Service-learning is an educational approach that combines learning objectives with community service in order to provide a pragmatic, progressive learning experience while meeting societal needs.
Service-learning involves students in service projects to apply classroom learning for local agencies that exist to effect positive change in the community. The National Youth Leadership Council defines service learning as "a philosophy, pedagogy, and model for community development that is used as an instructional strategy to meet learning goals and/or content standards."
Author Barbara Jacoby defines service-learning as "a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities for reflection designed to achieve desired learning outcomes."
As defined by Robert Sigmon, 1994:
Service-learning, as defined by Robert Sigmon, "occurs when there is a balance between learning goals and service outcomes.":72 As follows, there are various methods of hands-on learning that fall into this category, these include:
The purpose of service learning is, in essence, to, "equally benefit the provider and the recipient of the service as well as to ensure equal focus on both the service being provided and the learning that is occurring." Volunteerism, community service, internships, and field education all exemplify, in some way or another, the core value of service learning, as all of them benefit the student as well as the one they served to an equal degree, the only difference being how material the benefit is. These methods also tend to focus on ensuring that the student not only serves, but learns something, whether it is interpersonal skills, work experience in their future field, or a change in how they view themselves and others.:25
In Service-learning: History, Theory, and Issues, Bruce W. Speck and Sherry Lee Hoppe say that John Dewey's writings on the active nature of understanding and the benefits of and conditions for participatory democracy "provide an early theoretical foundation for a pedagogy in which students cooperatively engage actual social problems". In Building partnerships for service-learning, Barbara Jacoby writes that Service-learning "is based on the work of researchers and theorists on learning, including John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Kurt Lewin, Donald Schon, and David Kolb, who believe that we learn through combinations of action and reflection."
In 1979 Robert Sigmon called for a more precise definition in Service-Learning: Three Principles, in which he said the term, which was relatively new, was being used to describe a number of different volunteer actions and experiential education programs. Sigmon wrote that, in the late 1960s, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) popularized a service-learning internship model, that defined service-learning as "the integration of the accomplishment of a public task with conscious educational growth.":9
A number of other States have allowed credit toward graduation for service-learning/community service.
Janet Eyler, in the book Where's the Learning in Service-Learning?, outlines the different ways student learn through service-learning. First there is interpersonal learning, in which students re-evaluate personal values and motivations by channeling a passionate interest to service-learning projects, as well as build a connection and commitment to the community. The second form is academic material that is taught through practical application and reflective instruction, so that it may be practiced outside classrooms and test-taking. Janet Eyler explains, "it is the product of continuous challenge to old conceptions and reflection on new ways to organize information and use the new material." Thirdly is cognitive development where students are challenged to use critical thinking and problem solving skills in a context that provides additional information and experience for student evaluation, because service-learning deals with numerous problems in complex situations. The fourth form is transformation within the students, which "is about thinking about things in a new way and moving in new direction--creating a new picture without relying on the old lines." Finally, service-learning focuses on effective citizenship and behavioral issues, and this helps the students better understand social issues relevant to their own community. Learning in all these ways makes service-learning effective to those serving as well as those being served, and "learning begins with the impact service-learning on the personal and interpersonal development of the students.":16
According to Janet Eyler and Dwight E. Giles, there are numerous benefits to the Service-Learning approach. It provides experiential learning that connects personal and interpersonal development with cognitive and academic advancement, providing opportunities for personal connections and ultimately transformation. Those serving may encounter certain social problems for the first time, thus transforming their view on the world. Beyond that, students may be transformed in the way of developing better problem solving skills to address those problems about which they now know. A Service-Learning experience may be the catalyst in the life of a student to dive into the complexities of the social issues they have encountered and to seek to develop innovative solutions.
According to Janet Eyler and Dwight E. Giles Jr., who conducted nationwide studies on service-learning, factors which influence its impact on students include placement quality, duration, and reflection.:54-56
According to Eyler and Giles, "Placement quality refers to the extent that students in their community placements are challenged, are active rather than observers, do a variety of tasks, feel that they are making a positive contribution, have important levels of responsibility, and receive input and appreciation from supervisors in the field.":33 According to their research, placement quality has measurable effects on such things as "personal development outcomes," "increased leadership and communication skill," and connection to community, faculty, and other students.:54-56
In The Importance of Program Quality in Service-Learning, Eyler and Giles state: "a program or a sequence of experiences needs to be of a long enough duration to have a developmental impact." This view is expanded upon by Alexander W. Astin and Linda J. Sax. In their opinion, "the amount of time devoted to providing service carries additional benefits beyond those benefits associated with the type of service performed, especially in the areas of civic responsibility and life skill development."
