MET:Community Service Learning

From UBC Wiki

Community service learning (CSL) or Service-Learning is a form of experiential learning and a unique pedagogy that combines academic learning through practical work experience and critical reflection. The term “service-learning” was coined in 1967 by two educators, Robert Sigmon and William Ramsey to describe the process by which education was applied to community-based extra-curricular activities as a way for students to grow educationally. (Seitsinger, 2005) Since 1967, CSL has become an increasingly popular method of learning and has been strategically incorporated into courses at post-secondary institutions in North America and internationally (and in K-12 as well) to allow students an element of active engagement in their own learning. Denby (2008) found that as a form of community-engaged learning, service learning has a positive impact on students' sense of civic responsibility and also enhances community capacity.

Embedded in CSL is the notion that a partnerships between students, educators, and the community and is at the heart of the learning paradigm. This triad forms the core upon which any service learning experience is built. An integral element and perhaps the most important factor determining the success of such partnership is "communication". As with any partnership, all involved must be aware of the goals, clarify expectations to prevent misunderstandings, and establish the resources needed to ensure that partnership projects are completed and successfully representing the needs of all partners. (Worrall, 2007)

Apples Service Learning Program (2009)

The most important principle is therefore that "good partnerships are founded on trust, respect, mutual benefit, good communication, and governance structures that allow democratic decision-making, process improvement, and resource sharing. More structured partnerships also include mutually agreed upon vision, mission, goals, and evaluation, and long-term commitment, particularly on the part of the higher education institution." (as cited in Worrall, 2007, p. 5) The following diagram provides a visual explanation of the dynamics of the CSL partnership and provides a clear understanding of the interconnectivity that exists between the partners.

CSL - the Construct

The Canadian Alliance for Community Service defines service learning as: "an educational approach that integrates service in the community with intentional learning activities. Within effective CSL efforts, members of both educational institutions and community organizations work together toward outcomes that are mutually beneficial."

A slightly different definition is put forward by National Service-Learning Clearinghouse which sees CSL 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.”

What is clear in definitions of CSL, is that in terms of best-practices, it is seen to be of benefit to students, institutions, and the community they serve. As a form of experiential learning, students engaged in CSL must apply problem-solving and critical thinking skills to real-life experience. Furthermore, as CSL is embedded in formal curricula, students also reflect, share, and discuss their experiences with others. Courses provide an avenue for experiential and reflective education, integration of academic learning with community service, reciprocal collaboration between partners, enhance learning without compromising academic rigor, and finally for providing opportunities for students to connect their experience with learning outcomes and a base for discourse and critical reflection. (Apples Service Learning Program, 2009)

Apples Service Learning Program (2009)

Reflection is at the heart of CSL, and Eyler (2000, p. 519) argues that CSL is effective “because of the depth of critical analysis it can facilitate."(as cited in Clayton and Ash, 2004, p. 61) Furthermore, there is evidence that service-learning that connects experience with academic study through reflection may contribute to a deeper understanding of social problems and to the cognitive development that makes it possible for students to identify, frame, and resolve the ill structured social problems that we must deal with as engaged citizens in communities. Reflection itself is an intentional act and students often need instructor guidance as to how to formulate and organize their experiences in a reflective manner. Structured reflection is nonetheless important because provides a framework for students to ground their service experiences in an academic and personal context.

The Apples Service Learning Program has created a document titled the Service-Learning Pedagogy Resource (2009) that aims to build capacity amongst instructors and community partners alike in the process of integrating CSL into their classrooms. This document outlines the purpose behind the following rubric suggesting that it should be used in "identifying those areas where faculty and instructors are fully engaged and operating at an advanced capacity". It therefore acts as a resource for instructors to identify potential areas for growth relating to community service learning within their own classrooms.

Apples Service Learning Program (2009)

CSL and Constructivism

Constructivism is learning theory that encompasses a number of perspectives. Constructivists in particular view learning as an active process in which learners actively construct knowledge as they search for meaning. At its core, constructivist theory suggests that knowledge is a construct rather than an explanation. Knowledge resides in the mind of learners and thus learning results from making interpretations of the world. Constructivist strategies allow for enriching educational experiences and poses a new level of academic challenge. Jonassen (1994) proposed several characteristics that differentiate constructivist learning environments, and a few that tie directly to the construct of CSL:

  • Avoid oversimplification and represent the complexity of the real world
  • Emphasize knowledge construction instead of knowledge reproduction
  • Emphasize authentic tasks in a meaningful context rather than abstract instruction out of context
  • Provide learning environments such as real-world settings
  • Encourage thoughtful reflection on experience
  • Support "collaborative construction of knowledge through social negotiation" (Jonassen, 1994)

