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Overview of Service-Learning

Service-learning is a course-based experiential learning strategy. It engages students in meaningful and relevant service with a community partner while employing ongoing reflection to draw connections between the service and course content, thus enhancing academic learning, promoting civic responsiveness, and strengthening communities.

Service-learning aims to enhance academic learning by challenging students to apply classroom knowledge to real life situations. Because service-learning addresses actual community needs, it has the added potential to engage students in ways that other experiential methods may not.

Service-Learning is NOT:

  • A one-time volunteer experience
  • One-sided: benefiting only the students or only the community organization
  • Absent of formal reflection process

Service-Learning experiences are designed to promote the development of student

 1. Civic and democratic engagement

  • Recognize that they do have civic responsibility
  • Enhanced sense of what it means to be in community and act with integrity
  • Greater understanding of community
  • Ability to identify community needs
  • Sustained interest for community involvement/contributions

2.  Capacity for difference/change making

  • Recognize that they do make a difference/have something to offer
  • Recognize problems and gaps in resources and envision solutions for the future
  • Develop leadership and teamwork skills needed for effective community engagement
  • Develop greater flexibility and adaptability in working with community issues

3.  Learning through disciplined reflection

  • Critical evaluation and understanding of discipline-based knowledge/skills
  • Able to apply course knowledge to real-life situations 
  • Demonstrate skills and knowledge learned
  • Enhanced ability to engage in self-assessment

4.  Skill and comfort in working with diverse groups and environments

  • Greater awareness of diversity
  • Enhanced tolerance of different perspectives
  • Increased competence and comfort when interacting with diverse groups

5. Sense of belonging to the USI Community

  • Greater ability and willingness to advocate for and represent USI

1. Inventory and Investigation

Using social analysis methods, students

  • identify a need.
  • analyze the underlying problem.

2. Preparation and Planning

With guidance from their teacher, students

  • collaborate with community partners.
  • develop a plan that encouraged responsibility.
  • recognize the integration of service and learning.
  • articulate roles and responsibilities of all involved.
  • define realistic parameters for implementation.

3. Action

Through direct service or indirect service or a combination of these approaches, students take action that

  • has value, purpose, and meaning.
  • uses previously learned and newly acquired academic skills and knowledge.
  • Offers unique learning experiences
  • has real consequences
  • offers a safe environment to learn, make mistakes, and succeed.

4. Reflection

Participating students

  • describe what happened.
  • examine the difference made.
  • place experience in a larger context.
  • consider project improvements,
  • identify questions.
  • receive feedback.

5. Demonstration

Students show what they have learned by

  • reporting to peers, faculty, and/or community members.
  • writing articles or letters to local newspapers regarding issues of public concern.
  • creating a publication or website that helps others learn from students' experiences.
  • making presentations.
  • creating displays.

(Adapted from The Complete Guide to Service Learning: Proven, Practical Ways to Engage Students in Civic Responsibility, Academic Curriculum, and Social Action, p. 47)

Zachary's Law

One of the most important liability issues involves a requirement that we not expose children (under the age of 18) to sex offenders.  As part of the University Handbook (p.152), USI faculty are required to check that students working with children are not on the sex offender registry. 

If students in your service-learning course work with children, go to United States Department of Justice Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website and enter the name of the student into the search boxes.  Read and accept the Conditions of Use.  This will run a basic name search through all 50 state databases.

NOTE: The system may pull name matches or names similar to those of the student you are searching, particularly if you are searching for a common name.  You can compare the student’s birthday with the records on the registry to verify identities. 

