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What is Service Learning?

Definitions of Service-Learning:

  1. Definitions of service-learning vary considerably among those who embrace it. At its heart, however, service-learning is a form of experiential learning that employs service as its modus operandi. Service-learning pedagogies are used by teachers in colleges and universities as well as in K-12 schools to enhance traditional modes of learning, actively engage students in their own educations through experiential learning in course-relevant contexts, and foster lifelong connections between students, their communities, and the world outside the classroom1.

  2. “Service-learning means a method under which students learn and develop through thoughtfully-organized service that: is conducted in and meets the needs of a community and is coordinated with an institution of higher education, and with the community; helps foster civic responsibility; is integrated into and enhances the academic curriculum of the students enrolled; and includes structured time for students to reflect on the service experience.”2

  3. “At their best, service-learning experiences are reciprocally beneficial for both the community and students. For many community organizations, students augment service delivery, meet crucial human needs, and provide a basis for future citizen support. For students, community service is an opportunity to enrich and apply classroom knowledge; explore careers or majors; develop civic and cultural literacy; improve citizenship, develop occupational skills; enhance personal growth and self-image; establish job links; and foster a concern for social problems, which leads to a sense of social responsibility and commitment to public/human service.”3

  4. “Service-learning is the various pedagogies that link community service and academic study so that each strengthens the other. The basic theory of service-learning is Dewey’s: the interaction of knowledge and skills with experience is key to learning. Students learn best not by reading the Great Books in a closed room but by opening the doors and windows of experience. Learning starts with a problem and continues with the application of increasingly complex ideas and increasingly sophisticated skills to increasingly complicated problems.”4

  5. “Service-learning is a method through which citizenship, academic subjects, skills, and values are taught. It involves active learning—drawing lessons from the experience of performing service work. Though service-learning is most often discussed in the context of elementary and secondary or higher education, it is a useful strategy as well for programs not based in schools.

    There are three basic components to effective service-learning:

    • The first is sufficient preparation, which includes setting objectives for skills to be learned or issues to consider, and includes planning projects so they contribute to learning at the same time work gets done.
    • The second component is simply performing service.
    • Third, the participant attempts to analyze the experience and draw lessons, through such means as discussion with others and reflection on the work.

    Thinking about the service creates a greater understanding of the experience and the way service addresses the needs of the community. It promotes a concern about community issues and a commitment to being involved that mark an active citizen. At the same time the analysis and thought allow the participants to identify and absorb what they have learned.

    Learning and practicing citizenship are life-long activities which extend far beyond the conclusion of formal education. Service-learning can be used to increase the citizenship skills of participants of any age or background. For this reason service-learning can be a tool to achieve the desired results of programs, even those involving older, highly educated participants. For example, service-learning can be part of the training of participants to prepare them to do high quality service that has real community impact.

    Some service-learning occurs just from doing the work: after a month working alongside police, a participant has surely learned some important lessons about how to increase public safety, and something about what it means to be a good citizen. However, programs that encourage active learning from service experience may have an even greater impact.5

  6. “A service-learning program provides educational experiences:

    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 school and community;

    That is integrated into the students’ academic curriculum or provides structured time for a student to think, talk, or write about what the student did and saw during the actual service activity;

    That provides a student with opportunities to use newly-acquired skills and knowledge in real-life situations in their own communities; and

    That enhances what is taught by extending student learning beyond the classroom and into the community and helps to foster the development of a sense of caring for others.”6

  7. “Service-Learning Is…A connection of theory and practice that puts concepts into concrete form and provides a context for understanding abstract matter. This provides an opportunity to test and refine theories as well as to introduce new theories.

    …A use of knowledge with a historical understanding or appreciation of social, economic and environmental implications as well as moral and ethical ramifications of people’s actions. This involves a strong use of communication and interpersonal skills including literacy (writing, reading, speaking and listening) and various technical skills.

    …An opportunity to learn how to learn — to collect and evaluate data, to relate seemingly unrelated matters and ideas, and investigate a self-directed learning including inquiry, logical thinking and a relation of ideas and experience. A transference of learning from one context to another will allow for the opportunity to reflect, conceptualize and apply experience-based knowledge.

    …An emphasis on diversity and pluralism that lends to empowerment in the face of social problems; experience that helps people understand and appreciate traditions of volunteerism; and a consideration of and experimentation with democratic citizenship responsibilities.”7


1 Robin Crews, “What is Service-Learning?” (pp.1) in University of Colorado at Boulder Service-Learning Handbook. First Edition, April 1995.

2 Used by the forthcoming American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) Series: Service-Learning in the Disciplines, entitled: “Writing the Community: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in…” (and condensed from the Corporation for National Service).

3 From Brevard Community College, The Power. July, 1994.

4 Thomas Ehrlich, “Foreword” (pp.xi-xii) in Barbara Jacoby and Associates, Service-Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 1996.

5 Developed by the Corporation on National and Community Service as part of their briefing materials for national community service.

6 From the Commission on National and Community Service (now the Corporation for National and Community Service). In Richard J. Kraft and James Krug, “Review of Research and Evaluation on Service Learning in Public and Higher Education,” Chapter 24 of Richard J. Kraft and Marc Swadener, Building Community: Service Learning in the Academic Disciplines, Denver, CO: Colorado Campus Compact. 1994.

7 From Brevard Community College, The Power. July, 1994.

Status of Service-Learning In the United States:

Based on studies of school-based and college and university-based service-learning programs, we estimate the following number of individuals are participating in service-learning programs across the country. To the best of our knowledge:

Secondary Schools

  • Participation rates in secondary schools are 53% female and 47% male
  • The total number of students in secondary schools doing service and service-learning is over 12.5 million
  • The number of middle school students doing service and service-learning is over 5 million
  • The number of high school students doing service and service-learning is over 6 million
  • The number of high school students doing service learning is almost 3 million
  • The number of middle school students doing service-learning is almost 2.5 million
  • The growth in number of students engaged in high school service-learning between 1984 and 1997 was 3663 percent!

Colleges and Universities

  • There are more than 6.7 million students in public and private 4 year institutions of higher education
  • Almost 30% report participating in a course where service is part of the curriculum (unpublished data from the HERI study at UCLA)
  • Almost 2 million students participate in service-learning at 4 year public and private institutions
  • Over 1.5 million students participate in service-learning at private 4 year institutions
  • Over 350,000 participate in service-learning at public 4 year institutions
  • Over 800,000 students involved in service-learning participate in schools that are members of Campus Compact
  • At Campus Compact member 2 year institutions, almost 130,000 students participate in service-learning
  • Almost half of all community colleges in the U.S. offer service-learning courses

Information provided by the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse.

Service Learning Examples

Service Learning Examples

GoToServiceLearning presents examples of best practice service-learning experiences meeting state mandated academic standards.


Service Learning Courses

Find out how you can learn and serve! Check out some of the service-learning courses offered at UT Arlington.

Faculty Service Learning Bios