An Introductory Guide to Service-Learning

Community-University partnerships for engaged learning through integrating classroom and community goals

This introductory guide is intended to inspire and direct academic staff at all levels of experience at RhodesUniversity who intend to design, implement and run service-learning courses. Here you will find helpful information about all aspects of service-learning: theoretical background concepts which underpin service-learning, ‘tips’ on how to implement theoretical concepts presented herein your courses, and practical information about forming partnerships with local community-based organisations. You will also find crucial information about further resources to draw on for support in developing and running service-learning courses. 



What is Service-Learning?

Typically service-learning is seen as a pedagogical approach which rejects what Freire calls the “banking” model of education in favour of an active approach in which theory and practice, cognitive and affective, academic-classroom learning and community service are reconnected. On such a view service-learning is seen as a pedagogical approach in which both students’ academic and civic values are enhanced and real-world learning is promoted through reciprocal relationships that reconnect universities with their local communities.

Three standard definitions of service-learning:

  • Service-learning is a teaching method that combines meaningful service to the community with curriculum-based learning and critical reflection.
  • Service-Learning is also an educational activity in which discipline specific knowledge acquisition is attained through practical exercises carried out in the community which involves the assessment of and reflection on attitudes and values held by students.
  • Service-learning integrates meaningful community service with reflection, providing university students with a community based context for their learning which allows them to make connections between their academic coursework and their roles as critical and engaged citizens.  

Service-learning is seen in courses which meet academic standards, in combination with civic, character, or leadership learning goals, through hands-on, relevant service done in collaboration with the community. Service-Learning, then, is an innovative pedagogical approach promoting student led service activities in which discipline specific academic knowledge is put to use to address issues of concern and interest to the community.

Service-learning courses or projects always have three objectives: 1) contributing to local human and community development; 2) improving the quality of academic learning within the discipline; and 3) improving the leadership/civic/character development of students. Service-Learning should not necessarily be equated with any kind of volunteering activity done at university or in a departmental setting, nor should service-learning courses be seen as giving only a content or discipline ‘light’ educational experience. Qualitative service-learning implies both rigorous academic learning and a closely connected, planned service activity which is aimed at a positive and measurable impact on the community. In service-learning courses:

the students’ community service experiences… functions as a critical learning complement to the academic goals of the course. In other words, academic service learning is not about the addition of service to learning, but rather the integration of service with learning… the service and the learning are reciprocally related; the service experiences inform and transform the academic learning, and the academic learning informs and transforms the service experience. (Howard, 1998)

Both the service and the learning aspects of the course are of equal importance, and thus service-learning functions both as a pedagogical tool and a form of community engagement. Service-learning courses are thus courses with immense transformative power at the personal, institutional and community level:

  • transforming the relationship between universities and communities through collaboration;
  • transforming individuals and communities through the service activities;
  • transforming students by helping them to develop the personal values to become responsible citizens.

By incorporating service activities into a service-learning course you are able to move from using ‘social responsibility’; ‘transformation’ and ‘critical citizenship’ as discourse in the classroom to integrating these concepts into your teaching through practice. Through service-learning your teaching is able to play a dynamic role in transforming the social reality of your students through situational and experiential learning.  While service-learning is a form of experiential learning, it is also important to note that there are several key respects in which service-learning differs from traditional models of experiential learning:

  • Service-learning places higher emphasis on reciprocal learning through mutually beneficial partnerships between the university and the community;
  • Service-learning places higher emphasis on learning through reflection on action rather than learning through action alone - as Dewey said “we do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience” (Dewey, 1933);
  • Service-learning has the aim of developing more engaged citizens and affecting social change;
  • Service-learning curricular objectives are more collaborative because they are defined in partnership with the community.  


What Makes a Service Learning Project Meaningful and Effective?

  • Service activities should address a recognised need in the community (should you need assistance with this aspect, Grahamstown community based organisations inform the CE office of their annual goals).
  • Service learning initiatives are jointly planned with community partners and implemented.
  • Service-learning courses must achieve curricular objectives.
  • Students should critically reflect on their learning throughout the service-learning experience.
  • Service-learning courses should develop student’s responsibility and leadership abilities.
  • Service-learning courses should serve to establish or strengthen community-university partnerships.
  • Service-learning courses should equip students with knowledge and skills needed for civic engagement.
  • Specifics of programs should be tailored to local communities, but should also include important social considerations at a national level in reflection practices.


