Community-Based Learning: Service Learning

In many college courses the goals for student learning are changing. Students are still expected to learn important facts, but there is a growing emphasis on the application of facts to solve problems and the relation of facts to real-life contexts outside the university setting. Students are expected to be familiar with more than just the traditional subject areas. It is important for them to think critically, collaborate with others, fit into an increasingly diverse community, and make a smooth transition from school to work. The content of what is to be learned is changing, and thus the methodologies of teaching and learning must change as well (Blum, 1995).

One methodology of teaching and learning that provides context for building academic and work-readiness skills is community-based learning, also called service learning.

Service learning is a form of teaching that combines instruction with meaningful community service experiences. It represents a holistic approach that reinvigorates the linkages between young people and the institutions that serve the broader community (Wade, 2000). When administered appropriately, a community-based learning course provides the following:

  • Opportunities for students to make valuable contributions to communities through active participation in organized service experiences coordinated with the school and community.
  • Structured time for students to think, talk, or write about their experiences with the service activity.
  • Opportunities for students to use newly acquired academic skills and knowledge in real life situations in their communities.
  • Enhancement to what is taught in the school by extending student learning beyond the classroom and into the community-helping to foster the development of a sense of caring for others. (Alliance for Service-Learning in Education Reform, 1993)

Models of community-based learning

  • Service-learning course: Students relate community-based service experience to course objectives using structured reflection and learning activities in a regular academic course.
  • University-community partnership: These partnerships are ongoing relationships between the university (department or faculty) and community partners in which students are involved in service.
  • Internship, practicum, or field experience: Students are placed in selected service sites where they work individually. They apply their knowledge and skills to complete their hours of service.

The three major components of community-based learning

Planning: The more clearly the activity is framed, the more the student will get from the experience. It is particularly important to allow student involvement in developing learning objectives during the planning stage. The following are some basic steps to get started:

  • Develop strong contacts with relevant local community organizations.
  • During the first week of the semester, introduce students to community-based learning and what it entails.
  • Bring students and community organizations together to develop a project outline, set specific goals, produce a timeline, and set intermediate and final deadlines.
  • Schedule periodic reviews of progress and timelines with students and community organizations.
  • Arrange a time for students and their organizations to come together to discuss the results of their project and reflect on the outcomes.

Activity: The activities themselves may be simple or complex.

  • Teachers often find the most difficult aspect of activities is coordinating the schedules of busy students for group meetings and participation in the activities. Further complications stem from scheduling problems between student groups and their community organizations. One way to address scheduling issues is to set deadlines for each group to meet with their organization.
  • Periodically, organization staffers will need to be reminded of the time constraints the students face in completing their goals during a semester.
  • To help students stay on task with their activities, their groups should present progress reports to the class at regular intervals.
  • Sometimes it is necessary to alter the goals, objectives, or time-lines depending on circumstances (Crump, 2002). Flexibility is an important part of the process of community-based learning.


  • Careful reflection on the activities should include an analysis of what went wrong/right, and what was unexpected in the activity. Reflection on an activity leads to framing the next activity (Owens & Wang, 1996).
  • Instructors need to relax their preoccupation with measurable outputs and move toward a more process-oriented approach. It is important to focus on the process and what is learned via the interaction of course materials and the projects at hand.
  • An example of a more process-based evaluation is to have students outline what they have accomplished, as well as reflect on challenges they encountered and what they learned.

Where can I learn more?


  • Alliance for Service-Learning in Education Reform. (1993). Standards for quality for school-based service learning. Equity and Excellence in Education, 26(2), 71-73.
  • Blum, R. E. (1995). Learning and teaching: Our work together (Draft Report). Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.
  • Crump, J. R. (2002). Learning by doing: Implementing community service-based learning. Journal of Geography, 101, 144-152.
  • Owens, T. R., & Wang, C. (1996). Community-based learning: A foundation for meaningful educational reform (Topical Synthesis 8, School Improvement Research Series, Series 10). Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED397476)
  • Wade, R. C. (Ed.). (2000). Building bridges: Connecting classroom and community through service-learning in social studies (NCCS Bulletin No. 97). Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies.


Service Learning at Illinois
  • LINC: Learning in Community is an opportunity for students to work in teams on real projects with partners in the community. Valeri Werpetinski has moved from CITL to the College of Engineering to manage LINC and the Engaged Illinois blog. 
  • Spanish & Illinois, a blog by Ann Abbott, an award-winning Spanish language educator who uses service learning so that her students actually experience the language, cultures and the course content.
CITL provides limited support at this time for instructional and course development, partnership-building, and the assessment of service-learning.
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