Service Learning Overview

Service-Learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.

Through service-learning, young people-from kindergarteners to college students-use what they learn in the classroom to solve real-life problems. They not only learn the practical applications of their studies, they become actively contributing citizens and community members through the service they perform.

Service-learning can be applied in a wide variety of settings, including schools, universities, and community-based and faith-based organizations. It can involve a group of students, a classroom or an entire school. Students build character and become active participants as they work with others in their school and community to create service projects in areas such as education, public safety, and the environment.

Community members, students, and educators everywhere are discovering that service-learning offers all its participants a chance to take part in the active education of youth while simultaneously addressing the concerns, needs, and hopes of communities.

If school students collect trash out of an urban streambed, they are providing a valued service to the community as volunteers. If school students collect trash from an urban streambed, analyze their findings to determine the possible sources of pollution, and share the results with residents of the neighborhood, they are engaging in service-learning.

In the service-learning example, in addition to providing an important service to the community, students are learning about water quality and laboratory analysis, developing an understanding of pollution issues, and practicing communications skills. They may also reflect on their personal and career interests in science, the environment, public policy or other related areas. Both the students and the community have been involved in a transformative experience.

  • Elementary school students in Florida studied the consequences of natural disasters. The class designed a kit for families to use to collect their important papers in case of evacuation, which students distributed to community members.

  • Middle school students in Pennsylvania learned about the health consequences of poor nutrition and lack of exercise, and then brought their learning to life by conducting health fairs, creating a healthy cookbook, and opening a fruit and vegetable stand for the school and community.

  • Girl Scouts in West Virginia investigated the biological complexity and diversity of wetlands. Learning of the need to eliminate invasive species, the scouts decided to monitor streams and then presented their findings to their Town Council.

  • University students in Michigan looked for ways to support struggling local non-profit organizations during difficult economic times. Graduate communication students honed their skills while providing a wide variety of public relations services with community partners, including developing press kits and managing event coordination.

Each of the examples above shows how service-learning is integrating meaningful community service with instruction and reflection in order to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen our communities.

Students in service-learning classes can benefit academically, professionally, and personally, by:

  • Increasing their understanding of the class topic;
  • Gaining hands-on experience (possibly leading to an internship or job later);
  • Exploring or cementing their values and beliefs;
  • Having opportunities to act on their values and beliefs;
  • Developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills;
  • Growing their understanding of diverse cultures and communities;
  • Learning more about social issues and their root causes;
  • Improving their ability to handle ambiguity and be open to change and becoming more flexible;
  • Developing or enhancing their skills, especially in the areas of communication, collaboration, and leadership;
  • Testing out their skills, interests, and values in a potential career path, or learning more about a field that interests them;
  • Connecting with professionals and community members who they will learn from;
  • Growing a professional network of people they might connect with again later for jobs or internships;
  • Satisfying their urge toward public service or civic participation.

Faculty can benefit personally and professionally from integrating service-learning into courses. Teaching with service-learning can:

  • Encourage interactive teaching methods and reciprocal learning between students and faculty;
  • Add new insights and dimensions to class discussions; 
  • Lead to new avenues for research and publication;
  • Promote students' active learning;
  • Engage students with different learning styles;
  • Help achieve Harper's mission and vision; 
  • Develop students' civic and leadership skills;
  • Boost course enrollment by attracting highly motivated and engaged students;
  • Provide networking opportunities with engaged faculty in other disciplines;
  • Foster relationships between faculty and community organizations, which can open other opportunities for collaborative work; • Provide firsthand knowledge of community issues;
  • Provide opportunities to be more involved in community issues.

Community Partners participating in service-learning can benefit by

  • Gaining additional human resources needed to achieve organizational goals;
  • Injecting new energy, enthusiasm, and perspectives into the organization's work;
  • Growing the organization's volunteer pool;
  • Increasing public awareness of key issues;
  • Reaching out to youth;
  • Educating students/youth about community issues;  
  • Helping prepare today's students to be tomorrow's civic leaders;
  • Networking with colleagues in other organizations and agencies;
  • Identifying and accessing other college resources;
  • Build relationships with faculty, students, and staff.
Adapted for Hilbert College from the University of Minnesota - Community Service-Learning Center