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SOURCE Service-Learning Fellowship

Ways to Structure Your Service-Learning Course

Service-learning is a form of experiential education that Community-Campus Partnerships for Health defines as such:

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

SOURCE provides comprehensive support for faculty who implement service-learning into their course through the SOURCE Service-Learning Faculty Fellows Program. But, the first step is knowing whether your course or educational experience (e.g. fieldwork) would be appropriate for service-learning. The truth is, most courses could have some experiential element.

Below are four different ways to structure service-learning courses:

  • Service-Learning Course with project integrated as a requirement for all students participating in the course
  • Service-Learning Seminar in addition to Main Class
  • Service-Learning International Immersion or Trip
  • Service-Learning as an optional project

In considering the various aspects of each structure, you can determine the one that will best fit the course you are designing. SOURCE can also provide one-on-one guidance on course construction and execution.

Service-Learning Course with project integrated as a requirement for all students participating in the course


Typically, these courses are already existing courses where the service-learning project is designed to increase the learning of the academic objectives.

  • All students participate in mandatory service-learning project(s) that constitute major part of grade.
  • Project contributes large portion of student learning and integral part of course objectives and goals in addition to other non-project related requirements.


  • Experiential projects increase student learning of academic topics and give them drive to work on behalf of a “client.”
  • Easy to know how many projects will be needed in advance, as it will be based on course enrollment, allowing early planning
  • Project makes up a large portion of the course, alleviating need to assemble numerous projects, assignments, and tests/quizzes
  • The instructor does not need to do additional outreach to advertise the course.

Things to Consider

  • Students may not be as invested in mandatory service-learning – we always suggest faculty provide an in depth intro on service-learning and what to expect.
  • Projects vary based on skills and abilities used, making learning across the project groups inconsistent – because each project looks different, the needs of each project group are going to vary.
  • Project may overwhelm class room topics and teaching time, however this can be overcome by planning accordingly with SOURCE in advance. The service-learning project is considered “text” and instructor may have to take out some of those readings.
  • Group projects are recommended in larger courses (groups of 3-5 students). Although students might push back on group projects, it’s an important professional development experience.

Service-Learning Seminar in addition to Main Class


In addition to larger didactic course, a selected group of students participate in smaller seminar for additional credits and class time. The project creates additional learning opportunities in addition to main course.


  • Students may be more invested/excited about project as they have intentionally chosen to participate.
  • Additional time outside of class via the seminar means project does not interfere/distract from main course content.
  • Smaller number of student means less projects and less coordinating with community partners.
  • More time and dedication can be put into oversight of the projects.

Things to Consider

  • Instructor has to do recruitment and outreach to attract students to enroll in the course. There’s always a risk of low enrollment.
  • Requires additional teaching and planning time for the instructor as they would have to create a separate syllabus and curriculum for a small number of students.
  • Students in main course may miss out on lessons students in seminar gain from projects. Thus, fewer students are gaining the very important experience and may not maximize learning from the effort.
  • Students may have issues with taking additional credits if they are maxed out on credits for a term.


Service-Learning International Immersion or Trip


There are a couple options for this type of project:

  1. Students plan project over the course of a term, and then execute during intersession or summer trip to project setting.

- OR-

  1. Students participate in an intersession or summer trip and engage in educational activities before, during and after the trip.


  • Inclusion of travel may draw more students to course.
  • The service-learning pedagogy increases the potential the students will be able to connect the experience to a larger context.
  • Service-learning pedagogy in and of itself fosters critical reflection about culture. This increased cultural humility will help the students reflect on and adapt their approach within the context which increases possibility of positive outcomes on both sides.

Things to Consider

  • SOURCE does not arrange international partnerships. However, we are happy to talk through project ideas with the instructor and advise on the pedagogy.
  • Receiving community partner feedback may be difficult, depending on the nature of the project.
  • Reflection opportunities may be limited until execution of the project. SOURCE can assist with the training student leaders who lead reflection and establishing on-trip requirements.
  • Follow-up – either formally through a course or informally through mandatory meetings – after the students return from the trip is highly recommended. This ensures the students are applying what they learned on the trip.
  • The instructor must consider pre-departure preparation so students are aware of their role working on the project, the reflection and educational requirements, and receive proper training on any culture and community-related issues before they begin their work.

Service-Learning Optional Project


  • Service-learning project fulfills a particular course requirement, being one among multiple options.
  • Students can choose to participate in the service-learning component or another academic project not working with the community.


  • Students may be more invested/excited about project as they have intentionally chosen to participate.
  • Students who might not be as effective at working with the community are less likely to choose the service-learning option.

Things to Consider

  • These types of courses tend not to be service-learning because reflection cannot effectively be integrated into the course. Oftentimes, you need to have additional seminars to foster honest discussion between those working with the community. It can be difficult to integrate reflection into experience, as professor has no class time to work with students in this capacity.
  • May be difficult to organize projects, as number of participating students will not be known until after course starts. We often let organizations know that we cannot guarantee students will choose their projects so as not to make promises we aren’t certain to keep.
  • Make sure to balance the workload of the service-learning project compared to other requirement fulfilling options.

Links to Example Syllabi