Service-learning is a teaching and learning strategy that connects academic curriculum to community problem-solving. Today, elementary, middle, high, and postsecondary schools across the nation participate in service-learning with the support of federal, state, district, and foundation funding. Studies show that, in the past, more than 4 million students from more than 20,000 schools participated in service-learning. Of these participants, high schools were most likely to engage students in community service or to include service-learning as part of their curriculum.1
Service-learning is beneficial for students, organizations, and communities. All students, including those with disabilities (e.g., emotional and behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, moderate and severe intellectual disabilities, students with hearing and vision limitations), can be involved in and benefit from service-learning.2
The term “service-learning” was defined in Federal legislation for the first time in the National and Community Service Act of 1990 (as amended through December 17, 1999, P.L. 106-170; Section 101 (23) and reauthorized through the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009):
The term “service-learning” means a method
- under which students or participants learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service that
- is conducted in and meets the needs of a community;
- is coordinated with an elementary school, secondary school, institution of higher education, or community service program, and with the community; and
- helps foster civic responsibility; and
- is integrated into and enhances the academic curriculum of the students, or the educational components of the community service program in which the participants are enrolled; and
- provides structured time for the students or participants to reflect on the service experience.
The Serve America Act of 2009 extends the purpose of service-learning to “expand and strengthen service-learning programs through year-round opportunities, including opportunities during the summer months, to improve the education of children and youth and to maximize the benefits of national and community service, in order to renew the ethic of civic responsibility and the spirit of community for children and youth throughout the United States.”3
The U.S. Department of Education further emphasized the importance of civic engagement and the role that schools play through service-learning and other related efforts. The Department notes that “every student in every school, college, and university deserves a high quality education, including a high quality civic education” in its 2012 Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action (PDF, 40 pages).4 The Road Map and Call to Action highlight the following five priorities:5
- Advancing civic learning and democratic engagement in both the U.S. and global contexts by encouraging efforts to make them core expectations for elementary, secondary, and postsecondary students — including undergraduate and graduate students;
- Developing more robust evidence of civic and other student achievement outcomes of civic learning, and of the impact of school and campus community partnerships;
- Strengthening school and campus community connections to address significant community problems and advance a local or regional vision and narrative for civic engagement;
- Expanding research and the range of public scholarship, with a special emphasis on promoting knowledge creation for the good of society;
- Deepening civic identity by sharing stories of civic work in social media and organizing deliberative discussions about the roles of higher education in communities across the country, and by creating initiatives in science, arts, and other fields to catalyze civic agency.6
Studies show that, in the past, more than 4 million students from more than 20,000 schools participated in service-learning. Of these, high schools were most likely to engage students in community service or to include service-learning as part of their curriculum.7 All students, including those with disabilities (e.g. emotional and behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, moderate and severe intellectual disabilities, deaf and blind students), can be involved in and benefit from service-learning.8 ;Learn more about how service-learning can effectively include students with disabilities.
Traditionally, the number of schools that engaged students in community service was greater than the number of schools that offered service-learning as part of their curriculum. Consistently, about two-thirds of the public schools in the United States recognized or arranged community service, while only one-third of the schools offered service-learning.9 Service-learning is distinct from community service and volunteering because it focuses on meeting both the needs of the community and that of the learner through a mutually beneficial partnership. In addition, service-learning is integrated into academic curriculum and coursework as “a form of experiential learning which tests students’ higher order thinking skills while deepening their understanding of the subject matter, their community, and themselves.”10 It also aims to enhance civic engagement by incorporating instruction on social issues that extend beyond the immediate needs of individuals or projects.
Benefits, Challenges, and Solutions
All youth, including those with disabilities, can benefit from participation in service-learning.
Service-learning can improve character values and responsible behavior. Students can generalize what they learn from their experiences with service-learning. They learn how to be respectful toward others and toward public property, and they develop awareness of healthy life choices. Finally, they learn about cultural diversity and show more tolerance of ethnic diversity.11
Service-learning can improve academic outcomes for students. Students participating in high-quality service-learning experiences that are meaningful (including interaction with the community, valued service activities, and relevance to students), provide time for reflection, and last for an extended period of time have been shown to make academic gains, including gains on standardized tests.12 In addition, students have shown increased attachment to school, engagement, and motivation.13 With a sample that included students with mild disabilities, Brill14 found similar results for academic improvement and attendance.