Furthermore, Howard (1998) makes clear that, "because of its counter-normative nature, service-learning is not for the meek and that reformatting classroom norms, roles, and outcomes so that both academic and experiential learning can be joined requires a very deliberate effort around a rather formidable challenge."(as cited in Clayton and Ash, 2001, p. 69) For the past number of years this formidable challenge has existed not only in terms of constructing constructivism classroom setting that include self-directed and reflective learning but also in determining how service learning can be integrated with the theories of constructivism. Currently lack of research underlining the similarities of these two constructs clearly suggest the need for further discussion in this domain. For now, an attempt to establish a relationship is clear.

CSL has been often been described as “collaborative, reflective, participatory, reciprocal, self-directed, egalitarian, engaging, and connected” (Clayton and Ash, 2004) This type of transformational learning possesses the same characteristics and goals as constructivist theory. The similarities, striking as they are, collectively seek the active learner experience, the type of experience that could possibly be found only outside the classroom. This being said it has been noted that students engaged in service learning "show an increase in their level of critical thinking demonstrated in problem analysis" (p. 127); and "demonstrate a more systemic locus for causes and solutions to problems." (Schultz, 1999) The reward for students, as Schultz (1999) notes comes from helping others and in personal growth. This achievement can only be associated with a constructivist learning approach, in so far collaboration between peers and personal knowledge creation is concerned.

CSL and Technology

At present, there is limited research to date to reflect the benefits of technology in combination with this new learning paradigm. However, CSL and technology are compatible in regard to making service learning successful in the classroom environment.

New and emerging technology can strengthen the CSL class, community, and learning experience in a number of ways. Tools such as forums, blogs, wikis, and social-networking sites provide dynamic avenues for student reflections, (e)portfolios, and stories. Furthermore, they provide students with ways to troubleshoot and connect with fellow students and community partners. For students less inclined to speak up in class, discussion forums, for example, provide a different way for them to participate. (Learn and Serve America, N.D.)

Given the complexity of service learning environments, technology can act as a mediator between the instructor, students and community partners. Service learning classrooms depend on complex instructional design to guide projects, students and collaboration with those involved. Specific service learning courses may have a website students can refer to for instruction. As students may do work outside of the classroom, they depend heavily on resources that make information mobile. Aside from this, instructors may also choose to use the affordances of Web 2.0 applications to help connect students to their peers and to other communities of practice. As mentioned above, instructors can use Web 2.0 as an avenue for student reflections, for creating portfolios of their accumulated experiences, to share stories with the community and to integrate their academic education with their personal environment. Through appropriate use of technology, CSL can become more than a school activity, and a way in which the two distinct worlds of school and education, and career and personal growth, can meet to create a synergy and a new way of learning without boundaries.

CSL - Distinctions

Institute for Civic and Community Engagement (ICCE)

CSL versus Volunteering

Volunteerism is distinct from CSL. While both are ways in which individuals can be more engaged civically, volunteering as an individual activity does not involve reflection, discussion with peers in a class setting, and is not necessarily tied to learning outcomes.

CSL versus Co-operative Education

Cooperative education programs are offered at most universities and colleges and differ in that work placements are typically paid positions in which students compete for jobs that are related to their particular field of study (Dobson, 2005). Some cooperative education programs require students to not only write a report on their work experience and some are moving toward requiring more reflective writing on student experience, students typically work full-time for one or more semester in each coop placement and suspend their regular study during that period. In contrast, CSL placements typically are part-time volunteer placement at local not-for-profit agencies and service learning courses form one part of a students' overall coursework in any given academic semester.

Sigmon's (1994) Service-Learning Typology. As quoted by Furco, 1996, p. 2.

This diagram explains a four-part typology of service learning according to Sigmon (1994). His concept of service learning clearly distinguishes between service and learning components therefore offering a unique perspective into the relationship and balance between commitments to service and commitments to learning. According to Furco (1996) Sigmon claims that both components of service learning are of equal weight and each enhances the other, however this is not to say that other service-oriented opportunities such as volunteering, cooperative education and internships do not hold any value. He specifically asserts that "rather than being located at a single point, each program type occupies a range of points on the continuum. Where one type begins and the other ends is not as important as the idea that each service program type has unique characteristics that distinguish it from other types." (Furco, 1996, p.3)

