Public Outreach and Service-Learning

This page is a summary of Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux's presentation on Public Outreach and Service-Learning, given at the "On the Cutting Edge" 2005 Preparing for an Academic Career in the Geosciences Workshop. Lesley-Ann is an associate professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Vermont.

What is service-learning?

The term "service-learning" is often misinterpreted, even in the academic community. Traditional community service, volunteer work, and pre-professional field work do not qualify as service-learning. Instead, service-learning is characterized by:
  • direct experience working with underserved communities and/or organizations
  • reflection on the community service
  • planned reciprocity of learning and benefits
(Zlotkowski, 2003)

In addition, in a service-learning experience, the service itself is not graded; instead, students are evaluated on what they have learned as a result of the service experience.

How does a service-learning course work?

In a typical service learning course, the faculty member selects a project or projects, contacts the community partner(s), and introduces students to the project(s). There is then an on-site orientation at the agency. When the projects are complete, students provide some final product or presentation, or both. The faculty member meets with the community partner(s) to debrief, and the faculty member documents the outcomes. (Zlotkowski, 2003)

How can I create a service-learning course or course enhancement?

To create a service-learning project:
  • start with the learning objectives which can be evaluated
  • establish a clear sense of student abilities at various levels of the project
  • consider front-loading the course with the skills or concepts to be used throughout the project, rather than taking the traditional linear approach
  • sequence lectures, readings, and class discussions to fit the needs of the project; if appropriate, modify the number and timing of examinations and exercises
  • work closely with the community partner on the project to ensure that specific student skills are being gained while completing the task(s) of benefit to the agency.

It is essential to the success of the service-learning project, as with any learning experience, to set clear, measurable learning objectives. These objectives need to be appropriate to the students participating; they should present an achievable challenge. To help students meet that challenge, make the service-learning project an integral part of the course, and get them started on it right away. Choose assignments and in-class activities that lay a foundation for and support the project. (UVM Faculty Fellowship for service-learning, 2004)

The role of reflection

Reflection is an essential component to service-learning. Reflection encourages students to link their service activities to their learning. The most effective reflection on service-learning is guided, occurs regularly, and involves feedback. This could be as simple as providing students with questions for reflection to answer in a journal, identifying the activities/experiences during which most profound learning occurred, reflecting on ways in which the course goals were achieved or their methodological approach was influenced. This reflective activity helps students to clarify their own values, in addition to making them actively aware of the learning process (Zlotkowski, 2003).

The academic benefits of service-learning

A well-executed service-learning project has numerous academic benefits, including:
  • Connecting theory and practice
  • Integrating disciplinary approaches
  • Strengthening analytical & critical thinking skills
  • Strengthening interpersonal & communication skills
  • Promoting the value of diversity
  • Incorporating active learning
(Zlotkowski, 2003)


  • UVM Faculty Fellowship for service-learning workshop, 2004.
  • Zlotkowski, Edward. 2003 Service-learning Institute with Edward Zlotkowski, The UVM Conference Center, Sheraton Hotel, 26 September.