Service-learning can promote a sense of connectedness to the school and the community. A sense of connectedness includes
- feeling valued by community members;
- feeling responsible for the welfare of the community;
- having pride in one’s community; and
- a high tendency to take action for the benefit of the community.15
Service-learning can promote social-emotional skills. Researchers have found a statistically significant impact of service-learning programs on multiple outcomes,16 including
- improved social skills;
- lower levels of problem and delinquent behavior;
- better cooperation skills in the classroom;
- improved psychological well-being; and
- a better ability to set goals and adjust behavior to reach these goals.
Frey found that students with disabilities who participated in a yearlong service-learning project had lower reports of out-of-school suspension, rule noncompliance, incidents, profanity and obscenity, physical threats and intimidation, and vandalism. Krajewski and Callahan18 also found that participation in service-learning for high school students with moderate to severe disabilities helped improve students’ sense of self-worth. Brill19 found improvements for students with moderate to profound disabilities in socialization skills and their relationships with nondisabled peers.
Service-learning can promote civic participation. Research has shown that high-quality service-learning programs can promote students’ civic knowledge and commitment to continue contributing to their community and to society as a whole.20
Benefits to Organizations
Community-based organizations that engage young people in service-learning point to the following kinds of benefits:21
- The opportunity to expand their mission and reach without substantially increasing costs by engaging a cadre of competent, motivated young people who share their time and talents in support of the organization’s mission.
- New energy, ideas, and enthusiasm as well as specialized skills that young people can bring to the organization (such as community skills). “Every young person, like every adult, has unique abilities and experience that can expand the capacities and outcomes of [social change] efforts.”22
- Increased public support and visibility in the community as young people become ambassadors for the agency in their schools, homes, and other networks.
- New partnerships and resources that emerge when agencies for service-learning partner with schools, youth development organizations, faith-based organizations, or others that provide service-learning as part of their programming.
- Cultivation of a new generation of volunteers by an organization for either itself or its broader cause by working with youth and getting them committed to its mission.
Benefits for Service Recipients, Communities, and Society
Beyond the young people the organizations directly involve, community-based service-learning benefits the people served, their communities, and, ultimately, society:
- It meets real needs and priorities for individuals and communities, as young people bring new energy, capacity, and creative ideas.
- Community residents have opportunities to build positive relationships with young people.
- Communities see youth in a different way—as resources, not problems.
- A new generation of caring and experienced citizens, activists, and volunteers is cultivated.
This section has been adapted from Roehlkepartain, E. C. (2007). Benefits of community-based service-learning. Scotts Valley, CA: National Service-Learning Clearinghouse. Retrieved from
Challenges & Solutions
Researchers have documented common school-level challenges or roadblocks associated with service-learning.24 Educators should consider these potential roadblocks when planning to implement a local service-learning program.25
When students have negative ideas regarding service-learning that may result from community service being mandatory or negative past experience with community service, they are less likely to engage in adequate service and in self-reflection and learning associated with community service.
Address students’ attitudes and expectations early in the process. Try to match sites with students’ preferences and personal style. For example, students who care about interpersonal interaction may become frustrated in sites where they can have little communication with individuals. Try to clarify for students what to expect when reaching sites (e.g., the extent to which site staff will make them feel welcome).
Students may get into trouble on sites because of behavior that may be perceived as inappropriate by individuals at the site.
Practice appropriate behavior with the students early on in the program. For example, demonstrate how to interact with elderly residents or very young children. Set a good example by maintaining a positive mood and using positive and respectful language. Know in advance the rules and expectations of the service sites, convey those rules to students, and follow up to ensure that they follow rules (e.g., avoiding disrespectful clothing and inappropriate language at a site).
Students cannot articulate the meaning of their service-learning activities. Students may not know or may not be able to articulate the purpose of participating in service-learning.
Ensure sufficient duration and intensity of the service-learning program, which will enable age-appropriate and topic-appropriate pacing of several aspects of the service-learning program, including
Teachers may feel overburdened and resist the demands associated with service-learning. Teachers and principals may not see the value of service-learning or its relevance to students’ learning. They also may feel insufficiently prepared or supported in delivering service-learning.
Schools may want to involve teachers who have successfully conducted service-learning in the past or who advocate for service-learning. In addition, giving teachers the opportunity to voice their creative ideas and empowering them to structure service-learning projects may promote teacher buy-in. Collaborate with service-learning organizations to provide teachers with adequate professional development and resources, and follow up by providing easy access to technical assistance and coaching support.
Policies & Practices to Support Implementation
Policies at the national, state, and district levels that support service-learning can legitimize the practice of service-learning as a key component of education. These policies can also provide resources, professional development, and guidelines for service-learning programs. They can ensure successful implementation and sustainability of school-based service-learning programs.
