What Is Service Learning?


What is service learning? An educational system combining theory in the classroom with real-world community service.

Service Learning is an educational approach where a student learns theories in the classroom and at the same time volunteers with an agency (usually a non-profit or social service group) and engages in reflection activities to deepen their understanding of what is being taught.

It is a cycle of theories, practices, and reflection tools to broaden knowledge and critical thinking skills for social change.

You might commonly hear it related to terms such as civic engagement, community development, advocacy, philanthropy, social change, volunteerism, community service and experiential learning.

As a result of service learning, students learn more about the community and themselves while fulfilling a need in the community and meeting classroom or degree requirements.

Students in any discipline can participate. The courses are usually most directly tied to social science courses (for example: political science, sociology, environmental studies and psychology) and pre-professional courses (for example: education, social work and business).

What Are Some Examples of Service Learning Projects?

Service Learning involves almost any helping activity. We generally refer to direct service to individuals, indirect service to people, and advocacy work.

  • Direct service includes tutoring, serving meals, working with patients, helping a refugee family, walking foster dogs, or participating in events at a nursing home. Many psychology and education courses incorporate direct service.
  • Indirect service is doing something behind the scenes to help, such as organizing a fundraising event, working in a resale shop, stocking a food pantry, collecting donations or planting trees to help the environment. Fields such as environmental studies and sociology tend to offer more indirect service opportunities.
  • Advocacy can take the form of students writing letters to government officials, demonstrating in a picket line or educating others about possible policy changes. Political science and criminal justice classes often feature more advocacy work.

Why is Service Learning Important?

For starters, service learning is important because it connects student learning in the classroom with real-world experiences in the community. Students who participate in it are more deeply engaged in their local communities, gain practical skills, develop their career and personal interests, and are usually more engaged citizens.

At a societal level, it is important for people to be involved and aware of their communities so they can assist each other and be more conscientious individuals. Creating opportunities for young people increases their involvement.

Finally, it instills the habit of performing a service for others. Students who engage early on often continue service work for the rest of their lives.

How Do I Find Opportunities Near Me?

Most colleges and universities maintain partnerships with community groups, governmental agencies and service organizations. Making use of their resources is a great way to get started.

At Elmhurst University, the service learning webpage lists more than 60 community partners in need of student volunteers. Students who wish to count this work as service learning can speak to staff about classes or independent study options so they can also engage in theoretical learning and reflection activities.

How Do I Benefit as a Student?

Through service learning, students:

  • Learn more about their relationship with the communities they engage with
  • Learn more about their capacity for serving others
  • Refine their decision-making abilities and acquire other career-related skills
  • Better understand the meaning of responsible citizenship
  • Grow in their awareness of cultural differences

Explore Elmhurst University

The Elmhurst University Service Learning program matches students who feel a responsibility to serve the community with opportunities to help. Visit our Community Partners page to learn more, and follow us on Instagram or Facebook.

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