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Strengthening Communities: What is Service Learning and Why is it Important?

Service learning has surged in popularity at high school and college campuses across the country. Sharon Shields of Vanderbilt University has boldly stated that service learning is “one of the most significant teaching methodologies gaining momentum on many campuses.” Before implementing your own program, instructors need to know two important things: what is service learning and what are the types of programs you can implement as an instructor?

What is Service Learning?

The National Service Learning Clearinghouse describes service learning 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.” In general, service-learning projects have an impact on both student learning and the individuals or community that your class serves.

Service learning is often a collaborative effort between faculty members and community partners. Once a project is identified, students apply their classroom knowledge to community-based initiatives. Students therefore learn class content in real-world contexts while also helping community partners to accomplish desired goals.

Types of Programs

Are you an educator who is interested in creating a service-learning program on campus? This list gives an overview of the different types of service learning while providing a sense of how you can use the methodology with your students.

  • Direct Service Learning. This type of service learning program focuses on face-to-face interaction. Students in these courses learn from observing the work of community partners and by interacting with community members. Examples include tutoring other students, embedding oneself in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, teaching a community about healthy food choices, or conducting a photography lesson for community youth.
  • Indirect Service Learning. In these programs, students often remain behind the scenes while focusing on broader issues within a community. Students work on funneling resources to a community to alleviate an issue rather than work directly with the people who require a particular service. Examples include organizing a food or clothing drive, collecting trash along a riverbank, restoring historic structures, or landscaping a community park.
  • Research-Based Service Learning. This brand of service learning centers around gathering and presenting information. The instructor chooses an area of interest and projects that emphasize the finding, gathering, and reporting of information. Examples include translating civil rights documents into Spanish, mapping the vegetation in a geographical landscape, or testing a local waterway for pollutants.
  • Advocacy Service Learning. Advocacy is about your students lending their voices, talents, and resources to community issues with the hope of alleviating or eliminating a problem. Your students also work to raise awareness and inspire action on community issues. Examples include making presentations to the public on a certain issue, galvanizing public support for a community cause, or petitioning your city council to allocate budget for a particular need.

Armed with the “what” and “how” of this teaching methodology, you can design your own direct, indirect, advocacy and research-based projects for your students and community. Is service learning gaining momentum on your campus? Share your project ideas with us in the comments!

Author: Annelise Ferry