A 2014 scan of state policies26 suggests that many states are adopting policies that both support and regulate the practice of service-learning (e.g., graduation requirements, funding, implementation guidance). Some examples follow:
Policies and Guidance Related to Service Learning
Number of States
Permit community service or service-learning activities to count toward high school graduation requirements
Require service-learning for high school graduation statewide
Permit individual districts to adopt service-learning requirement for high school graduation
Provide funding for service-learning activities and programs
Encourage the use of service-learning as an instructional method for increasing student achievement
Encourage the use of service-learning as an instructional method for increasing student civic engagement
Encourage the use of service-learning as an instructional method for preparing students for the workforce
Included service-learning as part of the state’s education standards and/or frameworks
Support/encourage/require service-learning professional development for teachers
Support/encourage/require service-learning professional development for administrators
Other guidance related to service-learning
Research shows that schools with a district policy in place are much more likely to participate in service-learning (51 percent) than schools without a district policy (17 percent) or when the policy is unknown (21 percent).27
The majority of schools implementing service-learning integrate it into at least one aspect of school policies.28 Such policies may include one or more of the following:
- Integration of service-learning as a part of the board-approved course curriculum for at least one subject area in at least one grade level;
- Recognition of service-learning in the school improvement plan;
- Inclusion of service-learning in teacher and staff orientation; or
- Consideration of service-learning as a criterion for teacher and staff evaluation.
Integration into Curriculum & Policies
According to the National Study of the Prevalence of Community Service and Service-Learning in K-12 Public Schools, for schools that have service-learning, 39 percent include service-learning in the board-approved curriculum for at least one subject in one grade level.29
School principals in schools that implement service-learning reported that service-learning was most likely to take place in social studies, science, and English/language arts:30
- 52 percent of principals reported that service-learning was included in core curriculum for social studies.
- 42 percent of principals reported that service-learning was included in core curriculum for science.
- 34 percent of principals reported that service-learning was included in core curriculum for English/language arts.
View examples of service-learning projects in these disciplines.
While less frequent, principals also reported that service-learning was incorporated into
- art, music, and theater;
- career education;
- special education;
- gifted/talented education;
- physical education; and
- foreign languages.
District policies that support service-learning can legitimize the practice of service-learning as a key component of education. These policies can also provide resources, professional development, and guidelines for service-learning programs. As such, they can ensure successful implementation and sustainability of school-based service-learning programs. Research shows that schools where there is a district policy in place are much more likely to participate in service-learning (51 percent) than schools where the district does not have a policy (17 percent) or where the policy is unknown (21 percent).31
The majority of schools implementing service-learning integrate it into at least one aspect of school policies.32 Such policies may include one or more of the following:
- Integrating service-learning as a part of the board-approved course curriculum for at least one subject area in at least one grade level.
- Recognition of service-learning in the school improvement plan.
Examples within the School Curriculum
Service-learning programs can take many forms and be implemented in a variety of contexts. Programs can be integrated into all grade levels—from kindergarten through college. The format, length, and focus of the program should be age-appropriate and meaningful to the students. With modifications to support their needs, students with disabilities can be effectively engaged and experience a variety of benefits.33 According to the National Study of the Prevalence of Community Service and Service-Learning in K–12 Public Schools, 39 percent of schools that have service-learning include service-learning in the board-approved curriculum for at least one subject in one grade level.34
Principals in schools that implement service-learning reported that service-learning was most likely to take place in social studies (52 percent), science (42 percent), and English/language arts (34 percent).35 Examples of service-learning embedded within different subjects follow:
Elementary school students learned about birds’ migration, challenges in urban environments, and the types of birds that wintered in their area. Consulting with local experts in a variety of fields, the students cleared a plot of school land and installed or planted appropriate feeders, trees, and plants. Because the students could see the sanctuary every day from their classroom windows, they became familiar with the animals’ routines, and their interest in wildlife grew. They also learned how to calculate the cost of regular food refills and how to coordinate regular maintenance.
Middle school students cleaned and decorated bus shelters in their town to spread messages of cultural appreciation. They began by researching and giving reports on life in different countries and by participating in activities from various cultures. They applied their knowledge by creating posters, which were installed as bus shelter panels. Cleaning and decorating bus shelters also sparked conversations about being more respectful of public property.
High school students planned a sequence of instructional activities and created materials (e.g., lesson plans, worksheets, audio-recordings of texts) to promote the reading comprehension skills of elementary school students. Using those materials, high school students tutored struggling readers from a neighboring school.
