Center for Academic Service-Learning

An Important Distinction

An important distinction between Academic Service-Learning and the following:

  • Community service
  • Volunteering
  • Experiential and Cooperative education
  • Internships

The National Commission on Service-Learning in its report entitled "Learning in Deed: The Power of Service-Learning for American Schools," offers a definition of service-learning that incorporated the most essential features common to service-learning across the country. According to the Commission, service-learning is different from community service and volunteerism in that it is "a teaching and learning approach that integrates community service with academic study to enrich learning, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities."

Service-Learning is defined as a curricular strategy whereby students learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service that is conducted in and meets the needs of the community. It is integrated into and enhances the academic curriculum of the students while fostering their civic responsibility. It is important to note that Service-Learning includes community service, but that service is deliberately integrated with learning objectives.

Service-learning is a method and philosophy of experiential education through which participants meet community needs while developing their abilities for critical thinking and group problem-solving, their commitments and values, and the skills they need for effective citizenship. All forms of service learning are included in the all encompassing category of experiential education.

Community Service

Community service is volunteer action taken to meet the needs of others and better the community as a whole. Service learning is more than just community service. The service is as closely linked to the curriculum as possible, with an emphasis on students applying the skills they are learning. Anderson (1998) stated, "Service learning involves a blending of service activities with the academic curriculum in order to address real community needs while students learn through active engagement (p. 1)." It connects student service with traditional classroom instruction, learning and reflection.

Community service can be defined as programs in which students provide assistance to individuals, organization, or communities outside of their school. The assistance can be direct (e.g., visiting a senior pen pal) or indirect (e.g., doing clerical tasks, engaging in advocacy).

Community Service vs. Service-Learning: Service learning projects emphasize both the service and the learning. By applying classroom content to community settings, service-learning is a way to provide more authenticity and purpose for classroom learning. By contrast, community service emphasizes the habits and skills of volunteerism.

Experiential Education

Experiential education is any form of teaching that utilizes direct "hands-on" experience. This can range from applying skills learned in the class to tasks in the field; to applying those skills to help meet a need in the community.

Four Phases of Experiential Education:

  • Experiencing: selecting activities to facilitate specific learning objectives.
  • Reflecting: process which turns experiences into experiential learning.
  • Generalizing: making inferences from the experience to other setting.
  • Applying: planning ways to put into action the generalizations that were identified in the previous phase.

Service-learning is a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students work with others through a process of applying what they are learning to community problems and, at the same time, reflecting upon their experience as they seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.

In the process, students link personal and social development with academic and cognitive development. Eyler and Giles (1999) summarize their observations by saying that in the service-learning model, "experience enhances understanding; understanding leads to more effective action."

The key to service-learning is the link between community service and classroom studies. In other words, student service is designed around meeting curriculum objectives. Students improve their academic skills by applying what they learn in school to the real world; they then reflect on their experience to reinforce the link between their service and their learning. While internships and cooperative education are experiential and include a classroom component, they generally do not focus on service to the community.

Service-learning is integrated into and enhances the academic curriculum of students engaged in service, or the educational components of the community service program in which the participants are enrolled. Service-learning provides structured time for thoughtful planning of the service project and guided reflection by participants on the service experience. Overall, the most important feature of effective service-learning programs is that both learning and service are equally emphasized.

Service-learning is more than merely community service. It is a hands-on approach to mastering subject material while fostering civic responsibility.

Service-learning provides a context for talking about learning in terms of not only what students know but also what they are able to do. Critical to this type of learning is building in time for students to reflect on their service experience. Reflection time helps students make the connection between classroom and community learning, and ensures they understand the extent to which they can impact positive change.

The distinctive element of service-learning is that it enhances the community through the service provided, but it also has powerful learning consequences for the students or others participating in providing a service.

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