Why You Should Incorporate Service Learning in Your School District

299H-989441-edited.jpgHave you heard about the student-run grocery stores in Leeton, Missouri and Cody, Nebraska? What about the students in Irmo, South Carolina who printed and assembled 19 prosthetic hands for kids in need? Well, these are just a few examples of “kids these days” doing some phenomenal things.

The commonality with these industrious youth is a method of teaching and learning that applies knowledge and skills gained in the classroom to create solutions for community problems.¹ This method, known as service-learning (SL), is popular in primary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions. The practice started in the late 80s; by 2000, approximately one-third of all public schools incorporated a SL component.²

What’s so special about service-learning?

Today, colleges and universities have entire departments devoted to SL, and numerous institutions and foundations award scholarships or grants to both students and programs that are SL focused. Moreover, graduates with SL experience are offered jobs at higher salaries compared to graduates without such experience, a recent University of Georgia study found.

Intense Reflection 
Students that engage in SL demonstrate gains in self-confidence, civic-mindedness, empathy, and academic achievement.² Basically, SL cultivates the types of nuanced skills that are hard to track with test scores, but are in desperate need of attention. They’re more likely to experience those ‘aha moments,’ too, where everything sort of clicks, because a big part of SL involves reflection. By “reflection,” I’m not referring to the casual journaling one might do in the evenings to blow steam or log the day’s events. Reflection is part of the curriculum of SL, and it’s supposed to be challenging. According to Duffy, at Fort Hays State University, “reflection is primarily what separates service-learning from volunteerism or community service” because it (1) puts the service in context and (2) requires the student to consider whether her observations in the field support or contradict knowledge gained in the classroom.

High Retention
“Service-learning is a high impact educational practice,” Christy Arrazattee, Director of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement at The University of Southern Mississippi, told me. “Students retain and actually learn better using service-learning over the traditional classroom lecture because they can apply and test their knowledge in a real setting. It’s much easier to remember a concept years down the road if you can remember
doing it rather than just reading about it.”

The takeaway: SL helps students grasp concepts and bring them to life, and simultaneously works to solidify that information so it’s more easily recalled in the future. Of course, all of these benefits are contingent upon creating a worthwhile service-learning curriculum, with specified learning objectives.

Is your SL program all that it can be? Make sure your program adheres to the K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice, outlined by the National Youth Leadership Council. Then, check out the Generator School Network, where you can access free online service-learning resources. Who knows… maybe we’ll be reading about the amazing things your students are doing to make the world a better place!


¹National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC), What is service-learning?

²Celio, C. I., Durlak, J., & Dymnicki, A. (2011). A meta-analysis of the impact of service-learning on students. Journal of Experiential Education, 34(2), 164-181.

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