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Working Definition and Models

A Working Definition

There are countless definitions of service-learning, some so broad as to include any work by student in communities, others so narrow that only a single model is considered appropriate.

At the core of service-learning is the principle that community service can be connected to classroom learning in such a way that service is more informed by theoretical and conceptual understanding and learning is more informed by the realities of the world.

Here "learning" is defined as structured acquisition of a body of knowledge that is generally associated with a defined syllabus or course of instruction.

This is not to say that service that is not classroom-based cannot be educative. There are a variety of programs on campus that offer students valuable learning opportunities. And programs like the Alternative Spring Break, for example, implement some of the practices of service-learning and to strengthen the intellectual merits of those programs.

The reason we keep the lines between classroom and non-classroom reasonably well defined is that currently institutions of higher education understand education within the frames of academic disciplines. If we are to demonstrate to these institutions how experiences in communities can inform these disciplines, we are best advised to work within the institution's conceptual frame. We do, however, continue to push those boundaries by applying the principals of service-learning to non-classroom based learning opportunities, such as campus volunteer activities and internships, as well as developing service-learning programs that transcend disciplinary boundaries.



There are as many models of service-learning as there are faculty members trying to get students into the community but we think that these models generally fit into six different categories:

  • "Pure" Service-Learning
  • Discipline-Based Service-Learning Courses
  • Project-Based Service-Learning Courses (PBSL)
  • Capstone Courses
  • Service Internships
  • Undergraduate community-based action research

The vast majority of courses fall into the first three categories - pure, discipline-based, and project-based. All three have their strengths and weaknesses. Pure courses, because service is the course content, have few difficulties building an intellectual connection between the course and the community experience. But faculty must ensure that these courses are academically rigorous to avoid perpetuating the perception of some that service courses are "mick" courses. For an example of a well-constructed "pure" service-learning course, go here.

Discipline-based courses are generally easier to defend, intellectually, but the link between course content and community experience must be very explicit. The more explicit it is, the more it limits the types of appropriate community experiences. This makes placement harder and monitoring more difficult and, as a consequence, logistical management is more time consuming and more frustrating. Here is a good example of a discipline-based service-learning course.

Project-based service-learning circumvents many of these logistical problems by limiting the number of times that students have to go out into the community. The students meet with community members - either on campus or at the site - to identify community needs and then work on their own schedules to develop a product in response to expressed needs. There are two difficulties associated with this approach:

  • The limited exposure of the students to the actual working situation and conditions of the community minimizes the likelihood that the students' proposed "solution" will address the full magnitude of the problem
  • There is a danger in the idea that students are the "experts" and people working in communities are the "clients." This underscores the idea that is prevalent in society that "book learning" supersedes experience as a way of knowing and understanding the world.

The Engineering Writing Program at USC has had great success with project-based service-learning. Please visit their website for more information about their Community Consulting Projects.