Other Liability Issues to keep in mind:

  • If you will be taking students off campus, complete Field Trip Report Form, (can do one for a series of repeat trips during a semester).  It is only necessary to complete this form for supervised field trips.
  • Advise students of any potential risks associated with the project.
  • Talk with community partners that will be supervising students to discuss their responsibilities as supervisors.  Also, advise partners that student projects may not provide perfect results, so take precautions for any potential liability issues.
  • If necessary, restrict students' access to confidential or proprietary information off-site.
  • Ensure respect for the student's privacy, dignity, and civil rights.  Follow university guidelines for reporting sexual harassment and alleged discrimination.
  • Advise students that they must provide their own liability insurance, unless they are student teachers. (Many students are covered by their parents' insurance). 
  • Contact USI Risk Management (Risk Management & Safety)  if you have questions pertaining to liability issues for your specific service-learning project. 

American Association of Colleges and Universities (Civic Engagement Page)

The American Association of Colleges and Universities seeks to prepare students to become effective global and local citizens as they venture into an unequal but interdependent and diverse world. The Association works with campuses to develop programs that help faculty and students connect scholarship to public questions. AAC&U's website provides several resources and detailed descriptions of its projects, including the Diversity Initiative, in which service-learning and campus-community partnerships play an important role, and the Center for Liberal Education and Civic Engagement, a joint initiative with Campus Compact.

Campus Compact

Campus Compact is a national coalition dedicated to promoting community service, civic engagement, and service-learning in higher education. This comprehensive site includes resources for service-learning practitioners, including faculty, presidents, administrators, and students. It includes model programs, sample syllabi, a calendar of events, extensive links to web resources, news, information on grants and fellowships, legislation, and much more.

Community-Engaged Alliance

Community-Engaged Alliance enables students to create positive social change by advancing the field of community engagement in higher education through support, education, and collaboration with partners. This site includes community engagement news, resources, funding opportunities, and information on programs and events.

Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning

The Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning is a peer-reviewed academic journal containing papers written by faculty and service-learning educators on research, theory, pedagogy, and issues pertinent to the service-learning community. The site contains abstracts of MJCSL articles and information on subscribing and submitting manuscripts.

National Youth Leadership Council

This site contains a searchable database of service-learning literature, sample service-learning projects and syllabi, information about events, and links to a variety of other service-learning resources.

University of Southern California (Service Learning Theory and Practice)

This site has a number of resources for designing a service-learning syllabus, recruiting and placing students in service-learning sites, developing reflection and evaluation tools, and much more.

Academic Service-Learning Course Design Guidelines

(Adapted from Campus Compact, 2015)

Effective and high-quality service-learning requires more than the proverbial “add service and stir” approach to designing courses and programs.

As a dimension of university-community engagement, service learning can be defined as a “course or competency-based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students:

  • Participate in mutually identified service activities that benefit the community 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 personal values and civic responsibility” (Bringle and Clayton, 2012, adapted from Bringle and Hatcher, 1995).

Principle 1: Academic credit is for learning not for service.

Academic credit is not awarded for doing community service, nor for the quantity or quality of that service, but rather for the student’s demonstration of learning.

Principle 2: Do not compromise academic rigor.

Integrate service learning in a way that supports or enhances existing academic standards and expectations through related readings, presentations, and assignments.

Principle 3: Establish learning objectives.

The development of a quality service learning course begins with explicit learning objectives.

Principle 4: Establish criteria for the selection of service placements. 

Establishing criteria for selecting community service placements/projects enable students to extract more relevant learning from their experiences.

Principle 5: Provide educationally-sound learning strategies to harvest community learning and realize course learning objectives.

Discussion and assignments that provoke analysis of community experience in the context of the course learning are necessary to ensure the service becomes an instrument of learning.

Principle 6: Prepare students for learning from the community.

Students realize the potential of community learning through appropriate preparation and orientation, examples of successful experiences, and the expertise and assets that exist in the community.

Principle 7: Minimize the distinction between the students’ community learning role and classroom learning role.

Classrooms and communities are very different learning contexts, each requiring students to assume a different learner role. The more these roles are made consistent, the better the chances the learning potential within each context will be realized.

Principle 8: Rethink the faculty instructional role.

