Service Learning

Service-Learning: Potential and Process

by Owen Sallee, Ed.D.

Though multicultural competence and appropriate understanding of oneself in a diverse and complex world are increasingly recognized as important traits for university students to possess (Harwell Schaffer, 2004; Lechuga, Norman Clerc & Howell, 2009; Rockquemore & Harwell Schaffer, 2000), not all universities provide structured opportunities for students to develop these skills through community engagement outside the classroom (Holland, 1997; Zlotkowski, 2007). Academic service-learning may provide a resource through which university educators can support students’ growth in academic understanding, social justice attitudes and community-serving commitments.

Service-learning is defined 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 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 course material through reflection activities such as directed writings, small group discussions, and class presentations. Unlike practica and internships, the experiential activity in a service learning course is not necessarily skill-based within the context of professional education. (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996, p. 222)

This definition provides a nuanced understanding of what is and is not service-learning. Authentic service-learning includes structured reflection and integration of course content; it is not simply the addition of a volunteer service requirement to an existing course. Though service-learning provides exposure to the kinds of work done in the professional world, emphasis is driven toward learning about concepts rather than on developing or demonstrating particular professional skills.

How do students demonstrate learning?

Students should be assessed on demonstrated learning outcomes rather than on the number of service hours completed (Peters, 2011; Troppe, 1995). Assessment methods might include:

  • Class discussions incorporating service-learning experiences alongside reading and lecture content.
  • Journal reflections connecting course content and service experiences.
  • Research papers identifying a community issue through service-learning then exploring discipline-relevant questions or solutions.

How can I incorporate service-learning into my course?

  1. Identify learning outcomes and adapt course content
  2. Select appropriate partnerships and projects
  3. Introduce service-learning to students (rationale, orientation and resources)
  4. Incorporate the service-learning experience into your course through readings and discussion
  5. Reflect on students’ learning through experience.

How does the John Perkins Center support service-learning?

  • Service-learning pedagogy and course design support.
  • Community partnerships and service-learning resource lists
  • Student orientation to service-learning
  • Reflection: Community engagement, diversity, cross-cultural learning, debriefing
  • Ongoing support for faculty and students

For more information on service-learning, contact Dr. Owen Sallee: or (206) 281-2932.