Learning to apply knowledge and skills to benefit others or serve the public good

Author: Joe Bandy, Vanderbilt University

Our world faces formidable challenges that demand the next generation of college graduates be capable leaders with expansive understandings of public life, honed skills of critical thinking, and the abilities to collaborate with diverse groups to solve problems and create change.

Teaching students to apply knowledge and skills to benefit others or serve the public good is one exceptionally high impact method to foster these capabilities across the disciplines (1). Service learning, as it is typically called, is pedagogy that weds learning goals and community needs in scholarly service projects that, when done well, enhance both student learning and community development. Or, according to Janet Eyler, it is “a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students…seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves” (2, also 3).
The benefits of community engagement are well documented in the scholarship on teaching and learning for students, faculty, and community partners. Students achieve greater intellectual development in the form of deeper knowledge of the discipline, problem-solving capacities, critical thinking, and abilities to understand complexity and ambiguity, but also greater personal and social growth through enhanced personal efficacy, moral reasoning, interpersonal skills, intercultural competencies, commitments to social service, and even career development. Faculty also find greater satisfaction with student learning, new research opportunities and collaborations, not to mention stronger ties to their community. Of course, when done well community engagement also benefits community partners with improved capacities to research and resolve social problems, and more supportive campus-community relations. Together, these outcomes support a more dynamic public scholarship and civic engagement for higher education; one that, not only supports student development, but also the more collaborative civic learning and problem solving necessary to improve our collective capacities for democracy and well-being (3).

Teaching This Objective

Community engagement can be incorporated into courses in a myriad of ways, from small optional service activities that complement other learning activities within a course, to required time-intensive projects that are the centerpiece of a course plan dedicated more fully to community engagement. Community projects and partnerships also may be the focal point of multi-course learning communities or an entire disciplinary curriculum when the learning opportunities and community needs are robust and well aligned.

For those just beginning, one might incorporate a service learning project as only part of a course, such as having students conduct needs or assets assessments by interviewing community agencies about their work, the communities they serve, the social problems they attempt to solve, and what could make their work more effective. These may help students and faculty get acquainted with communities and develop trusting relationships with partners, as well as develop more elaborate service learning projects for future courses. For those wanting to make a project central to a course, it might involve students doing larger projects, such as conducting social research on the extent of homelessness in the local area or helping a community create public art in the form of a play about a social problem. It could involve doing soil testing to better assess toxins, or creating a set of oral histories to preserve and publicize the history of civil rights activism. There is no one way to do service learning correctly across the diversity of disciplines, course formats, and potential partnerships that are possible.

Yet, if an instructor is to maximize the impacts of community engagement, it is helpful to consider several key principles derived from the scholarship on service learning and its experienced practitioners.

  • First, students and partners will learn more when there is a thorough integration and close alignment of project goals and academic content, so that each can inform the other more fully and so that students, faculty, and partners do not feel divided in their efforts. This will ensure all participants in the project are developing the intellectual capacities for effective collaboration, as well.
  • Second, community partnerships can be counter-productive for faculty, students, and partners when they are organized poorly. Projects should have clear goals and timelines, all organized in memorandums of understanding. The logistics of student orientation to the project, travel for site visits, scheduling intermediate goals, organizing guest lectures by partners, training students in methods and ethics, supporting students as they often struggle in group collaboration, and other potential issues need to be planned for by faculty and community partners.
  • Third, partnerships and projects can be ineffective, if not problematic, if they do not embrace strong ethical practices, especially when there are many opportunities for students or partners to offend, exploit, or harm one another. Therefore it is important to ensure that students and partners understand and are committed to ethics of active collaboration, mutual empowerment, reciprocal benefit, and open communication. All parties need to commit to developing the personal and intellectual skills necessary to enact these ethics and complete all of the work of the project. All parties also should regard one another as co-educators who share expertise and help to co-create new knowledge that is beneficial for the other.
  • Fourth, the benefits of service learning’s problem-based, service-oriented, and real-world form of experiential learning are likely to be wasted if students do not have the opportunity to reflect critically on the relationship between course content and their projects. Reflection is essential to any experiential learning, especially service learning, as students need to place new and challenging experiences into context with faculty and peer guidance. This can take the form of journals, directed writing assignments, research papers, online discussion forums, biographical narratives, class discussion, presentations, etcetera, but it should be learner-centered with student autonomy, voice, and collaborative learning informed by faculty and community partner expertise.
  • Lastly, students and community partners should be able to give one another regular formative feedback about the project work as it unfolds, in addition to summative evaluations at the end of the semester about whether the project goals were achieved and any recommended improvements for future projects.

