What You Need to Know to Design a Service Learning Project

Discover the techniques behind the best service projects and learn how you can design one tailor-fit for your learners.

Higher ed claims to invest in bettering society, equipping learners with skills that improve communities beyond the confines of each learner’s future job description . 

Through their mission statements, many institutions state outright that they want their students to become more moral, socially-conscious global citizens.

Yet, while focusing on industry-specific knowledge, global citizenry skills often fall by the wayside. Investing in service learning can bring that component back in. 

This article is designed for anyone looking to start new service learning projects, programs, or courses at their institution, or to improve upon current ones. It also explores what service learning actually is (hint: it’s not the same as volunteerism or community service), along with its goals, benefits, and best practices.

What is service learning?

Service learning doesn’t have a universally accepted definition, but many institutions and service-learning facilitators have developed their own. Taking the time to do so yourself might be a helpful exercise for setting your program’s vision.

But, for some inspiration, here’s a strong example—from Janet S. Eyler and Dwight E. Giles, Jr in their 1999 book Where’s The Learning in Service Learning?:

[Service learning is] a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves. In the process, students link personal and social development with academic and cognitive development … experience enhances understanding; understanding leads to more effective action.

Or, Arizona State University has a shorter, snappier version:

Service-learning is a teaching methodology that enables students to apply knowledge and skills learned in the classroom to meaningful service to the community.

Service learning shares many buzzwords with other high-impact practices. Yet, it’s not synonymous with volunteerism, community service or internships. 

Service-learning projects benefit both the provider (the students) and the recipients (your community partners). As its name implies, the focus is dually on service and learning, which is fully integrated into an academic curriculum. 

Also, unlike internships, service learning focuses on essential skills—such as leadership, teamwork and communication—rather than on job-based hard skills, such as bookkeeping, copywriting or data engineering. 

Yet another way to think about service learning is through its attributes. The University of Washington will only label student opportunities as “service learning” if they meet all six of these qualities:

  • Integrative: Service-learning holistically integrates class learning objectives, faculty guidance, as well as community perspective and priorities.
  • Reflective: Structured opportunities for reflection can enable learners to examine and form the beliefs, values, opinions, assumptions, judgments and practices related to an action or experience, gain a deeper understanding of them and construct their own meaning and significance for future actions.
  • Contextualized: Working alongside community members and experienced professionals, the opportunity to construct learning and responses can be immediate and uncontrived.
  • Strength-based: A strength-based approach focuses on the capacity and expertise that exist in every community, rather than on what is absent.
  • Reciprocal: The service-learning relationship offers all parties involved some measure of benefits; it is a two-way street.
  • Lifelong: Service-learning is beyond memorable; it can influence one’s career path and enhance civic responsibility.

What are the goals?

Goals for a service-learning program typically relate to learning outcomes. In other words, success is measured by students’ acquisition of essential skills— personality traits and skill sets that will aid them in persisting academically, empower them in campus leadership roles and make them competitive job applicants.

Perhaps, like many institutions, you’ll find CAS’s six categories of learning outcomes (known as “domains”) inspirational for creating your service-learning goals. They are:

  • Knowledge acquisition, construction, integration and application
  • Cognitive complexity
  • Intrapersonal development
  • Interpersonal competence
  • Humanitarianism and civic engagement
  • Practical competence

To make your goals measurable, narrow these domains down further, focused on specific skills. For example, what intrapersonal and interpersonal skills can your program help students learn? What practical competences should they display? 

You should answer these questions, then design your outcomes, in conjunction with the community partners of all service-learning opportunities. In addition to the partner’s goals, consider your institution’s missions, values, and vision. If, for example, your mission mentions “building future leaders”, consider how each service-learning project will help develop students’ leadership skills. 

The practical benefits of students acquiring these skills should also be reviewed. Perhaps you’ll like to increase the rate of full-time job offers for students within six months of graduation. In this case, you can design learning outcomes related to the workforce readiness skills employers desire most. Or, if your institution has charged your department with increasing retention rates, you can consider learning outcomes that help students persist. Assessing behavioral trends and involvement data can help you determine specific skills.

You can also pick some industry-specific skills. Goals for a food security service-learning course, for example, might include increasing students’ knowledge of federal food stamp programs, local politics, and historical food insecurity trends. 

Loyola University New Orleans has more great examples for designing service-learning outcomes.

What are the benefits of service learning for students?

The benefits of service-learning activities extend beyond students clamoring to post about their experiences on Instagram as “proof” of their altruism.  

Here’s a brief selection of measurable, research-based results.

