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Service Learning | What is Service-Learning?

What Is Service-Learning?

Service-learning at Trinity is rooted in the concept of community-based learning. Community-based learning combines community service with academic instruction. Students:

  • provide service (as defined by the community); and,
  • reflect on the service activity as a means of gaining a better understanding of course content.

CBL is a pedagogy that challenges students to test classroom theories with real life experiences. It is not just another class assignment. Students are required to build relationships and work cooperatively with members of a pre-selected community organization who have agreed to collaborate with First Year (INT) seminars and to act as community hosts.

Other, related concepts include:

Volunteerism . . . performing services for others in the community without material compensation and the primary intended beneficiary is clearly the service recipient (e.g., campus ministry activities).

Community Service . . . the engagement of students with the primary focus on the service being provided as well as the benefits the service activities have on the recipients. The students receive credit for learning about how their unpaid service work makes a difference in the lives of the service recipients (e.g., high school requirement).

Internship . . . performing service primarily for the purpose of providing the students with pre-professional experience. It allows students to prepare for and test out their career interests while earning college credit. However, development of students’ civic responsibility is not the primary focus.

Other Definitions of Service-Learning

Service-learning means a method under which students learn and develop through thoughtfully-organized service that: is conducted in and meets the needs of a community and is coordinated with an institution of higher education, and with the community; helps foster civic responsibility; is integrated into and enhances the academic curriculum of the students enrolled; and includes structured time for students to reflect on the service experience.

American Association for Higher Education (AAHE): Series on Service-Learning in the Disciplines (adapted from the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993).


Service-learning means a method under which students or participants learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service that: is conducted in and meets the needs of a community and is coordinated with an elementary school, secondary school, institution of higher education, [and] or community service program, and with the community; helps foster civic responsibility; is integrated into and enhances the academic curriculum of the students or the educational components of the community service program in which the participants are enrolled; and includes structured time for the students and participants to reflect on the service experience.

National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993


Service-learning is a method through which citizenship, academic subjects, skills, and values are taught. It involves active learning–drawing lessons from the experience of performing service work. Though service-learning is most often discussed in the context of elementary and secondary or higher education, it is a useful strategy as well for programs not based in schools.

There are three basic components to effective service-learning:

  • The first is sufficient preparation, which includes setting objectives for skills to be learned or issues to consider, and includes planning projects so they contribute to learning at the same time work gets done.
  • The second component is simply performing service.
  • Third, the participant attempts to analyze the experience and draw lessons, through such means as discussion with others and reflection on the work. Thinking about the service creates a greater understanding of the experience and the way service addresses the needs of the community. It promotes a concern about community issues and a commitment to being involved that mark an active citizen. At the same time the analysis and thought allow the participants to identify and absorb what they have learned.

Learning and practicing citizenship are life-long activities which extend far beyond the conclusion of formal education. Service-learning can be used to increase the citizenship skills of participants of any age or background. For this reason service-learning can be a tool to achieve the desired results of programs, even those involving older, highly educated participants. For example, service-learning can be part of the training of participants to prepare them to do high quality service that has real community impact.

Some service-learning occurs just from doing the work: after a month working alongside police, a participant has surely learned some important lessons about how to increase public safety, and something about what it means to be a good citizen. However, programs that encourage active learning from service experience may have an even greater impact.

Developed by the Corporation on National and Community Service as part of their briefing materials for national community service.


Service is a process of integrating intention with action in a context of movement toward a just relationship.

Community Service is the application of one’s gifts, skills, and resources to provide something of value, to enhance the quality of life of people who articulate a need or desire for service.

Community Service is a space to practice here and now small scale models of a shared utopian vision.

Service-learning is a form or subset of experiential education and community service.

In service-learning, service is the experiential component of experiential education.

Service-learning is an intentionally designed (course, program, activity, etc.), and is a process of learning through reflection on the experience of doing service.

Nadinne Cruz, Associate Director, Haas Center for Public Service


Service-learning appears to be an approach to experiential learning, an expression of values — service to others, which determines the purpose, nature and process of social and educational exchange between learners (students) and the people they serve, and between experiential education programs and the community organizations with which they work.

Tim Stanton, Director, Public Service Medical Scholars (PriSMS), Stanford University


“Service-learning is the various pedagogies that link community service and academic study so that each strengthens the other. The basic theory of service-learning is Dewey’s: the interaction of knowledge and skills with experience is key to learning. Students learn best not by reading the Great Books in a closed room but by opening the doors and windows of experience. Learning starts with a problem and continues with the application of increasingly complex ideas and increasingly sophisticated skills to increasingly complicated problems.”

Tom Ehrlich, in: Barbara Jacoby and Associates. Service-Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1996.


