Community-Based Learning Resource Guide

Community-based Learning (CBL) is a pedagogical strategy used in coursework that integrates engagement with community partners as part of students’ academic work in a specific course section. We include “Service Learning” in this category as the definition included here includes mutual beneficence, typically a distinguishing factor between community-based and service learning.


Community-Based Learning

Benefits to Students

Collaboration with community-based organizations prepares students to be socially responsible leaders and citizens through purposeful action, reflection, and learning. By working with members of the community, students are better prepared for both careers and civic participation in a democratic society. Community-based learning is widely acknowledged as aiming to increase students’ civic engagement (Steinberg et al. 2011, Lee et al. 2019, Elbers Carlisle et al. 2020). Service learning has been linked to the largest gains in student learning, both in terms of academic skills and in terms of “practical” skills (Valentine et al. 2021). There is also some scholarship suggesting that, independent of the association between high impact activities and increased student retention more generally, service learning correlates with the retention of students from first to second year (Bringle et al. 2010). Students who have engaged in community-based learning also report that they have a better comprehension of course material, are more “likely to apply subject-specific knowledge” to address a problem, an increased “sense of purpose”, and broadened career opportunities (Carlisle et al. 2017).

Benefits to Faculty

One of the benefits to faculty of community-based learning is that it provides an opportunity to relate a disciplinary concept or skill to contemporary, pressing issues of public good. Another is that students rate courses which incorporate community-based learning more satisfactorily (“Benefits and Things to Consider”). Because students are more likely to have an increased sense of purpose related to the discipline and opportunities to autonomously apply the material, they may be more likely to develop an identity related to the discipline and sustain interest in the material, resulting in improved growth in the discipline (Chiu et al. 2023).

Civic engagement: “an activity in which people work to make a positive difference in [...] communities”, including through participation “in activities of personal and public concern that are both individually enriching and socially beneficial to the community” (“Faculty Teaching and Learning Center - Definition of Terms”, adapted from Thomas Erlich, 2000)

Co-curricular: A learning activity or experience outside the classroom which complements and/or enriches one or more curricular experiences

Service learning: “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” (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999)

Student learning outcomes common to high impact activities are achieved through focus on:

Characteristic 1: Direct experiences in community settings

It is recommended that students have 25% of course work linked to direct contact with community partner and/or beneficiary. This includes at least two of the following:

1. Formal and informal meetings with community partners and/or beneficiaries that the faculty has established ahead of time to allow all parties to gain familiarity with each other and to assist with managing expectations going forward  

2. Training sessions where students reflect on best practices for ethical engagement with community partners and beneficiaries/

3. Immersion and interactions with community partners and beneficiaries

4. Pre- and/or post-experience gatherings

5. Written communication with community partner and/or beneficiary that outlines documentation or work, communication, next steps, and other artifacts of engagement.

Characteristic 2: Integration of theory and practice

The course provides opportunities for students by meeting each of the following criteria:

1. Establish a connection between course concepts/reading material and engaged learning with a community partner

2. Think critically articulating problems and possible solutions through reflective practice: students define a situation as problematic, identify the problem(s), explore the root causes of the problems/issues/dilemmas, engage in reflective inquiry and envision solutions

Characteristic 3: Participation in mutually beneficial partnerships with community organizations

The following steps are in place and there is evidence of each to create mutually beneficial partnerships:

1. Build relationships with potential community partners

2. Establish realistic goals with community partners  

3. Co-create projects with mutual benefit in mind//

4. Communicate consistently, manage expectations and adjust as needed 

Characteristic 4: Critical reflection on their community-based experiences

There is an intentional and clearly defined structure in place for critical reflection of the experience that includes the following:

1. A minimum of pre, during, and post experience reflection. Students should be assessed based on their depth of learning as demonstrated through a more nuanced level of reflection that can only be achieved through a truly engaged experience. A pre flection assignment/prompt before the community-based learning experience can function as a pre-test to help faculty to benchmark the prior knowledge, experience, predispositions and/or understanding their students bring with them to the experience, from there, reflection assignments should then be utilized to drive and assess learning with regards to the increase (or decrease) of depth and nuance for each student in relation to the reflection prompts, experience with/in the community and connection to course concepts.

