code.
- Working with local children: Anthropology students conduct a participant observation study in local orphanages as helpers to document the children’s narratives and produce short films.
- Missionary work: A faith-based university sends its students to a third-world country to help single mothers apply for micro-finance loans and start their own businesses. Students create video documentaries that detail each stage in the service-learning process.
- Upskilling locals: Communication majors conduct a pre- post-design study on the effectiveness of training the unemployed on interview techniques and presentation skills.
- Charity work: Students in an International Studies course work in teams to write and submit a grant for the charitable cause of their choosing.
- Local waterway management: Biology students study local waterways and identify strategies to improve the biodiversity in the area.
- Urban farming: Students develop an urban farm on the rooftops of local buildings in order to supply fresh food to local impoverished families.
- Local town hall: Students from an event management course organize a local town hall for political candidates to meet with locals and address their concerns.
- Bike to work day: To encourage green transit, students start a bike to work campaign, culminating in one day where an additional 1000 people use the local bikeways to get to work.
- Animal housing: Students run a campaign to support pet adoption by not only encouraging adoption, but implementing regular support for the new owners so the animals transition to a happy new life.
- Traffic management: Students from an advanced math course conduct a study of the traffic light pattern at a particularly busy bottleneck and find a way to improve the pattern to minimize congestion. They bring the report to the local council to consider.
Real-Life Service Learning Case Studies
1. Urban Farming
Poor nutrition and food insecurity in many countries is a situation that can be addressed in a variety of ways. According to a report by the BBC, the UN estimates that approximately 900 million tons of food is wasted every year.
There are a multitude of factors at work which create this catastrophe. However, there are also many solutions. For example, students in a university agriculture course could work with local communities to design and implement urban farms.
These farms could be located on abandoned lots, rooftops, or in smaller areas around households that could fit a vertical garden. There are more places than you can possibly imagine to grow food in urban areas.
It’s one thing to read about how to install a vertical garden, but it is a completely different learning experience to actually put one on a wall and make it work.
2. Put Some Blue in Your Green School
High school students in an AP Environmental Science course help schools use their water resources more efficiently. They work to raise awareness regarding the importance of water conservation and demonstrate water management practices.
First, the students analyze the water use practices of their own school. They conduct detailed measurements and create the necessary graphs that will allow a pre- post-program comparison.
Then they enact behavioral and structural changes that allow their school to conserve water more efficiently. Once the program has demonstrated results, it can be applied to other schools in the community or even at the state level.
To learn more about this program, click here.
3. Discarded Books Library
Students in an education course collaborate with local garbage collectors to create a library for the poor. The students learned about this type of project on the news and decided to pursue a similar endeavor.
They find a permanent location in the inner city to create the library. The local government agrees to fund the daily operation of the library, paying for electricity and basic upkeep of the facility.
As part of their course requirements, each student volunteers to work in the library a certain number of hours per month and conduct literacy classes for local children.
The classes are video recorded and then shared in class for analysis and discussion regarding the teaching techniques learned in class.
4. Environmental Service Learning
Undergraduate students in introductory science courses at Indiana University and Purdue University engage in a service-learning program involving environmental stewardship.
What is environmental stewardship? It basically means students do things to help restore land or improve the ecology of a specific area. For example: restoring wetland and floodplain ecosystems, native plant installation, invasive exotic plant species eradication, or hill slope stabilization.
Work days are in partnership with local community members. As the webpage about this program explains, this service-learning:
“…provides the students with an opportunity to directly experience many of the topics discussed in their courses as well as to observe how communities can work together to solve environmental problems.”
It is more than just volunteerism because the work is performed in the context of classroom study and directly connected to 9 learning goals in the course.
To learn more about this program, click here.
5. Growing Voters by CIRCLE
We all know what a circle is, but this acronym stands for something wholly more substantial: Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement by Tufts University.
The Growing Voters report presents a research-based framework for how institutions can facilitate the development of the next generation of voters in the U.S.
It provides actionable recommendations for educators, community leaders and policy makers on ways to:
“…close voting gaps, expand the electorate, and support a more equitable and representative American democracy”.
This is a perfect example of how students and higher education can engage in learning-based endeavors that also serve a greater public good.
Service-learning is all about taking students out of the classroom and into the real world to address a need in society. It strives to achieve more than just providing assistance in a community because students must perform the service in the context of their academic studies.
This can involve writing papers that detail the experience in the field and tying those experiences to classroom concepts. Or, students may choose to produce a mini-documentary that can be shared on social media and possibly inspire others to action.
The possibilities are endless, from increasing voter registration numbers to repairing the ecology of nearby wetlands. These types of endeavors are being enacted by universities around the world, instilling a sense of responsibility in students that may impact their way of thinking long into the future. That is of course, the goal.
Bringle, R. G., & Hatcher, J. A. (1996). Implementing service learning in higher education. The Journal of Higher Education, 67(2), 221-239.
Bringle, R. G., Phillips, M. A., & Hudson, M. (2004). The measure of service learning. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Capella-Peris, C., Gil-Gómez, J., & Chiva-Bartoll, Ò. (2020). Innovative analysis of service-learning effects in physical education: A mixed-methods approach. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 39(1), 102-110.
Furco, A. (2002). Is service-learning really better than community service? A study of high school service. In A. Furco & S. H. Billig (Eds.), Advances in service-learning research: Vol.1. Service-learning: The essence of the pedagogy (pp. 23–50). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishers.
Furco, A. and Billig, S.H., (2002) Service-Learning: The Essence of the Pedagogy. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.
Toole, J., & Toole, P. (1995). Reflection as a tool for turning service experiences into learning experiences. Evaluation/Reflection, 63. https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/slceeval/63
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.