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What is Service-Learning?

Service-Learning Definition,Elements, and Examples

Click here for the Service-Learning 101 PowerPoint


Service-learning is a method by which students learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service that

  • Is conducted in and meets real needs of a community (schools may be defined as community),
  • Is integrated into and enhances the academic curricula of students,
  • Provides structured time for students to reflect on their service experiences and demonstrate knowledge or skills they have gained, and
  • Helps foster civic responsibility.

In service-learning projects, students practice skills and behaviors that teachers need them to learn through the service they do. Service is a means and application of learning.

Student Components in Service-Learning Projects

What distinguishes service-learning from other service and volunteering? In a school context, the service is directly related to curricula and components of the project are course assignments and part of students’ grades. Activities are designed to address and apply specific learning objectives, standards, and curriculum frameworks. Effective service-learning projects have the following student roles:

Needs Investigation and Project Design

  • Needs identification/assessment—those being served help define their needs and how to meet them.
  • Learning the context for the need(s) to be addressed.
  • Issue discussion and selection.
  • Examination of stakeholders, policies, and systems impacting the need(s) to be addressed.
  • Designing activities to meet identified needs.

Teachers assign students work/projects/tasks to learn about the context for the service the students will subsequently provide. The service that follows is derived from this new knowledge, involves student voice and design, but remains within the curricular framework the teacher has established.


  • Research- and knowledge-based service activities.
  • Student leadership in conducting and leading project activities.
  • Activities are often fluid and evolve as the project progresses, original needs are addressed, and others are identified.
  • Students work collaboratively with service recipients and partners.
  • Application of multiple learning styles, including individual work, teamwork, using technology, tactile/manual work, oral presentations, data collection, writing, construction, etc.
  • Activities flow from preparation and are not wholly pre-planned by teachers.


Reflection is integrated into successful projects from beginning to end as students form and test opinions, project outcomes, measure results and impacts, discuss actions and reactions, and make improvements and future plans. Reflection allows students to process and absorb what they have experienced and is critical to meaningful learning.

Reflective activities include the following:

  • Journaling,
  • Projecting project impacts,
  • Discussion,
  • Conducting formative and summative evaluation,
  • Making project refinements, and
  • Conducting future planning.


Demonstration is another application of service-learning that involves students in educating others about the issues they are addressing.

Demonstration takes various forms—many of which are actual service-learning projects in themselves—including the following:

  • Advocacy campaigns,
  • Putting on public forums/presentations,
  • Performance on the service issues,
  • Teaching others about the project and the issues behind it (lessons, presentations), and
  • Creating films, portfolios, books, Web sites, publications, works of art, etc.


Throughout the project, but especially at the end, students should be recognized for their efforts. In successful projects, all participants join together to reflect and to plan future efforts.

Youth Empowerment

An implicit or explicit component of the above elements, youth empowerment and leadership enrich every aspect of service-learning. The greater the voice students have in identifying needs and designing activities, the more motivated they will be. Having to demonstrate to (i.e., teach) others about the needs and issues being addressed requires a higher assimilation of learning. Effective projects have students evaluate impacts of activities, saving teachers labor and making students responsible for determining whether their efforts were successful. Strong student roles are hallmarks of effective projects, in which students . . .

  • Are involved in project design and planning, with meaningful leadership roles (including needs identification and helping to decide what service activities will be conducted). Teachers in effective projects assign students organizing and logistical duties involved in arranging, providing, measuring, evaluating, reporting, and celebrating service activities.
  • Conduct a lot of service over time. It is better to have fewer students doing a lot of service-learning than to have a lot of students conduct only surface-level efforts.


Reciprocity ensures activities provide service that is actually needed, exposes students to people different from themselves, provides different perspectives on needs, and brings outside assistance, expertise, match, and publicity, to service-learning projects. In effective projects, teachers and students design activities based on what they hear and learn from those in need and not on preconceived notions.


When these elements are in place, the impacts of curriculum-based service-learning go far beyond those of traditional community service and volunteering. Service-learning combines academic and affective learning to engage students hands-on in the real world. This combination—not to mention the incentive to learn outside the classroom—is what makes service-learning such a powerful tool, pedagogy, and strategy.

Examples of Service-learning in Various Need Areas

Reading—e.g., students serving as reading tutors for other students or for adults; creating books or other written materials for other students, the public, or Web sites; reading and writing for seniors or the infirm; editing documents; teaching reading to young children; translating documents for non-English speakers; promoting reading through advocacy campaigns, public service announcements (PSAs), book drives, or public readings; designing and constructing reading areas; and dramatic, artistic, or musical performances of texts and literature.

Civics/history—e.g., conducting, compiling, recording, publishing, filming, or depicting histories of a local community, individuals in a community, or historic locations (cemeteries, buildings, natural features/sites, forts, Native American sites); advocacy campaigns on topics in the public interest; gathering and disseminating information about services available to residents and visitors; creating murals depicting local history; teaching peers about democratic processes through events, student-made videos, performances (including puppet shows), lessons, and hands-on activities; creating children’s history books; serving as museum docents; reenacting historic events; restoring or recreating historic structures; forums on topics of public interest; oral histories focusing on different eras; teaching about voting; producing tip sheets or guidebooks on how to effect positive community change.

Drug/violence prevention—e.g., teaching other students or the community how to avoid/respond to conflict, drugs, STDs, teen pregnancy, alcohol, and other self-destructive choices. Strategies could include lessons, presentations, dramatic performances, videos, artistic displays, music, advocacy campaigns, PSAs, forums, coloring books, conflict mediation, serving on Teen Courts, and safety presentations for the home, car, or neighborhood.