Although less frequently, principals also reported that service-learning was incorporated into art, music, and theater; career education; mathematics; health; special education; gifted/talented education; physical education; and foreign languages.36
View additional examples of service-learning.
Principles & Standards of Effective Programs
The following summarizes the eight standards developed and released by the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC) in 2008.37 Download K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice (PDF, 4 pages) for the full set of standards, which are based on research and expert opinion and include included the strongest evidence-based elements of effective practice.
- Service-learning actively engages participants in meaningful and personally relevant service activities. To meet this standard, service-learning needs to be
- age-appropriate and personally relevant;
- interesting and engaging;
- well understood by participants in the context of social issues addressed; and
- outcome-oriented with specific attainable outcomes.
- Service-learning is intentionally used as an instructional strategy to meet learning goals and/or content standards. To meet this standard, programs need to
- have clearly stated goals;
- be aligned with the academic curriculum;
- include explicit teaching of transferring skills from one setting to another; and
- for school-based programs, be formally recognized in school board policies and in student records.
- 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. Students should participate in a variety of activities to demonstrate changes in their knowledge, skills, or attitudes. Additionally, students should examine their beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes about issues, perceptions of their roles as members of their community, and the overarching issues of community problems.
- Service-learning promotes understanding of diversity and mutual respect among all participants. To meet this standard, programs should integrate teaching focused on taking the perspective of the other, resolving conflicts, and promoting tolerance of diversity and overcoming stereotypes.
- Service-learning provides youth with a strong voice in planning, implementing, and evaluating service-learning experiences with guidance from adults. Service-learning programs should consistently integrate opportunities for participants to voice their opinions, propose ideas and solutions, and participate in decision-making processes.
- Service-learning partnerships are collaborative, mutually-beneficial, and address community needs. Service-learning programs should engage a variety of partners—including youth, educators, families, community members, community-based organizations, and/or businesses — in communications, knowledge sharing, and goal-setting.
- 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. Service-learning programs should encourage participants to
- collect evidence of progress toward specific service goals and learning outcomes as well as the quality of implementation and
- use and communicate the evidence to improve the service-learning experience.
- Service-learning has sufficient duration and intensity to address community needs and meet specified outcomes. Service-learning programs should include a needs sensing and planning time to determine the time needed for the project, be conducted during specific periods of time, and be implemented long enough to achieve the service goals and learning outcomes.
Diversity & Intercultural Service-Learning
Service-learning offers rich opportunities for students to understand and experience diversity in meaningful ways, demystifies stereotypes, and provides a way for students to learn about other cultures and to explore differences, including race, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, geographic location, environment, values, beliefs, traditions, and abilities.
Importance of Intercultural Service-Learning
Given the interconnectedness of our global communities, the issues of intercultural respect and dialogue have become the highlight of national and international discussions. Because youth represent the future, their participation in successful intercultural service projects on the local, national, and international levels can have an impact on global issues that affect all of us. When service and intercultural learning are combined, young people are able to contribute their time and talent from the perspective of their own diverse backgrounds and enrich not only their own lives but also the lives of those with whom they come into contact. Cooperating with youth from other countries, cultures, regions, or communities of the world can result in dialogue, tolerance, and universal peace. Moreover, intercultural service-learning projects allow young people around the world to expose and address multifaceted local, national, and global problems. These opportunities contribute to the development of civic responsibility among youth in partnering communities throughout the world and also allow them to design sustainable efforts that focus on issues such as disaster relief, famine, equal rights, poverty, disease, and more.
This national coalition of colleges and universities that enables campuses to develop students’ citizenship skills and forge effective community partnerships.
Coverdell World Wise Schools
Coverdell World Wise Schools offer resources to help integrate global issues and cultural awareness into core content areas. The service-learning page provides lesson plans categorized by grade levels (K–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12) that guide students through planning, undertaking, and evaluating service-learning projects. In addition, students are encouraged to reflect on the importance of community service by reading stories about Peace Corps volunteer experiences, articulating needs within their own communities, and generating ideas about how to address those needs through service.
Editor’s Picks: Service Learning & Volunteer Opportunities
The U.S. Department of Education’s website features a number of volunteer and service-learning opportunities that youth can explore. Each offers unique experiences either domestically or internationally for youth to get involved in so they can make a difference in the lives of others through a variety of community projects.
Global Youth Service Day
Global Youth Service Day is an annual campaign that celebrates and mobilizes the millions of children and youth who improve their communities each day of the year through service and service-learning. This website offers resources, information about funding opportunities, news, and opportunities to connect with service-learning projects.
