Service learning is an engaging teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful, real-world community service with instructional goals and objectives. The service experience involves students in essential reflection activities that enrich the mutually beneficial outcomes of students and the community.
Falling under the umbrella term Experiential Learning, service learning joins other student-centered learning strategies such as problem- and project-based learning, active learning, and place-based learning (Wurdinger & Carlson, 2010, p. 7). Service learning can be further subdivided into direct, indirect, research, and advocacy service learning, each of which involve students in a variety of engaging and meaningful learning experiences (excerpted from Colorado State University, 2015; GenerationOn, n.d.; University of Minnesota, 2011).
Types of Service Learning
Direct Service is volunteer-focused where students are placed in direct contact with people who benefit from a specific service such as:
- Counseling incoming or new students
- Reading to small children in intergenerational projects
- Helping local citizens fill out their annual tax returns
- Serving food at a local food pantry or soup kitchen
Indirect Service is program- or issue-focused in which students engage in a service by providing goods or a product to a needy cause such as:
- Collecting and distributing food items or clothing
- Engaging in neighborhood beautification projects or local conservation efforts
- Planting a community garden
- Building low-income housing
Advocacy/Civic Engagement is policy-focused during which students address the cause of and are often personally committed to a social issue such as:
- Establishing a voter registration campaign among students and the community
- Distributing literature about a neighborhood watch program throughout specifically affected neighborhoods
- Speaking on behalf of underrepresented segments of the community
- Lobbying for more trash cans to minimize littering on campus
Research Service involves students collecting and reporting information for public welfare or interest such as:
- Working in a laboratory that meets a community need
- Testing water or soil quality
- Conducting research to protect local wetlands
- Developing or re-purposing products from recycled materials
Characteristics of Service Learning
All of the types of service learning share some common characteristics:
- The service must be connected with course learning goals and objectives
- The service must meet a genuine community need
- The service will establish a reciprocal relationship among all constituents
- The service includes time for students to reflect throughout the experience
(Bethel University, n.d.)
Reflecting on Service Learning
Reflection is a key component of service learning and gives students an informal structure to connect the experience to the learning goals and objectives. The figure at the beginning of this article illustrates how this reflection can lead to successful learning experiences through:
- Pre-service reflection, where students examine what they know and think about issues raised by the project.
- Reflection during service (this is the “What?” phase), in which students identify where they are in the process and share their concerns and feelings.
- Post-service reflection (this is the “So what” phase), during which students consider the significance of the service (their experience in it, how they can integrate their new understanding in the situation and course work, and offer further action).
- “Now what?” phase, when students ask what they should do next and whether it is time to decide how best to proceed – considering the future impact of the experience on the community and themselves.
Getting started with service learning involves a number of steps for it to be meaningful for students, community partners, and instructors. First, connect the service and course goals and objectives; second, explain the relevance of the service to both the students and service constituents; third, incorporate the principles of service learning in your teaching through meaningful engagement, reflection, reciprocity (where everyone is a colleague); four, allow for public dissemination of the experience; and finally, each student, community partner, and instructor must have the opportunity to provide their assessment of the experience. Analyzing and assessing the service learning experience will help all constituents realize the effects of the experience and pinpoint areas of the course to make improvements for future experiences.
Service Learning in Action
Service-learning is often combined with interdisciplinary learning, where different colleges, departments, and curricula share service learning objectives (National Service Learning Clearinghouse, 2011). These cross-disciplinary opportunities are ripe for learning how to collaborate, problem solve, and reflect with peers, faculty, and the community. Where students, faculty, and community members often function in separate domains, service-learning experience brings all stakeholders together to share goals and decisions which benefit both the campus and community.
Service Learning in Online Courses
Service learning opportunities need not be restricted to face-to-face courses. Strait and Sauer (2004) highlight an “e-service” model at Bemidji State University that engages teacher education students in service opportunities that take place in their local communities. They also report on the lessons learned, challenges, and suggestions for those who are interested in incorporating e-service in their courses. Visit the Center for Digital Civic Engagement for articles and resources about ways to integrate online teaching and service learning opportunities.
Service Learning at Northern Illinois University
Visit the Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning for more information on service learning opportunities at NIU and how to get started implementing service learning in your own courses. The Office of Student Involvement & Leadership Development is a great resource for identifying service learning opportunities for students. Also, both the College of Business and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offer unique experiential learning programs for their students.
Service Learning Resources
Service learning can have a profound impact on students, faculty, and the community. Students are able to combine classroom knowledge with real-world issues as they work with community members to bring about realistic and effective solutions and faculty from different disciplines learn from one another and gain valuable insight for future collaboration. The partnership that emerges from service learning activities helps the community to see solutions and ways that can further their cause.
Bethel University Off-Campus Programs: Service Learning (n.d.). What is service learning? Retrieved from http://cas.bethel.edu/off-campus-programs/service-learning/
Colorado State University (2015). Types of service learning activities. Retrieved from http://tilt.colostate.edu/service/about/typesOfSL.cfm
GenerationOn (n.d.). Taking action: Four types of service. Retrieved from http://www.generationon.org//files/flat-page/files/taking_action_-_four_types_of_service_0.pdf
Strait, J., & Sauer, T. (2004). Constructing experiential learning for online courses: The birth of e-service. Retrieved from http://er.educause.edu/articles/2004/1/constructing-experiential-learning-for-online-courses-the-birth-of-eservice
University of Minnesota Center for Community-Engaged Learning (2011). Direct, indirect, research, and advocacy engagement. Retrieved from http://www.servicelearning.umn.edu/cesp/programdetails/engagement_types.html
Wurdinger, D. D., & Carlson, J. A. (2010). Teaching for experiential learning: Five approaches that work. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education. [Available at Founders Memorial Library]