What Is Service-Learning?

In essence, service-learning is an educational tool that consists of three essential elements:

  • Community service
  • Curriculum connection
  • Reflection

There are many definitions of service-learning and two of the most descriptive include:

“Service-learning seeks to engage individuals in activities that combine both community service and academic learning. Because Service-Learning programs are typically rooted in formal courses (core academic, elective, or vocational), the service activities are usually based on particular curricular concepts that are being taught” (Furco, 2002, p. 25).

“Service-learning [is] a credit-bearing, educational, experience in which students participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility” (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996).

Benefits of Service-Learning

Service-learning provides direct benefits to students, faculty and the community by: enriching student learning; teaching civic responsibility; and strengthening communities. Through service-learning activities students gain practical experiences that can be drawn into the course work and develop a more concrete understanding of a course topic by experiencing it. Faculty members have partners/service site representatives in the community that assist in teaching and learning. The community benefits from the time and efforts of the student.

Service-Learning Models 

Service-learning projects take many forms at Iowa State University. They may be one-time, semester-long or year-long projects that enhance student learning and contribute to an identified community.

Below are examples of different ways to integrate service-learning into a course, and different service-learning models based on course goals.

Integration Models[1]

Model: Description: Example:
Full Integration[2] (Required Course Component) Full integration requires students to engage in some form of community service (one-time or ongoing, individually or with a group) and complete one or more reflective essays or other activities related to the service experience. The majority of the activities foster students’ understanding of the connection between the course and the community. The service component addresses a need of a community partner(s). Assignments (minimum number of hours of required service, journal entries, reflection papers, presentations, projects) are consistent for all students.
Partial Integration (Optional Course Component) Partial integration substitutes a service-learning experience and accompanying reflection for a course requirement such as an alternative to a quiz, particular readings or a research assignment. Students self-select to participate. Generally, the objective is not substantial community outcomes rather student learning about an issue, reflecting on the experience and linking the experience with academic content. Instructors need to design service-learning assignments and traditional assignments to be equally demanding. In a conventional course consisting of two exams and a final paper, an optional service-learning component with corresponding reflection piece replaces the final paper. The service-learning component may consist of 10 hours of community service and a 5-page paper on topic X integrating learning from academics and service.

Service-Learning Models[2]

Model: Description: Example:
Civic-Based The learning objective for the Civic-Based Service-Learning Model is to promote civic engagement. Residence Halls that are participants of the Fresh Start Program.
Problem-Based The learning objective for the Problem-Based Service-Learning Model is to solve real, community-based problems. Students in the College of Engineering engage in designing rehabilitation engineering equipment for clients with a mental and/or physical disability.
Consulting-Based The learning objective for the Consulting-Based Service-Learning is to apply technical expertise to community needs. Students in the College of Business create marketing plans for nonprofits.
Community-Based Action Research The learning objective for the Community-Based Action Research Service-Learning experience is when a content-based or research methodology course focuses around research performed by the students in conjunction with the faculty member and community members. Community members and students contribute equally to setting the research agenda and determining how the results will be used. Students in an American History course collect and record oral histories from older members of the community. Together the students and community members establish an exhibit on the topic for children at a local museum.

[1] Santa Monica College

[2] Service-Learning Center at Virginia Tech

The Role of Student Reflection in Service-Learning

Student reflection is a key component of service-learning. It is the piece that ties everything together and helps students make meaning out of their experience. A well-crafted reflection exercise will get students to think about when they did and how it relates to a larger context.

One way to structure student reflection is using the “What? So what? Now what?”  Model.

What?   – Describe the experience.

  • What did you see at the site?
  • What kind of work did you do?
  • What were the reactions to you?

So what?   – Explain the experience.

  • How does what I’m studying in class related to what I’ve seen?
  • How did you feel at the site?

Now what?   – Think longer term.

  • How will my career choice help this issue?
  • What can I do as a citizen to make things better?

The service project and the course format will help determine what reflection format is the most appropriate. Some common formats include

  • Discussion
  • Portfolios – paper or electronic
  • Journals or blogs
  • Artifacts – a work of art, a performance piece, etc.
  • Presentations on or off campus
  • Creating a brochure or other publication

Risk Management and Service-Learning

Although similar to internships and field trips in that it is a hands-on experience directly related to their curriculum; service-learning also involves a community partner. Depending on how it is organized a service-learning project becomes either an outreach mission of ISU or a volunteer project for another agency.  The liability issues are distinctly different if the project is one which students are volunteering for another agency, becoming the agency’s volunteer under their liability coverage versus the project being a program offered or sponsored by ISU.

