"Students are unlikely to be effective citizens without the ability to understand complex social problems, apply what they learn, and have the critical thinking ability to make adequate judgments about the information they receive."
— Janet Eyler and Dwight Giles, from Where is the Learning in Service-Learning? (1999)
Service-learning is a pedagogical practice that integrates service and academic learning to promote increased understanding of course content while helping students develop knowledge, skills, and cognitive capacities to deal effectively with the complex social issues and problems. At the same time, it addresses unmet community needs. It is an approach that emphasizes reflection and experiential, field-based learning as a way to engage the learner personally with the curriculum.
Service learning emphasizes meaningful student learning through applied, active learning that draws on multiple knowledge sources (academic, student knowledge and experience, and community knowledge) and provides students with ample opportunities for ethical and critical reflection and practice.
By confronting issues and problems in complex natural contexts, students in service-learning courses develop a deeper understanding of subject matter, a practical knowledge of community decision making processes, and strategies for transferring knowledge and problem solving skills to new situations.
Effective service-learning classes are those that use service and civic engagement to integrate and enhance academic learning, not to take the place of it. Service-learning courses, when thoughtfully designed, combine content-driven, outcomes-based commitments with ample opportunity for learning and knowledge to grow from students’ service experiences.
Key Characteristics of Effective Service-Learning Courses
- Service experience is clearly and explicitly integrated into the academic curriculum and linked to learning goals.
- Students participate in structured reflection on their service experience (before, during, and after) in light of particular learning objectives.
- Service-learning activities are designed in collaboration with community representatives and serve genuine community needs.
The best service-learning activities are those that equally emphasize student learning and addressing community needs, promoting a "partnership of mutual benefit" between students, faculty, and community collaborators.