Many new ways of learning have been developed over the last few years. However, of all those, service learning is among the most intriguing. Service learning is a form of learning that occurs when students learn through experience. However, service learning should not be confused with hands on learning or active learning.
Although it does include elements of those types of learning, service learning is distinguished by the fact that it is conducted during service in the community while still helping students to learn.
At its core, service learning is about getting students out of the classroom and into the community. There, a student can learn about a subject not only from teachers, but from people who have experience working in areas as diverse as park maintenance to small business growth.
These kinds of experiences are beneficial because they get students engaged wither real world figures who can connect their learning to practice. At the same time, students give back to their communities in real ways that can be beneficial.
Six Qualities of Service Learning
There are six qualities to service learning that characterize it. These include the following:
- Integrative Learning
- Reflective Learning
- Contextualized Learning
- Strength-based Learning
- Reciprocal Learning
- Lifelong Learning
The integrative aspect of service learning refers to the fact that learning cannot only occur in the classroom. Instead, learning also occurs when integrated into the real world. Service learning works on this basis by integrating classroom objectives into the community.
Under the guidance of instructors as well as other community leaders, students learn as they serve in the public. This approach makes students not only learners, but also positive members of the community and success is gauged not only when the student meets academic goals, but also as they succeed as members of the community.
The reflective elements of service learning is characterized by the fact that learners learn best when they have a chance to reflect on what they have done. In service learning, there is a great emphasis on learners critically reflecting upon their experience out in the community. This allows learners to identify not only what they learned, but also the value they gained as community members. They have to review their beliefs and values and challenge preexisting assumptions and judgments on the basis of their new experiences serving the community.
The third aspect of service learning is the contextualized aspect of learning. This means that service learning offers a unique chance to learn by contextualizing within the context of the larger community, which has not typically been an element of education. By placing learning out in the public, it helps to connect classroom learned knowledge to actual practice.
Students can actually see how their work plays out in the real world and impacts the surrounding community. Book knowledge does not communicate the fact that, in practice, much of what a person learned is impacted by unforeseen events. When a person puts into practice their learning, they quickly realize that the real world is full of events that can impact outcomes.
The strength-based aspect of service learning is a reference to the fact that in every community, there are certain strengths and resources. Community members themselves are a resource who serve as co-educators to students. In any given society, each individual brings their own set of strengths to the building of the community.
In service based learning, students are encouraged to draw on the strengths of many different types of community members. This approach helps students to learn the value of partnering with others in helping achieve community goals.
The reciprocal aspect of service based learning acknowledges the fact that all members of a community benefit when people make contributions into that community. Students invest their time, talent, and intellect to helping the community. In return, they receive the wisdom and experience of community members as well as come to a better understanding of the materials they’ve learned.
All of society is a give and take, with each member contributing. Students come to a better understanding of this fact as they engage with the pubic.
Finally, one of the greatest lessons that service based learning communicates is the fact that learning is lifelong. Knowledge is retained for longer because it is actually put into practice in a real world context. This context also has the benefit of being meaningful, since it involves engaging with other members of the community and creating positive outcomes for all members.
Students become more aware of the important role they can play while at the same time reinforcing their learning. As a result, not only is learning retained for longer, but students also learn the important role they can play in the community over their lifetimes as well.
Examples of Service Learning
It’s easy to conceive of the idea of learning while working in the community, but examples can help reinforce what service learning can look like. There are many ways that students can become engaged in the community, such as adopting a highway, cleaning up a local park, or working on a Habitat for Humanity building site. Each of these experiences can be used as an educational experience so long as a teacher plans in advance to use the experience to educate.
To go into these examples a little bit more in-depth, students working in a park can plant trees or grass. They might also do this in a wetlands parts of their community. Through this planting process, not only do students help to improve the environment, but they also learn more about biodiversity, plat life cycles, and environmental degradation.
Yet another example of service learning can be found when students help other students prepare chemistry demonstrations. In this example, more advanced students can help design age appropriate chemistry demonstrations. This can be part of a science fair, for example. In doing so, students help younger students to learn and grow as scientists themselves. At the same time, the teaching students can reinforce their own knowledge of STEM content and learn how to creatively approach scientific topics.
A third example of service learning is a particularly creative approach to service learning. In this example, English writing students volunteer time at a homeless shelter, serving food and socializing with guests.
Following the experience, students can then write an essay arguing their perspective on homelessness, social safety nets, and wealth in the country. This approach to service learning helps those who are less fortunate while giving students a very real topic on which to write.
