Service Learning in Psychology

To help those new to service learning get started, this section begins with the basics of definitions and principles of best practice. Many on-line and print resources are available to inform and enhance work in service learning for those of all experience levels. This section includes generic service learning resources and resources specific to psychology.

Service Learning in Psychology: Definitions

During the week of the Psychology Partnerships Project at James Madison University (June 1999), the Service-Learning group adopted the following definition to guide its work over the following two years. The intention was to illuminate the pedagogical aspects of service-learning while distinguishing it from volunteer work. Specifically, service learning is more than asking students to work in the community; rather, it is integrating course objectives with service-oriented work in the community.

Definition: Service-learning is a "course-based, credit-bearing educational experience that allows students to (a) participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and (b) 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, 1995, p. 112).

Bringle, R., & Hatcher, J. (1995). A service learning curriculum for faculty. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 2, 112-122.

As a form of experiential education, service-learning shares similarities with internships, field education, practica and voluntary service. Furco (1996) places these forms of education on a continuum. At one end of the continuum are internships and practica, with their primary focus on the students' career development. At the other end are volunteer activities, in which the emphasis is on the civic involvement and the services provided to recipients. Furco locates service-learning in the middle of the continuum, and states that it is unique in its "intention to equally benefit the provider and the recipient of the service as well as to ensure equal focus on both the service being provided and the learning that is occurring" (1996, p. 5).

Other Definitions

Service learning means a method under which students learn and develop through thoughtfully organized service that: is conducted in and meets the needs of a community and is coordinated with an institution of higher education and with the community; helps foster civic responsibility; is integrated into and enhances the academic curriculum of the students enrolled; and includes structured time for students to reflect on the service experience.

American Association for Higher Education (AAHE): Series on Service-Learning in the Disciplines (adapted from the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993).


Service learning is a teaching method which combines community service with academic instruction as it focuses on critical, reflective thinking and civic responsibility. Service learning programs involve students in organized community service that addresses local needs, while developing their academic skills, sense of civic responsibility and commitment to the community.

Campus Compact National Center for Community Colleges

P-16 Service Learning

The following definition is the working definition of service learning adopted by the Illinois Task Force on Service-Learning. The Illinois Task Force on Service-Learning is an example of a state-wide coalition advocating for service learning partnerships across academic settings (e.g., preschools, PK-12, community colleges, 4-year colleges and universities, and graduate schools). There are similar coalitions in other states.

Working Definition of P-16+ Service Learning

P-16+ service learning connects higher education and P-12 in joint efforts that blend academic learning and community service by actively engaging students to meet real community needs. Through serving and reflecting on their service, students develop civic responsibility, achieve learning goals, such as those in the Illinois Learning Standards, and develop real-world skills.

Goals of P-16+ Service-Learning

1. To promote a seamless system of education by connecting students of all ages in service learning.

2. To enrich the curriculum through active learning related to real-world skills.

3. To achieve learning goals, particularly the Illinois Learning Standards.

4. To promote civic engagement and citizenship.

Principles of Good Practice in Combining Service and Learning

An effective and sustained program:

  • Engages people in responsible and challenging actions for the common good.

  • Provides structured opportunities for people to reflect critically on their service experience.

  • Articulates clear service and learning goals for everyone involved.

  • Allows for those with needs to define those needs.

  • Clarifies the responsibilities of each person and organization involved.

  • Matches service providers and service needs through a process that recognizes changing circumstances.

  • Expects genuine, active, and sustained organizational commitment.

  • Includes training, supervision, monitoring, support, recognition, and evaluation to meet service and learning goals.

  • Insures that the time commitment for service and learning is flexible, appropriate, and in the best interest of all involved.

  • Is committed to program participation by and with diverse populations.

Honnet, E. P., & Poulson, S. J. (1989). Principles of good practice for combining service and learning. (Wingspread Special Report). Racine, WI: The Johnson Foundation.

Principles of Good Practice in Community Service Learning Pedagogy
  • Academic credit is for learning, not for service.

  • Do not compromise academic rigor.

  • Set learning goals for students.

  • Establish criteria for the selection of community service placements.

  • Provide educationally sound mechanisms to harvest the community learning.

  • Minimize the distinction between the student’s community learning role and the classroom learning role.

  • Rethink the faculty instructional role.

  • Be prepared for uncertainty and variation in student learning outcomes.

  • Maximize the community responsibility orientation of the course.

Howard, J. (Ed.). (1993). Praxis I: A faculty casebook on community service learning. Ann Arbor, MI: Office of Community Service Learning Press, University of Michigan.

Standards of Quality for School-Based and Community-Based Service Learning
  • Effective service-learning efforts strengthen service and academic learning.

  • Model service learning provides concrete opportunities for youth to learn new skills, to think critically, and to test new roles in an environment that encourages risk taking and rewards competence.

  • Preparation and reflection are essential elements in service learning.

  • Youths’ efforts are recognized by those served, including their peers, the school, and the community.

  • Youth are involved in the planning.

  • The services that students perform make a meaningful contribution to the community.

  • Effective service learning integrates systematic formative and summative evaluation.

  • Service learning connects the school or sponsoring organization and its community in new and positive ways.

  • Service learning is understood and supported as an integral element in the life of a school or sponsoring organization and its community.

  • Skilled adult guidance and supervision are essential to the success of service learning.

  • Preservice training, orientation, and staff development that include the philosophy and methodology of service learning best ensure that program quality and continuity are maintained.

Alliance for Service-Learning in Education Reform. (1995, March). Standards of quality for school-based service-learning.

Considerations in Planning Service Learning Experiences
  • Appropriate sites must be selected, and the course instructor must coordinate a relationship with the placement personnel.

  • Confidentiality needs to be protected in the interchange between the school and the placement site.

  • Some placements (e.g., domestic violence shelters) may be problematic in terms of safety and the strong personal emotions that may be aroused. Ideally, these issues would be anticipated before the service experience begins.

  • The importance of respectful attitudes from the students toward placement personnel should be emphasized.

  • Academic criteria and expectations must be clearly presented.

Raupp, C. D., & Cohen, D. C. (1992). A thousand points of light, illuminate the psychology curriculum: Volunteering as a learning experience. Teaching of Psychology, 19(1), 25-30.