Service Learning is a general term for a wide range of pedagogies that are based in the community. More than volunteering, service learning projects work best when they strike a good balance between the learning needs of the student and the "common good" needs of the community partner. The instructors section of UWL's Community Portal provides resources to identify community partners and projects for all forms of community-based learning, including service learning.

Here are several types of service learning. Each requires a different type of preparation for students.

Type Example
"Pure" Service-Learning Sending students out into the community to serve (not placed into any discipline) – E.g. FYE Introduction to Multiculturalism + Diversity
Discipline-Based Service-Learning Students expected to have a presence in the community throughout the semester; using course content as basis for analysis + understanding
Problem-Based Service-Learning Students (or teams) relate to the community as “consultants” working for “clients.”  They try to understand and address a community problem or need
Capstone Courses Designed for majors and minors; use knowledge from entire body of course work and combine it with relevant service work.  Goal could be to explore a new topic or synthesize student understanding of discipline
Service Internships Intensive placement; reflection throughout internship using discipline-specific theories
Undergraduate Community-Based Action Research Students learning research methodology; intensive work with communities to define research questions; advocacy-inspired

Source: Gavin Luter, Wisconsin Campus Compact, Designing Effective Community-Based Learning.   CATL Workshops. April 20, 2018.  

Summary of Research

Service learning, along with other forms of community-based learning, is a "high-impact practice." Research focuses on two facets of impactfulness:  how it benefits students and communities, and what makes it effective.

Effectiveness: service learning works best when

  • all parties achieve reciprocity: the community activities and the course are both shaped through partnership
  • community activities fit well with the course
  • the course and the community activities develop students' civic competencies
  • students engage with a broad range of people across multiple types of intereactions
  • student reflection is well integrated into learning activities (e.g., it functions as a metacognitive tool)
  • instructors assess for continual course improvement
  • students have a voice in the community components

Benefits:  students may benefit in any or all of these ways, depending on the type of engagement

  • cognitive development
  • learning outcomes
  • problem-solving, critical thinking, problem analysis
  • retention
  • grades
  • personal growth
  • interpersonal and civic skills
  • cultural compentency
  • reduction of stereotypes
  • career development and related skills


Implementing a service learning project takes time and patience. See Rubin (2001) below for a process that helps you integrate service learning into both your course and your own research. This downloadable worksheet is based on Rubin. 

Wisconsin Campus Compact is our partner for this work: their website includes many many resources. Gavin Luter, formerly of Wisconsin Campus Compact, conducted two workshops for UWL in April, 2018. His Linking Classrom and Community: Considerations for Planning, Implementing, and Institutionalizing Service-Learning (from powerpoint) covers a broad set of issues and includes dozens of citations.  Designing Effective Community-Based Learning (from powerpoint) delves more deeply into implementation and is also abundant with references.  Critical topics in both of these presentions include developing partnerships, and diversity issues (both for majority-group students working across social hierarchies, and for partners working effectively with all students). Luter's worksheet helps you think through the implementation process.  Part of this worksheet asks you to identify potential partners in the community;  the best place to start looking for partners is at UWL's Community Portal (see the links below the "UWL Instructors" box on the far right).

Learning outcomes

Your first step is always to define the outcomes. Miami Dade College, like many other institutions that have service-learning centers, developed learning outcomes for their service learning programs.  They provide their list and then show a wide range of disciplines developing students' skills, insights, and knowledge through service learning in this 5 1/2 minute video:  Stanford University's Graduate School of Business offers its students life-changing service-learning opportunities organized around social and environmental issues.  Students discover how useful -- vital, in fact -- business skills -- and listening skills -- are to solving complex and even intractable problems in this 5 1/2-minute video: P. 4 of "The Role of the Faculty Member in Service-Learning" from Tennessee State University is another good place to start.

Guiding Student Reflection

Guiding student's reflection is a critical component of effective service-learning.  Several of the resources below offer a wealth of ideas for weekly responses, discussion questions, journaling, and other assignments that help you integrate the community experience into your course.


Association of American Colleges & Universities, Civic Learning. Resources for building learning opportunities aimed at the needs of "or nation's diverse democracy and interdependent global community." .
Celio, Christine I., Joseph Durlak, and Allison Dymnicki. “A Meta-Analysis of the Impact of Service-Learning on Students.” Journal of Experiential Education 34, no. 2 (September 1, 2011): 164–81.
Center for Community-Engaged Learning, University of Minnesota. “Reflection in Service-Learning Classes.” Accessed April 24, 2018.
Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, Indiana University. “Reflection Questions for Considering Service-Learning Experiences."  Accessed April 24, 2018.
Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University. “Best Practices in Community Engaged Teaching."  Accessed February 24, 2017.
Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University. “What Is Service Learning or Community Engagement?” Accessed April 24, 2018.
Hatcher, Julie A., Robert G. Bringle, and Patti H. Clayton. Research on Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Assessment First edition. IUPUI Series on Service Learning Research ; v. 2A-B. Sterling, Va.: Stylus Pub, 2013.
National Service-Learning Clearinghouse. A searchable database to help you find all kinds of resources for a variety of issues.
Rubin, Maureen Shubow. “A Smart Start to Service-Learning.” New Directions for Higher Education 2001, no. 114 (Summer 2001): 15.,uid&db=ehh&AN=10210974&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Wisconsin Campus Compact. UWL's partner in advancing our engagement with community-based learning. Many resources and consultants.

Hoskins, D.  (2018). Service learning. In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from