Service learning unites classwork and community service, and reminds college students of their responsibilities as citizens and skilled professionals.

What Is Service Learning?


  • Through service learning, students can put their majors to work for the public good.
  • College service-learning programs combine coursework and community engagement.
  • Participating gives students a sense of purpose and civic pride, and can boost grades.

There are many ways to define "service learning" — academics tallied 147 definitions back in 1990. At its core, service learning combines classroom instruction with community service. Students learn academic concepts in the context of social issues. Then, rather than passively studying solutions, these students actively develop new plans of action by volunteering.

College service-learning opportunities can come in the form of one-off volunteering for class credit, courses that include a community service component, and programs that extend over multiple terms with a series of courses that align with ongoing community projects.

“Service, combined with learning, adds value to each and transforms both.”

Service learning is most effective, education scholars say, when the two elements ("service" and "learning") are perfectly balanced. All service-learning programs should put equal weight on learning outcomes and community action goals.

Performing the service and receiving the education are mutually reinforcing. In other words, involvement in co-curricular activities strengthens student outcomes. Learners who participate in service learning, get involved with campus life, and assume leadership roles often earn better grades and graduate from college at higher rates.

How Service Learning in College Works

Today, more than 2 million students participate in service learning at over 1,000 U.S. colleges. Many institutions partner with organizations to offer service-learning programs. Every student cohort tackles a different project, unique to their course's subject matter and the community's needs.

Service learning builds relevant skills for multiple career tracks. The experience can also help students land internships and jobs with nonprofits and government organizations. Often offered through health, social science, education, humanities, and STEM programs, service-learning projects hone students' communication skills and cultural competencies.


Service Learning Examples

  • Build homes with Habitat for Humanity
  • Restore an ecological site
  • Help the homeless
  • Tutor or mentor younger students
  • Develop websites or web content for community organizations
  • Create software or hardware to address local tech needs
  • Provide outreach and education for nonprofits, museums, libraries, and other places

Service learning can especially benefit students majoring in public health, education, or engineering. Public health and education majors can develop key professional skills through fieldwork, whereas engineering students can benefit from service learning as an alternative, community-based learning approach.

Education leaders are looking to service learning to help them recruit and retain more diverse students in engineering. Project-based learning with community impact could help many STEM students see real-world significance of their work.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has suspended many in-person service-learning opportunities. Until normal programs resume, students can find ways to pitch in online by fundraising, working as digital advocates, tutoring children over video chat, or writing letters to the elderly and first responders.

What Are the Benefits of Service Learning?

Some place a hyphen between "service" and "learning," and educators argue this punctuation mark stands for "reflection." Taking time to reflect is an integral part of service learning, underscoring the connection between coursework, community, and students' roles as citizens.

According to a research study on college service learning, "Reflection is a vital and ongoing process of service learning that connects learning to experience through awareness, positive cognitive outcomes, and personal growth." Structured reflection activities can include journaling, essay-writing, group discussions, cooperative brainstorming, and student presentations.

The main benefits of service learning include developing and strengthening marketable soft skills, like creative problem-solving, leadership, and self-efficacy, as well as increasing cultural awareness, empathy, receptivity, and self-confidence.

Service Learning Outcomes

  • Interpersonal skills
  • Diversity awareness
  • Leadership skills
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Innovative thinking
  • Understanding of the meaning and purpose of academics
  • Heightened sense of citizenship and civic responsibility
  • Hands-on experience in chosen field
  • Community engagement

Why Is Service Learning Important?

Service learning benefits every participant. Colleges produce career-ready graduates and give back to the community, while communities gain access to higher education's resources and talent. At the same time, students gain real-life professional experiences with personal payoffs.

Research by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 73% of employers want candidates who learned how to effectively apply their knowledge and skills by completing real-world, hands-on experiences, like internships and service-learning projects.

Nearly three-fourths of employers want candidates who learned how to effectively apply their knowledge and skills by completing real-world, hands-on experiences, like service-learning projects.

In the short term, service learning supports student success. Co-curricular activities, such as service learning and student leadership, are associated with good grades, graduating on time, and more advanced writing skills.

In the long term, service-learning graduates — much like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps alumni — go on to report high levels of civic engagement and personal fulfillment; they also raise their chances of standing out from other job candidates and securing the position they want.

Not every student will have the option of pursuing a service-learning program, but if you do, consider the numerous ways you'll benefit from participating in such a project.


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