Service-learning can be an incredible, life-changing educational experience for high school and college students. But what is it? This guide breaks down the difference between service-learning and community service, goes in-depth on the types of service-learning opportunities students can pursue and gives a school administrator and student’s take on the benefits. If you want to use what you’re learning in the classroom to make a difference on the community around you or a community aboard, keep reading to learn how service-learning works and how you can get involved.
An accounting student helps local residents fill out and file their tax returns. An international relations major provides translation services for refugees. A college chemistry class conducts science experiments and presentations at a local, at-risk high school. Are these examples of service-learning or community service?
Many people confuse the term “service-learning” with “community service,” but they’re quite different. The key is the word “learning.” Service-learning combines classroom learning goals and community service in a way that enhances or benefits both the student and the community. Every activity reinforces the curriculum and back in the classroom, students have the chance to reflect on what they’ve learned. While one can learn while volunteering or doing community service, in these cases the learning is tangential and doesn’t directly link to the classroom. Volunteering or community service also focuses primarily – sometimes only – on the recipient of the service.
Kathryn Plummer, Assistant Director of Service Learning and Career Development at Western Oregon University, says students shouldn’t get too caught up in the distinctions. “What students want to be doing is gaining hands-on learning. And we have different structures from which they can do that, including service-learning, volunteering and interning.”
To be clear, however, she adds: “Service-learning is a teaching pedagogy. As such, the terminology is based within curriculum. That typically is a credited course that incorporates service into the learning process. It’s really within a curriculum framework, whereas volunteering is less formalized and can be done outside of a classroom structure.”
The possibilities of service-learning are boundless, whereas with internships, Plummer says, “the emphasis is more on how the student is growing professionally than the product that they’re delivering. They’re building skills in a workplace setting. Service-learning — while also being out in the community and being a learning experience — doesn’t have that type of structure.”
The best way to understand service-learning is through examples. There are plenty, and they all fit into one of four categories: direct, indirect, research-based or advocacy. Below are some examples of each, as well as a few examples of comparable community service activities to further illustrate the difference between service-learning and community service/volunteering.
Perhaps the most personally rewarding type of service-learning, direct service involves working face-to-face with the community members being helped. Students get instantaneous feedback, which they can then reflect on as part of the curriculum.Examples:
Tutoring or teaching lessons in their subject
Becoming an advisor for an elementary or middle school club related to the class topic
English or journalism majors interviewing Hospice patients to compile a biography
Volunteers mentoring elementary students
Volunteers reading to Hospice patients
As the title suggests, indirect service-learning experiences seek to help community members in a broader, indirect way. Students work to improve the life for the community as a whole without targeting individuals for assistance.Examples:
Landscape architecture students revamping a local park
Biology majors removing invasive species from lakes or rivers
Graphic design and communications students producing newsletters for a community center to inform citizens about local activities
Volunteers doing a litter pickup at a local park
Volunteers removing trash from lakebeds or riverbeds
Volunteers handing out fliers
College faculty members love incorporating research into their classes. This type of service-learning keeps the research locally relevant by asking students to work with faculty and community members to investigate and develop solutions to an area problem. Students not only gather information but may also present their research and findings to an organization that can carry on the work they’ve started.Examples:
Geography students mapping a forest to track the growth of particular plants
History students compiling documentation of the town’s founding
Statistics majors creating a quantitative assessment tool to poll community opinion on a particular issue
Volunteers going door-to-door to ask pre-developed polling questions
This form of service-learning asks students to take a stand to solve a known problem or increase public awareness. The focus is on articulating solutions clearly and convincingly.Examples:
Creating a marketing strategy for a public health campaign
Drafting proposed legislation for city councils or state governments
Planning and executing a community forum or town hall
Volunteers collecting signatures for a petition
Volunteers speaking on behalf of proposed legislation at a government committee
Volunteers making signs for a community forum
There are a lot of reasons to take a class with a service-learning component. Some of the more obvious ones are mentioned above, but Plummer explains several other less obvious benefits:
Plummer gives the hypothetical of a high school or college student wanting to reach out to an organization like United Way: “One, they might not even reach out at all, because that’s scary. And two, they don’t know how to make that mutual partnership quickly. So, if we already have those pre-established structures and partnerships though the university or high school setting, it allows students to focus on the important pieces — not necessarily all the planning that’s involved to create this environment of learning.”
