What is Service-Learning?

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University of Vermont
uvm.edu/partnerships – partners@uvm.edu – 802-656-0095

Service-Learning 101

What is Service-Learning?
"Service-learning is a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development" (Jacoby, 1996). Key elements of service-learning include: reciprocal partnerships, intentional learning goals, meaningful reflection, and focused pre-service preparation of students.
In other words, you’ll be doing a service project that:

  • Will be integrated into your coursework as an essential learning tool;

  • Will help you to further understand what you are learning in class;

  • Will help to address a need in the community;

  • And will help you think about what you are learning on a different level.

How is this different from Other Forms of Experiential Learning?
Some people interpret service-learning as simply “volunteering,” others relate it to internships or field experience. These are all forms of experiential education, but you should know that there is a difference. Service-learning has a more complex purpose – first: it is formally linked to educational goals. While there is no doubt that you learn something when you perform community service, that learning may not be linked to specific goals or objectives. Service-learning’s main concentration is that learning. In addition, service-learning seeks to create equal partnerships in the community so that students and community members benefit equally.
s-l diagram
What kind of Additional Work?
Essential elements of service-learning can be described using the PARE Model.




In this model, the actual service (Action) is only one of four parts that are important elements of service-learning.

  • Preparation entails the time you spend thinking about what this service project is going to entail before you actually do it.

  • Who will you be working with?

  • Why was this partner chosen?

  • What kind of project are you doing and who developed the project?

  • What should you know about the people or office with whom you’ll be working?

  • What are you hoping to learn from this project?

  • How will you figure out what you have learned?

  • Action is the actual time you spend doing the service project. Ideally, in service-learning, the project you are doing will be reciprocal in nature. It will not only help you to learn, but will be addressing a need that the community partner has identified as an important priority.

  • Reflection is what you do during and after the service project to process what you have learned. SEE NEXT SECTION!

  • Evaluation is the important element of looking back on the experience and thinking about how it worked for you and for those with whom you were working.

Reflection 101
Reflection” Defined:

  • “The term structured reflection is used to refer to a thoughtfully constructed process that challenges and guides students in (1) examining critical issues related to their service-learning project, (2) connecting the service experience to coursework, (3) enhancing the development of civic skills and values, and (4) assisting students in finding personal relevance in the work.”

    (see “Using Structured Reflection to Enhance Learning from Service”, http://www.compact.org/disciplines/reflection/index.html)

  • “Reflection activities provide the bridge between community service activities and the educational content of the course. Reflection activities direct the student’s attention to new interpretations of events and provide a means through which the community service can be studied and interpreted, much as a text is read and studied for deeper understanding.”

    (from R. Bringle & J. Hatcher (1999) “Reflection in Service Learning: Making Meaning of Experience” in Introduction to Service-Learning Toolkit (2000), Campus Compact: Providence, RI)

Hints for creating reflection activities:

  • Include multiple types of reflections activities! Research indicates that different people find different strategies most effective for processing experiences. Some might benefit most from personal reflection such as writing or journals; others might benefit most from creative projects or from group dialogue.

  • Reflection doesn’t just happen at the end of a project. Reflection can, and should, happen before, during, and after service-learning activities.

  • Reflection is not just for the students. Course instructors, community partners, and constituents of the partner agency can all benefit from and contribute to reflection activities, which will add more depth to the experience.

  • Reflection is not just about a finished product, it’s about the process that got you to that product. Its not just about reporting what you did in your service project, but about interpreting that experience in the larger context.

Examples of Reflection Activities / Assignments:

  • Reflection Journals or “Critical Incident Journals”- journals that ask students to critically reflect on their service experience provide a means for ongoing interpretation and understanding. Journals are not diaries where a day’s events are simply recorded; rather they are critical pieces of writing where experiences are analyzed in connection with learning goals, personal beliefs, civic values, etc.

    • Team journals can encourage interaction between participants.

    • Journals that ask student to intentionally separate observation (the What) from interpretation (So What?) and evaluation (Now What?) can further critical analysis.

  • Experiential Research and/or Integration Papers – going beyond a journal, experiential research papers ask students to bring their writing to a polished level of evaluation, reflection, and interpretation. They formally connect the experience to academic goals (for example, they may connect a personal experience with a social issue they have studied, an economic principle they are learning in class, etc.)

  • Class Presentations – engage students in a group process of interpretation that they then present to the class. This requires students to process personal reflections in a small group before presenting to the whole class, and builds skills in teamwork, organization, and public speaking. You could also present your findings / experiences to other classes, to community groups, or to K-12 students

  • Electronic Reflection – challenge students to create an online, visual interpretation of their experiences, or to create an electronic tool that will be useful for their community partner. Digital storytelling, website development, and blogs provide a means for students to share their stories with others and build technological skills.

  • Class Dialogue – engage students (and other participants) in critical dialogues about the service – give them sentence starters, quotes, or questions to get them started. Think about small group dialogue versus classroom dialogue. Ask students to share portions of their journals or papers and build upon one another’s reflections. One student’s observations might introduce new perspectives to another.

    • What? So What? Now What?

    • Junk Drawer Exercise – what do you have in your junk drawer? How can these things in the drawer be a metaphor for what you’ve experienced?

  • Case Studies – ask students to think about incidents that occur at their service sites, especially those that call for difficult decision-making. Students can write up their case and use that write-up as the basis for a formal paper, informal reflection, or in-class activity.

  • Portfolios – by including all of the various types of reflection that participants have produced over the course of an experience, portfolios help to generate a whole experience from those separate reflections. Portfolios can also include artistic renderings (drawings, photographs, or creations that help a student to express their experience).

  • Creative Art – give participants the opportunity to reflect on experiences in an artistic sense: enable them to create a display, poster, drawing, video etc. that helps them to interpret their service experience and draws connections to their learning. You can also prompt dialogue using photos or images that participants can connect to their experience (The Visual Explorer Exercise).

If you’d like to know more about service-learning and engagement opportunities for students, faculty and community partners, visit the UVM - CUPS web site: www.uvm.edu/partnerships or call us at 656-0095.qrcode

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