CSL and Instructional Design

Instructional design involves defining learning outcomes and competencies, determining content, determining instructional strategies and methods for presenting material, developing the curriculum and finally determining assessment strategies. Successful instructional design is based on the extent to which the learners participating in learning experiences acquire skills, and transfer them to their professional and personal environment. To this extent, instructional design is heavily dependent on the learning method and the context in which the learning is to take place. CSL, in this regard, requires a design concentrated heavily on the learning experience of the learner rather than the traditional teaching practices that focused heavily on content and cognition. "The focus on the “what” of student learning rather than the “how” leaves us with a theoretical “black box” regarding the contextual and process mechanisms in service-learning that enhance certain cognitive, affective, and behavioral outcomes — particularly those that are transformative" (as cited in Kiely, 2005, p. 5).

As cited in Apples Service Learning Program (2009)

This diagram represents the steps to be integrated into a service learning classroom, as adapted from Shulman (1987). This diagram is to be used only as a template when integrating service learning into the classroom. Service learning courses are so different from one another in style and approach that such template can only act as a starting point for an instructor. The overall instructional design should be approached keeping all stakeholders in mind, in this case the needs of the community partner, and not just the learning goals of the students. Ideally, the community partners are contacted prior to the instuctional design phase in order to ensure that a partnership does exist and the community partner is willing to take on such project.

Benefits and Perceptions of CSL

The collective benefits of CSL on students, educators and the community are numerous and the triad (students, faculty and community) each benefit in unique and different ways. Although much research exists on the benefits of CSL to students and faculty, there has been limited research in terms of community perspective. Worrall (2007) agrees that "substantially less is known about the effects of service-learning programs and students on the organizations serving as community partners for these programs." She points out that the "community experience is critical in the service-learning enterprise." While the effects of CSL on community organisations is less known, Worrall (2007) points to research that suggests community partners value the additional resources that CSL brings them.

The following is a list of benefits that service learning can bring to students, faculty and community partners. This list is by no means exhaustive, however it provides enough perspective into how service learning can have an impact on those involved:

Benefits to Students:

  • Provides hands on experience (applies knowledge to life experiences)
  • Provides beneficial experience that can be used when applying for career
  • Promotes good communication skills and increased ability to work in groups
  • Promotes self-exploration, growth and leadership
  • Promotes organizational and time management skills

Benefits to Faculty:

  • Provides opportunities to apply academic knowledge to the community
  • Creates a bridge between Academia and the Community
  • Provides an opportunity for research and research partnerships, with organizations and with other CSL professors
  • Allows for implementation of new learning methods to enhance student learning

Benefits to the Community:

  • Allows students to gain insight into organizations and their mandates
  • Allows organizations to promote their programs to the student demographic
  • Utilizes the diverse backgrounds and fresh perspectives of students
  • Adds and creates a connection with academia and students that could contribute to and/or benefit from organization's services

Challenges with CSL

Hayes (2005) notes that one of the criticisms of CSL is that some consider it "fluff", and in their article on the theoretical roots of service learning, Eyler & Giles (1994) lament its lack of a conceptual framework. Lansverk (2004) argues that the term "Service Learning" itself is unclear and requires further explanation. This may well be the case since critics have refered to it as 'ladling soup' for credit, however it is important to note that community service learning is a fairly new term and a fairly new pedagogy. This criticism is easily dismissed when the service aspect of service learning is integrated with academic theory and rigor, and new studies on the impact of such a powerful combination on student learning.

Another aspect of concern is that of reflection, and when lacking adequate direction, students may find it difficult to differentiate satisfaction (in their CSL placement) with learning (Eyler, 2000). To this end, the instructor/course facilitator's role in guiding students through their placement and in helping them develop their reflective skills is critical. Assessment is another challenge associated with community service learning. It is difficult to clearly assess a student's learning on a course in which assignments are meant to be as close to 'real life' projects as possible. In comparison to other courses, CSL courses are regarded by some as disorganized and lacking focus or direction. The instructor has to be available to adapt course content to each new scenario and challenge that arises, therefore creating opportunities for disagreements between students and instructors. As such, students may feel that because they are not graded based on a specific rubric, the instructor may not be aware of the student's progress in the course.