The primary reason behind incorporating service into a curriculum is to learn more about and to fully understand a particular topic. Practicing skills discussed in a classroom through service-learning reinforces those skills better than note-taking ever could. Or, it may be that the service allows students to go deeper into a topic through research. Either way, students should walk away with a greater appreciation and understanding of the topic. After all, as Plummer says: “Hands-on learning is important. We retain more by doing.”
As mentioned, hands-on experience can reinforce learning, something that employers view favorably. A big part of service-learning is also critical thinking and problem-solving. These experiences and skills are fodder for resumes and can lead to internships or even jobs. “There’s so much leadership, planning and self-confidence that is built through these kinds of experiences,” Plummer says. “Those are the top skills that employers look for.”
Partly due to the power of social networks, students often underestimate the power of personal networks. When it comes to securing employment, job seekers benefit from people who can vouch for their professionalism and quality of work. In that sense, the community members students worked with can became part of a professional network. Some of these connections can even continue to grow over the years and become mentorships.
Even if it doesn’t lead to a mentorship, service-learning is still a valuable career development tool. “The students have a better opportunity to understand what that person’s role is and is able to then ask questions about what that might be like as a profession,” explains Plummer. They have more tools in their toolkit to ask important career development questions.”
Most high school and college students are still learning about themselves and figuring out who they are. A service-learning project, may connect students with their true feelings and opinions about particular societal issue, even if it’s something they didn’t think much about before. For example, a service-learning class with a component in a homeless shelter may make a student more empathetic to those suffering from untreated mental health issues. It may even fuel a passion to act outside of class.
Students can learn a lot from books and theory-heavy classroom instruction. What’s harder to see is what’s going on in real time in their communities. Many students live in a bubble, detached from the day-to-day workings of the community around them. Service-learning bursts that bubble. “Service is a way to be engaged with the community,” says Plummer. She goes on to note that it’s particularly beneficial when that university or high school is particularly committed to developing civically minded and engaged students.
For many students, college can be a passive experience — you show up to class, read the books, take the test and get the grade. Repeat until graduation. But there’s something special about service-learning. As Plummer puts it, “It’s really empowering to be able to apply classroom-based knowledge and gain hands-on experience in real world settings. You are the owner of that education at that point, or at least a very active participant.”
One undermentioned advantage of service-learning is that it’s temporary. That’s a good thing, Plummer says. Service-learning allows students to try new things and explore different potential career paths but still gives them an out if they realize it’s not for them. “It’s a way to try something on without having to do it forever,” she explains. “You’re able to see if that’s a good fit for you.”
But students aren’t the only ones who benefit. The individuals, organizations and communities being served obviously benefit greatly from participating in such programs. Some of those benefits include:
Increased public awareness of the issue or topic as well as awareness for the organization
More resources to tackle the problem and achieve goals
Stronger connections with students/youth
Access to educational resources and knowledge
New and different energy and perspectives from the students, which can also boost the organization’s and community’s motivation
Actively helping prepare tomorrow’s civic leaders
And the teachers and faculty who participate benefit too:
Students are more engaged with class curriculum
Increased engagement can lead to increased course enrollment after students share their experiences with peers
Better relationships with students
Potential new avenues for research and publication
Actively developing students’ civic and leadership skills
Stronger relationship between the school and community
Once a time for partying in a distant beachy locale, spring break has become a time to do something more engaging and fulfilling for many students. So much so that many schools now offer alternative break programs, where students can participate in service-learning experiences for the week, many of which are aboard. Since they take place outside of the semester structure, the learning outcomes and service opportunities may be less integrated. But that doesn’t make the trips any less valuable to the students who take part. Here are several examples of such programs:
Calvin College, a four-year Christian school in Michigan, coordinates a dozen trips across the eastern United States each spring break. Students interested in environmental stewardship and sustainability, for instance, travelled to Pittsburgh, where they worked with low-income homeowners to repair their houses while exploring the long-standing racial injustices that have kept the community in the inner city. Other students visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where they learned about environmental sustainability while repairing trails.
