Service Learning


Service-learning is a teaching and learning method that connects meaningful community service experiences with academic learning, personal growth, and civic responsibility. It can be a powerful vehicle for real school reform at all grade levels. There are several elements of a successful program:

  • It is reciprocal; students and those who benefit from the students’ services learn from each other;
  • Students learn by doing;
  • Students reflect on what they are doing through writing and discussion of applications in a real-world context;
  • It is interesting and exciting because students are the leaders of the project; and
  • Students are engaged in community-based learning projects (Shumer & Duckenfield, 2004, p. 141).

Service-Learning Is Needed

There are many reasons why students drop out of school, but the most common ones are boredom and disaffection. Service-learning is an active learning strategy that connects students to the school and the real world. Personal and social development are also influenced and students learn a sense of responsibility (Leming, 1998; Scales & Blyth, 1997). Middle school students, in particular, benefit from service-learning activities. Students have the opportunity to work as a team, build their self-esteem and self-efficacy, and collaborate with positive adult role models.

What Is Service-Learning?

Service-learning is a teaching and learning method that connects meaningful community service experiences with academic learning, personal growth, and civic responsibility. It can be a powerful vehicle for real school reform at all grade levels.

The Learn and Serve America Program defines service-learning as a method whereby participants learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that are coordinated through collaboration between the school and community; provide structured time for students to think, talk, and write about what they did and saw during the service activity; provide students with opportunities to use newly acquired academic skills and knowledge in real life situations in their own communities; enhance what is taught in the school by extending student learning beyond the classroom; and help foster development of a sense of caring for others.

Benefits of Service-Learning

Service-learning enriches the lives of all youth. This teaching methodology provides developmental opportunities that promote personal, social, and intellectual growth, as well as civic responsibility and career exploration. Most young people have critical needs in each of these areas that must be met if they are to make a successful transition from childhood to adulthood. Studies have validated the positive effects of service-learning on at-risk students (Follman, 1998; O’Bannon, 1999). It has proven to be particularly effective in reducing teen pregnancy (Kirby, 2001; Melchior, 1999). Students are more apt to vote and become politically active if they participate in service-learning activities (Morgan & Streb, 2001).

Key Elements of Successful Programs

Pearson (2002) and Shumer (1997) have identified several facets of a successful Service-Learning program:

  • A variety of learning materials and instructional methods are used;
  • There is time for reflection;
  • Alternative assessments are used;
  • Students are involved in the curricular planning;
  • Students apply their knowledge and skills to a community need;
  • Semester- or year-long projects have more impact; and
  • Service-learning is fun.

Service-learning can transform schools into “places of active learning, connected to people and programs in the community, inviting young people to become excited about the possibilities of helping others while helping themselves at the same time” (Shumer & Duckenfield, 2004, p. 162).


  • Fishman, T., & Swanson, L. (2011).  Teachable Moments: Ethics and Reflection in Service-LearningLinking Learning with Life.
  • Follman, J. (1998). Florida Learn and Serve: 1996-1997 outcomes and correlations with 1994-1995 and 1995-1996. Tallahassee, FL: Center for Civic Education and Service, Florida State University.
  • Kirby, D. (2001, May). Emerging answers: Research findings on programs to reduce teen pregnancy. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
  • Leming, J. (1998, Autumn). Adding value to service-learning projects. Insights on Global Ethics, 7.
  • Melchior, A. (1999). Summary report: National evaluation of Learn and Serve America. Waltham, MA: Center for Human Resources, Brandeis University.
  • Morgan W., & Streb, M. (2001, March). Building citizenship: How student voice in service-learning develops civic values. Social Science Quarterly, 82(1), 155-169.
  • O’Bannon, F. (1999). Service-learning benefits our schools. State Education Leader, 17, 3.
  • Pearson, S. (2002). Finding common ground: Service-learning and educational reform. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.
  • Scales, P. & Blyth, D. (1997, Winter). Effects of service-learning on youth: What we know and what we need to know. The Generator, 6-9.
  • Shumer, R. (1997). Learning from qualitative research. In A. Waterman (Ed.), Service-learning: Applications from the research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, Inc.
  • Shumer, R. & Duckenfield, M. (2004). Service-learning: Engaging students in community-based learning. In F. P. Schargel & J. Smink (Eds), Helping Students Graduate: A Strategic Approach to Dropout Prevention (pp. 155-163). Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.
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