Service Learning: A Model For Educating the Future


Service-learning refers to learning that actively involves students in a wide range of experiences, which often benefit others and the community, while also advancing the goals of a given curriculum.

The theory behind service-learning suggests that, putting into action that which students are learning in the classroom allows them to synthesize subject matter in a more meaningful way. Proponents of this model believe that real-world application of classroom knowledge creates a deeper understanding and learning experience while instilling in students an enhanced sense of civic responsibility. 

The University of Washington has defined 6 qualities of service learning: 

1 Integrative:  The service-learning experience goes beyond traditional ideas of classroom learning, practicum training or off-campus volunteering.  Service-learning holistically integrates class learning objectives, faculty guidance, as well as community perspective and priorities. When engaged in genuine service students participate as both learners and community members. Students demonstrate success both academically and interpersonally.

2 Reflective:  “The process of reflection is a core component of service-learning.  Service-learning practitioners and researchers alike have concluded that the most effective service-learning experiences are those that provide ‘structured opportunities’ for learners to critically reflect upon their service experience.  Structured opportunities for reflection can enable learners to examine and form the beliefs, values, opinions, assumptions, judgments and practices related to an action or experience, gain a deeper understanding of them and construct their own meaning and significance for future actions.” (Moon, 1999, as cited in Conner & Seifer, 2005)

3 Contextualized:  Service-learning provides students a unique opportunity to access knowledge and expertise that resides in the context of community.  There is opportunity to connect the knowledge of a discipline, as explored in class, to the knowledge in practice, as evidenced in communities.  Learning experiences in community settings immerse students in the unpredictable and complex nature of real world situations.  Working alongside community members and experienced professionals, the opportunity to construct learning and responses can be immediate and uncontrived.

4 Strength-based: Service-learning draws upon existing community strengths and resources, and honors community members and organizations as co-educators of students.  Communities are never built from the outside in.  A strength-based approach focuses on the capacity and expertise that exist in every community, rather than on what is absent.  By shifting away from a deficit mentality, students learn partnership strategies to identify and develop each community’s unique strengths.

5 Reciprocal: The service-learning relationship offers all parties involved some measure of benefits; it is a two way street.  Students give time, talent and intellectual capital in order to gain deeper understanding of course material and the nuanced nature of social issues.  Course instructors modify their teaching practice to include service-learning and are rewarded with deeper student engagement of course material.  Community members and organizations invest time as co-educators and in turn accomplish more toward their mission and goals through the work of students.

6 Lifelong: Service-learning is learning that sticks.  By synthesizing theory and practice, this educational method provides a distinctive, meaningful and influential life experience.  Students build relationships, solve problems, value a sense of community and gain self-awareness.  Service-learning is beyond memorable; it can influence one’s career path and enhance civic responsibility.  Service-learning extends learning beyond the academic term; it lays the foundation for continual personal growth throughout the student’s academic experience and beyond.

Source: Washington University