This St. Petersburg, Florida, school pairs faculty and student leaders for trips throughout Central and South America. In 2018, a team set out to build a house with the Guatemala Housing Alliance and clean the lake, while learning about Mayan and Guatemalan culture. A separate trip to Nicaragua allowed a team of students to install a biogas heating system and work on permaculture with area women.
Not every high school runs an alternative break, but some companies have sprung up to cater to service-oriented teens. Global Leadership Adventures (GLA) is one. Budding biologists and environmental scientists will likely be interested in protecting sea turtles in Costa Rica. GLA’s Dominican Republic trip, meanwhile, has a community impact track and a global health track, depending on students’ goals.
UNC’s two-credit service-learning course incorporates classroom instruction on service and community development throughout the Spring semester. Then students take off to work in one of five areas: Latinx communities, rural communities, urban communities, civil rights or disaster relief. The experiences combine direct, indirect and advocacy service-learning. Upon returning, faculty help students reflect on challenges and overall experiences. UNC Chapel Hill also offers service-learning activities during the fall and winter breaks.
Not content to stop at Spring Break, WOU also organizes Winter Break excursions as part of its Alternative Break Program. In Winter 2017, for instance, one team of students jetted off to Thailand, where they created and delivered English language lesson plans for an underserved minority ethnic group. Another team restored animal habitats at a rescue zoo in Cusco, Peru. And a third team worked with impoverished preschoolers in Costa Rica. The teams are often headed by students in a relevant major. One of the student leaders for the preschool service trip, for example, was an Early Childhood/Elementary Education major.
Kathryn Plummer’s school, Western Oregon University, facilitated 80 service trips to 21 countries and 12 states from 2014 to 2017. We talked with one of Western Oregon’s Alternative Break leaders, student Alejandra Vera, about how she become involved with service-learning:
A service-learning activity I participated in was through Western Oregon University’s Alternative Break Program, which took place in Kingston, Jamaica, during my summer vacation. This service was transformative and meaningful for me, since I had the opportunity to enhance learning targets (writing, math and reading) with young girls through various small activities. We also painted the inside and outside of their orphanage.
I found out about it through Western Oregon University’s Freshman Orientation Week and my college mentor, who had also gone on various service-learning trips before.
I got involved because I knew this would be an opportunity that would take me outside my comfort zone, allowing me to meet new people and experience and understand a different culture. I also got involved because I wanted to make a change by bringing happiness to those that were going through a difficult time.
Through this experience, I developed new personal, professional and civic engagement skills. It also taught me to appreciate and take advantage of valuable resources that are provided for us students, because these resources open new doors for us and strengthen us in becoming successful active and engaged citizens.
Once I became a student leader, my experience gave me knowledge, motivation and the skills needed to guide others through experiences similar as mine. Currently, I’m Program Assistant for the Alternative Break Program, and through this opportunity I’m able to help students become active citizens, while also empowering them to become successful leaders.
I think my service-learning experiences will motivate me to continue working with other communities. And the skills I gained will help me connect with others in a more meaningful way. We’ll be able to work together to overcome everyday social issues.
Break Away is a nonprofit with several hundred college and university member schools. It helps these schools plan alternative breaks programs. Students can work with Break Away to start an alternative break program at their campus, or just enjoy its blog, which explores the deep impressions service-learning makes on students.
Campus Compact runs globalsl, a site promoting global service-learning. There are a lot of resources to wade through, most of them geared toward educators. However, prospective students can get deep in the weeds on model syllabi and a clearinghouse-style Guide for Global Civic Action.
Run by the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC), the Generator School Network is a member community of thousands of youth (under 18) and educators who are passionate about service-learning. Members can find projects to join as well as a clearinghouse of resources on topics such as reflection, research and fundraising.
Stanford University’s Haas Center has been a leader in service-learning since 2010. Its list of center- and student-led programs are too extensive for every school to replicate, but they should provide high schoolers interested in college-level service-learning some ideas about what to look for at prospective campuses.
Want to know all the factors that go into a service-learning curriculum? This NYLC-produced brochure lays out the principles of service-learning as well as indicators for each, so that potential participants can understand how they’ll change as a result.
Take a one-minute visit to this site for an informative chart on the similarities and differences between service-learning, community service and internships.
Sometimes cross-referencing best-of lists can be informative. In 2017, U.S. News polled college officials to find who they thought had the best service-learning programs. This is the list of colleges they came up with.