How to Use Service-Learning

Initial Publication Date: October 20, 2006

Effective service-learning practice involves four activities: preparing and designing a service learning experience, implementing a service experience, learning through reflection, and assessing student learning and service activity. Principles of good practice in community service-learning pedagogy can help guide the development of a service-learning course throughout these four steps: preparing and designing, implementing a service experiment, learning through reflection and assessment.

Preparing and Designing

The success of any service-learning activity depends on careful preparation and planning. It is good practice to include community partners in course preparation to include their insights and develop their support for whatever project is undertaken. Key aspects include:
  • Defining effective learning and service experiences in the course
  • Choosing a community partner that best supports learning, service and engagement goals
  • Preparing students to serve by building student service and group skills by building community in the classroom
  • Choosing the type of service project, placement or activity that best supports your learning, service, and engagement goals. Community partners can help with project design and student orientation before service
  • To insure that faculty, community partners, and students have a common understanding of expectations and responsibilities it is important to have an agreement prior to the start of service (preferably, a written agreement)

Implementing a Service Experience

Effective service-learning requires continual communication between the faculty member, students and community partners.

  • During the service experience, it is important that faculty members and community partners have a common understanding of each participants' responsibilities (e.g. student contribution, on-site student supervision, documentation of service activity, etc.) to effective monitor the progress and ensure the quality of the service outcome
  • Post-service activity involves student service evaluation (evaluating student contribution) and service outcome evaluation (evaluating the service activity in terms of contributions to community goals and outcomes)

Learning Through Reflection

Reflection is an essential and critical component of service-learning. Eyler, Giles and Schmiedes (1996) note "Reflection is the glue that holds service and learning together to provide optimal educative experience." Through reflection, students ask questions, and put facts, ideas, and experiences together to derive new meaning and new knowledge. Critical reflection provides students with the opportunity to examine and question their beliefs, opinions, and values. Reflection can:
  • enhance student learning through a deeper understanding of course materials, and higher order thinking and problem solving skills
  • promote student personal development by enhancing students' self-awareness, understanding of community, and their sense of their own capacities


Assessment must start with clearly defined goals and objectives. Once these are defined, key indicators or measurable observed factors related to each outcome are identified. And finally, methods of obtaining needed information are identified.

  • Assessment of student learning (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 195kB Apr13 10) through service-learning may include evaluation of academic content,personal development, and civic engagement.
  • Assessment may also include the process and product of service-learning for the community partner (Microsoft Word 31kB Apr12 10)

Tools for assessment may include oral reflection, small group discussion, presentations, surveys, essays, exams, reports, and research projects.

Challenges of Service-Learning

Service-learning can be challenging to both faculty and students. Faculty sometimes are uncomfortable with the loss of control over student learning that service-learning entails. Students are sometimes dissatisfied with their service activities, and both students and faculty are challenged to find the necessary time to incorporate service-learning into their coursework. Fortunately, challenges of service-learning can be overcome through careful planning and open communication between students, faculty and community members.

Resources for Designing and Implementing

There are many resources for designing a service-learning course. Many universities have teaching and learning or civic engagement offices on campus where faculty can begin their search. Many resources are available online and in books and journals.