Suggested Further Reading:

Osman, R. & Petersen, N. (Eds.) 2013. Service learning in South Africa. Cape Town: OxfordUniversity Press Southern Africa.

Dan W. Butin. 2014. Service-Learning in Theory and Practice: The Future of Community Engagement in Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan.

CHE. 2008. Service Learning in the disciplines: Lessons from the field. Available at:

Bender, CJG. Daniels, P. Lazarus, J. Naude, L. Sattar, K. 2006. Service-Learning in the Curriculum: A Resource for Higher Education Institutions. Available at:

D. Lisman (Ed.). 2000. Beyond the Tower: Concepts and models for Service Learning in the Disciplines. USA: American Association for Higher Education.

Harkavy, I & Lee Benson, L. 1998. ‘De-Platonizing and Democratizing Education as the basis of Service Learning’. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 73: 11-20.

Howard, J. 1998. ‘Academic Service Learning: A Counternormative Pedagogy’. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 73: 21-29. 



All service activities should be aimed at meeting real and expressed needs in a community. Service activities must be planned and intended to contribute to addressing specific community problems or concerns. Service activities should always be carried out ‘together with’ or in ‘solidarity with’ the community and not done ‘for’ or ‘at’ members of a community. Service activities must involve community members not merely as passive recipients of the activity, but rather as active participants who are involved in the planning, execution and assessment stages of the service activity. In service-learning the ‘beneficiaries’ are not only the community members, but also the students who find opportunities for citizenship and learning through service in the community space. For this reason it is beneficial to form a partnership with a community based organisation which will assist in co-planning the educational and social goals for the service activity for your service-learning course or project.

For service-learning to be genuinely beneficial for community partners it is crucial that service activities are closely aligned with the community partner’s organisational goals and their mission. The Community Engagement Division works closely with a number of community based organisations in Grahamstown to develop our partners’ internal organisational structures to support their involvement in service learning as well as to adopt the perspective that students involved in service activities have skills and expertise to contribute to their organisations. It is therefore encouraged that you build on the relationships established through the Community Engagement Division between the University and these community based organisations when planning service activities for your service-learning courses.


Community-university partnerships bring the knowledge and expertise from the community and the university together in an attempt to find innovative ways to address issues of local and national importance. These kinds of partnerships can not only enhance the development within communities, but can also help to strengthen higher education. Building a strong partnership on the following guiding principles (Seifer and Conners, 2007) is crucial for the success and sustainability of any service-learning project:

  • Partnerships are formed between parties to meet a mutually agreed upon goal
  • Partners share in mutual accountability for the activities and outcomes of the partnership 
  • Partners identify each other’s strengths and assets and invest these in planning projects
  • Partners are aware of the balance of power among partners and a partnership enables all partners to contribute  equally 
  • Partnerships are founded on open, honest and ongoing communication, and partners strive to reach a shared understanding of all partners’ needs and interests
  • Partners are all involved in a continuous process of mutual-reflection aimed at improvement of the partnership and the achievement of the mutually agreed upon goal
  • All partners share equally in the benefits, rewards and awards for the achievements and outcomes of the partnerships

Community-university partnerships also bring together diverse groups of people with different backgrounds, cultures and working styles. The Community Engagement Division should be seen as a resource with knowledge of community partner organisational structures and cultures to assist staff members in navigating diverse spaces. It is important to keep in mind that community partners may keep different working hours to the university schedule, and it is also import to keep in mind that community partner organisations might not have access to the internet and email facilities or telephones. As with all partnerships, relationship building is essential. Maintain an open channel of communication with your community partners and make time to meet with them face-to face whenever possible, for example, take the opportunity to invite your community partners to campus to join in some of the classroom activities (meeting students and discussing their community organisation and site before students perform their service activity; joining in student reflection sessions; taking part in final student presentations or report back sessions). When communicating with your community partners it is important to ensure that the expectations you have for the whole course are clearly communicated and mutually agreed on, and you should have their expectations of your role and the role your students will play in their organisation clearly established from the outset. If any changes to your course or student’s service project(s) do have to be made after the initial communications were made it is imperative that all parties agree to the changes. 

When a partnership is strained, when there is conflict between partners, or when the partnership does not appear to be mutually beneficial, partnerships are often dissolved. However, before dissolving a partnership it is worthwhile to try and work through the challenges which can often be resolved by employing various conflict resolution strategies or simply by opening up the channels of communication and allowing all partners to restate and clarify the initially agreed upon goals of the partnership.


