What is Service-Learning?

Service-Learning... what does it mean anyway?

It is a term that most of us are familiar with but it is also one that is hard to find an exact definition for that everyone can agree on. Below are a few definitions that are commonly used in higher education to help us understand the basics of Service-Learning.

Service Learning Definitions

"Service-learning is 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 is a credit-bearing, educational experience in which students participate 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."

-Robert Bringle and Julie Hatcher, "A Service-Learning Curriculum for Faculty." The Michigan Journal of community Service-Learning. Fall 1995. 112-122.

"Service-Learning is engaging students in activities that meet human and community needs defined by the community together with structured reflection intentionally designed to meet student learning outcomes."

-Barbara Jacoby

Some Examples:

  • Child Psychology students tutor children at Headstart ... while thinking about Piaget
  • History students tutor refugees in English... while thinking about historic immigrations
  • Marketing students design a marketing campaign for the food bank

How is Service-Learning different from community service, internships or general volunteering?

Community service and general volunteering primarily benefit the community.

Students engage in community service and volunteer opportunities primarily because they want to help an agency in the community or because they need to fulfill a service requirement for clubs and organizations. The benefit to the student is limited to learning how service makes a difference in the lives of the service recipients.

Practicums, internships, and co-op education are designed to primarily benefit the student.

These experiences are indeed extremely important to the learning process and help fulfill requirements for graduation by providing experience in a particular field of study. However, the student typically works in the private sector rather than for a nonprofit and may even be paid for the work. These experiences usually take place without critical reflection to tie together student experience with course material.

Service-Learning is designed to benefit both the student and the community.

The service activities meet community needs and enhance student understanding of course content. Service goals are aligned with learning objectives. The student learns to connect course theory with hands on "real world" experience through reflection activities, journals and class discussion.


  • Picking up trash by a riverbank is service.
  • Studying water samples under a microscope is learning.
  • When students collect and analyze water samples and the local pollution control agency uses the findings to clean up a river... that is Service-Learning.

[courtesy of the National Youth Leadership Council]

A student leader checks a clipboard at an event

Common Language Definitions

The following definitions were developed to establish a "common language" around Community Engagement at Longwood University. For more additional resources please refer to our tab labeled 'Service-Learning Resources'.

  • Community Engagement—developing meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships between campus and community partners as we work collectively to make a positive impact for all members of the community.  This is an asset-based approach that emphasizes community and capacity building.
  • Volunteerism—a policy or practice of giving one’s time and efforts to support the interests on one’s community, particularly the Longwood University community.
  • Community Service—outreach performed as direct/indirect service working alongside community members and service agencies to promote equity and empower all areas of the community.
  • Service Learning—a form of experiential education that integrates instruction and reflection with meaningful community service that is intentionally designed to promote student learning, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.
  • Philanthropy—promoting the welfare of others expressed especially through the donation of money and/or goods to causes and charities.
  • Service Sites—the location(s) where community service is performed in partnership with community agencies.
  • Community Partners—organizations or agencies with whom we work alongside to provide service and support the community.

How can the Office of Leadership & Service Learning Help?

  • Project Design - we are available to assist you in any step of the process! We can help with planning projects, contacting agencies and choosing reflective activities for your Service Learning course.
  • Classroom Presentations - contact the office anytime to request a presentation. We are happy to give an overview of service opportunities in the area, how to develop a successful service project, or even hold a discussion about why it is important to do service.
  • Reflection Sessions/Activities - contact the office if you are interested in having one of our staff lead a reflection session or activity to help your students process their experience.
  • Service-Learning Workshops or Conferences - the office periodically hosts Service Learning Workshops or attends Service Learning conferences. Please let us know if you are interested in attending a workshop or conference!
  • Volunteer & Involvement Fair - the Leadership & Service Learning Office, in conjunction with the Student Union, holds a Volunteer & Involvement Fair at the beginning of each semester. We strongly encourage you and your students to attend for the opportunity to meet our community partners and learn about new project ideas!

Resources to use in your Service Learning Classes