A service-learning program provides educational experiences:

  • Under which students learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that meet actual community needs and that are coordinated in collaboration with school and community;
  • That is integrated into the students’ academic curriculum or provides structured time for a student to think, talk, or write about what the student did and saw during the actual service activity;
  • That provides a student with opportunities to use newly-acquired skills and knowledge in real-life situations in their own communities; and
  • That enhances what is taught by extending student learning beyond the classroom and into the community and helps to foster the development of a sense of caring for others.

From the Commission on National and Community Service (now the Corporation for National and Community Service). In Richard J. Kraft and James Krug, “Review of Research and Evaluation on Service Learning in Public and Higher Education,” Chapter 24 of Richard J. Kraft and Marc Swadener, Building Community: Service Learning in the Academic Disciplines. Denver, CO: Colorado Campus Compact, 1994.


Service-Learning is:

. . . A connection of theory and practice that puts concepts into concrete form and provides a context for understanding abstract matter. This provides an opportunity to test and refine theories as well as to introduce new theories.

. . . A use of knowledge with a historical understanding or appreciation of social, economic and environmental implications as well as moral and ethical ramifications of people’s actions. This involves a strong use of communication and interpersonal skills including literacy (writing, reading, speaking and listening) and various technical skills.

. . . An opportunity to learn how to learn — to collect and evaluate data, to relate seemingly unrelated matters and ideas, and investigate a self-directed learning including inquiry, logical thinking and a relation of ideas and experience. A transference of learning from one context to another will allow for the opportunity to reflect, conceptualize and apply experience-based knowledge.

. . . An emphasis on diversity and pluralism that lends to empowerment in the face of social problems; experience that helps people understand and appreciate traditions of volunteerism; and a consideration of and experimentation with democratic citizenship responsibilities.

At their best, service-learning experiences are reciprocally beneficial for both the community and students. For many community organizations, students augment service delivery, meet crucial human needs, and provide a basis for future citizen support. For students, community service is an opportunity to enrich and apply classroom knowledge; explore careers or majors; develop civic and cultural literacy; improve citizenship, develop occupational skills; enhance personal growth and self-image; establish job links; and foster a concern for social problems, which leads to a sense of social responsibility and commitment to public/human service.

From Brevard Community College, The Power. July, 1994.


Service-learning is a teaching method which combines community service with academic instruction as it focuses on critical, reflective thinking and civic responsibility. Service-learning programs involve students in organized community service that addresses local needs, while developing their academic skills, sense of civic responsibility, and commitment to the community.

Community College National Center for Community Engagement


Service learning relies on an innovative method of teaching and learning that integrates community service activities into academic curricula. Within service learning, classroom studies complement service within the community and enable students to reflect upon and lead to addressing local and national problems. Service learning curricula enlarge the learning arena of students from the classroom to the community. Coordinated and thoughtful activities encourage students to prepare and reflect on issues in ways that permit them to use their academic skills to deliver effective service to the community allowing service learning to transform students from passive learners of information into active learners and community members whose responsible actions and service efforts renew and change the landscape of their communities. Service learning not only changes the way students learn, but it changes society’s view of education and service. In this sense, service learning is a philosophy of education and service to the community.

Karley Ausiello, Massachusetts Campus Compact, Tufts University


Service Learning is a process through which students are involved in community work that contributes significantly: 1) to positive change in individuals, organizations, neighborhoods and/or larger systems in a community; and 2) to students’ academic understanding, civic development, personal or career growth, and/or understanding of larger social issues.

This process always includes an intentional and structured educational/developmental component for students, and may be employed in curricular or co-curricular settings. Even with an expanded vision for the field, service-learning will undoubtedly continue to play a critical role in campus-community collaboration.

From Charity to Change Minnesota Campus Compact


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

Jane Kendall & Associates, Combining Service and Learning. Raleigh, NC: National Society for Internships and Experiential Education (Now National Society for Experiential Education), 1990.


Service-learning is a credit-bearing, educational experience in which students particpate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility.

Bob Bringle and Julie Hatcher, “A Service Learning Curriculum for Faculty.” The Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. Fall 1995. 112-122.


Service-learning means a method under which students learn and develop through thoughtfully organized service that: is conducted in and meets the needs of a community and is coordinated with an institution of higher education, and with the community; helps foster civic responsibility; is integrated into and enhances the academic curriculum of the students enrolled; and includes structured time for students to reflect on the service experience.

American Association for Higher Education (AAHE): Series on Service-Learning in the Disciplines (adapted from the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993). Campus Compact National Center for Community Colleges

This list compiled by Campus Compact.


Trinity Office of Service-Learning and Community-Based Learning and Research, 487 Main Hall
Roxana Moayedi, Faculty Director, (202) 884-9266, moayedir@trinitydc.edu

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