Further Reading:

Erasmus, M. and Albertyn, R. (eds.) 2014. Knowledge as Enablement: Engagement between higher education and the third sector in South Africa. Bloemfontein: Sun Press.

Lasker, R. 2001. ‘Partnership Synergy: A Practical Framework for Studying and Strengthening the Collaborative Advantage’. The Milbank Quarterly 79(2): 179-205. Available at:

Sandy, M. & Holland, B. 2006. ‘Different Worlds and Common Ground: Community Partner Perspectives on Campus-Community Partnerships’. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 13(1): 30-43. Available at:



Combining theory and practical experience: living what is learnt

The aim of a service-learning course is for the two core components, namely service and learning, to strengthen and improve one another as they come together into a single and project. A service-learning experience thus combines academic, discipline specific, curricular content with a service activity in the community which allows for new learning to take place that would otherwise be impossible in the traditional classroom setting. Service-learning projects are thus inherently experiential learning projects in which students come to live what is learnt. As educators we know that action and practice are important educational tools and ways of coming to know. It is not enough for us to simply work on student’s cognitive abilities in the classroom, but an important way for them to learn is by letting them do, live and experience in the world. Service-learning activities provide students with the opportunity to live out the challenges posed in the classroom and seek to solve real problems and improve real situations, posing challenges while simultaneously searching for solutions and improvements with members of the broader community. Through the application of their cognitive skills students involved in service-learning courses establish specific connections between what they learn in the classroom, the concrete experiences and actions they take based on these learning’s and the real consequences of those actions.


Critical reflection: making connections between the curriculum, service and the social environment 

When students are involved in service activities, three things might happen. First, students might learn something about themselves, their community and social urgent issues. Secondly, no learning results might appear: a group might feed the homeless without being sensitive to their situation. Finally, students might learn the wrong lesson: prejudice and stereotypes might be created or enforced through service activities which have been poorly planned or not reflected upon.(Cooper, 1999)

John Dewey who championed experiential learning warns against the naïve idea that all experiences will be genuinely educational simply in virtue of their being experiential, saying: “The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative”(Dewey, 1938). For this reason, in planning your service activity it is not only crucial that the activity meet the community needs, but it is also crucial that the activity meets both the curricular or discipline specific learning objectives and that students are involved in a genuinely educational activity. Reflection functions as the crucial link for students between their service activity and their learning. Because there is continuous interplay between theory and practice in a service-learning course reflection plays a crucial role in allowing the curriculum to improve practice and lessons learnt from practice to improve understanding of the curricular content. The process of critical reflection by students and community partners also improves the quality and meaning of the service activity and the meaning of the service experience is shaped and defined through reflection. Since students are working in the community, it is also important for them to understand the social context that they are working in, and this should critically inform their reflections and shape their development in the course.

According to research, students who are not given structured opportunities to reflect on their service activities fail to make critical connections between academic and service activity learning’s. However, this research suggests that by integrating reflection into the curriculum students are not only more motivated to perform their service activity and achieve academically, but judge their classes to be “more powerful intellectually,”  that is, of a higher academic standard to non-service-learning courses. (Eyler and Giles 1997) 

A service-learning course should include structured time for students and community participants to reflect on and analyse the service experience. Providing structured discussions and/or assignments leading students in reflection of the service fosters the student’s ability to connect the service to content and, conversely, to apply the course content to the service experience. Reflection may be accomplished through a variety of approaches, including reflective journals (open ended or responding to questions), formal writing assignments, classroom discussions, threaded discussions (using RU Connected), exam questions, and final projects.


Service-learning courses are developed and embedded within a curriculum program

It is crucial for service-learning courses to be embedded in the curriculum since the community connection is both defined and legitimised by the element of academic credit. Further, the curriculum is the ultimate instantiation of the university’s view of what students need to learn. Thus, unless the educational goal at stake in a service-learning course is actually built into the curriculum it cannot fully inform the way faculty teaches and the way students learn. For this reason it is important to identify and build on appropriate curricular models already in place in the department.