Despite the exceptional learning opportunity that service learning presents, adhering to these principles can be challenging, especially when faculty may be new to a community and fear the time commitment or work required. To best address these challenges, it is important to consider several resources. First, use existing resources at your institution, particularly Centers for Teaching and Learning, Public Service Centers, and peers who are engaged in community work. They can help you get to know the community, its needs, reliable partners, and help design projects and course elements that will ease the transition into service learning. It may be helpful to see example service-learning syllabi and visit a peer’s class to glean best practices relevant to your discipline, institution, and community. It also is helpful to embrace these techniques slowly by experimenting with small student projects and limited partnerships at first, and building on them as your knowledge of the community, trust with partners, and project ideas grow over time. Setting modest project goals and managing the expectations of both partners and students can also ensure that stresses and disappointments are kept at bay. Lastly, it is important to embrace some uncertainty and difficulty as you work collaboratively with partners and students, since the potential to support your students’ learning, discover new research opportunities, and enhance community development offer rewards that are well worth the effort.

Teaching This Objective Online

Online community engagement entails both challenges and opportunities. The challenges of conducting ethical and effective community engagement projects in online courses are significant. When faculty cannot choose partners or meet them face to face, and when online students are non-traditional and have full time employment, partnerships and projects may suffer from inadequate time, development, and impact (4). However, online community engagement does have the opportunity to have a varied set of projects with national and international reach, which allows students to address diverse needs across wide-ranging communities (5). Having non-traditional students also affords opportunities for intriguing dialogues about any number of issues affecting national or global society. The question is: how might we minimize the challenges so as to maximize the learning opportunities?

To minimize the challenges of limited time and face-to-face contact between faculty and partners, several options exist.

  • First, students will need more resources to take on the responsibilities for the selection of partners and project development. Some of the resources that are helpful include explanations of learning and service goals, a clarification of time frames and expectations for student work, ethical guidelines for partnerships, methods and best practices for first contact, guidance in creatively designing projects with community partners, support in defining work responsibilities (i.e., memoranda of understanding), as well as expectations about student-partner communications, deliverables, and assessment.
  • Second, to help the instructor support the student-community project fully, students could write a proposal that offers a needs assessment of the community and outlines a possible or intended partnership. This would be a good first step permitting the instructor to have all of the necessary information to help the student and partner (4).
  • Third, instructors and students would be served by a required schedule of regular communications with community partners to ensure that the project work is proceeding well and will be completed on time. These communications may involve videoconferencing to allow instructors, students, and partners to meet one another virtually, build trust, and clearly define the learning and community development objectives.
  • Fourth, in any community-based course students are less likely to learn from their engagement without regular written and dialogic reflection, and these work best when structured by prompts that connect course content rigorously to community-based work. In online courses, this need is even greater so that students are learning well and effectively completing their projects. Reflection may be most useful in synchronous discussion-based forums with peers, but also may involve asynchronous discussions via blogs, discussion forums, or peer-reviewed writing.
  • Fifth, as Malvey (2006) has stated, “the technology that supports e-service-learning also may represent the biggest pitfall” (7). To address technical challenges of students or community partners who may not have the appropriate equipment or knowledge for full participation in online forums, there are a couple of solutions. It will be imperative to have your institution’s Information Technology office as a “fourth partner” (7). They may help all communications and online course activities to occur more seamlessly, avoiding or repairing malfunctions, helping with technical orientations for students, and troubleshooting. For community partners who may not have technological capacities, instructors may need to rely on phone communications if not merely more direct student-partner interactions. This is not ideal, but may be necessary for some partnerships and projects.

To take advantage of the opportunities in online community engagement, it is important to offer opportunities for collaborative peer education, so that non-traditional students and students in wide-ranging communities around the nation or world, can learn the most from one another’s cultures, communities, and life experiences. Therefore it is vital to have structured reflection and dialogue via asynchronous online blogs or text discussions, and via synchronous audio or videoconferencing. Discussions focused on inter-community similarities and differences of social issues can help students to gain valuable insights into course content, its application to real-world contexts, and how to complete their projects more effectively and ethically.

Assessing This Objective

At the outset, it is important to make a distinction between the assessment of student learning and the assessment of community partnerships and impacts. In assessing student learning, service learning is similar to any other form of teaching insofar as it evaluates content knowledge, critical thinking skills, problem solving abilities, thorough research, the quality of written work, etcetera. Community-based projects, therefore, should be assessed and graded on the basis of the same discipline-specific and intellectually rigorous grounds as any project in a traditional course. If, for instance, students are conducting a research or service project related to homelessness, it could be assessed by its use of critical thinking skills, the wide array of scholarship on homelessness, and community informants on homelessness in the local area. In other words, as in any other course the prime learning assessment is the evaluation of student work, and as such it is important for all assignments to have clear, rigorous academic goals and transparent criteria for evaluation and the grading associated with it.

