What is Service-Learning?

1. 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: http://www.che.ac.za/sites/default/files/publications/HEQC_Service-Learning_Curriculum_Jun2006_0.pdf.

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. 



Last Modified: Wed, 24 Aug 2016 12:10:22 SAST