Students understanding of the course content can be enhanced by fully integrating service-learning into the course assignments, from research projects to essays, presentations and exams. Any course assignment should integrate students learning’s from their service activities, asking them to draw on, analyse and discuss their experiences in terms of the course content and readings you have provided. This can be done by asking students to draw on their knowledge of concepts or theories discussed or studied in class in relation to their service activity:

  • Ask students how a key theory or concept from the course might be illustrated by or challenged by an example from their service activity;
  • Ask students how the theories or concepts discussed in the course might be challenged or useful though application;
  • Ask students how the course content might be used to improve their performance in their service activities;
  • Ask students how the theories or concepts discussed in the course might be beneficial to the community partner organisations or the broader communities with which they work;
  • Ask students about how their service activity has impacted on their understanding of their discipline in practice. (Northeastern University, 2011)       


Further Reading:

Janet Eyler and Dwight Giles, Jr. 1997. ‘The Importance of Program Quality in Service-Learning’. In A. S. Waterman (Ed.). Service-Learning: applications from the research Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Eyler, J., Giles, D., & Schmiede, A. 1996. A Practitioner’s Guide to Reflection in Service-Learning: Student voices and Reflections. Nashville: VanderbiltUniversity.

Eyler, J. and Giles, D.E. (1999). Where's the Learning in Service-Learning?San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Hatcher, J., and Bringle, R. 1997. Reflection: Linking Service and Learning. Available at:

Eyler J. 2001. ‘Creating your reflection map’. New Directions for Higher Education. John Wiley & Sons.


Student Preparation and Support

Students must be properly prepared for the service activity, whether in class or through electronic interaction (such as RU Connected), and this preparation must be included in the course plan. Student preparation should include a description of the service activity; a discussion of safety issues and risk factors involved in the service activity; the time allocation for the service activities; a detailed schedule for service activities; a discussion of the importance of cultural sensitivity when engaging in the service activity; training for the tasks involved in the service activity; and an introduction to the work of the community partner.


Basic Preparation of Students:

  • Clearly explain to the students the unique features of a service-learning course and how the service component fits into the course expectations.
  • Clearly explain to the students how the service activity has been designed to meet identified goals and needs of the community partner.
  • Introduce students to the fundamentals of respectful engagement with people who come from different backgrounds, classes, races, religious or cultural groups.
  • It is of paramount importance that students understand the necessity of maintaining the confidentiality of sensitive information (including photographs or recordings) that students might learn or gain from or about the community partners.
  • Students must be made aware that the community partners rely on student’s service hours to help meet their goals and needs. Students should be reminded that they must be dependable and provide the community partner with sufficient notice if they will not be able to make their scheduled time for a planned service activity.


Monitoring and Evaluation

Effective monitoring and evaluation is crucial for the success of any community engagement initiative or project. Monitoring and evaluation strategies will be crucial not only for your students success but for the success of the partnership at the heart of your service-learning project.The evaluation should measure the progress made towards meeting the learning and service goals of the course.

Evaluation of student performance in the service activity should be specified at the outset of the course, and as in any university course students are being assessed on their learning not their service. A clear grading rubric should be made available to students to clarify what is expected of them, and how they will be assessed. This should include the overall assessment criteria for projects and assignments, as well as an assessment of the student’s ability to connect the service experience with the course content. Your evaluation of the course should be on the student’s learning through their service activities, and students should be expected to produce tangible project deliverables which demonstrate that they have learned. Where possible, provide past examples of good and poor work so that students understand what is expected of them in advance.

Evaluation should also include assessment of community outcomes, for example, by asking to what extent the community project’s goals were accomplished. This should be done in partnership with the community organisation. Community partner feedback on your project is important for maintaining a long term reciprocal relationship with your partner – a partner who does not think that they have benefitted from the project is unlikely to want to take time or dedicate resources in the future to a partnership in which only your students learning objectives are met.

Pre- and post-course surveys measure general attitudes and perceptions of students enrolled in service-learning courses, and thus provide useful information for measuring course effectiveness and enhancing the quality of the service-learning experience. They are also useful tools for evaluating whether the service activity you are undertaking in your course is meeting your learning objectives in terms of transformation and discipline specific learning.

The Community Engagement Division has examples of assessment instruments that have been successfully used and are happy to share these with staff, as well as to support staff in designing suitable tools and implementing ongoing monitoring and evaluation of service-learning courses. 



Sustainability in service-learning refers to a number of aspects such as timing and duration of the community engagement activity. This entails designing regular scheduled activities continuing throughout the duration of the module. Clear communication regarding the length of the partnership between the department and the community partner needs to be established. The ultimate indication of long term sustainability will be a commitment from the department to offer the service-learning course on an annual basis.


Last Modified: Mon, 14 Feb 2022 11:09:35 SAST