Faculty – Assessing Program Risk Issues

University departments are responsible to exercise due diligence in the planning and implementation of their academic curriculum to minimize project related risks or hazards.  If there is negligence that results in injury to persons or property, the institution could be held liable.  Faculty who are acting in the scope of  their employment as an instructor have no “duty” to ensure the safety of students outside of the classroom – students are responsible for themselves when carrying out assignments.  However, liability issues change if faculty involve themselves in logistics such as providing or arranging transportation and lodging.

Different policies and procedures exist for various transportation situations such as the use of university vehicles, commercial transportation, or faculty, staff and personal vehicles.  When using university vehicles for transportation, the Office of Risk Management should be contacted to determine if students will be required to sign release and waivers of liability.

While it is impossible to eliminate all risks, ISU faculty and staff do have an obligation to choose a suitable site, plan for supervision, see that there is proper and well-maintained equipment at the site and prepare students for the experience with an overview of any hazards or risks at the project location. Even when the students become volunteers for another agency, the instructor should be familiar with the service site and monitor student progress.

Document the Plan – Students should complete a service learning agreement applicable to the project, outlining course objectives and any special considerations for their work including, but not limited to confidentiality, special hazards, risks or need for personal protective equipment.  Agreements should be established with community partners to make sure they understand the course objectives, have resources for the student to succeed in the service, provide a safe work environment, applicable training and personal protective equipment.

All academic course experiences are not created equal; each field trip, internship and service learning project has its own unique issues.  This makes it difficult to put together a standard fact sheet.  So until we get a better overview of the types of educational learning experiences being arranged, please address your questions or concerns on a case-by-case basis to the Office of Risk Management at 515-294-7711 or via e-mail at

Connecting Learning Communities and Service-Learning

Connecting learning communities with service-learning is a great way to enhance student experiences. Both activities support a student’s personal growth and learning in a number of ways. For example both allow students to make connections in order to deepen their learning, and allow for multiple perspectives on the same topic by viewing it through different lenses. Both methods also inspire collaboration between students and a larger community, and help students extend their comfort zones

Iowa State University has over 80 learning communities and several of them incorporate service-learning into their programs. Visit Learning Communities website for more information.

Current Service-Learning Projects at Iowa State University

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Establish & Grow

College of Design

Bridge Studio

Iowa State students and incarcerated women grow thriving vegetable garden and more at prison

PLaCE program

College of Human Sciences

Campus and Community Partnership for Health

Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers Learning Community

Iowa State students encourage Omaha first-graders to attend college

College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

In the Footsteps of the Incas, Ecuador An Iowa Regents’ Summer Program

Intimate Relationships Service-Learning Initiative

Skunk River Navy

Speech Communication 212

Study Abroad Shorts: Spring Break

Extracurricular Service Opportunities

Alternative Breaks

Service Opportunities through the Student Activities Center

If you would like your project or program featured on this list, please email:

Service Learning Resources

There are a number of resources for faculty and students interested in learning more about service-learning. Here are some of our favorite links:

Campus Compact

Campus Compact is a national coalition of more than 950 college and university presidents dedicated to promoting community service, civic engagement, and service-learning in higher education. This website has a plethora of information including over 300 syllabi from a variety of disciplines, recommended reading, and up to date news in the field of service-learning.

National Service-Learning Clearinghouse

The Learn and Serve America National Service-Learning Clearinghouse (NSLC) supports the service-learning community interested in strengthening schools and communities using service-learning techniques and methodologies. This site provides useful higher education information including syllabi, fact sheets about a variety of topics and effective practices.

Iowa State University Extension

Iowa State University Extension provides a host of online materials and resources.


Bringle, R. G. & Hatcher, J. A. (1996). Implementing Service-Learning in higher education.  Journal of Higher Education. 67(2). (pp. 221-239). Retrieved from Dec. 19, 2005.

Furco, A. (2002). Is Service-Learning really better than community service? In A. Furco & S. H. Billig (Eds.) Service-learning: The essence of pedagogy (p. 25). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.