But how much time is enough? According to J. Beth Mabry, "students should spend at least fifteen to nineteen hours in their service activities to have adequate exposure to the people and issues their service addresses."
An essential feature of service-learning programs, reflection is a period of critical thinking performed by the student. For many advocates of the pedagogy, reflection may symbolize the learning that occurs in the student. Janet Eyler and Dwight E. Giles provide an example of this opinion in their book, Where's the Learning in Service-Learning? when they state: "learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection, not simply through being able to recount what has been learned through reading and lecture." Also, the National Service Learning Clearinghouse considers reflection to be a "core component" of service-learning.
Some higher education programs require a reflection component in their service-learning classes. The University of Minnesota is one such institution that includes required reflection activities with its service learning classes.
Reflection may be done individually or as a group activity. Wartburg College in Indiana published a list of reflection activity suggestions on their website. These included various types of journaling, brainstorming as a group, using quotes, writing essays and papers, structured class discussions, and class presentations among other ideas.
Effective service-learning programs also include required written reflection. Not only does writing permanently record a student's service-learning experience, but it also provides a helpful tool for continued reflection long after the program has been completed. Written reflection assignments also require students to stop, think, and articulate their learning. This evaluation is of incredible value to students.:171-177
High quality placements are a key to the success of a service-learning program. This requires the service learning establishment to have a broad network of connections within the community. Students need to have a positive connection with the establishment they're serving in order to maximize their learning.:167-170
Diversity is also a component of a successful service-learning program. By working with people of different ethnicities, lifestyles, and socioeconomic statuses, a student's learning and tolerance will increase. By serving in a diverse learning environment, student are more likely to reduce stereotypes and increase their cultural appreciation. This can help a student learn how to more effectively serve a broader array of people.:177-178
The Service in Service Learning takes knowledge outside the classroom into the real world with real people and situations. In his book Banker to the Poor: Micro-lending and the Battle Against World Poverty, Muhammad Yunus states that "If a university is a repository for knowledge, then some of this knowledge should spill over to the neighboring community. A university must not be an island where academics reach out to higher and higher levels of knowledge without sharing any of their findings."
Service brings community together as a whole, towards a common goal or purpose. Service is about what is for someone else. The action of service in and among the community, provides chances for sociocultural norms and prejudices to be removed. While some have questioned the positive effect and collective interest of the service side of service-learning, among those who perform the services, it has been made known that many would say otherwise.
Based upon various studies, students who participate in service-learning courses or projects seem to encounter a multitude of benefits. The book Where's the Learning in Service-Learning? discusses the effects of Service Learning upon students, as well service learning in general.
In addition to interpersonal skills students have also reported developing personal leadership skills. Another benefit seen is it can also develop a sense of meaning and purpose in their academics.
Researchers have found that these personal and interpersonal gains from engaging in service-learning classes where higher when the programs were of better quality. The biggest predictor of increased learning in communication skills was the high placement quality that the students were put into, allowing them to develop and "hone" their skills.
Service-learning offers an opportunity for students to experience different cultures, which in turn reduces many negative and unnecessary stereotypes derived by inexperienced students. The appreciation of different cultures in service-learning happens because of the interaction that often occurs while completing a service. A survey on students who participated in service-learning finds that, "63 percent reported interacting with those receiving services at least fairly often, 60 percent reported frequent interaction with other volunteers, 51 percent felt that professionals at the placement site often took an interest in them, and 57 percent reported that they had frequent chances to work with people from ethnic groups other than their own.":26
One of the goals of service-learning is positive interactions.:26
People often only distinguish the differences between other cultures and communities and their own. These perceived differences often influence the decisions made when interacting with people of other cultures. Service-learning provides the opportunity for students to not only appreciate other cultures, but to appreciate their shared humanity.:31
Service learning programs have developed rapidly within the last 30 years. From 1995-1997, 458 universities received grants from the Corporation for National Service's Learn and Serve Higher Education (LASHE) which enabled 3,000 new service-learning courses to be developed to the benefit of more than 60 students per course.