Further, although it is typically not the basis for grades, it is possible to assess student social, emotional, and ethical development. Typically through mid-course and end-of-course reflection papers or other assignments such as journals, blogs, or site reports, students (sometimes writing with community partners) can discuss these facets of their own growth by referencing skills of collaboration, empathy, ethical reasoning, efforts at reciprocity, as well as civic attitudes and knowledge they may have gained. These skills and attitudes also may be assessed through a student survey, such as the Civic Attitudes and Skills Questionnaire, which assesses civic action, interpersonal and problem-solving skills, political awareness, leadership skills, and attitudes towards social justice and diversity (8). These may help to expand learning assessments considerably, and help community-engaged faculty more thoroughly reflect on student growth.

However, community engagement projects may be assessed, not only for the content learning that they enable students to achieve, but also for both the quality of partnerships, and for the impact of their work on their community. These may not be the basis on which grades are assigned, since these community relationships contain elements beyond student capabilities to fully control. However, assessment may help to improve projects and partnerships, if not entire programs and campus initiatives of community engagement. Many have attempted to provide a reliable set of guidelines for establishing ethical, professional, and effective partnerships between students/faculty and community partners. Imagining America, a national organization dedicated to the support of public scholarship and community engagement, has promoted the use of a qualitative, value-based form of assessment that asks faculty/students and partners to consider whether partnerships are collaborative, reciprocal, generative, practical, and rigorous, with various methods that may be useful for different contexts (9). Patti Clayton et al, with similar goals of helping stakeholders to evaluate ethical dimensions of partnerships, have developed the Transformational Relationship Evaluation Scale, which can be administered to all participants of a project to help them reflect on whether partnerships are more transactional (relationships that are short-term, faculty/student-centered, and with bounded outcomes that operate within normative values, identities, and institutions) or transformational (more long-term, committed, equal partnerships in which all stakeholders seek to transform themselves and the normative social relations of their community) (10). This transformational ethos of partnerships, one very much consonant with the practitioners of Participatory Action Research and the work of Barbara Holland, is one paralleled in the work of Marullo’s and Edwards’s differentiation between charity and justice, or Ward’s and Wolf-Wendel’s distinction between “working for” and “working with” (11, 12). Regardless of the specific terms, these distinctions can be the basis of reflection exercises, surveys, and interviews with partners throughout a project to assess the development of partnerships that are intentional, trusting, and effective.

Assessing the impact of projects on communities is more challenging work. Projects and partnerships vary widely across different communities and issue areas. Plus, effects can be measured over radically different time and social scales. Therefore methods of yielding reflective assessments on project impact are highly varied, with no one-size-fits-all solution. Most assessments have a limited focus on whether projects help community-based organizations and their members to enhance their capacity in the short term, in the form of new knowledge, skills, relationships, resources, or efficiencies. These often may be weighed against the costs of the project for all stakeholders to uncover ways that partners may be better served (13). However, some assessments may seek a longer time horizon and a broader view of impact by having community partners reflect on how they or their constituents become more effective agents of change and how they are able to alter social structures of governance, economy, and culture for greater well-being (14). While the former assessments may be completed with easier open-ended reflections, surveys, and/or interviews on questions of organizational growth, the latter involves more labor- and resource-intensive data collection over a period of years with multiple measures of social change. To determine which form of assessment is most helpful ultimately depends on who the assessment is for (students, instructors, administrators, community leaders…), how it will be used (to justify programs, to improve learning, to enhance the community…), and how many resources one may have. Ultimately, all of these models of assessing student learning, partnerships, and community impact are crucial, since they are the mirrors by which we can see more clearly how the work of social learning and community engagement can fulfill the goals of social betterment.


