By: Amy Meuers, NYLC CEO

Service-learning is an exceptional teaching strategy that involves students in practical, hands-on learning experiences, while equipping them to become informed and engaged members of a democratic society. Successful service-learning is designed to achieve educational outcomes, such as academic, career readiness, leadership development, civic engagement, and social-emotional learning.

Whether you’re new to service-learning, or you have experience in utilizing this teaching method, these 5 steps to creating an engaging service-learning experience can help ensure that your students are meeting educational outcomes while addressing genuine community needs.

  • Set goals and expectations
  • Identify the appropriate activities that meet desired outcomes
  • Develop an evaluation plan
  • Activate youth voice
  • Reflect, reflect, reflect

Set Goals and Expectations

Service-learning offers opportunities to not only learn subject-area and civic knowledge and skills, but also other skills important to college and career. Start by identifying what you want your students to learn, and then connect it to the big subject area. For example, in a math class you may identify learning goals for data analysis and probability, or social emotional skills like self-management and decision-making. 

Students may also come into a service-learning experience with their own expectations around what the experience will entail. Many think they will be doing community service during school hours – which is not service-learning. Identifying student expectations and comparing those to the identified outcomes may require some minor adjustments on both sides, but it’s a vital step towards helping students understand the big picture of what they will be doing and why.

Identify the appropriate activities that meet desired outcomes

Service-learning is inquiry-oriented, project-based learning. It can help students gain durable and transferable knowledge and skills like communication, problem solving, and critical thinking that is applied to tackling a genuine community problem.

Teachers should develop classroom activities connected to learning goals for each phase of the student service-learning process of IPARD (investigation, planning & preparation, action, reflection, demonstration). For example, investigation may include creating a survey, analyzing the data, and presenting findings; or reading a book on the subject, researching the topic locally, and writing a report on its impact on the local community. Each phase of the student service-learning experience provides opportunities for hands-on learning connected back to classroom instruction. 

Develop an evaluation plan

How do you know your students are learning what you want them to learn? The required activities you identified with the IPARD process should produce evidence of learning that includes both formative and summative assessments all leading up to the final expected performance. For example, students may be required to submit a graphic organizer, a proposal for next steps, or a learning log. Classroom observations through discussion can be a powerful formative assessment that provide students with the opportunity to share their understanding of the issue. There are many ways to assess student learning, the key is to identify what works for your service-learning journey. 

Activate youth voice

Incorporating youth voice in service-learning not only enriches the service experience for students but also leads to greater student and often community outcomes. It promotes a sense of ownership over learning, as well as responsibility and agency. Students can bring fresh and innovative ideas to the table that lead to creative solutions to community problems.

Within the IPARD process, students should be actively engaged in decision-making, goal-setting, and planning. They should have a genuine and influential role in shaping the service-learning experience rather than simply following directions from adults. This can include choice in the type of action/service, timing, community partners, roles, classroom environment, or resources. Finding ways to support youth voice and choice also honors the unique and wide-ranging learning styles of all participants, allowing them to tap into their strengths and work together in a team. (To learn more about youth voice, head to our Resource Library and search for “Youth Voice Ideas”.)

Reflect. Reflect. Reflect

John Dewey said, “we do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience,” Reflection is vital to service-learning and should be done throughout the IPARD process. It is a way of engaging students in deeper understanding of the class content and the world around them. It helps students process information and creates connections in order to retrieve the information later. 

Reflection activities can vary greatly, a few of our favorites include exit tickets, journaling, writing poems, creating videos, small group share out, and prototyping and testing (think design thinking). Whichever form of reflection you choose, it should help students gain a deeper understanding of the coursework, the world around them, and how they can make a positive impact on it.

Service-learning makes learning exciting and fun for both teachers and students. It encourages students to become civically informed and engaged citizens who care about the world around them and who want to make a difference. Check out our Resource Library for tools and resources to get started on your service-learning journey or to support your practice. Need a little extra support? Schedule a free consultation with one of our service-learning experts today!

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