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What is Service-Learning?

Service-Learning, at Dominican is an academic strategy that integrates meaningful community activities with academic curriculum, enriching learning through the application of theory to practice and practice to theory while enhancing community capacity through service.




As an international movement, service-learning promotes both local commitment and an understanding of interrelatedness of communities and societies across the world.

Service-learning embraces the principles of reciprocity between all parties–– the community partners are co-educators, faculty and students are engaged citizens, and the academy becomes an active member of the local and global community.

Thus, service-learning creates mutual benefits for all involved:

  • The University is able to live out its mission and enhance its role as a vital and active partner in the community;
  • Faculty and students are supported in connecting innovative teaching, research/scholarship, and community action;
  • The Marin County community benefits from the University resources (student/faculty power, library, educational opportunities, research networks) while contributing to the education of students; and
  • Students gain self-awareness, practical skills, career-related experience, insight into the relevance of academic knowledge, a deeper understanding of their own personal impact, and an enriched capacity to become effective and creative community builders.


Service-Learning combines service objectives with learning objectives with the intent that the activity change both the recipient and the provider of the service. This is accomplished by combining service tasks with structured opportunities that link the task to self-reflection, self-discovery, and the acquisition and comprehension of values, skills, and knowledge content. Service-learning involves young people in helping to determine and meet real, defined community needs, is reciprocal in nature, benefiting both the community and the service providers by  combining a service experience with a learning experience

The distinctive element of service-learning is that it enhances the community through the service provided, but it also has powerful learning consequences for the students or others participating in providing a service. Service-learning is growing so rapidly because we can see it is having a powerful impact on young people and their development.


Why Do Service-Learning?

Service-Learning experiences:

  • Are positive, meaningful and real to the participants. Involve cooperative rather than competitive experiences and thus promote skills associated with teamwork and community involvement and citizenship. Address complex problems in complex settings rather than simplified problems in isolation.
  • Offer opportunities to engage in problem-solving by requiring participants to gain knowledge of the specific context of their service-learning activity and  community  challenges, rather than only to draw upon generalized or abstract knowledge such as might come from a textbook.
  • As a consequence of this immediacy of experience, service-learning is more likely to be personally meaningful to participants and to generate emotional consequences, to challenge values as well as ideas, and hence to support social, emotional and cognitive learning and development.
  • As a result, service-learning offers powerful opportunities to acquire the habits of critical thinking; i.e. the ability to identify the most important questions or issues within a real-world situation.Promote deeper learning because the results are immediate and uncontrived. There are no "right answers" in the back of the book.

(from: Eyler & Giles, Where’s the Learning In Service-Learning,San Francisco: Jossey Bass).







Differences between volunteerism, internships, fieldwork, and service-learning:


  • Volunteerism is the engagement of students in activities where the primary emphasis is on the service being provided and the primary intended beneficiary is clearly the service recipient. 


Community service

  • clip5.gifCommunity service is the engagement of students in activities that primarily focus on the service being provided as well as the benefits the service activities have on the recipients (e.g., providing food to the home- less during the holidays). The students receive some benefits by learning more about how their service makes a difference in the lives of the service recipients.



  • Internships programs engage students in service activities primarily for the purpose of providing students with hands-on experiences that enhance their learning or understanding of issues relevant to a particular area of study. Clearly, in internship programs the students are the primary intended beneficiary and the focus of the service activity is on student learning.


Field Education

  • Field Education programs provide students with co-curricular service opportunities that are related, but not fully integrated, with their formal academic studies. Students perform the service as part of a program that is designed primarily to enhance students' understanding of a field of study, while also providing substantial emphasis on the service being provided.



  • The intention is to equally benefit the provider and the recipient of the service as well as to ensure equal focus on both the service being provided and the learning that is occurring. To do this, service-learning programs must have some academic context and be designed in such a way that ensures that both the service enhances the learning and the learning enhances the service.

 (adapted from "Service-Learning:A Balanced Approach to Experiential Education" by Andrew Furco)


Julia van der Ryn
Service-Learning Director
Humanities Instructor
Dominican University of California
50 Acacia Avenue
San Rafael, California  94901
tel: 415 458 3751

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