Incorporating Service-Learning into University Courses

Three young people talkingService-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)

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:

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