What is Service-Learning?

Service-learning combines SERVICE with LEARNING in intentional ways. The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse defines Service-Learning as “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.” The purpose of this strategy is to change both the recipient and the provider of the service. The latter—students engaged in Service-Learning efforts—are changed through action and self-reflection, as they gain values, skills and knowledge.

Service-Learning projects offer students valuable opportunities to engage in problem-solving because they require them to learn about the specific context of their service-learning activity—the challenges facing the community in which they are serving—rather than relying on generalized or abstract knowledge such as textbook content. As a result, service-learning fosters the development of critical thinking through the necessity to identify the most important questions or issues within a real-world situation.

“…if school students collect trash out of an urban streambed, they are providing a service to the community as volunteers; a service that is highly valued and important. When school students collect trash from an urban streambed, then analyze what they found and possible sources so they can share the results with residents of the neighborhood along with suggestions for reducing pollution, they are engaging in service-learning.” The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse

The Corporation for National and Community Service states that Service-Learning:

  • promotes learning through active participation in service experiences,
  • provides structured time for students to reflect by thinking, discussing and/or writing about their service experience,
  • provides an opportunity for students to use skills and knowledge in real-life situations,
  • extends learning beyond the classroom and into the community, and
  • fosters a sense of caring for others.

Service-learning is often linked to school and college courses, and therefore requires and inspires educational organizations to build strong partnerships with community-based organizations. The distinctive element of service-learning is that it enhances the community through the service provided, but it also has powerful learning consequences for the students or others participating in providing a service.

“Service-learning is a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students work with others through a process of applying what they are learning to community problems and, at the same time, reflecting upon their experience as they seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves. In the process, students link personal and social development with academic and cognitive development. …experience enhances understanding; understanding leads to more effective action.” Eyler & Giles, 1999.

Vanderbilt Resources

National & International Organizations for Service-Learning

  • Big Dummy's Guide To Service-Learning!: “27 Simple Answers to Good Questions” on faculty, programmatic, student, administrative, & non-profit issues related to Service-Learning.

  • Center for International Service-Learning: This center provides service opportunities for academic communities. Their mission is “to bring learning and service into an intimate relationship which will prepare graduates to function and contribute as responsible members of the world community. Tools for accomplishing this include academic experiences such as interaction with host country universities, governmental agencies, field stations, and other professional resource persons. Service experiences may include on-site ministry with feeding programs, orphanages, schools, refugee assistance projects and clinics.”

  • International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership: Offered in 14 countries, IPSL programs unite academic study and volunteer service, giving students a fully integrated study abroad experience.

  • Institute for Global Education and Service-Learning: A non-profit training organization that creates service-learning programs and initiates activity-based education in collaboration with schools and organizations around the world.

  • Learn and Serve: This organization supports and encourages service-learning throughout the United States, and enables over one million students to make meaningful contributions to their community while building their academic and civic skills. By engaging our nation’s young people in service-learning, Learn and Serve America instills an ethic of lifelong community service.

  • National Service-Learning Clearinghouse: A program of Learn and Serve America that provides America's premier website supporting the service-learning efforts of schools, higher education institutions, communities, and tribal nations. They offer timely information and relevant resources, thousands of free online resources, the nation's largest library of service-learning materials, national service-learning listservs, and reference and technical assistance services.

  • National Service-Learning Conference: Organized by the National Youth Leadership Council and the Institute for Global Education and Service-Learning.

  • National Service-Learning Exchange: Founded in 1998, the National Service-Learning Exchange is a collaboration between five leading service-learning organizations and a network of nearly 400 experienced peer mentors. We support high-quality service-learning in kindergarten through high school, higher education, and community-based organizations, by providing free technical support and mentoring, and consulting and training on a fee-for-service basis.

  • National Service-Learning Partnership: The Partnership, founded in 2001, is a national network of members dedicated to advancing service-learning as a core part of every young person’s education. The network consists of more than 8,500 members in all 50 states. We are young people, teachers, parents, administrators, policymakers, education leaders, community partners, businesspeople, and researchers.

  • National Society for Experiential Education: The mission of NSEE is to foster the effective use of experience as an integral part of education, in order to empower learners and promote the common good.

  • Service-Learning: Make a Difference: A Peace Corps program that gives educators and students the tools and resources to plan, develop, create, perform, and evaluate a Service-Learning program.

College Programs for Service-Learning

  • Berea College Center for Excellence in Learning Through Service: One of the top college programs for service-learning, CELTS was created to house all of the student-led service programs and community outreach offices, and to lead an initiative to integrate service into the academic curriculum. The opportunities for service, outreach, and service-learning facilitated by CELTS take place in the immediate Berea/Madison County community, in the larger Appalachian region, and at sites throughout the United States and the world.

  • Campus Compact: A national coalition of more than 950 college and university presidents - representing some 5 million students - dedicated to promoting community service, civic engagement, and service-learning in higher education.

  • Community Colleges Broadening Horizons through Service-Learning: Since 1994 the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has promoted the value of Service-Learning to the 1,200 associate degree-granting institutions in the  U.S. The goals of its national project are to… integrate Service-Learning into the institutional climate of community colleges, and to increase the number, quality, and sustainability of Service-Learning programs through an information clearinghouse, data collection and analysis, model programs, training and technical assistance, publications, and referrals.

  • Haas Center for Public Service: Another top-ranked program, this center at Stanford University connects academic study with community and public service to strengthen communities and develop effective public leaders. The Center aspires to develop aware, engaged and thoughtful citizens who contribute to the realization of a more just and humane world.

  • UC Berkeley Service-Learning Research and Development Center: The Service-Learning Research and Development Center was established in the School of Education in 1994 to help better understand the implications of service activities on teaching, learning, and schooling. As a pedagogical strategy rooted in experiential education theories, service-learning allows learners not only to apply theories to authentic and practical situations, but it also helps to provide service to the local community.

  • University of Colorado at Boulder Service-Learning: The University of Colorado at Boulder was awarded a place among 81 of the "Great Schools with Outstanding Community Involvement" as compiled by Campus Compact and The Princeton Review in their book "Colleges With a Conscience"! And its Sociology department also has a Service-Learning Web Site.

  • U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of college Service-Learning programs.

Journals on Service-Learning

Books on Service-Learning

Review of the following books on service-learning:

  • Barbara Jacoby and Associates, Service-Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices. Jossey-Bass, 1996.
  • Janet Eyler, Dwight E. Giles, and Angela Schmiede, A Practitioner's Guide to Reflection in Service-Learning, Vanderbilt, 1996.

Books available for check-out from the Center for Teaching Library:

  • Combining Service and Learning: A Resource Book for Community and Public Service, Volumes I and II, by Jane C. Kendall and Associates
  • Higher Education Service-Learning Sourcebook, by Robin C. Crews
  • Service-Learning: A Movement’s Pioneers Reflect on Its Origins, Practice, and Future, by Timothy K. Stanton; Dwight E. Giles, Jr.; and Nadinne I. Cruz.
  • Successful Service-Learning Programs: New Models of Excellent in Higher Education, edited by Edward Zlotkowski
  • Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning?, by Janet Eyler and Dwight E. Giles, Jr.

Other Resources


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