Service Learning: A Primer

“Service learning” is a dynamic, youth-driven, experiential approach to developing the academic, civic, leadership, and life skills that young people need to succeed in an increasingly competi- tive and globalized world. With specific educational goals at its core, service learning is described as “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”

Service learning programs tap into the interests and needs of both the participants and the communities they serve. While these types of programs vary in terms of their content, struc- ture, and design, there are some key components found in the most effective programs, including:

  • Formal instruction or content-based learning activities;

  • Meaningful youth-designed or youth-initiated activities that translate knowledge to action;

  • Reflection for personal and group growth; and

  • Opportunities for participants to connect with his/her community and the world at large.

At their best, programs rooted in the concept of service learning not only provide activities that benefit the community but also foster critical thinking, encourage a sense of self-efficacy and self-worth, and cultivate responsible attitudes and behaviors in the participants themselves.

To understand the complex notion of service learning, consider one example. When students collect cans of food for the hungry, they provide a necessary service. However, when they research and learn about broader issues—such as the root causes of hunger, whether existing food pantries meet demand, the ways in which food pantries are funded and operated, public policy on poverty, what percentage of people in their community are living in poverty, how to advocate for increased funding for pantries, and how to promote awareness of food stamps among those in need—they experience service learning.

In this illustration of service learning, the students do not simply provide a service nor are they educated in the traditional sense. Rather, the combination of service and learning enables them to build academic, research, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills through a thoughtful examination of poverty, policy, and the role of government, citizens, and communities. The “service” aspect—in this case, the collection of canned goods for the hungry—provides participants with hands-on opportunities to contribute to their community, creates a sense of empowerment, and hones project planning and leadership skills. When combined with thorough research on the topic of hunger, however, service learning provides a powerful tool for motivating the students to realize their potential and, ultimately, become “givers” instead of “receivers” of services.

There are many things that service learning is not. It is not volunteering. It is not a form of punishment from school administration. While the simple accumulation of community service hours as a graduation requirement can provide incentive, service learning is not this either. Most importantly, it is not solely the domain of the typical student leader or academically strong student. Good service learning programs attract participants from all academic levels, ground themselves in the interests and issues of the community they serve, and respect the contributions of all participants. As a result, service learning programs can address the direct needs of at-risk youth and inhibit risky behavior.

Indeed, research has shown that service learning is a proven strategy to help adolescents stay on track and improve their chances of succeeding in the classroom. Studies show that the combination of structured learning and challenging service experiences offers benefits that are especially significant for adolescent participants, including reduced risk for pregnancy, increased school engagement, and improved chances for academic success. While many after school programs offer valuable support and services, service learning programs are often more attractive to adolescents than are traditional youth programs; after-school programs dedicated to service learning are a useful strategy for building the social, emotional, behavioral and intellectual competencies that may reduce risky behavior.

Though it may seem apparent, it is important to note that successful service learning programs are always supported by adults who believe in young people and who are willing to give them challenging, meaningful, and empowering opportunities to learn and take action. More so, perhaps, than other types of educational programs, service learning initiatives are a guided process in which youth workers play a vital role. In the end, however, it is the youth involved who must take ownership and responsibility for its success.