Successful service-learning is a multifaceted teaching and learning process. Though each service- learning project is uniquely tailored to meet specific learning goals and community needs, several things are critical for success and should be addressed by practitioners throughout the process.

Service-learning actively engages participants in meaningful and personally relevant service activities.

Service-learning projects work best when they fit the ages and developmental abilities of the participants, include interesting and engaging service activities, explore the context of the underlying societal issues the service addresses, and address needs that are important to the community being served.

Effective service-learning is an integral part of the learning process. It has clear learning goals that are aligned with the school curriculum or purpose of the extracurricular program. Learning becomes experiential and applied, deepening students’ understanding of the material, how it’s used, and why it’s important.

Throughout the process, reflection is the key to growth and understanding. Young people use critical and creative thinking to ensure that the learning makes sense and has meaning for them. Reflection activities should be used before, during, and after the service experience to assess where students are in the learning process, help them internalize the learning, provide opportunities for them to voice concerns and share feelings, and evaluate the project.

Service-learning promotes an understanding of all forms of diversity and fosters mutual respect among participants. It helps develop interpersonal skills in group decision-making and conflict resolution. Students learn to identify and analyze different points of view to gain understanding of multiple perspectives.

Young people are active partners in a service-learning project, with strong voices in identifying community needs and planning service activities. They also play active roles in the evaluation of the project and its impact on the community. This nurtures youth ownership of the project, which in turn empowers young people to take control of their learning, develop leadership skills, and take their places as valuable, decision-making members of their communities.

Service-learning builds partnerships between young people and the broader community. Partnerships can involve not only those being served but also businesses, community organizations, social service agencies, and other groups that share the project's goals. By bringing people together in collaboration, these partnerships can bridge intergenerational, ethnic, and cultural gaps; provide young people with strong role models; and strengthen community infrastructures.

To assess the quality of service-learning and monitor success, service-learning participants collect evidence of their progress toward goals and results from multiple sources throughout the service-learning experience. They share the evidence of their accomplishments with the broader community, including policy-makers and education leaders, to deepen service-learning understanding and ensure that high quality practices are sustained.

Service-learning should have sufficient duration and intensity to address community needs and meet the goals of the project. In other words, it should allow youth enough time to investigate community needs, prepare for service, take action, reflect repeatedly on the project, demonstrate their learning and the impacts of the project, and celebrate the achievement. Service-learning works best when it is conducted during concentrated blocks of time across a period of several weeks or months.

Service-learning is an incredibly flexible tool, easily adapted to different age levels, community needs, and curricular goals. Projects can engage entire schools over an academic year, or can involve a small group during a short period of time.

Successful service-learning projects are tied closely to specific learning objectives, and many of the best are tied to numerous areas of study. For example, when seventh- and eighth-graders studied the historical significance of a local river, they developed projects to build nature trails, test water samples, document contamination of the local habitat, and restore historical sites. Their teachers connected those activities to their studies in earth science, mathematics, language arts, physical education, music, visual arts, and social studies. These connections not only expanded the impact projects had on learning, but also provided the young people with a deeper understanding of how different subjects are interrelated.

These connections can be made from two different directions: either by identifying specific learning goals and developing a project that meets them, or by identifying the project and then exploring the many ways it can be tied to curricula or learning objectives.

 
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so what? now what?
post-service reflection
reflection during service pre-service reflection
what?
 
Service-learning is best thought of as a cycle, where each step in the process leads to the next.
 

As the diagram to the left illustrates, the service-learning process doesn't end when a service activity is complete. A project may be finished, but service-learning is a transformational process where young people, practitioners, and communities continue to grow as they discover the root causes underlying the needs.

Every part of the cycle is rich with learning and growth opportunities, many of them happening as young people are guided through the process of identifying, planning, and carrying out service activities. It's important for practitioners to recognize the learning potential in each phase of the process and get students reflecting so that real learning takes place.

With each step in a service-learning project, discussing three deceptively simple questions helps participants understand what they've accomplished, learned, and need to do next:

What?
What has happened? Take stock of what participants did, saw, and felt. Get their initial observations of what has happened.

So What?
What's the importance of all this? Discuss what participants are thinking and feeling about the experience. Ask them what they've learned and how things have changed.

Now What?
What should we do next? It's time to decide how best to channel this new understanding into continued action.

 

Successful service-learning relies on trained practitioners, and NYLC can help you gain the skills you need. It only takes a couple of days to get a firm grounding in the fundamentals, and ongoing training is available on advanced topics. NYLC provides customized training and consulting services for schools and community-based organizations.

 

The National Service-Learning Conference is the world's largest gathering of people involved in service-learning, including educators, young people and representatives of community-based organizations. It brings together nearly 3,000 participants from all 50 U.S. states and many countries, and offers more than 200 workshops along with informal networking opportunities.

 

NYLC and other service-learning organizations offer many helpful publications. Visit our bookstore for a number of print publications and videos, including The Generator, a newsletter that turns service-learning research into practice. We've also put together a list of publications that are particularly useful for those getting started in service-learning.