Service-Learning: An Overview

Research Facts and Findings, January 2008

A publication of the ACT for Youth Center of Excellence


by Karen Schantz and Nathalie Louge

Bolstered by federal and state policy and funding, and by the enthusiasm and creativity of educators, a wide variety of service-learning programs have been introduced in the United States. Beyond simply logging a required number of volunteer hours, service-learning integrates community service with learning objectives, engaging students in a continuous cycle of action and reflection. Well-designed service-learning programs reward communities with the direct service and talents of youth, and may also support indirect and far-reaching benefits such as reduced health risks and higher graduation rates. For young people, these programs offer the opportunity to develop a range of competencies, make meaningful connections to others, improve health and education outcomes and experience their own power to make a positive difference. To achieve this kind of value, however, programs must be intentionally designed to meet specific goals, and they must offer a high degree of engagement, adult support, and structured opportunities for reflection on the experience. This article provides an overview of service-learning, including a summary of benefits to youth that effective programs may provide, and principles to guide the design of service-learning programs.

Examples of service-learning programs abound. A quick internet search finds first grade students researching, designing, implementing, and evaluating methods to stop kindergarteners from running in the halls (Billig, 2007); middle school students monitoring local water quality and lobbying local government for pollution control (Learning In Deed, n.d.); high school students researching incorporation of their region into a town, presenting their findings to the Chamber of Commerce, and creating educational materials for residents (Active Citizenship, n.d.).

The National Youth Leadership Council defines service-learning as "an educational method that involves students in challenging tasks that meet genuine community needs and requires the application of knowledge, skills, and systematic reflection on the experience." Service-learning is set apart from other educational methods by its focus on meeting community needs, and from other forms of community service by its educational objectives. Importantly, service-learning includes both action and reflection, and benefits both the recipient of service and the student providing the service (Stukas, Clary, & Snyder, 1999); without these components a program may be valuable, but it does not fall under the rubric of service-learning.

In concert with traditional curricular goals in science, math, social studies, etc., programs may involve direct service, in which students establish personal contact with people in need; indirect service, such as fundraising, research, or food drives; and advocacy, mobilizing community support for positive social change. Each type has demonstrated value depending on the objectives being measured: research and advocacy, for example, tend to yield positive academic outcomes, while direct service may lead to community attachment (RMC Research Corporation 2007b).

Benefits to Students

Service-learning programs may lead to a multitude of positive outcomes. Certainly not all programs provide all benefits. As Mary Agnes Hamilton and Stephen F. Hamilton emphasize (2004), programs must be designed with the intention of achieving certain outcomes if students are to realize these goals. Research on the impact of service-learning on students is summarized in a regularly updated fact sheet by RMC Research Corporation (2007a). The impacts that particular programs can make, as identified by RMC and others, include:

Principles of Effective Practice

It is widely agreed that these benefits are not automatic, and no single program should be expected to deliver all of these outcomes. However, research points to key elements that increase the effectiveness of service-learning, and practitioners are moving systematically toward setting professional standards based on that research. The process of setting standards, a collaborative effort described by The National Youth Leadership Council (Weah, 2007), will begin with Eight Principles of Effective Practice for K-12 Service-Learning:

For a more complete discussion of each of the principles above, including the research basis for each principle, see Shelley H. Billig's article Unpacking What Works in Service-Learning:

Positive Youth Development

Positive youth development mobilizes communities to create services, opportunities, and supports that enable young people to grow to their full potential. Because service-learning shares the positive youth development principles of youth voice, youth strengths, long-term commitment, collaboration across sectors, and focus on relationships, service-learning is a particularly powerful tool available to schools and communities that are committed to the positive youth development framework. Communities often struggle to break stereotypes that adults maintain about youth; service-learning focuses attention on the gifts young people have to offer the community, offering adults a positive (and news-worthy) perspective on youth. Community youth development initiatives may find that service-learning provides an avenue for strengthening connections between schools and other sectors. Above all, service-learning offers precisely the kind of challenging opportunities and supportive, connected environment that is called for by the positive youth development movement.

Where to Go for More Information