Even a class like accounting classes can make room for service learning. Accounting students can develop presentations on business credit and deliver those presentations to members of the community or those clients attending local, small business incubators. This kind of approach to service learning helps students solidify their own knowledge of the business environment, accounting, and financial processes. At the same time, the student also contributes to local small businesses and, perhaps, helps them contribute to job creation in the community.
As one final example, students in a marketing class could be asked to devise a marketing strategy meant to popularize a local housing organization. In this example, students can get to know the brand better, identify ways of making the brand more widely known, and develop strategies that area based around both traditional and social media. This strategy helps not only to improve the marketing skills of these students but helps connect them to a local organization committed to benefiting those without affordable housing. This is a particularly timely topic in communities where the cost of living has become an increasingly sharp point of debate.
The Service Learning Unit
Critical to making service learning an actual learning experience is the importance of developing a well thought out lesson. Fortunately, educator Heather Wolpert-Gawron lists a simple four step process that can help teachers to effectively teach using a service learning model. This approach is largely distinct from the actual service learning experience and occurs largely in the classroom, before and after the community experience.
The first of these steps is the pre-reflection phase. During this phase, students must think about the ways in which they can help their communities. If the teacher has a specific organization in mind that they want to partner with, then students can begin by thinking about how their work with that organization will benefit others.
The second step to learning includes research. Students should research materials related to the organization they will be helping with, such as statistics related to homelessness, pollution, or other issues that are important to the community.
The third stage of the service learning unit, the presentation, involves presenting these findings. Presentation can take on many forms. It can occur after the class has participated with an organization or before. Presentations made after the event can include materials and media taken from the service learning experience. Some presentations may need to occur before the event and justify, using research and evidence, why the class should be working with an organization. This should all be presented using images, graphs, and other multimedia elements that help illustrate the urgency of the problem.
Finally, after the lesson has been completed and the event finished, students should have a time to reflect. They should think back upon their experiences and consider what they’ve learned about the subject, how their own views have changed, and how they intend to address the topic in the future.
The Benefits of Service Learning
One of the most frequently cited problems that educators have with service learning is their concern regarding whether students will really benefit from this approach. However, research seems to indicate that this approach to learning is helpful to students. In one study, 80% of students indicated that they found their service learning projects to be very beneficial. They felt that, because of their experience, they became better communicators and became more aware of needs that the surrounding community faced.
A second study suggested that students who participated in these kinds of community projects saw their grade point average rise. These students felt more engaged with their materials are were more interested in their course content.
Service learning is beneficial because, with a little creative thinking, teachers can find ways of aligning it with student learning outcomes. However, it’s also beneficial for a number of other reasons. It helps increase student engagement while improving communication skills, and important soft skill that students will need in the workplace.
More highly engaged students are also students who generally perform better in school. Not only are they academically more successful, but they also tend to persist to graduation and have better attendance rates. Beyond all of these school based benefits, service learning also has the potential to benefit society in the long term.
Students who more frequently connect with the community and are more highly aware of community issues will carry those lessons on with them into adulthood and make them more aware of the importance of addressing community issues.
Case Study in Service Learning
To truly see how service learning occurs, you don’t have to look farther than “Of the Student, by the Student“, a program hosted by the Journey National Heritage Area. In one example of service learning, students were taken to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
These students analyzed primary source documents from the park then took place in the creation of six mini-documentaries which told the history of the park and struggles of slavery leading to the John Brown Raid at Harpers Ferry. These students put together real, viable mini-documentaries on the basis of what they learned while also sharpening their critical thinking skills and critical reading skills at the same time. Students had to evaluate sources and make judgments about which document to include.
Yet another case study in service learning, “A Forest for Every Classroom,” was hosted by the National Park Service. In this program, teachers partnered with various organizations committed to the environment. “A Forest for Every Classroom” helped teachers better instruct students regarding the conservation of public lands by taking students to real locations. During their time, students came toa better understanding of the natural resources in their community and the importance of preserving those resources.
It’s clear from the existing case studies that service learning is naturally best suited for classrooms that can align their lessons with on location learning in areas that are of value for the community. However, with some creative thinking, even classes that don’t seem naturally oriented toward service learning, such as math classrooms, can be adjusted to accommodate some service learning lessons throughout the year.
Even including one or two such lessons during the school year may help to promote higher engagement and excitement among students, leading to better outcomes for those students in the long-term.