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Service-Learning: An Alternative Teaching and Pedagogy
Apr 1, 2005

Civic commitment has been a major emphasis of education around the world since ancient times. Public education was founded on the notion that people need to be trained in basic skills in order to serve their communities as effective citizens and leaders. Service-learning activities help build social capital. The Social Capital Theory posits that productivity is linked to social ties (Coleman 1990). Putnam (2000) stated that the core idea of social capital is that social networks have value and that social contacts affect an individual’s or group’s ability to perform and to achieve greater community impact. Social capital refers to networks of social connection. It is about doing well within the community, not just doing good for others.

Service-learning is a program that seeks to promote student learning through experience associated with service in the community. Service-learn-ing gives students the opportunity to help others and reflect on how they have benefited from so doing (Bringle and Hatcher 1996). A well-known Chinese proverb explains this idea as follows: “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I act and I understand.” Service-learning, like an internship, provides students with a concrete, specific task that permits them to apply what is learned in class, to learn what competencies the student has yet to acquire, to explore career interests, and to develop competencies by applying and testing them. Service-learning differs from an ordinary internship, however, because the context and task of the experience is service to a person or group in need, e.g. tutoring inner-city or immigrant students, visiting the incarcerated or hospitalized. As defined by the Commission on National and Community Service, service learning is “a method under which students learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that meet actual community needs and that are coordinated in collaboration with the school and the community.”


Service-learning is a method of teaching by which people learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that: meet community needs, are coordinated in collaboration with college and community, are integrated into each person’s academic curriculum, provide structured time for a person to think, talk, and write about what they did and saw during the actual service activity, provide people with opportunities to use newly acquired academic skills and knowledge in real life situations in their own communities, enhance what is taught in the classroom by extending student learning beyond the classroom, and help to foster the development of a sense of caring about others (adapted from the Alliance for Service-Learning in Education Reform 1993).

Service-learning is an experiential teaching approach that uses community service as a vehicle for teaching specific course-based skills and strategies. Service-learning combines community service and academic learning with “real-world” action that has been subjected to critical reflection. Service-learning can take place in a number of settings: nonprofit agencies, public schools, government agencies, campus organizations, businesses with philanthropic commitments, and many more.

Service-learning emphasizes problem-solving and critical thinking. Service-learning places “curricular concepts in the context of real-life situations” and “empowers students to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize these concepts through practical problem-solving” (Alliance 1993, p. 71). Students inevitably encounter issues that must be addressed or obstacles that must be surmounted in order to complete their service-learn-ing projects which generally occur over a single semester, but multi-semester projects can occur as well.

Teachers who incorporate service-learning into their class curriculum act as facilitators in an alternative learning process. How can one know if the students are learning and if the project is successful? Basing final grades on student reflections can be a measure for student learn-ing. Learning may be also assessed through thoughtful class participation, professionalism at the service agency, insightful presentations, or final papers that integrate the service-learn-ing project with the discipline.

What Are the Benefits of Service-Learning?

Service-learning has a profound effect on both teachers and students. Teachers view it as a new or alternative pedagogical approach because it deviates from traditional teaching methods and encourages learning through experience with community agencies. By incorporating service-learn-ing into their curriculum, teachers are able to offer students the opportunity to apply classroom theory to real-life situations. Students view service-learning as a way to integrate what they have learned in the classroom with a real-world environment. By assisting in community organizations, students are giving back to their surround-ing community, while also learning several attributes which will be beneficial in the future. Service-learning provides students a real-world experience and opportunity to field-test knowledge in a supervised context. It also provides community connections for students and encourages civic commitments. Service-learning creates a positive image for the teaching institution (high school, college, or university) and the community.

Service-learning enhances active learning. Service-learning promotes engagement with the community, class colleagues, and the instructor as well as the course content, connects theory to practice through their experiences; students are able to see theory through reality and to test firsthand what they have read in their textbooks and have heard in lectures. Service-learning improves student satisfaction with the school and builds stronger relationships with the teachers, helps the students to explore majors and careers, and fosters civic responsibility as well as a sense of making a difference through service-learning experiences. In this way, students begin to prepare for their role as responsible citizens, who are empowered to bring about positive changes in society, and are encouraged toward a life-long commitment to service. Service-learning brings together academic and community service goals and enables schools to move to a new and more powerful level of fulfillment of their institutional missions; it creates true partnerships, producing higher quality graduates, increasing community support, fostering public relations/publicity and improving student learning. Service-learning provides an infusion of people power to the community, helps fulfill the client/agency needs, accesses school resources, produces a more informed/involved citizenry, and explores new ideas and generates energy (Jacoby 2003, Eyler and Giles 1999, Driscoll and Holland 1996, Markus et al. 1993).


Service-learning requires the cooperation of both the school and the community. Hanifan (1916) stated that the entire community benefits from the cooperation of all its parts. The student benefits from the advantages of the social support of others in the community. Service-learning also has a positive impact on the entire community as a result of these newly formed relationships. Civic agencies are an integral part of any service-learning program and the education of the students. Without the involvement and support of community partners, service-learning programs would not exist. Indeed, community service sites provide many resources to enrich both the school and the students’ education. The agency’s commitment of time and effort to supervise and provide students with meaningful service opportunities is deeply appreciated.


  • Alliance for Service-Learning in Education Reform (1993). “Standards of quality for School-Based Service-Learning.” Equity & Excellence in Education. 26(2), pp. 71-73.
  • Bringle, R. G., Hatcher, J. A., “Implementing service learning in higher education,” Journal of Higher Education, March-April 1996, 67:2, pp. 221-240.
  • Coleman, J. (1990). Foundations of Social Theory, Harvard University Press, Cambridge: 1990.
  • Driscoll, A., Holland, B., “An Assessment Model for Service-Learning: Comprehensive case studies of Impact on Faculty, Students, Community, and Institutions.” Michigan Journal of Community Service-learning, 1996, 3, 66-71.
  • Eyler, J., Giles, D. E. Jr., Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning? Jossey-Bass, San Francisco: 1999.
  • Hanifan, L.J., “The rural school community,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1916, 67, 130-138.
  • Jacoby, B., Building partnerships for service-learning, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco: 2003.
  • Markus, G. B., Howard, J. P. F., King, D. C., “Integrating Community Service and Classroom Instruction Enhances Learning: Results from an Experiment.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 1993, 15, 410-419.
  • The National Commission on Service-Learning (2004). Retrieved online from
  • Putnam, R.D., Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster, New York: 2000.