Initial Publication Date: May 13, 2010

Motivating Students, Departments, and the Community about Service Learning Projects

Motivating students, the department, and the community to join forces and collaborate enthusiastically on a service learning project can be a challenge. Below are some tips on promoting engagement and buy-in. These ideas are drawn from the 2010 Service Learning workshop.

Student buy-in

Motivating students to be interested and active in your service learning project can be challenging, especially if you're implementing the project in a large course or an introductory course for non-majors. Here are some suggestions for engaging students in the project:
Field sampling
  • Get students personally involved by holding student debates or have a structured academic controversy on local issues (For more information, see the Cutting Edge module on Structured Academic Controversy.)
  • Give students a voice in selecting the project or in determining certain aspects of the project. Research has shown that student motivation increases when students have a sense of autonomy in the learning process (Kurvink, 1993 ; Reeve and Hyungshim, 2006 ).
  • Use role-play, where students are assigned a personal role in a complex issue. Students may be assigned to a role that does not match their own personal viewpoints, but this encourages them to research the other side of the issue to stay in the part. (For example role-play activities, see the Pedagogy in Action module on Role Playing.)
  • Blogging can be a way to keep students participating and motivated, as this is a format of communication enjoyed by many college students.
  • Allow students to select their roles in the project. Are they interested in project design, field work, analysis of the results or communications? Take advantage of students' interests and strengths.
  • Service learning can be an optional part of the course, where students can choose from 2 different grade distributions (where the one with the service learning component places a lower value on test scores).

Departmental support and course design

Sometimes it can be difficult to convince your department that a service learning approach to teaching is just as effective (if not more so) than a traditional lecture or lab course. Additionally, it may be difficult to structure your service learning project while also covering all the course content that would be addressed in a traditional format. Below are some suggestions to designing your service learning project to cover important course content, whereby a case is made to the department that service learning is a practical way to get students hands-on experience with course material:
  • Keep in mind that content can be found in many places. Use your service learning project as a tangible and applicable example of course material in the "real world."
  • If you're having a hard time convincing your department to consider a service learning course, look for a reference paper for the benefits of including a service component that you can to present to department chairs (some examples are Melchior, 2000; Astin and Sax, 1998, or see the reference list).
  • Use the campus or local media to share noteworthy results from your project. This may increase campus enthusiasm and awareness for service learning in general.
  • Use your campus communications department as a potential partner for spreading the word about the service learning project. Alternatively, have students in your course who have strengths in media or communication take an active role in communicating project results to a wider audience.
  • Remember that small victories are worth just as much as the final end-product - celebrate them all.


Oftentimes, there is a disconnect between what is happening on campus and in the the community. Your service learning project is likely benefiting the community, so don't be shy, let your community know about the work you are doing and how it fits into the larger community. This also helps with issues in getting institutional and departmental support mentioned above. Here are some tips for presenting your service learning project to the community:
  • Photos are a powerful form of communication. Documenting and sharing the service provided is a great way to promote your project to the community. Photos can also be used to document time series of change on the project.
  • Consider holding a brief presentation at a city council meeting or other civic gathering.
  • Use public means of communicating to the community such as creating a public website, hosting a public poster session, doing a radio broadcast or writing a newspaper article.
  • Remember, presentation really counts - if your work is great but is presented poorly then you won't gain credibility.
Learn more about how service learning can be used to connect classroom learning with societal issues (from the InTeGrate project).