Much of the research on the effects of service-learning is focused on what students learn through their service to the community; fewer studies have been conducted on the impact of service-learning on the communities where the students serve.:47 Several studies that have been done on this topic measure the impact of service-learning on the community organizations with which college students volunteer, seeking to understand the organizations' perspectives on service-learning.:48:31:30
One positive impact of service-learning on these organizations is the presence of more volunteers, which enables the organizations to accomplish more:35-36 and to serve more clients.:5 Students can use specific skills they possess to benefit the organization,:49 and can be a source of new ideas, energy, and enthusiasm.:33 Through partnering with a college or university, the organization can gain access to new knowledge and opportunities to connect with other organizations that have partnered with the same school.:36
There are numerous critiques of service-learning. In 1979, Robert Sigmon acknowledged criticisms that called service-learning, "a utopian vision" and "too demanding and impractical". He called for research into outcomes related to service-learning.:11 Towson University Professor John Egger, writing in the Spring 2008 issue of the journal Academic Questions, argued that service learning does not really teach useful skills or develop cultural knowledge. Instead, Egger maintained, service learning mainly involves the inculcation of communitarian political ideologies. Tulane Professor Carl L. Bankston III has described his own university's policy of mandating service learning as the imposition of intellectual conformity by the university administration on both students and faculty. According to Bankston, by identifying specific types of civic engagement as worthy community service, the university was prescribing social and political perspectives. He argued that this was inconsistent with the idea that individuals in a pluralistic society should choose their own civic commitments and that it was contrary to the ideal of the university as a site for the pursuit of truth through the free exchange of ideas.
However, these organizations face challenges in working with the students. Communication with faculty is often inconsistent, so organizations do not always understand their roles and the roles of the faculty in students' service projects.:55-56 Some organizations' representatives stated that faculty assigned students projects that were not allowed in their organization.:37 Often the demographics of students do not match well with the demographics of the clients they serve, which can make it difficult for the students to relate to the clients:11 or create an uncomfortable situation for the clients.:54-55 The academic calendar students follow tends not to work well with the organizations' schedules, since students' volunteering schedules are interrupted for holiday breaks, finals, and other activities.:33 Also, the small number of hours students are required to spend volunteering can cause problems for organizations and their clients. Some organizations require more hours for volunteer training than students are required to volunteer,:39 and making a personal connection with clients only to break it off soon after can be more hurtful than helpful.:52
Representatives of community organizations where service-learning students volunteer expressed interest in working with colleges and universities to change service-learning programs so that they work more smoothly for the organizations. Their suggestions included establishing more consistent communication between faculty and organizations, creating longer-term partnerships between colleges and community organizations, and ensuring that the students and their projects are matched well with the organizations they serve.:56-57:34, 37, 40
In Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public, Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg question whether service-learning is contributing to privatizing or downsizing citizenship practices. Responding to this, Christopher Koliba wrote that education providers may have the opportunity to change this trend.
Many engineering faculty members believe the educational solution lies in taking a more constructivist approach, where students construct knowledge and connections between nodes of knowledge as opposed to passively absorbing knowledge. Educators see service learning as a way to both implement a constructivism in engineering education as well as match the teaching styles to the learning styles of typical engineering students. As a result, many engineering schools have begun to integrate service learning into their curricula and there is now a journal dedicated to service learning in engineering. Recent work has also proposed that the use of open-source appropriate technology could be useful for integrating service learning into the engineering curricula.
Service learning can be used in all standard disciplines and recently has been explored for use in improving language instruction. A recent study found that integrating environmental issues with foreign language study provides significant opportunities for students to increase their language proficiency, develop their understanding of concepts related to the environment, and become more involved in a global community through a virtual service learning project. Similar work has found that students can contribute to sustainable development while improving their language skills.
In the book, Where's the Learning in Service-Learning?, Janet Eyler and Dwight E. Giles, Jr. wrote, "Although fewer students chose spiritual growth as an important outcome of service-learning--20 percent selecting it as among the most important things they learned and 46 percent selecting it as very or most important--it was important to many students...Some saw service as a definite opportunity to fulfill their religious commitment.":36, 37
Service-learning has both a service and a learning component. Authors Janet Eyler and Dwight E. Giles in Where's the Learning in Service-Learning? apply the term service-learning "to programs where the two foci are in balance, and study and action are explicitly integrated.:4
Eyler and Giles have found that service-learning students, upon reflecting on their experience, find reward in helping others:55 and in developing close personal relationships.:56 The second focus in the term service-learning, that of learning, is defined by R. L. Atkinson as "a relatively permanent change in behavior that results from practice."
In addition to the service and learning components stressed by Eyler and Giles, author David Bornstein references motivation in service. In How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, he states: "The key difference [between highly successful and average entrepreneurs has] more to do with the quality of their motivation."