Faculty FAQs

What is service-learning?

While there are a number of excellent definitions of service-learning, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, observes the following definition:

“Service-learning is a course-based experiential learning strategy that engages students in meaningful and relevant service with a community partner while employing ongoing reflection to draw connections between the service and course content, thus enhancing academic learning, promoting civic responsiveness, and strengthening communities.”
—Definition Adapted from Learn and Serve America

What are the necessary components of service-learning?

Howard’s (2001) “Service-Learning Course Design Workbook” emphasizes that in order for a course to be characterized as having service-learning, it must fulfill three criteria:

1)      Relevant and Meaningful Service with the Community: Service that is relevant to the community and to the content of the academic course, meaningful to the community and to the students, and developed and formulated with the community

2)      Enhanced Academic Learning: Learning that is advanced through an experiential learning activity which either complements or adds to more traditional methods of teaching

3)      Purposeful Civic Learning: Learning that contributes to preparing students for community or public involvement in a diverse democratic society, while also preparing students with the knowledge, skills, values, and propensities necessary for such involvement

How does service-learning differ from community service within a course?

If you think of service-learning as a three-piece puzzle, community service is one piece of the puzzle. The adjoining pieces are enhanced academic learning and purposeful civic learning (as illustrated in the Venn diagram on the homepage). In a service-learning context, the community service piece is strategically designed by the community partner and the faculty member to be both relevant and meaningful to you, your community partner, and the students who will be doing the service-learning. This may or may not be the case with community service that is not a part of a larger service-learning experience.

Jeffrey Howard’s Service-Learning Course Design Workbook establishes the following three criteria for community service that is part of a service-learning course experience:

  1. The service must be relevant, both to the community and the course learning objectives, by contributing to the amelioration of some social issue and/or improving the quality of life in the community.
  2. The service must be meaningful, involving students in activities that the community deems appropriate and necessary for its purpose and that the faculty member deems appropriate to course learning objectives.
  3. The service must be developed with the community, rather than for or to the community.

As a faculty member you can work with your community partner to design community service experiences that are meaningful and relevant to all involved. However, it is up to you to ensure that the community service contributes to enhanced academic learning and civic learning, through methods including ongoing classroom reflection. Through prompting students to actively reflect on the service experience, you can help students consider it in light of their course learning and their roles as citizens.

Thus, the three characteristics that distinguish service-learning from community service within a course are 1) the intentional design of community service that is relevant and meaningful to all stakeholders, according to the above criteria, 2) the complementing components of enhanced academic learning and purposeful civic learning to the relevant and meaningful community service described above, and 3) the use of ongoing reflection to connect the service to the academic and civic learning.

What are the different types of service-learning?

UT Service-Learning conceptualizes service-learning as comprising either an element of a course or a full course. The table below illustrates a number of models for and examples of service-learning. This information has been adapted from K. Rice’s Building Reciprocal Campus-Community Partnerships, and is divided into the “full-course versus element of a course” conceptualization. For information on designing and implementing service learning as a course element or a full course, reference the service-learning “How To” instructional page in the Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center’s How-To Pedagogy Series.


SL as an Element of a Course

Course where service-learning is optional:

Students in a course choose from two or more options for achieving course goals, including service-learning, case studies, research papers, or other projects. Reflections may be different for students engaged in the service option and those who are not.

Example: A computer science course in which students design a web site. The service-learners would learn about and then design a web site for a community organization

Service-learning/fourth-credit option:

Students can negotiate a learning contract with a faculty member in any course in which the faculty member is willing to work with the students to design a service-learning component to supplement the basic course. The service-learning component includes intentional reflection; the credit is awarded for demonstration of learning, not for the service alone.

Example: A sociology course on social problems. Students who opt for the extra credit would do a learning contract with the faculty member to complete a designated number for service hours and write a final paper relating the community experience to course content

First-year service-learning experience:

Service-learning is often integrated into first-year seminars or courses to introduce students to the concept of service-learning, to the community in which the university is located, and how students can build skills in writing, critical thinking, and/or a content area through active learning.

Example: An introduction to studying history in a college course engages students in a service-learning project cataloguing photos in a local museum, enabling them to see what the discipline of history looks like in practice.



SL as a Full Course

“Standard” service-learning course:
All students in the course are involved in the same service-learning project. Reflection is integrated throughout the course and linked to learning outcomes. This can occur in a general education or a discipline-based course.

Example: Students in an introduction to chemistry course conduct analyses of the chemical content of local bodies of water, attempt to discover the causes of the pollution they identify, and report the results to a public-interest organization that lobbies on behalf of clean water.

Service-learning capstone:

A service-learning capstone course is a culminating experience that enables students to integrate learning from throughout their college experience, to make meaning of it, and to think about how they will use it in the future. They often involve a research project or substantial service experience with critical analysis and a final written paper and/or presentation.

Example: Teams of students in the capstone course in business work with a community organization to design a short- and long-range business plan.

Service-learning internship or independent study: Can allow students in any major to work in the community for more substantial amounts of time, attend class (often a minimum of hours), and engage in on-going reflection and intentional application of academic learning.

Example: Students majoring in women’s studies do a senior internship with a community organization that focuses on women’s issues.

Service-learning/case study combination:

Students grapple with case studies based on actual situations/events that a community organization has faced, and spend time volunteering at the organizational site to get real-world exposure to the issues the organization and their clientele face.

Example: A family law class analyzes legal cases provided by a pro-bono legal clinic, while also spending time volunteering at the clinic.

Field work service-learning:

Students in professional programs, such as teacher education, nursing, or human services, work in the community, often several times throughout their coursework, generally for increasingly lengthy periods of times. For field education to be considered service-learning, it must be integrated into a course. Reciprocal partnerships, reflection, and intentional integration with course content are critical.

Example: Students in the social work program taking a course on domestic violence learn about the theories on the causes and effects of domestic violence and then work with residents of a shelter for battered women.

Community-based research:

Under the supervision of a faculty member, students engage in research with the community, designed to benefit all partners. Community members are involved in every stage of the research process.

Example: Students in a Spanish course work with a local community organization to design a research projects about the needs of their client base, recent immigrants from Latin America. Students interview the organization’s clients and provide the information to the organization in the format the organization specifies.

International or distance service-learning:

Takes many forms, including a course that involves an alternative spring break, a three-week winter break, or a summer experience in an international setting. Often these courses involve service in a local community that is related to the work the students are doing abroad.

Example: Students in civil engineering design a water filtration system for an area of southern Thailand and spend three weeks during winter break constructing the system along with local engineers.



Adapted from K. Rice, Building Reciprocal Campus-Community Partnerships


How does service-learning differ from other forms of experiential learning?

Service-learning is often confused with other forms of service-based experiential learning such as field work, service internships, or volunteerism that is not purposefully integrated into a course. Thus, one characteristic that sets service-learning apart is the purposeful integration of the service into the course. This integration is characterized by careful planning and selection of course content and assignments that inform the service, as well as ongoing reflection that connect the learning and service. Integrating the service into the course in this way creates an intentional space for introspective and group-based exploration guided by both knowledge and practice. This formula positions the classroom as an exploratory community aimed at dissecting complex societal problems and systematic injustices, and considering thoughtful, multi-faceted solutions.

The graphic below illustrates where service-learning falls under the experiential learning umbrella.

Experiential Learning Chart

Experiential Learning Chart, created by David Schumann and Kelly Ellenburg