Incorporating Service Learning into University Courses

Service-learning is a form of experiential learning that combines relevant community service experiences with reflective exercises for a powerful learning experience that aligns with course curriculum. Service-learning can be integrated into courses in any discipline. For example, in a history course, students might develop exhibits for a local museum. In civil engineering, students might work with a local heritage organization to determine the potential of a vacant building for redevelopment.

As a form of active learning where students learn in partnership with community organizations, service-learning:

  • Integrates community service with course curriculum
  • Provides opportunities for reflection on service experiences (often through journalling, group discussions, presentations, essays, etc.)
  • Addresses both educational and community needs
  • Furthers civic responsibility

Examples of service-learning in university courses

  • Creating and delivering outreach or education programs in public schools.
  • Working with community organizations to conduct research, plan an event, write a report or proposal or develop training materials.
  • Becoming involved in advocacy efforts such as participating in a rally, protest or demonstration.
  • Working in collaboration with the community to develop a new community resource or space, such as creating plans for a new park or analyzing possibilities for re-use of vacant buildings.

These service activities become service-learning when the service component is integrated with reflection on the activity itself and how it relates to course content.

Service-learning versus other forms of experiential education

Service-learning is distinct from volunteering in that service-learning experiences are consciously designed to stimulate learning, and are thus linked to the curriculum and performed for course credit. Service-learning is also distinct from co-op and/or practicums due to the focus of service­learning on developing civic responsibility and a service orientation as compared with the focus of co-op on developing students’ professional skills.

Benefits of incorporating service-learning in undergraduate courses

Benefit for students Make the most of this benefit by
Develops skills and builds confidence … letting organizations know what skills students have to share
Increases civic responsibility and citizenship skills … providing choice so that students can participate in a project or with an organization of personal interest
Allows students to see how course material is relevant in a broader context … providing opportunities for students to link their experiences to course curriculum; consider assigning a project or report that is submitted to the organization
Engages diverse types of learners … encouraging organizations to provide different service opportunities for students to choose from (e.g. performing secondary research, working with clients, etc.)

Possible challenges in incorporating service-learning in undergraduate courses

Challenge for instructors Address this challenge by:
Time-consuming to co-ordinate service activities with community organizations … building relationships with organizations so that workload decreases when the course is offered in subsequent semesters
Service opportunities may not progress as planned or provide the anticipated experience … checking in with students and organizations often; Use reflective activities to help students understand and critique their experiences, good and bad; Ask students to evaluate service experiences at the end of the course
Have to relinquish some control over how the service portion of the course will progress … being flexible early in the semester in case students need to be re-assigned to a different project or organization
Difficult to quantify / evaluate students’ service contributions … evaluating students on the “learning” portion of their service-learning experience, not the “service” portion (ie. Evaluate a presentation based on their service experience)
Organizations hesitant to engage due to multiple requests and inadequate human resources … working with a central campus group that coordinates and maintains relationships (at Waterloo, contact Dr. Diana Denton to connect with this group)


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.

Selected resources

  • Bringle, R.G., & Hatcher, J.A. (1996). Implementing service learning in higher education. Journal of
    Higher Education, 67(2), 221-239.
  • Eyler, J. & Giles, D. (1999). Where’s the learning in service learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Canadian Association for Community Service-Learning:
teaching tips

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