2. A variety of methods for the delivery of the reflection (written - journals, essays; oral - small group discussions, presentations; or visual - art)

3. A mix of intentional prompts for reflection as well as an openness to unexpected outcomes

4. Reflection that focuses on both the experience as well as the transferable skills and application of the experience to the students

5. Includes community members in the reflection that takes place during the experience (at minimum) - a mutual recognition of “what’s next” will help students to contextualize the value of their work and the scope of the community partner’s work and purpose. Faculty should view “what’s next” as a potential opportunity for continued engagement regardless of application to their individual discipline.

All high impact practices can be developed through active community engagement work but should always be rooted in authentic community needs, issues, dilemmas, challenges and aspirations.

Faculty interested in developing a community-based learning course can connect with the Office of Civic Learning and Community Engagement.


Questions to consider when developing a CBL course or modifying a course to incorporate CBL

Guidelines for Developing a Community-Engaged Learning Course- This toolkit is the companion to The Craft of Community Engaged Teaching and Learning. 

A Guide to Designing Engaged Learning Courses in Community Planning - Nisha Botchwey, Karen Umemoto, 2020 (


Sample CBL agreement form- this form can be used when “students are required to participate in CBL course activities at an off-campus location,” and there is not “a formal agreement in place with the specified community partner for the location where the students will be required to go”. 

Rubric for assessing the quality of a Community-Engaged/Service-Learning Course


Training for engaging in the community- ACTIVATE modules 1, 2, and 3 offer training sessions in ethical community work; modules can be modified for specific classes or projects.

Society for Experiential Education training – the Society for Experiential Education offers training on ensuring that both community partners and students are aware of the purpose and components of the partnership. 

Campus Compact professional development opportunities – Campus Compact offers a list of resources, as well as regular webinars, on ensuring that service learning directly benefits the community and other important considerations when designing and implementing community-engaged/service learning. 

Earn a Community Engagement Professional Credential- Campus Compact offers a certification in Community Engagement, through five credentials (three essential and two elective)


Pew Faculty Teaching and Learning Center

Teaching Innovation Grant

The Teaching Innovation Grant funds non-GVSU personnel and student staff for projects, materials, and fees for training programs (but not conferences).

Pew Faculty Teaching and Learning Center Sandbox Grant

The Sandbox Grant provides $500 towards an innovative approach to teaching or student engagement.

Bringle, R. G., & Hatcher, J. A. (1995). A service-learning curriculum for faculty. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 2(1), 112-122.

Carlisle, S.K., Gourd, S., Rajkhan, S., & Nitta, K. (2017). Assessing the Impact of Community-Based Learning on Students: The Community-Based Learning Impact Scale (CBLIS). Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education, 6, 1-19.

Chiu, T. K. F., Ismailov, M., Zhou, X-Y , Xia, Q. , Au, D., & Chai, C. S. (2023). Using Self Determination Theory to explain how community-based learning fosters student interest and identity in integrated STEM education, International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 21, 109 -130.

Faculty Teaching and Learning Center - Definition of Terms. (n.d.) Pew Faculty Teaching and Learning Center.

Lee, T. An, J., Sohn, H. & In, T. (2019). An Experiment of Community-Based Learning Effects on Civic Participation, Journal of Political Science Education, 15(4), 443-458, DOI: 10.1080/15512169.2018.1498793

Morgridge Center for Public Service: Bridging Campus and Community through Service and Learning. (n.d.). Benefits and Things to Consider.

Steinberg, K. S., Hatcher, J. A., & Bringle, R. G. (2011, Fall). Civic-Minded Graduate: A North Star, Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning, 18(1), 19-33.

Valentine, J., Price, D., & Yang, H. (2021). High-impact practices and gains in student learning: Evidence from Georgia, Montana, and Wisconsin. Lumina Foundation. Retrieved from

Page last modified April 29, 2024