  1. Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter, AAC&U.
  2. Eyler, Janet S., Dwight E.Giles, Jr., Christine M. Stenson, and Charlene J. Gray. 2001 “At a Glance: What We Know about the Effects of Service Learning on College Students, Faculty, Institutions and Communities, 1993-2001.
  3. Astin, Alexander W. and Linda J. Sax. 1998. “How Undergraduates Are Affected by Service Participation.” Journal of College Student Development. 39(3): 251-63.
  4. Wilkinson, Noel. 2012. “Integrating Service-Learning into an Online Course.” Weber University.
  5. Strait, Jean R. and Timothy Sauer. 2004. “Constructing experiential learning for online courses: the birth of e-service.” Educause Quarterly. January.
  6. Guthrie, Kathy L. and Holly McCracken. 2010. “Teaching and Learning Social Justice through Online Service-Learning Courses.” The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. 11(3): 1-9.
  7. Waldner, Leora S., Sue Y. McGorry, and Murray C. Widener. 2012. “E-Service-Learning: The Evolution of Service-Learning to Engage a Growing Online Student Population.” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement. 16(2): 123-50.
  8. Mercer, Sterett H., Vincent Ilustre, Devi Miron, Barbara E. Moely. 2002. “Psychometric Properties and Correlates of the Civic Attitudes and Skills Questionnaire (CASQ): A Measure of Students’ Attitudes Related to Service-Learning.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. 8(Spring): 15-26.
  9. Imagining America. 2016. “Integrated Assessment” website. Imagining America.
  10. Clayton, Patti, Robert Bringle, Bryanne Senor, Jenny Huq, and Mary Morrison. 2010. “Differentiating and Assessing Relationships in Service-Learning and Civic Engagement: Exploitative, Transactional, or Transformational.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. Spring: 5-22.
  11. Marullo, Sam and Bob Edwards.2000. “From Charity to Justice” American Behavioral Scientist.43(5):895-909.
  12. Ward, Kelly and Lisa Wolf-Wendell. 2000. “Community-Centered Service Learning: From Doing For to Doing With.” American Behavioral Scientist. 43: 767-80.
  13. Stoecker, Randy and Elizabeth A. Tryon, Eds. 2009. The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning, Temple University Press.
  14. Marullo, Sam, Deanna Cooke, Jason Willis, Alexandra Rollins, Jacqueline Burke, Paul Bonilla and Vanessa Waldref. 2003. “Community-°©‐Based Research Assessments: Some Principles and Practices.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. Spring: 57‐68

Related literature

  • Berman, S. 2006. Service Learning: A guide to planning, implementing, and assessing student projects (2nd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  • Boyer, Ernest. 1996. “The scholarship of engagement.” Journal of Public Service and Outreach. 1(1).
  • Bridger, Jeffrey C. and Theodore R. Alter. 2006. “The Engaged University, Community Development, and Public Scholarship,” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 11(1)
  • Bringle, Robert and Julie Hatcher. 2002. “Campus-Community Partnerships.” Journal of Social Issues. 58(3): 503-16.
  • Bringle, Robert, Patti Clayton, and Mary Price. 2009. “Partnerships in Service Learning and Civic Engagement.” Partnerships: A Journal of Service Learning & Civic Engagement. 1(1): 1-20.
  • Butin, Dan W., Ed. 2005. Service-Learning in Higher Education: Critical Issues and Directions. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Campus Compact. 2001. Fundamentals of Service-Learning Course Construction. RI: Campus Compact, pp 2–7, 9.
  • Center for Teaching and Learning, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. 2010. “Recommended Guidelines for Selecting a Service Site
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  • Facing the Future. 2005. “Service Learning Framework.”
  • Geiger, Elke. 2010. “Service Learning Toolbox: Work Pages and Checklists to Help You Get Started and to Keep You Going.” Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Portland.
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  • Holland, Barbara. 2000. “The Engaged Institution and Sustainable Partnerships: Key Characteristics and Effective Change Strategies.” Presented at HUD Regional Conference, San Diego. December.
  • Howard, Jeffrey, ed., 2001. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning: Service-Learning Course Design Workbook, University of Michigan: OCSL Press.
  • Maurrasse, David J. 2001. Beyond the Campus: How Colleges and Universities Form Partnerships with their Communities. Routledge.
  • Saltmarsh, John, Matt Hartley, and Patti Clayton. 2009. “Democratic Engagement White Paper.” NERCHE. pp 1-15.
  • Strait, Jean R. and Marybeth Lima, Eds. 2009. The Future of Service Learning: New Solutions for Sustaining and Improving Practice. Stylus Publishing.
  • Strand, Kerry J., Nicholas Cutforth, Randy Stoecker, Sam Marullo and Patrick Donahue. 2003. Community-Based Research and Higher Education: Principles and Practices. Jossey-Bass.
  • University of Minnesota’s Community Service Learning Center. 2010. “Benefits of Service Learning.” University of Minnesota’s Community Service Learning Center.
  • Zlotkowski, Edward , Nicholas V. Longo, and James R. Williams, Eds. 2006. Students As Colleagues: Expanding the Circle of Service-Learning Leadership. Campus Compact.