What is Service Learning?


Service learning is a credit-bearing, educational experience that combines organized service activities with academic study and thoughtful reflection to enhance learning of course content and foster a sense of civic responsibility. These service activities, carried out in conjunction with community partners, often provide students with practical experience in their chosen fields.

Among young adults, charity work and volunteerism are substantially more common than political activism, civic engagement, and social justice initiatives. While community projects such as preparing meals for nursing homes, sweeping trash from a parking lot, distributing blankets at a homeless shelter, or even conducting vision screenings are valuable and important in the development of social responsibility and civic commitments in today’s  students, we believe that community service alone cannot instill an understanding that leads to a lifelong commitment to community and society.  Because these activities do not address root causes of problems, they do not achieve the kind of structural change necessary both to eliminate a problem entirely, and to provide young people with a sense of their own ability to affect structural change.

As a result, many colleges and universities have made greater efforts to involve students in service-learning. Service-learning projects  encourage students to move beyond acts of charity to a deeper analysis of systemic challenges facing communities. At its best, service-learning improves student learning by allowing students to gain further understanding of course content, addresses community needs, facilitates public debate and dialog, and creates campuses that are true partners with their communities. Perhaps most importantly, service-learning is a key tool for engaging students in the democracy and educating the citizens of today and tomorrow.


What Service Learning is NOT

Community service differs from service-learning in that volunteerism alone, outside of the context of a class, emphasizes the service being provided and the benefits of the service activities to recipients, and thus the focus is on charity rather than systemic issues and social change.  While there might be meaningful service to the community, and depending on the nature of the experience possibly also purposeful civic learning, there is no enhanced academic learning.  Students must be provided structured opportunities to critically reflect on experiences in order for meaningful civic development and deeper commitments to society to develop.


For more information…

Feel free to browse through our library of service learning books and articles, which are available for loan, and our collection of links to national organizations providing resources related to service learning.

If you’d like to learn more about the pedagogy of service learning, we’d be glad to talk to you.  Contact the CESR at cesr@ua.edu or (205) 348-6490.