To Think is to Do
Service Learning Offers the World as a Classroom

Written by Michelle Glicksman

Does doing help learning? Those behind the implementation of service learning programs believe so.

Although there is not one specific definition of service learning—rather, there are various thoughts and concepts on the subject—the overall core concept focuses on combining classroom instruction with meaningful community service to enrich the learning experience through an act of giving.

It was more than a century ago when the first seeds of service learning began to take root. However, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the incorporation of service learning began being worked into academic curriculums. Though service learning programs have been implemented from the younger school ages on up, there is currently a renewed interest in it from the higher university and graduate levels, with leaders in those fields believing that the “implementation of service learning into the curriculum results in not only better-educated students but also the development of better student citizens,” according to the study Assessing Service-Learning—Impacts at Higher Education Institutions by Hanover Research 2012.

“It allows students to do real-world work, and they’re able to put the skills they’re learning in the classroom towards a community need. And, it helps students because they are able to apply what they’re learning in the classroom,” explains Erin Oakley, a research associate with Hanover Research, a custom research firm that partners with more than 300 higher education institutions, and who worked on a research report in 2014 titled Best Practices for Scaling Service Learning. “Additionally, our studies found that the students who participate in service learning have a stronger sense of civic responsibility, might be more likely to vote, often understand the needs of the community better, and are more likely to participate in community volunteerism later.”

The Roots

The concept behind service learning was shaped by the philosophies of both progressivism and pragmatism. An outspoken proponent of progressive education, John Dewey, argued that students learn and retain best when they engage in a cycle of action and reflections. And although there wasn’t one main person behind pragmatism, pragmatics as a whole argued that presenting information to students without the opportunity to apply it to situations they encounter was counter productive.

From those two philosophies emerged the concept of service learning, which is now a global practice being utilized in educational settings, especially at the university and graduate levels.

“It allows students to do real-world work, and they’re able to put the skills they’re learning in the classroom towards a community need. And, it helps students because they are able to apply what they’re learning in the classroom.”

Erin Oakley

A Growing Practice

Today, service learning is enjoying an uptick in practice. In a recent study from Campus Compact, a national coalition of more than 1,100 college and university presidents who are “committed to fulfilling the public purpose of higher education,”the percentage of student participation levels at Campus Compact member institutions rose from just under 30 percent in 2008 to almost 50 percent in 2012—and the value of that student service rose from $5.7 billion to $9.7 billion. (1)

Of course, the impact of service learning goes beyond just numbers.

According to Campus Compact, as noted in its study, engagement not only helps a student learn in real world situations, but also changes the lives of those on the receiving end of that service for the better.

The Breadth of Opportunities

The span of service learning opportunities ranges across almost all disciplines, from business to engineering to mathematics to political science, and everything in between, and the projects are limited only by imagination.

Some institutions weave a service learning requirement into their curriculum, where a student must complete a specific number of hours in order to either pass a course or to graduate, while other times it’s simply encouraged. And, some universities create a defined department and office for service learning opportunities, such as The Office of Service Learning at University of Georgia, which reported to Hanover Research as part of its investigation for its Innovations in Service Learning at Universities Worldwide 2012, that in 2010-2011, “at least 301 sections of over 150 unique service learning courses were offered, some 33 of these courses were taught in study abroad settings, at least 138 different faculty members were involved in service learning instructions [and] at least 5,208 undergraduates, 732 graduate students, and 1,653 professional students were impacted by these courses, representing 21.0 percent of overall student enrollment.”

The project can last for a day, a semester, or for an indefinite period until the required number of hours are completed, and usually must be overseen by either a faculty member or approved supervisor.

The range of projects varies: At Duke University, students have options such as Biomedical Engineering 460L: Devices for People with Disabilities, where they actually build custom assistive devices for people with disabilities in the local community, and Community Based Language Initiative, where students in Arabic courses work with recently-arrived refugees in a cultural and language exchange experience.

At the University of Washington, the Dream Project partners students with first-generation and low-income students in Seattle area high schools to assist in the college admissions process.(2)

No matter the project, the growing trend of incorporating service learning into course curricula shows that not only does applying learned knowledge offer a deeper perspective of the material for students, but that schools are realizing there is much to gain by marrying their knowledge and resources with helping to build a strong community, whether locally or globally.


  1. 2012 Annual Member Survey, Creating a Culture of Assessment, by Campus Compact (note: latest survey available) (Return)
  2. 2012 Innovations in Service Learning at Universities Worldwide, by Campus Compact (Return)