Service-Learning and Experiential Education

Initial Publication Date: November 30, 2010

What is Experiential Learning?

"Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis and synthesis"
~American Experiential Education.

Service-learning is a form of experiential learning in that students engage in cycle of service and reflection.

Philosophical Roots of Experiential Learning and Service-Learning

Service-learning has philosophical roots in the writings of Brazilian educator Paulo Friere and American educator John Dewey. Freire (1970) believed education was a process of empowerment. Rather than view education as a 'banking' process which views students as empty accounts waiting to be filled, Freire viewed the teacher-learner relationship as a reciprocal relationship. Teachers teach but are also learners; learners learn but also teach. Ideally, service-learning is a process of empowerment for students, faculty and community members alike as together they are co-learners and co-teachers in creating better communities.

Like Freire, Dewey rejected the notion that education was an accumulation of knowledge and instead argued that education was more about developing student judgment, a skill necessary for participatory democracy.

Dewey (1938) noted that education was a six-step process of:

  1. encountering a problem
  2. formulating the problem as a question to be answered
  3. gathering information to answer the posed question
  4. developing a hypothesis
  5. testing the hypothesis
  6. making warranted assertions
This six step process should build on past student experience in order to provide students with increased skills necessary to participate in democracy. Similarly, service-learning provides students with experiences that can increase civic engagement and better prepare students to participate in their communities.

Kolb's Model of Experiential Learning

Kolb (1984) reduces Dewey's six-step model into a four stage cyclical process: concrete experience followed by reflective observation, followed by formation of abstract concepts , followed by active experimentation. These four stages are integral to service-learning experience: students participate in a service experience, through reflection integrate abstract concepts learned in the classroom to better actively understand their experience.

Not every experience generates knowledge however. A learner must:
  • be actively involved in the experience,
  • reflect on the experience,
  • use analytic skills to conceptualize and better understand the experience
  • possess the skills necessary to use the experience as a springboard to test new ideas.
In service-learning, faculty guide students in both their reflection and application of class content to help students make the best of their service experience.

Why Experiential Learning Works

Current learning and brain research supports and explains earlier theories of experiential education. In The Art of Learning,Zull (2002) shows that the brain is responsible for four basic functions: getting information (sensory cortex,) making meaning of information (back integrative cortex,) creating new ideas from these meanings, (front integrative cortex,) and acting on those ideas (motor cortex.) These regions approximately align with Kolb's Learning Cycle into four pillars of human learning: gathering, analyzing, creating, and acting. By asking students to engage in high quality service-learning, we require them to use each of the four regions of their brains thereby evoking emotion and connecting content.

Furco (1996) and Seifer (1998) argue that service-learning is different from other forms of experiential learning. Unlike most internships or field studies, faculty, students and community partners collaborate to help shape both the service and learning experience. The goal of this collaboration goes beyond the technical or individual development focus of most internships and field work and instead is focused on a more engaged civic sector and lasting social change.