Intergenerational interaction—e.g., service projects for and with seniors to include health screenings, exercise programs, teaching the use of computers, oral histories, pen pal programs, concerts and dances with (not just for) seniors, creating art or gardens at senior centers, working with seniors to put on public forums on important issues, and providing patients with physical and mental stimulation (working on arts and crafts together, exercise, games, etc.). Students can also teach others about seniors through lessons, publications, presentations, performances, brochures, Web sites, and advocacy campaigns.

Environment—e.g., restoration of degraded areas; exotic plant removal; propagation and planting of native plants; water, flora, and fauna testing/monitoring; research on endangered species; erosion abatement efforts; management of public lands to include trail and outdoor classroom design and maintenance; raise-and-release efforts; energy audits for homes, schools, and communities; and mapping. Demonstration elements include teaching, presenting, creating brochures and Web sites, art representing the flora and fauna being studied, giving tours and field days, making videos, composing information to place in kiosks and translating it into foreign languages, performances, advocacy campaigns, public service announcements, Web sites, and fundraising to preserve natural areas.

K-12 Standards and Indicators for Quality Service-Learning Practice

1. Duration and Intensity: Service-learning has sufficient duration and intensity to address community needs and meet specified outcomes.


  1. Service-learning experiences include the processes of investigating community needs, preparing for service, action, reflection, demonstration of learning and impacts, and celebration.
  2. Service-learning is conducted during concentrated blocks of time across a period of several weeks or months.
  3. Service-learning experiences provide enough time to address identified community needs and achieve learning outcomes.

2. Link to Curriculum: Service-learning is intentionally used as an instructional strategy to meet learning goals and/or content standards.


  1. Service-learning has clearly articulated learning goals.
  2. Service-learning is aligned with the academic and/or program¬matic curriculum.
  3. Service-learning helps partici¬pants learn how to transfer knowledge and skills from one setting to another.
  4. Service-learning that takes place in schools is formally recognized in school board policies and student records.

3. Partnerships: Service-learning partnerships are collaborative, mutually beneficial, and address community needs.


  1. Service-learning involves a variety of partners, including youth, educators, families, community members, community-based organizations, and/or businesses.
  2. Service-learning partnerships are characterized by frequent and regular communication to keep all partners well-informed about activities and progress.
  3. Service-learning partners collaborate to establish a shared vision and set common goals to address community needs.
  4. Service-learning partners collaboratively develop and implement action plans to meet specified goals.
  5. Service-learning partners share knowledge and understanding of school and community assets and needs, and view each other as valued resources.

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


  1. Service-learning experiences are appropriate to participant ages and developmental abilities.
  2. Service-learning addresses issues that are personally relevant to the participants.
  3. Service-learning provides participants with interesting and engaging service activities.
  4. Service-learning encourages participants to understand their service experiences in the context of the underlying societal issues being addressed.
  5. Service-learning leads to attainable and visible outcomes that are valued by those being served.

5. Youth Voice: Service-learning provides youth with a strong voice in planning, implementing, and evaluating service-learning experiences with guidance from adults.


  1. Service-learning engages youth in generating ideas during the planning, implementation, and evaluation processes.
  2. Service-learning involves youth in the decision-making process throughout the service-learning experience.
  3. Service-learning involves youth and adults in creating an environment that supports trust and open expression of ideas.
  4. Service-learning promotes acquisition of knowledge and skills to enhance youth leader¬ship and decision-making.
  5. Service-learning involves youth in evaluating the quality and effectiveness of the service-learn¬ing experience.

6. Diversity: Service-learning promotes understanding of diversity and mutual respect among all participants.


  1. Service-learning helps partici¬pants identify and analyze different points of view to gain understanding of multiple perspectives.
  2. Service-learning helps partici¬pants develop interpersonal skills in conflict resolution and group decision-making.
  3. Service-learning helps partici¬pants actively seek to understand and value the diverse back¬grounds and perspectives of those offering and receiving service.
  4. Service-learning encourages participants to recognize and overcome stereotypes.

7. Reflection: Service-learning incorporates multiple challenging reflection activities that are ongoing and that prompt deep thinking and analysis about oneself and one’s relationship to society.


  1. Service-learning reflection includes a variety of verbal, written, artistic, and nonverbal activities to demonstrate understanding and changes in participants’ knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes.
  2. Service-learning reflection occurs before, during, and after the service experience.
  3. Service-learning reflection prompts participants to think deeply about complex community problems and alternative solutions.
  4. Service-learning reflection encourages participants to examine their preconceptions and assumptions in order to explore and understand their roles and responsibilities as citizens.
  5. Service-learning reflection encourages participants to examine a variety of social and civic issues related to their service-learning experience so that participants understand connections to public policy and civic life.

8. Progress Monitoring: Service-learning engages participants in an ongoing process to assess the quality of implementation and progress toward meeting specified goals, and uses results for improvement and sustainability.


  1. Service-learning participants collect evidence of progress toward meeting specific service goals and learning outcomes from multiple sources throughout the service-learning experience.
  2. Service-learning participants collect evidence of the quality of service-learning implementation from multiple sources throughout the service-learning experience.
  3. Service-learning participants use evidence to improve service-learning experiences.
  4. Service-learning participants communicate evidence of progress toward goals and outcomes with the broader community, including policy-makers and education leaders, to deepen service-learning understanding and ensure that high quality practices are sustained.


For more information—including lesson plans, descriptions of previously funded projects, sample proposals, video introductions to service-learning, links with Florida Sunshine State Standards, research on service-learning, etc.—check the rest of the resources available here at the Florida Learn & Serve Website.


Corporation for National & Community Service

This site is sponsored by: The Corporation for National & Community Service, Florida State University's Center for Leadership and Civic Education, and the Florida Department of Education.

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