What is Service-Learning and Civic Engagement?


UK has sought to define service-learning and civic engagement as they relate to the university’s overall mission. 

Service-learning is defined as an integrative experience through which learners engage in thoughtfully organized actions in response to community identified assets and needs. Experiences are designed to be reciprocal exchanges of knowledge and resources accomplished through service and reflection. Learning outcomes promote academic and civic engagement and are focused on an equal balance between holistic learner development and community well-being. Service-learning can be credit bearing or non-credit bearing.

UK defines Civic Engagement as working to make a difference in the civic life (both political and non-political processes) of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference.

Service-learning and civic engagement are intrinsically linked and mutually supporting. 

There are a variety of approaches to experiential education that involve students being in communities (i.e., internships, cooperative education, field practica, study abroad). Service-learning (which any of these just listed can become, with intentional design) is distinct because it balances the focus on students and on community members as well as the focus on learning and on community outcomes as represented below (McCormick, 2008, adapted from Furco, 1996):

Service-learning also incorporates critical reflection as the means of generating, deepening, and documenting learning that includes civic learning and personal growth as well as academic learning and critical thinking (Ash & Clayton, 2009). It emphasizes reciprocity, which insists on mutual benefit and positions all partners as co-learners, co-educators, and co-generators of knowledge (Jameson, Clayton, & Jaeger, 2011; Sigmon 1996). Service-learning is thus not to be confused with volunteerism or community service: it closely ties service to academic content and uses that connection to generate and provide evidence of academic (and other) learning.

According to Bringle and Clayton (2012), there is “broad consensus” that service-learning involves “the integration of academic material, relevant service activities, and critical reflection in a reciprocal partnership that engages students, faculty/staff, and community members to achieve academic, civic, and personal learning objectives as well as to advance public purposes.” The engagement students experience through service-learning involves both their heart and their head (Eyler, 2012). The following set of Venn diagrams (Ash & Clayton, 2009) are helpful in graphically representing service-learning (whether curricular or co-curricular):