Service-Learning Best Practices

Service-Learning Best Practices

We have learned a lot over the last 25 years about how to effectively manage Service-Learning programs. Service-Learning can be a positive and impactful teaching and learning strategy, and guidelines are available to help enable your success. The following best practices are a compilation of previous studies and insights from the field that may help guide your Service-Learning project (Howard, 2001), (Jacoby, 1996), (Campus Compact, 2003), (Gottleib and Robinson, 2002).

Establish Defined Learning Objectives

Each Service-Learning activity should have defined learning objectives outlined in the syllabus. Establishing these learning goals will help students relate the service that they are performing back to the overall course objectives. Service-Learning activities should not be performed if those activities do not relate directly to course content and objectives.

 Align Learning Objectives with Community Goals

Careful planning and communication with community partners are critical to ensuring that learning objectives are aligned with community partner goals and expectations. The more integrated the Service-Learning project is with the defined learning objectives and the specific needs of the community partner, the greater the synergy will be between learning and community impact. The lack of alignment could lead to frustration on the part of students as well as community partners, and will ultimately undermine the learning experience. Aligning learning objectives and community goals closely will help strengthen the reciprocity of benefits that flow to students, faculty, and community partners.

Academic Credit: For Learning, Not Service

Just like any other accredited course, academic credit is assigned based on learning and meeting course objectives, not for actual service, or quality of service, performed. Students should be able to incorporate concepts and theories learned in the classroom and apply them to the real world situations with which they are faced. Academic rigor does not need to be compromised as is sometimes assumed when integrating service activities. Students are mastering academic material while at the same time learning from more unstructured community experiences. Grades are similarly based on the extent that learning objectives are met, not the quality of the service performed.

Placement Quality

Successful Service-Learning projects require more than just directing students to a community partner. Establishing criteria for the selection of placement sites is key. A critical piece is finding a partner where the mission and goals of the organization match the overall course objectives, and where the types of service reinforce elements within the course content. For instance, working in a food pantry would not really be appropriate for a course on education policy. Similarly, performing menial clerical tasks at a food pantry for a course on “food security” would provide little learning benefit to the student. Service-Learning projects should seek to have a meaningful impact on the communities they serve.

Duration Matters

To have the most meaningful community impact, Service-Learning projects should be more than just one-off activities – a morning at a kitchen garden, an afternoon in a retirement home, a Saturday morning at the local food pantry. Such short term activities generally do not allow for the completion of learning objectives. To the extent possible, Service-Learning activities should be programmed across the semester and include multiple visits and interactions.

 Be Mindful of the Needs and Limitations of Community Partners

Service-Learning is a reciprocal relationship with communities; it is not only about the students. Many community partners are already overworked and stretched to their limit. Service-Learning programs represent a commitment of time and effort on the part of our community partners. Many are not looking to add additional work and responsibility to their workload with little return on their investment. Many partners understand volunteerism and internship programs, but may not be as not familiar with Service-Learning concepts and practices. Partners should be brought into the process early, and provided a strong voice in its design. Communication and pre-planning are required to help ensure the community partner understands the process, the objectives of the activity, and the time commitment. Be sure to help manage the expectations of the community partner about the end result, or final product, of the activity.

Provide the Right Tools for Student Learning Success

Learning does not necessarily occur on its own during a service experience. Student assignments need to be designed around the Service-Learning activity to facilitate student learning and to ensure learning objectives are achieved. Reflection is key (see next section). Written assignments, facilitated classroom discussion, presentations, journaling, and papers geared towards the Service-Learning activity will help deepen student learning. Faculty may also want to equip students with specific competencies needed to help in their learning at the service site, such as participant-observer skills, a data collection method used in qualitative research. Faculty may also want to provide examples of past outstanding work completed by students (papers, journals, etc.).

Reflection: A Critical Piece of the Learning Process

Reflection is a key component of the learning process. Reflection can help ground the service being performed with the concepts and theories taught in the classroom. It can help make the theories real, challenge pre-conceived notions and stereotypes, and elicit new perspectives. Reflection can occur through journaling, social media, activities, or during classroom discussions or on-site consultations with community members or partners. It should be continuous and intentional, in that you plan for reflection exercises before, during, and after the service experience. Reflecting on, and evaluating the Service-Learning activity will help measure the impact of the student’s learning experience and the effectiveness of the service activity, and will provide a platform for refinement, continuous improvement, and growth.


Campus Compact. (2003). Introduction to Service-Learning Toolkit. Providence, RI: Campus Compact.

Howard, Jeffrey. (Ed.). (2001). Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning: Service-Learning Course Design Workbook. Ann Arbor, MI: OCSL Press.

Jacoby, Barbara. (Ed). (1996). Service-Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Gottlieb, Karla and Robinson, Gail. (Ed.). (2002). A Practical Guide for Integrating Civic Responsibility in the Curriculum. Washington, DC: American Association of Community Colleges.