Self-learning can increase:

  • Campus belonging – Students gain socially from the experience, develop a common sense of purpose, and diminish feelings of isolation. (Greenberg, 1997)
  • Staff connections – Participants engage in greater interaction with faculty and staff on campus. (Keup, 2005)
  • Engagement – Service-learning students score significantly higher on measures of interpersonal, academic, and community engagement. (Gallini & Moeley, 2003)
  • Academic satisfaction – Service-learning students report increased satisfaction with courses and curriculum. (Gray et al., 1996)
  • Personal resiliency – Service-learning can build student’s resiliency by improving their interactions with others, strengthening their character, and allowing them to model the positive behaviors of others. (Kraft & Wheeler, 2003)
  • Coping strategies – Service-learning can help build approach coping strategies, internal loci of control, and academic/social self-efficacy. (Bean & Eaton, 2002)

In addition to benefiting individual students, service-learning hours can also help with arguably the top metric of an institution: Retention. 

Service-learning has been shown to have a positive influence on retention of students during their first year and beyond, with marked impact on some students in particular, including women and first-generation students.

Iris M. Yob

Faculty also stand to benefit from new avenues for research and publication, and local community organizations can gain fresh perspectives on their ongoing work. 

Best Practices of Service-Learning

Merely slapping the title of “service-learning” on a program alone will not make it a worthwhile one. Creating a fantastic experience, that’s valuable for students and community partners alike, requires focused intent. 

Here are some tips to consider—each courtesy of institutions and professionals with successful service-learning programs..

  • “The service-learning project should be well-integrated into the course content so that students clearly see the relationship between the project and the academic goals of the course. They should also be able to understand why the experience has intellectual value.” — The University of Massachusetts at Amherst 
  • “The community partner, not the faculty member, should identify what the community needs and the goals to which it aspires.”. —  The University of Massachusetts at Amherst 
  • “The goal of service-learning is not voluntourism  …  structure the course with the goal of helping students understand that they are cultivating a real partnership with–and often at the behest of–community partners. Empathetic learning and relationship building are crucial.” — The University of Iowa
  • “The activity can take place during or outside of class time, individually, in 
  • “Sincerely and passionately explaining why you, the instructor, chose service-learning can help build support among students.” — Bellevue College
  • “Each service-learning activity should have defined learning objectives outlined in the syllabus. Establishing these learning goals will help students relate the service that they are performing back to the overall course objectives.” —The University of Kentucky
  • “Academic rigor does not need to be compromised as is sometimes assumed when integrating service activities. Students are mastering academic material while at the same time learning from more unstructured community experiences. Grades are similarly based on the extent that learning objectives are met, not the quality of the service performed.” — The University of Kentucky

In general terms, we’ve seen that service-learning is a form of experiential education in which students engage in meaningful service to meet the needs of their community and receive academic credit for the experience. 

With that in mind, some of the best practices for service learning consist of the following:

- Engaging in a formalized process with pre-defined goals and objectives

- Providing opportunities for reflection on the service process, as well as reflection on what has been learned through the service process

- Using various teaching methods to ensure that all students are engaged, including group work, one-on-one work and discussions

- Incorporating an academic component that enhances the learning in the service experience

- Develop partnerships with community organizations to ensure that learning is authentic, meaningful and impactful

- Making students aware of their own skills and potential through pre-service activities, such as self-assessment.

- Engaging students from diverse backgrounds by incorporating different perspectives into your course curriculum

- Helping students gain new perspectives on their own lives

Examples of Service Learning

The best way to understand the scope of service learning is to know some real-life examples and success stories implemented by higher ed institutions.

Berea College, located in Kentucky, developed different courses tailor-made for service learning activities. For example, a Fundamentals of Nutrition course in which students explored factors that contribute to food insecurity in the local area, by visiting the nearest food bank and creating educational nutrition flyers. Or an Adapted Physical Education course through which students implemented a Motor Fitness Clinic for local K-12 students enrolled in special education programs.

Another example is Tulane University in New Orleans, which implemented the following programs:

  • “The Peace Corps Prep” program, designed for students interested in post-graduate service
  • “The Peace Corps”, and other year-long service programs.
  • “The Solidarity Fellows” program for community organizers in training
  • “The Service Learning Assistants” program, through which students are paid to help coordinate service-learning courses.
  • And “The WaveCorps” summer service program, in which students work with local organizations that support summer learning for K-12 students through entertaining camp programming

Furthermore, some initiatives include spending time with different communities. For instance, Boston College implements the “The Jamaica Mustard Seed Spring Break” program, wherein students work with vulnerable communities in Jamaica during spring break. Or Portland State University held a virtual alternative spring break in which students “explore the difficulties of migration and life along the U.S./Mexico border.”

All of this advice is complex. It takes trial and error, along with research and reflections, to perfect a service-learning program. 

Modern Campus can help you centralize programming and partnerships, streamline tools and processes and engage community partners. 

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