A shift in instructor role that would be most compatible with service learning would move away from information dissemination and toward learning facilitation and guidance.

Principle 9: Be prepared for variation in, and some loss of control with, student learning outcomes.

The variability in community contexts necessarily leads to less certainty and homogeneity in student learning outcomes.

Excerpted from Howard, Jeffery, ed., Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Service Learning Course Design Workbook, University of Michigan: OCSL Press, Summer 2001, pp. 16-19.

Integrating service learning into your academic course will include these three components:

  1. Service learning benefits your students. A service learning component is designed to help students achieve at least one course objective.
  2. It benefits a community partner.
  3. It includes an assessment of student learning

Please contact Monica O'Neil at with the following information to register your course as a service-learning course.

Subject, number, and title of course

Instructor name

Community partner

Brief description of the service-learning project

Amount of hours you expect each student to work on the service-learning project

1. How will Service Learning benefit my students?

  • Links course work to real life experiences
  • Increases tolerance for diversity
  • Promotes self-knowledge and awareness of community and social issues
  • Enhances interpersonal and leadership skills
  • Provides opportunities for civic engagement and working with diverse groups and environments
  • Enhances critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Promotes sense of belonging to the USI community

2. How does Service Learning benefit faculty?

Faculty can benefit personally and professionally from integrating service-learning into their courses. Teaching with service-learning can:

  • Promote students’ active learning and engage students with different learning styles
  • Encourage more interactive teaching methods and reciprocal learning between students and faculty
  • Add new insights and dimensions to class discussions
  • Provide outlets for faculty professional expertise and opportunities for faculty research
  • Increase diversity in the classroom by accommodating a wide variety of learning styles
  • Foster relationships between faculty and community-based organizations that can open opportunities for additional collaborative work
  • Provide firsthand knowledge of community issues and opportunities to become more socially active
  • Lead to new avenues for research and publication
  • Provide networking opportunities with engaged faculty in other disciplines

3. How does Service Learning compare to other community-based experiences?

Service-learning is distinct from other community-based experiences with respect to the beneficiary and the focus of the experience.  Both student and community partner benefit from the service-learning experience. The focus of a service-learning project is on

  • Providing a service to a community partner
  • Helping students integrate and apply course content to real-life situations
  • Providing students with opportunities to critically reflect on their experiences

4. Does Service Learning work in introductory and lower-level courses?

Students at any level can have successful and rich service-learning experiences. The key is to develop service-learning experiences where students are given levels of responsibility that are appropriate to their skill levels. The USI Service-Learning Program can help you identify community opportunities that will enhance the learning experiences of your students.

5. How do I make sure Service Learning is well integrated into my class?

Reflection assignments are the most effective way to integrate service-learning into your course. Reflection assignments help students make connections between their community work and the course content.

Also, when we have asked students at the end of each semester how service-learning could have been better integrated into their class, a common response is that more time could have been spent in class discussing students’ experiences in the community. Thus, we strongly encourage you to keep this in mind as you plan your course. Whether service-learning is required for all your students or an option that only some students pursue, think about the ways they could learn from each other through class discussions.

6. What information should I include in my syllabus about the Service Learning project?

We suggest including a statement about service-learning and the importance of the reflective component of the project.

Example: Service learning aims to enhance academic learning by challenging students to apply classroom knowledge to real-life situations

Reflection is the intentional component that takes a service activity and makes it a service-learning project. This is achieved by tying a reflective assignment to service-learning outcomes.

In addition, it is recommended that you include in your syllabus

  • Community Partner Name
  • Project Name
  • Project Description
  • Location
  • Duration of Service-Learning Project
  • Service-Learning Outcomes Addressed
  • Description of Reflective Assignment(s)


(FAQ's 2, 4, 5, and 6 adapted from: FACULTY AND INSTRUCTORS’ GUIDE TO SERVICE-LEARNING;  Community Service-Learning Center; University of Minnesota, pp. 7-9)