Service Learning: An Engaging Teaching Concept

Service Learning: An Engaging Teaching Concept

By Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel

Students often complain that what they learn at university is often disconnected from the “real world”. They wonder if and how knowledge can be applied to solve real-life problems. In fact, content is often taught without providing students with the opportunity to experience its validity outside of the classroom. Service Learning is a teaching strategy that tries to overcome this issue by bridging knowledge obtained at university with the application to real-life problems in the community. I learned about Service Learning for the first time when I was a PhD student at the University of Mannheim in Germany. I immediately fell in love with this teaching concept because I was convinced of its multifaceted benefits for students, the community, the university, and myself as a teacher. In today’s post, I will provide you with a brief overview of the Service Learning concept and share my own experience with Service Learning in Higher Education.

The origin of Service Learning can be seen in the ideas put forward by John Dewey, an American philosopher and pedagogue who lived between 1859 and 1952. Dewey was convinced that learning is a holistic process that needs to combine content with experience in real situations and contexts. In fact, he went so far as to say: “I believe that education which does not occur through forms of life, forms that are worth living their own sake, is always a poor substitute for the genuine reality, and tends to cramp and to deaden(1). Dewey coined the term “experiential education” and considerably influenced the school of thought of so-called constructivists such as Maria Montessori, Lev Vygotsky, or Jean Piaget. Constructivists assume that context and personal experiences are key to deep understanding and acquisition of lasting knowledge. The teaching strategy Service Learning is built on these philosophical pillars.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

The National and Community Service Act of 1990 defines the term Service Learning as a teaching method

  • “under which [students] learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that meet actual community needs;
  • that provides structured time for [students] to think, talk, or write about what [they] did and saw during an actual service activity;
  • that provides [students] with opportunities to use newly acquired skills and knowledge in real life situations in their own communities; and
  • that helps to foster the development of a sense of caring for others, good citizenship, and civic responsibility.” (p. 72)

Although, this definition summarizes the core aspects of Service Learning, it does not fully capture the many benefits that are associated with it. To do so, let’s take first a look at the different components of Service Learning. First, we need to decompose the term Service Learning (I’ll put it back together, I promise):

Learning: Students are taught new theories, empirical research findings, and concepts in class at the university. Teacher highlights why the newly-acquired knowledge matters and how it may be applied to real-world problems. Students design solutions for prevalent problems or needs in the community based on the theories, concepts, and findings they learned in class.

Service: Students address prevailing needs in the community by providing service at the community partner. The community partner experiences tailored solutions to their problems that are based on scientific evidence. Students apply new knowledge and serve the public.

Reflection: Structured reflection connects the service experience to the taught knowledge in class. Knowledge may be updated and more critically evaluated based on the service provided which, in turn, can lead to new research questions. Thus, reflection is the glue between Service and Learning and, therefore, key to beneficial and successful Service Learning.

The graph below summarizes the different Service Learning components.

Components of Service Learning

Components of Service Learning

As mentioned earlier, the benefits of Service Learning are manifold. Students experience a boost in personal and social development as well as critical thinking skills when comparing measures before and after Service Learning (2). Osborne, Hammerich, and Hansley (3) found that students who were randomly assigned to a Service Learning project showed significant increases in communication skills, awareness for diversity, and self-efficacy compared to a group of students who were randomly assigned to an ordinary class. In addition, positive effects have been attested for key aspects of employability such as moral thinking, identity development, leadership skills, or assumption of responsibility. Students who participate in Service Learning (compared to those who do not) show improved academic performance, but only on test questions that allow to demonstrate critical thinking and complex problem solving skills (4). Rote learning of facts are not fostered by Service Learning.

Students are not the only ones experiencing positive effects from engaging with Service Learning. The partner in the community who is offered the service obtain evidence-based and tailored solutions to prevailing needs and problems. At the same time, the community partner may learn about potential future workers or interns (as providing service can lead students to concretize or change career paths). Last, but not least, the university as a whole benefits because Service Learning contributes to a positive school environment by promoting the spirit of giving back to the community. Plus, students who have engaged in Service Learning are more likely to graduate (5).

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

Taken together, Service Learning is a win-win-win-win situation: Students win because they experience direct application of university knowledge; communities win because they get superior service for free that solves prevalent problems; universities win because Service Learning is evidence for outreach and giving back to the community. Wait, who is the forth winner? The teachers! Yes, from my personal experience, I have been much more satisfied with student learning and engagement in Service Learning courses than in regular courses. Making the course content meaningful to students and seeing them designing solutions for community needs, has had a positive effect on my self-efficacy and satisfaction as an instructor. Although planning a Service Learning course is very time-consuming because of the additional communication channels with the community partner and need of coordination, it is an extremely rewarding teaching experience.

I have run several Service Learning projects in the past and am currently planning a Service Learning course at the University of Dundee, Scotland. In my Service Learning courses, university students are taught a range of successful learning strategies from Cognitive Psychology along with theoretical explanations. Equipped with this new knowledge, students design hands-on tutorials for pupils in local high schools. Pupils often do not know how to study effectively and teachers have no time to learn about research-based study strategies to teach their pupils. Thus, this calls for a much-needed service that university students can provide to high schools in the community. After providing service, students return for reflection sessions to discuss and share their experience of having provided service and how well empirical research findings can support real-world problem solving.

Let me conclude this post with a quote by John Dewey (6):

“The school itself shall be made a genuine form of active community life, instead of a place apart in which to learn lessons.” (p. 27)


(1)   Dewey, J. (1897). My pedagogic creed. School Journal, 54, 77-80.

(2)   Eyler, J., Giles Jr., D. E., & Braxton, J. (1997). The impact of service-learning on college students. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 4, 5-15.

(3)   Osborne R. E., Hammerich, S., & Hansley, C. (1998). Student effects of service-learning: Tracking change across a semester. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 5, 5-13.

(4)   Strage, A. A. (2000). Service-learning: Enhancing student learning outcomes in a college-level lecture course. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 7, 5-13.

(5)   Gallini, S. M., & Moely, B. E. (2003). Service-learning and engagement, academic challenge, and retention. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 10, 5-14

(6)   Dewey, J. (1900). School and Society. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.