Skip to main content

What is Service-Learning?

When searching for definitions of service-learning in the literature or on the web, you will find hundreds of definitions. However, most definitions include many of the same components.

A brief, simple definition of service-learning: “Service, combined with learning, adds value to each and transforms both.” (Honnet & Poulsen, 1989, p.1)

SOURCE'S Preferred Definition of Service-Learning

From Community-Campus Partnership for Health (CCPH): Service-learning is a structured learning experience that combines community service with preparation and reflection. Students engaged in service-learning provide community service in response to community-identified concerns and learn about the context in which service is provided, the connection between their service and their academic coursework, and their roles as citizens.

Service-learning differs from traditional clinical education in the health professions in that:

  • Service-learning strives to achieve a balance between service and learning objectives - in service-learning, partners must negotiate the differences in their needs and ex-pectations.
  • Service-learning places an emphasis on addressing community concerns and broad determinants of health
  • In service-learning, there is the integral involvement of community partners - service-learning involves a principle-centered partnership between communities and health professions schools.
  • Service-learning emphasizes reciprocal learning - In service-learning, traditional definitions of "faculty," "teacher" and "learner" are intentionally blurred. We all learn from each other.
  • Service-learning emphasizes reflective practice - In service-learning, reflection facilitates the connection between practice and theory and fosters critical thinking.
  • Service-learning places an emphasis on developing citizenship skills and achieving social change - many factors influence health and quality of life. The provision of health services is not often the most important factor. In service-learning, students place their roles as health professionals and citizens in a larger societal context.

(Citation: Seifer SD. (1998). Service-learning: Community-campus partnerships for health professions education. Academic Medicine, 73(3):273-277.)

Important Elements of Service-Learning

From the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse:

  • A form of experiential education
  • Addresses human and community issues and needs
  • Learning occurs through active participation in thoughtfully organized service
  • Includes structured reflection linking experience to learning
  • Coordinated in true collaboration with the community
  • Links to curriculum and/or co-curriculum but must include structured time for reflection
  • Leads to acquisition of new skills, knowledge, leadership and a sense of caring and social responsibility

Types of Service-Learning

Co-Curricular Service-Learning

Students engage in thoughtfully planned service that meets a community-identified need.  Meaningful, structured reflection on the needs of the community, service and its impact on personal values is an important aspect of cultivating an effective service-learning experience.

Academic Service-Learning

Anchored in a specific course, faculty and students work to meet a community need and advance their understanding of course content.  Structured reflection is integrated into the curriculum to foster connections between their service, the curriculum of the class, and its impact on their personal values and community engagement.

What Service-Learning is Not

From the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse:

  • An add-on to an existing curriculum
  • An episodic volunteer program
  • Logging a set number of community service hours in order to graduate
  • Compensatory service assigned as a form of punishment by the courts or by school administrators
  • Only for high school or college students
  • One-sided: benefiting only students or only the community


Community-Campus Partnerships for Health

Service Learning.
Honnet, E.P., & Poulsen, S. (1989).  Principles of good practice in combining service and learning.  Wingspread Special Report. 

Racine WI:  The Johnson Foundation.National Service-Learning Clearinghouse.

Service-Learning Is…



TOOLKIT HOMEPAGE          NEXT SECTION: Elements of Thoughtful Service