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An Overview of Service-learning


Editor’s Note: Much of the following discussion is excerpted from a “Service-Learning” Web site created by recent graduate Sarah Johnson and her mentor, Maureen Porter, assistant professor in the School of Education’s Administrative and Policy Studies Department (ADMPS). Additional information can be obtained from this site: http://www.pitt.edu/~lincs.

Service-learning has no simple definition. Community service becomes “service-learning” when deliberate connections are made between the service provided and classroom learning. Careful planning and reflection are viewed as central to the process.

According to the National and Community Service Act of 1990, service-learning is a method:

  • Under which students learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that meet actual community needs.
  • That is integrated into the students’ academic curriculum or provides structured time for a student to think, talk, or write about what the student did and saw during that service activity.
  • That provides students with opportunities to use newly acquired skills and knowledge in real-life situations in their own communities.
  • That enhances what is taught in school by extending student learning beyond the classroom and into the community and helps to foster the development of a “sense of caring for others.”

Experts believe service-learning is a “powerful tool.” Service helps students become active learners and develop a sense of citizenship and civic responsibility. As volunteers in their communities, students at the primary, secondary, or college levels can, simply put, locate themselves and their studies within the greater society in which they live. “Many of our nation’s schools and colleges,” Porter argues, “are promoting not only the importance of classroom knowledge, but also the importance of citizenship and community involvement as well. This is service-learning.”

As a teaching tool, service-learning emphasizes interactive teaching methods, by which theories and ideas are applied and explored in “real world” settings. Community service can bring classroom learning out of the abstract, and put students’ new knowledge to use in practical situations. Service-learning also can give students a sense of fulfillment as they actively take part in affairs affecting the community.

10 Good Practices for Combining Service and Learning

An effective program:

  • Engages people in responsible and challenging actions for the common good.
  • Provides structured opportunities for people to reflect critically on their service experience.
  • Articulates clear service and learning goals for everyone involved.
  • Allows for those with needs to express their concerns.
  • Clarifies the responsibilities of each person and organization involved.
  • Matches service providers and service needs through a process that recognizes changing circumstances.
  • Expects genuine, active, and sustained organizational commitment.
  • Includes training, supervision, monitoring, support, recognition, and evaluation to meet service and learning goals.
  • Ensures that the time commitment for service and learning is flexible, appropriate, and in the best interest of all involved.
  • Is committed to program participation by and with diverse populations.

Lasting connections
Within a service-learning framework, instructors and administrators can find new ways to connect teaching and service to the surrounding community. Through careful planning and implementation, faculty, undergraduates, and community members all can benefit from the establishment of new relationships with one another.

Other sources consulted
“The University in Civic Engagement: Service in Our University’s Mission,” report on the Spring Senate Plenary, March 21, 2001, prepared and submitted by the Community Relations Committee, University Senate, University of Pittsburgh. Available at: http://www.pitt.edu/~copc/senateplenary.pdf.

MARCH 2002


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An Overview of Service-learning