Student 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

How is service-learning different from other forms of volunteering?

Service-learning differs from volunteerism in three ways: 1) the service always relates to a key aspect of what students learn in class; 2) it relies on critical reflection to link what students do with the cognitive and affective aspects of learning; (this part—the reflection—connects the service to the learning); and 3) service-learning, unlike volunteering, depends on reciprocity. Reciprocity emphasizes the mutual benefit of the service to all stakeholders involved (in this case, faculty, students, and community partners). For students, one of the major benefits is the enhanced academic and civic learning resulting from the service.

What can a service-learning course contribute to my education?

Service-learning can yield all kinds of benefits for students. According to researchers (Astin et al., 2000; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Eyler et al., 2001 & 2007; McGoldrick & Ziegert, 2002; Willis, 2002), it can enhance your course learning experience and improve learning outcomes, particularly as they relate to personal and interpersonal development, understanding and application, critical thinking, and citizenship. Additionally, because service-learning addresses actual community needs, it can engaging students’ hearts and minds in ways that many traditional learning methods may not.

See our Evidence of Benefits page for more specifics on how service-learning can contribute to your education.

What does service-learning contribute to the community?

Service-learning, when well-designed and implemented, can contribute in a number of ways to the community. UT Service-Learning emphasizes that all service projects should be designed in a way as to contribute to the community organization’s mission. However, communities also may benefit in less direct ways, as students work to address complex societal issues related to health and wellness, economic development, education, and the environment.

What are my responsibilities as a service-learner?

As a service-learner, you have a responsibility to both the community partner with whom you work and to your instructor. Be prepared to be professional, respectful, honest, diligent, and committed while engaging in service with the community partner. Additionally, strive to listen carefully and pay attention to the needs of you the community partner, while engaging in deep and serious reflection throughout the experience.

More specifically, as a service-learner, you should be prepared to:

  • Do no harm. First and foremost, exhibit behavior that does no emotional, physical, or psychological harm to the community partner organization, their staff, or their clients. This is the critical, especially when working with vulnerable populations such as the homeless, formally abused, children or elderly people. Be cognizant of how your beliefs, assumptions and perceptions can affect those who are different from you, and exhibit humility and open-mindedness in your actions and behaviors.
  • Shift your emphasis from fulfilling your educational requirements to serving the community partner. This entails making a commitment to understanding the organization’s cause and mission.
  • Practice excellent etiquette. Commit to behaving, dressing, and speaking in a manner that is professional and respectful.
  • Strive to be self-sufficient, within the bounds of the supervisory agreement established by your instructor and community partner. Establish clarity early on about what is expected of you, and ask good questions on the front end so that you have a clear vision of what success in the endeavor looks like. Continue to ask questions as needed, but try not to task the community partner with questions you can find answers to on your own.
  • Be aware of University deadlines as they relate to community partner deadlines. This entails adapting to the community’s calendar and schedule, and fulfilling your commitment to them.
  • Communicate well and often with your community partner. If you will be tardy or absent, be sure to notify your community partner as early as possible.
  • Work to understand issues relevant to the service-learning experience (such as social status, inequity, and community assets) and your self-identify as they relate to the experience. Reflect on your perceptions of identity and the historic and social processes with which it intersects. Cross-check your own beliefs with that of your community, and seek to understand before being understood.
  • Actively reflect on your service-learning experience throughout the semester, and share those reflections with agency staff.