Service Learning Network

Service Learning Definitions

The following terms are used frequently throughout this website and in the discourse surrounding this educational practice.  These terms are broadly defined as follows:

Service learning - "a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development"1

Academic Service Learning - a specific pedagogy that integrates academic coursework with service which meets a community-identified need. The partnerships between the community, students, and faculty are mutual, which means that all partners benefit and share responsibility. This process of experiential learning and community-building includes academic coursework, guided service, and facilitated reflection that deepen the experience for all partners.

Reflection - explicitly-designed component of a service learning initiative which is designed to foster student learning and development by connecting service tasks to larger social issues and ideals - can take many forms, individual or group, verbal or written, etc.1

Community – "People and organizations coming together either through a common bond or stake in a given interest or set of interests. The term community can be self-defined or can be geographic. The term community also connotes a climate to be created."2

Partnership – A collaborative effort between institutions of higher education, faculty and staff members, students, and community members and agencies to address shared concerns and interests through service, education, scholarship, advocacy, and other means.

Student – A general term which can include all levels of learning in a higher education context, including associate degree, undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate level learners

The following concepts and terms are related to service learning, but are conceptually different in key ways:

Volunteerism  - “The engagement of students in activities where the primary emphasis is on the service being provided and the primary intended beneficiary is clearly the service recipient”3

Community Service - “refers to action taken to meet the needs of others and to better the community as a whole”4

Note: These two terms refer to actions performed with the intention of meeting the needs of various stakeholders within one's community.  What separates them from service learning, however, is the lack of an intentionally-structured learning component which places service tasks in the context of larger issues and ideals.  Additionally, these actions are generally undertaken with the assumption that the "volunteer" is the sole provider of service, and community members are the only parties to benefit from the interaction.

Civic Engagement – “individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern. Civic engagement can take many forms, from individual voluntarism to organizational involvement to electoral participation. It can include efforts to directly address an issue, work with others in a community to solve a problem or interact with the institutions of representative democracy. Civic engagement encompasses a range of specific activities such as working in a soup kitchen, serving on a neighborhood association, writing a letter to an elected official or voting”5

Note: While civic engagement is a broad conceptual category that could potentially encompass service learning initiatives, it also includes a number of activities that are outside the realm of service learning.

Philanthropy - “The effort or inclination to increase the well-being of humankind, as by charitable aid or donations”6


1Jacoby, 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.

2Seifer, S. D., and Connors K. (Eds.). (2007). Community campus partnerships for health: Faculty toolkit for service-learning in higher education. Scotts Valley, CA: National Service-Learning Clearinghouse.

3Campus Compact. (2003). Service-Learning: A Balanced Approach to Experiential Education by Andrew Furco. In Introduction to Service-Learning Toolkit: Readings and Resources for Faculty (2nd ed., pp. 11-14). Providence: Brown University.

4Campus Compact: Lessons from the Field. (1998). Glossary. In Service matters: Engaging higher education in the renewal of America's communities and American democracy.

5Definition of Civic Engagement (2009). Retrieved March 19, 2009, from http://www.apa.org/ed/slce/civicengagement.html

6Philanthropy. (2000).The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. http://www.bartleby.com/61/40/P0244000.html. April 15, 2009

Page last modified October 20, 2011