What is Service Learning?

Service Learning Definitions

What is Service Learning?

Service Learning is community service done in conjunction with and relevant to an academic course. For service to be Service Learning, it needs to meet several requirements:

  1.  It must relate in some way to the material being studied in a course. The service should enhance the learning experience for the students.
  2. The students must have the opportunity to reflect on their service, connecting it to what they are learning.
  3. The service should be meaningful, i.e. fulfill a real community need.

Service Learning is equally about service and learning. It is not simply volunteering, where the focus is primarily on those being served, nor is it an internship or field study where the focus is on what is being learned.

Most importantly, Service Learning is not a “soft” alternative to academic work. It must be academically rigorous and focused on course learning objectives. If anything, it represents enhanced rigor because a student must apply what they have learned in the context of the world outside the classroom with all its increased responsibilities and complexities.

More Information about Service Learning


At its best, Service Learning benefits everyone involved. Some examples include:

  • Students finding their academic lessons more relevant and meaningful in the context of the “real world” outside the classroom. They get hands-on experience that can often be cited on resumes. They become more involved in the college community and the wider community. They get to explore career options. Many students learn best by doing.
  • Faculty find a way to engage their students with experiences that make previously abstract ideas personally relevant for students. Service Learning can also lead to new research ideas and partnerships for research in the larger community.
  •  Community partners get the ideas, energy, and enthusiasm of student volunteers, an increased connection to and voice at their local institutes of higher education, and the chance to foster a new generation of responsible and reflective citizens.


Service Learning is about partnerships and should be equally about service and learning. The community partners should determine the service needs to be met in order to ensure the student is doing needed service.

For many projects, if possible, it is best if the instructor and community partner work together to find a service project that is both needed by the community and will offer a relevant and valuable learning experience for the student(s).


Reflection should be structured, but it can take many different forms such as in-class discussion, journaling, researched papers, presentations, etc. It ties the service into the classroom and also allows students to work through any challenging experiences they may have had while serving.

Models of Service Learning at Three Rivers

Below are just a few models for implementing Service Learning at Three Rivers:

Either/Or Option – Students have a choice between a project with or without a service component. An equal amount of time and effort should be expected for either option. This model benefits students who may have difficulty doing a service project due to transportation, childcare, or other constraints.

Required Option – The benefit of requiring all students in a class participate in a service project is that they share a common experience to discuss and that the equality of options is not a concern. Given enough notice and especially with various options to fit different schedules, students can be expected to fulfill a service requirement just as they would any assignment. Some service projects may not even require regular travel to a service site, such as analyzing data, developing resources, etc.

Honors Option – At Three Rivers, students in the honors program must complete four honors contracts where, with their professor, they design (an) assignment(s) in addition to the regular course work to bring the class up to an honors level. This additional assignment could be a Service Learning project, particularly for students looking to gain hands-on experience or find a way to get academic recognition for an internship.

Student Initiated Option – Keep an open mind if a motivated student comes to you with an idea for an individual Service Learning project! They might come up with a very creative project and it will be an especially meaningful learning experience because you know they are interested in it.