3. Learning

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: http://www.serve.indiana.edu/reflection.pdf

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


Last Modified: Wed, 24 Aug 2016 12:10:15 SAST