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What is Service Learning? - Definition & Project Ideas

Instructor: Deborah Teasley

Deborah has 4 years of teaching experience and a master's degree in program development & management.

In this lesson, we will talk about how service can be used as a mode of education. We'll also highlight several ways this method of learning is practiced.

What is Service Learning?

During my graduate school experience, I was lucky enough to take several courses that wanted us to use the skills we were learning in real-life situations. One of the classes that I enjoyed the most that used this style of learning was my grant writing class. A typical class on this topic would include a lot of exercises reviewing and assessing other people's proposals, conducting research, and drafting mock versions of an actual grant application. This style of teaching includes a lot of self-study and pretend practice, which in most cases is very useful. My class included some of these aspects but also incorporated a service learning component. What does this mean?

Service learning is an education model that integrates a relevant community service experience with regular instructional learning. For the grant writing class that I was taking, I had to go in and observe lectures once a week. That was part of my instructional learning. Outside of the classroom, I was paired with an organization in my community that was working on writing a real grant. Throughout the course of the semester, I was able to shadow the director during the grant-writing process, as well as write portions of the grant myself. As a result, I learned a new skill, applied it to a real-life situation, and also helped out in my community.

Types of Service Learning Projects

Service learning can be accomplished in a variety of different ways. As long as the student is learning, applying new skills in a real-life situation, and assisting the surrounding community in some way, service-learning is taking place. Now we will look at the different types of service-learning projects. These include community service and volunteer work as well as internships/field education.

Community service and volunteer work are used interchangeably and refer to an uncompensated act of service completed by an individual or group that benefits the surrounding community. My experience with my grant writing class closely resembles this type of service learning project. I volunteered my time outside of the classroom to help the organization I was paired with. My experience differs from regular community service/volunteerism because I was specifically there to practice skills from my class.

Internships and field education are positions or structured programs offered by an employer for a set amount of time. I had this experience during the practicum stage of my master's degree program. During my final year, I was required to write a dissertation and conduct research. To accomplish this, I worked for a nonprofit organization who agreed to hire me as an 'intern.' An intern is a student or trainee who works for a company, sometimes without pay, to gain experience. Throughout my internship, I had to apply the knowledge I learned at graduate school to conduct research and assist the non-profit I was working for.

Here is a list of some particular service learning projects:

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