Service-Learning is a mutually beneficial endeavor in which course learning objectives are met by addressing community-identified needs--putting academics into practice. Service learning guidelines generally suggest that students provide at least 15-20 hours of service during the semester; however, this varies according to specific learning objectives. Service-learning always includes critical reflection of the work, interactions, and learning regarding the service, and it is always a collaboration among community partners, students, and professors/instructors/staff.
If students collect trash out of an urban streambed, they are providing a valued service to the community as volunteers. If students collect trash from an urban streambed, analyze their findings to determine the possible sources of pollution, and share the results with residents of the neighborhood, they are engaging in service-learning.
Howard, J. (2001) Four Myths about Service-Learning. In The Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning Course Design Workbook (Section one).
Academic service-learning is not the same as student community service or co-curricular service-learning. While sharing the word “service,” these models of student involvement in the community are distinguished by their learning agenda. Student community service, illustrated by a student organization adopting a local elementary school, rarely involves learning agenda. In contrast, both forms of service-learning (academic and co-curricular) make intentional efforts to engage students in planned and purposeful learning related to the service experiences. Co-curricular service-learning, illustrated by many alternative spring breaks and dance marathon programs, is concerned with raising students’ consciousness and familiarity with issues related to various communities. Academic service-learning, illustrated by student community service integrated into an academic course, utilizes the service experience as a course “text” for both academic learning and civic learning.
Many internship programs, especially those involving community service, are now referring to themselves as service-learning programs, as if the two pedagogical models were the same. While internships and academic service-learning involve students in the community to accentuate or supplement students’ academic learning, generally speaking, internships are not about civic learning. They develop and socialize students for a profession, and tend to be silent on student civic development (in most cases, not all, depending on the internship). They also emphasize student benefits more than community benefits, while service-learning is equally attentive to both.
Experience and learning are not the same. While experience is a necessary condition of learning (Kolb, 1984), it is not sufficient. Learning requires more than experiences, and so one cannot assume that student involvement in the community automatically yields learning. Harvesting academic and/or civic learning from a community service experience requires purposeful and intentional efforts. This harvesting process is often referred to as “reflection” in the service-learning literature.
Grafting a community service requirement (or option) onto an otherwise unchanged academic course does not constitute academic service-learning. While such models abound, the interpretation marginalizes the learning in, from, and with the community, and precludes transforming students’ community experiences into learning. To realize service-learning’s full potential as a pedagogy, community experiences must be considered in the context of, and integrated with, the other planned learning strategies and resources in the course.