Service Learning

This guide provides insight into service learning including the benefits of using it in the classroom, ideas for implementation, and sample assignments.


An academic course that involves community engagement — more widely known as service learning or community-based learning — is “an approach to teaching and learning in which students use academic knowledge and skills to address genuine community needs.” This type of civic engagement aligns closely with Boston University’s core institutional values. As the BU Mission Statement emphasizes, “We remain dedicated to our founding principles: that higher education should be accessible to all and that research, scholarship, artistic creation, and professional practice should be conducted in the service of the wider community — local and international.”

Note: In its focus on addressing real-world issues, service learning is often seen as a kind of experiential learning. Consult CTL’s guide on experiential learning to learn more. 

What are the benefits?

Multiple researchers have found that engaging in service learning helps students develop leadership skills, strengthen their sense of belonging at their home institution, cultivate personal values, and embrace self-efficacy (Eyler & Giles, 1999). Furthermore, such experiences increase student commitment to promoting racial understanding, commitment to activism, and the likelihood of pursuing a career in medicine, education, or another service-related profession (Astin et. al, 2000).

In order to harness these benefits, students must engage in meaningful reflection to help them process and make sense of their service learning experience. Reflection prompts students to assume an active role in the meaning-making process by “direc[ting] the student’s attention to new interpretations of events” (Eyler & Giles, 1999) as well as inviting them to consider how their beliefs and identities (as well as others’) are informed by social, economic, and other structural forces.

How do I structure service learning in my course?

Dr. Sheila Cordner, Lecturer of Humanities at BU, recommends the following steps for incorporating service learning into your course:

  • Decide on the role of service learning in the courseService learning can be a central focus of a course in its theme and content — requiring students to participate in the community organization throughout the semester — or it can simply be incorporated into the course as part of one specific assignment. For instance, in Dr. Cordner’s introductory Humanities course at BU, the service-learning component is part of one assignment that serves as a capstone to the course, requiring a one-time site visit (with preparation beforehand and reflection afterwards). It can be helpful to explain the extent of service learning in the course syllabus, especially in terms of learning outcomes, assignments, and grading requirements.
  • Identify community partners: Many organizations in Boston regularly welcome college students. The BU Community Service Center also offers a number of volunteer opportunities for BU students, and staff members are willing to help faculty develop service learning opportunities for courses and to speak to students in related courses.
  • Establish clear expectations with community organization: Once you have located a community organization that would like to partner with BU students, discuss the following:
    • How often and how many times will the students visit?
    • Does the organization require an orientation for its volunteers? If so, could the orientation for students be incorporated into one of the site visits?
    • What information does the organization want the students to know before beginning the project? For example, if it is a nursing home, what would be helpful for students to know in advance about the population of residents?
    • Consider creating a simple rubric that the community organizations could complete after the students have participated (this may be particularly helpful if the faculty member is not accompanying students on the site visits).
      • Establish clear expectations of students:
        • When scheduling site visits to community organizations, help students factor in travel time.
        • When introducing the service learning assignment(s), emphasize the importance of building a partnership with the organization instead of conducting an act of service.
        • Discuss the differences between “community service” and “service learning” conducted in relation to specific course material.
        • Consider inviting other BU students who have experience with the community partner to share information with current students.
      • Establish clear grading guidelines: How will the students be assessed? By an ongoing journal kept of their experiences? By a final reflection paper? How will their attendance at the site visits be evaluated?

      Reflection and Sample Assignments

      A key difference between “community service” and “service learning” is that in the case of service learning, students are expected to reflect on how their experience partnering with a community organization impacts their learning of course material.

      One effective way to evaluate students’ service learning is to develop a writing assignment with a reflection component, which specifically requires students to connect their service experience with course themes, questions, and texts. One popular method is the “What? So What? Now What?” model, which aligns with the different stages of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle (see figure below) and can be easily adapted to reflective journal writing.

      Agreeing that guided reflection is essential to the service learning experience, many educators have turned to Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle. This process depicts the relationship between community engagement and critical reflection.

      Service-Learning and Experiential Education, The Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College
      Service-Learning and Experiential Education. The Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College. Accessed 14 May 2018.

      Here, after completing an aspect of their service learning experience (Step 1), students move through three phases to make sense of their experience. These include reflecting on the experience itself (Step 2: reflective observation), drawing conclusions from this reflection (Step 3: abstract conceptualization), and then planning for the future or trying out new ideas (Step 4: active experimentation). This cyclical process thus includes the integration of:

      • knowledge — the concepts, facts, and information acquired through formal learning and past experience;
      • activity — the application of knowledge to a “real world” setting; and
      • reflection — the analysis and synthesis of knowledge and activity to create new knowledge” (Indiana University, 2006, n.p.).

      Other examples of reflective writing can be found here and here.

      Additional means of evaluation often include an oral presentation, or a digital project. For instance, Digication, a free ePortfolio platform supported by BU, can be used to help students showcase and reflect on their cocurricular learning experience.

      Here are some sample rubrics for specific types of assessments:

      Additional resources

      References and further reading

      Astin, Alexander & J. Vogelgesang, Lori & K. Ikeda, Elaine & A. Yee, Jennifer. (2000). How Service Learning Affects Students. Higher Education Research Institute. University of California, Los Angeles.

      Eyler, Janet; Giles, Dwight E. Jr.; and Gray, Charlene J., “At A Glance: What We Know about The Effects of Service-Learning on Students, Faculty, Institutions and Communities, 1993-1999” (1999). Bibliographies. 5.

      Eyler, Janet, and D.E. Giles. (1996). A Practitioners Guide to Reflection in Service-Learning. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

      Eyler, J. (2002). Reflection: Linking Service and Learning—Linking Students and Communities. Journal of Social Issues, 58: 517–534.

      Jacoby, Barbara. (2015). Service-Learning Essentials: Questions, Answers, and Lessons Learned. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

      Sheila Cordner, co-author of this guide, would be happy to be in touch with faculty interested in pursuing service learning in their courses:


      Prepared by Sheila Cordner and the Center for Teaching and Learning at Boston University