Service Learning Network

Elements of Service Learning

Effective, intentionally-designed service learning initiatives should ideally address the following key components:

Integrated Learning - Service tasks should be relevant to the material covered in the course.  When service is highly-integrated with course material, students demonstrate significantly higher gains in critical thinking and other key developmental outcomes than if service is an optional or ancillary component of the course.1

Meeting Genuine Community-Defined Needs - It is important that the service to be performed is designed around needs identified by community members, and not solely around faculty and/or students' impressions of community needs.  This principle is closely related to the "reciprocity" component of service learning in that it entails meaningful input from community members to avoid a unidirectional service relationship.

Reflection - Service learning assumes that "learning and development do not necessarily occur as a result of experience itself but as a result of a reflective component explicitly designed to foster learning and development" (p. 6).  This component can take the form of class discussions and presentations, written journals, papers which link service experiences with course concepts, and other activities.2

Collaboration - In any service learning partnership, it is important to acknowledge and take into account the interests and concerns of each member; the institution, the students, and the community.  True collaboration entails sharing authority, resources, and information, as well as jointly-determined purpose and objectives for the partnership.3

Reciprocity - Quality service learning is structured so that all participants have the opportunity to learn from each other.  Instead of understanding service learning as a one-way transaction in which students provide a service to community members, this view sees both students and community as equal partners who can both teach and learn from each other.  This principle also requires that student learning and other institutional priorities not take precedence over the interests of the community when planning service endeavors.3

Civic Engagement- Intentionally-designed service learning should engage students in thinking about and discussing the relationships between service activities, community needs and issues, and the principles of citizenship and active participation in a democratic society.  Service learning can facilitate students' civic participation by strengthening their values, knowledge, skills, efficacy, and commitments, which make up the "five elements of citizenship."1


Eyler, J. & Giles, D. E. (1999). Where's the learning in service-learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

2Jacoby, B. (1996). Service-learning in today's higher education. In B. Jacoby & associates (Eds.), Service-learning in higher education: Concepts and practices (pp. 3-25). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

3Mintz, S. D., & Hesser, G. W. (1996). Principles of good practice in service-learning. In B. Jacoby & associates (Eds.), Service-learning in higher education: Concepts and practices (pp. 26-52). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Page last modified March 13, 2014