The short-term duration of CSL projects forms another challenge as the short term nature of CSL (usually the length of a four month academic semester) limits the ability for meaningful service learning project to be designed. Short duration, compounded with lack of communication between the partners can break a partnership. As Worrall (2007) observed, campus-community partnerships are not without challenges. Frustration with (inflexible) academic terms, varying degrees of interest in community work on the part of students, and a perception that many faculty members appear to lack knowledge about or interest in the organizations at which their students serve, can cause tension within the partnership and even break them in the long run. Worrall (2007) comments that: "Every organization reported some level of frustration with the limited time that [students] can contribute to their organizations and a sense that a certain percentage of students were uninterested in the organizations’ missions or unprepared to engage with the community work." (Worrall, 2007) This is not surprising, given the fact that four months is often not enough time to learn about the partner organization, let alone fulfill the requirements of a community project with a specific organization. To this end, there have been debates that CSL should be taught on it's own, as a course, and that students must fulfill those course requirements prior to enrolling in a service learning related course.

A last CSL challenge is the complexity and time commitment required to implement service learning strategies within the classroom curriculum. Often professors do not have the resources, the support of faculty nor the time to fully devote themselves to integrating a service learning approach to their teaching methods. Worrall (2007) notes that constraints that compound this include the academic calendar (schedule) itself, a lack of preparation on the part of students, scheduling conflicts, and a lack of faculty involvement. Professors who engage and take on the task of adopting service learning into their classroom quickly find out that service learning, while it can enhance student learning, is not sustainable in an environment that does not provide support to those who choose to embrace this method.

Stop-Motion Video: The Seed- A Story about CSL by Sarah McLean


Apples Service Learning Program. (2009) Backgrounder: Service Learning Pedagogy Resource. Retrieved from

Clayton, P. H., & Ash, S. L. (2004). Shifts in Perspective: Capitalizing on the Counter-Normative Nature of Service-Learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 11 (1), 59-70.

Denby, R. (2008). (The Impact of Service-Learning on Students' Sense of Civic Responsibility). Faculty of Graduate Studies, The University of Western Ontario.

Dobson, J. (2005). International Co-op at Thompson Rivers University: A Manual for the Development and Implementation of International Co-op Placements at TRU. Department of Cooperative and Career Education, Thompson Rivers University.

Eyler, J. (2000). What do we need to know most about the impact of service-learning on student learning. [Electronic Version]. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. Special Issue.

Eyler, J. & Giles, D.E. (1999). Where’s the learning in service-learning? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Furco, A. (1996). Service-Learning: A Balanced Approach to Experiential Education. In A. Furco, Expanding Boundaries: Service and Learning (pp. 2-6). Washington DC: Corporation for National Service.

Hayes, E. (2005). (Community Service-Learning: Annotated Bibliography). Canadian Association of Service Learning.

Institute for Civic and Community Engagement. Backgrounder: Community Service Learning (CSL). Retrieved from

Jonassen, D. H. (1994). Thinking technology: Towards a constructivist design model. Educational Technology, 3 (4), 34-37.

Kiely, R. (Fall 2005). A Transformative Learning Model for Service-Learning: A Longitudinal Case Study. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 12 (1), 5-22.

Lansverk, M. (2004). (An Apologie for Service Learning). The Montana Professor, 14(2), Spring 2004.

National Service-Learning Clearinghouse (N.D.). Backgrounder: The Use of Technology in Higher Education Service-Learning. Retrieved from

Schultz, S. (1999). Where's the Learning in Service-Learning? [Review of the book Where's the Learning in Service-Learning?, by J. Eyler and D. E. Giles, Jr.] Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 6 (1), 142-143.

Seitsinger, A. M. (2005). Service-Learning and Standards-Based Instruction in Middle Schools. The Journal of Educational Research 99, 19-31.

Shulman, L. (1987). A model of pedagogical reasoning in knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57 (1), p. 15.

Worrall, L. (Fall 2007). Asking the Community: A Case Study of Communtity Partner Perspectives. The Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 14 (1), 5-17.

Resources - Websites and Blogs


Canadian Alliance for Community Service

International Association for Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement

International Service Learning

Learn and Serve America

National Service-Learning Clearinghouse (United States)


Edutopia "How to bring service-learning to your school"

American Democracy Project "Partnerships for Service-Learning: Impacts on Communities and Students"

American Democracy Project "Chrislem's Service Learning Journal (good example of CSL from a student's perspective"

Further Reading

Graff, L. (2006) Volunteering and Mandatory Community Service: Choice – Incentive – Coercion – Obligation.A Discussion Paper. Volunteer Canada.

Stoecker, R., Elizabeth, A. T., & Hilgendorf, A. (Eds.). (2009). The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Related Videos

TRU Service-Learning 100 Fall 2009 — 3 videos in!


Academic Outcomes Through Service-Learning


Community Service Learning at UBC: Garth (Schools)