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Teaching & Advising > Service Learning

What is Service Learning?

by Melinda Clark
Associate Professor of Education
Union University

Service-learning is a pedagogy that connects education with community service in collaborative ways that intentionally acknowledge their interdependent nature. Service-learning is rooted in the teachings of John Dewey, who asserted that the most effective learning pedagogy for students was "one that encouraged students to test their knowledge through application and experience by integrating theory with practice" (Bringle, 1997).

Dwight Giles, Ellen Porter Honnet and Sally Migloire (1991) offer a comprehensive service-learning definition in Research Agenda for Combining Service and Learning in the 1990s:

"Service-learning is both a program type and a philosophy of education. As a program type, service-learning includes myriad ways that students can perform meaningful service to their communities and to society while engaging in some form of reflection of study that is related to the service. As a philosophy of education, service-learning reflects the belief that education must be linked to social responsibility and that the most effective learning is active and connected to experience in some meaningful way" (p. 7).

Bringle and Hatcher (1996) add insight into the nature and function of service-learning by defining it as:

"a credit-bearing educational experience in which students participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of the course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility. Unlike extracurricular voluntary service, service-learning is a course-based service experience that produces the best outcomes when meaningful service activities are related to the course material through reflection activities such as directed writings, small group discussions, and class presentations." (Zlotkowski, 1998).

In an effort to provide consistency and quality, guidelines for service-learning programs were developed at a Wingspread Conference sponsored by the Johnson Foundation and endorsed by the National Society for Internships and Experiential Education, the American Association for Higher Education, Campus Compact, and other higher education organizations.

In summary, the guiding 10 principles state that effective service-learning:

  1. engages people in responsible and challenging actions for the common good
  2. provides opportunities to reflect critically on the service experience
  3. articulates clear service and learning goals for everyone involved
  4. allows for those with needs to define those needs
  5. clarifies the responsibilities of each person and organization involved
  6. matches service providers and service needs through a process that recognizes changing circumstances
  7. expects genuine, active and sustained organizational commitment
  8. includes training, supervision, monitoring, support, recognition and evaluation to meet service-learning goals
  9. ensures that time commitment for the service-learning is flexible, appropriate and in the best interests of all involved
  10. demonstrates a commitment to program participation by and with diverse populations (Delve, Mintz & Stewart, 1990, p. 117-120).

Because of its capacity to enhance student learning and development, service-learning is becoming an integral part of the educational mission of many colleges and universities. Service-learning programs have been successfully integrated into the curriculum of a wide variety of higher education institutions, ranging from the major research university to the small liberal arts college to the community college.

Some examples of successful service-learning programs include: Augsburg College (www.augsburg.edu); Portland State University (www.pdx.edu); University of Pennslyvania (www.upenn.edu/civichouse); North Carolina Central University (www.nccu.edu/commserv/index); Bentley Service-Learning Center (www.bentley.edu); Brevard College (www.brevard.cc.fl.us/CSL).

In addition, Learn and Serve America's National Service-Learning Clearinghouse is available on-line at http://umn.edu/serve . The clearinghouse offers an array of information on service-learning including recent articles as well as helpful World Wide Web links. For further information on the impact of service-learning on students, see Where's the Learning in Service-Learning? by Janet Eyler and Dwight Giles, Jr. (1999-Jossey Bass).


Bringle, R. (1997). Service Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices. The Journal of Higher Education, 68 (6), p. 715-717.

Giles, D, Honnet, E., & Migliore, S. (1991). Research agenda for combining service and learning in the 1990s. A report from 1991 Wingspread Conference. Raleigh, N.C.: National Society for Internships and Experiential Education.

Eyler J. and Giles, Jr. (1999). Where's the Learning in Service-Learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Zlotkowski, E. (1998). Successful Service-Learning Programs: New Models of Excellence in Higher Education. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.

"Who dares to teach must never cease to learn."
-John Cotton Dana (1856-1929)