International Education Resource Network (iEARN)
iEARN is a nonprofit organization consisting of more than 20,000 schools worldwide in more than 115 countries that seeks to empower students and teachers to work together online on selected projects that are integrated into their classrooms.
National Service Knowledge Network
The National Service Knowledge Network website serves as a hub for sharing training and technical assistance for AmeriCorps programs. The site offers an online learning center, a library of downloadable publications, an events calendar, and a collection of practices and program examples.
National Youth Leadership Council
This organization aims to create a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world with young people, their schools, and their communities through service-learning.
A Practical Guide for Integrating Civic Responsibility into the Curriculum (PDF, 106 pages)
This curriculum guide discusses civic responsibility, how it is tied to service-learning, how faculty can integrate concepts and exercises in a practical way, and how faculty can assess the development of civic responsibility in their students. It also provides practical, easy-to-use applications and includes numerous exercises, activities, and assessment tools.
This organization aims to improve the lives of young people in the areas of Developmental Assets®, Developmental Relationships, and Developmental Communities.
Service-Learning—Learning by Doing, Students Take Greening to the Community (PDF, 32 pages)
This booklet from the Environmental Protection Agency contains several service-learning projects that focus on various aspects of safe solid waste management, such as reducing household hazardous waste and buying recycled-content products. Each profile includes contacts who can provide information on how students can start a similar program. Additional resources, including grants to help start such a project, are located in the back of the booklet. Learn more on the EPA website.
Service for Peace
Service for Peace is an international nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable and participatory community development through service.
Youth Service America (YSA)
YSA aims to improve communities by increasing the number and the diversity of young people, ages 5–25, serving in substantive roles. Resources and training provided by YSA include the Global Youth Service Day Planning Tool Kit, the Service-Learning Curriculum Guide, the National Service Briefing, and Youth Service Institute information, webinars, and individual support. This project is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of State, and other organizations.
1 Spring, Grimm, & Dietz, 2009
2 Dymond, Renzaglia, & Chung, 2007
3 Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009, p. 6
4 U.S. Department of Education, 2012, p. 2
5 U.S. Department of Education, 2012, p. 3
6 Civic agency is the capacity to act cooperatively and collectively on common problems and challenges.
7 Spring, Grimm, & Dietz, 2009
8 Dymond, Renzaglia, & Chung 2007
9 Skinner & Chapman, 1999; Spring, Grimm, & Dietz, 2009
10 Muscott, 2001 p. 10
11 Leming, 2001; Lerner, Lerner, Phelps, et al., 2008
12 RMC Research Corporation, 2007; Billig & Sandel, 2003; Scales, Blyth, Berkas, & Kielsmeier, 2000; Billig, Root, & Jesse, 2005
13 Billig & Sandel, 2003; Scales, Blyth, Berkas, & Kielsmeier, 2000; Billig, Root, & Jesse, 2005
14 Brill, 1994
15 Yamauchi, Billig, Meyer, & Hofschire, 2006
16 Deakin Crick, Taylor, Tew, Samuel, Durant, & Ritchie, 2005; Irby, Ferber, & Pittman, 2001; Lerner, Lerner, Phelps, et al., 2008; Michelsen, Zaff, & Hair, 2002
17 Frey, 2003
18 Krajewski & Callahan, 1998
19 Brill, 1994
20 Zaff & Lerner, 2010
21 Chung, 1997; Roehlkepartain, 1995; Naughton, 2000; Melchoir, 1998; reinforced by the general research on the benefits of all types of volunteers identified in Urban Institute, 2004
22 Mohamed & Wheeler, 2001, p. 15
23 Mohamed & Wheeler, 2001
24 Ohn & Wade, 2009; Shumer, 2005; Zaff & Lerner, 2010
25 Table adapted from Community service-learning as a group inquiry project: Elementary and middle school Civic Connections teachers’ practices of integrating historical inquiry in community service-learning (Ohn & Wade, 2009); Service-learning research: What have we learned from the past (Shumer, 2005); Service-learning promotes positive youth development in high school (Zaff & Lerner, 2010).
26 Baumann, 2014
27 Spring, Grimm, & Dietz, 2009
28 Spring, Grimm, & Dietz, 2009
29 Spring, Grimm, & Dietz, 2009
30 Spring, Grimm, & Dietz, 2009
31 Spring, Grim, & Dietz, 2009
32 Spring, Grim, & Dietz, 2009
33 Rockwell, 2001; Dymond, Renzaglia, & Chun, 2007
34 Spring, Grim, & Dietz, 2009
35 Spring, Grim, & Dietz, 2009
36 Spring, Grim, & Dietz, 2009
37 RMC Research Corporation, 2008