What is Community Service Learning?

Community Service-Learning (CSL) is an educational approach that integrates service in the community with intentional learning activities. Within effective CSL efforts, members of both educational institutions and community organizations work together toward outcomes that are mutually beneficial.

Known by a variety of terms (e.g., service-learning, community-based learning), CSL programs are most effective when they include key elements drawn from experiential education theory, especially developing critical thinking and intentionally facilitating reflection. Carefully designed and implemented CSL programs and courses assist students to make meaning from their community experiences, to connect experience outside of the classroom to more theoretical study, and to develop as individuals in relation to their values, their sense of social responsibility, and their leadership skills.

Community service-learning is relatively new to Canadian universities and colleges but has been active in the United States over the past two decades, where it is most commonly referred to as service-learning. Here are links to the excellent web resources of two major U.S. national organizations that promote and support service learning in American schools and communities.

Telelearning and Webinars

McConnell Foundation
In January 2005, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation launched it’s National University-Based Community Service-Learning Program. They have provided funding to ten Canadian institutions to integrate CSL within their curriculum and to build strong partnerships with their local communities. The Foundation also funds the Canadian Alliance for Community Service-Learning.


On campuses throughout Canada, community service-learning(CSL) is still evolving and is being adapted to local institutional and community cultures and contexts resulting in various definitions and labels for learning through service, both integrated into academic curriculum and within extra-curricular programs. However, most published definitions clearly demonstrate common concepts and a generally accepted approach, which highlight the unique nature of this dynamic vehicle for education. Below are examples of some definitions from the field, followed by a list of key characteristics of CSL.

Canadian Alliance for Community Service-Learning (Canada)

Community Service-Learning (CSL) is an educational approach that integrates service in the community with intentional learning activities. Within effective CSL efforts, members of both educational institutions and community organizations work together toward outcomes that are mutually beneficial.

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (United States)

Service-learning is a teaching method which combines community service with academic instruction as it focuses on critical, reflective thinking and civic responsibility. Service-learning programs involve students in organized community service that addresses local needs, while developing their academic skills, sense of civic responsibility, and commitment to the community.

National Service-Learning Clearinghouse (United States)

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.

Key Characteristics of CSL

  • Within curricular CSL, service links to academic content and standards, and is appropriate to student learning goals
  • In extra-curricular CSL programs, service links to student learning and development goals
  • Involves collaboration between faculty/staff, students and community organizations to determine and meet real, defined community needs
  • Reciprocal in nature, benefiting both the community and the service providers by combining a service experience with a learning experience
  • Integrates a strong reflective element in order to maximize meaningful learning
  • Can be used in any subject or program area so long as it is appropriate to identified learning and/or development goals

Below is a list of some common terms connected to community service-learning(CSL) courses and programs. This page will begin with a definition of community service-learning(also sometimes referred to as service-learning, service learning, community-based education) and then list other terms alphabetically. (some of the following are excerpts with permission from the (U.S.) National Service-Learning Clearinghouse).

Terms and Definitions

Community Service-Learning

Community Service-Learning (CSL) is a powerful vehicle for experiential education that has clear objectives for both the learning that occurs by the involved students and the service being provided in the community organization setting. There is a strong emphasis on inclusive partnerships with non-profit agencies through their direct involvement as co-educators, providing community expertise in all phases of the learning process from planning through to the experiential and evaluation. CSL programs are most effective when including key elements drawn from experiential education theory, especially developing critical thinking skills and implementing intentional reflection components.

The process of gathering information in order to make an evaluation. An evaluation is a decision or judgment about whether an effort is successful and to what extent that effort has or has not met a goal. Assessment may be descriptive or evaluative; involve conventional Likert-type items or narrative reports; and should be directed toward the following stakeholders:

  • STUDENTS: effects of service-learning on students who take classes that integrate service-learning as a pedagogy
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS: on the community partner or agency that delivers services with which students assist
  • FACULTY MEMBERS: on faculty members who teach those courses
  • INSTITUTION: on the institution under whose auspices service-learning courses are offered

Civic Responsibility
The commitment of a citizen to his or her community to take responsibility for the well-being of the community. Service-learning and community engagement are often cited as developing students’ civic responsibility.

Signifies a campus program where students learn and develop through service, although it is not explicitly connected to an academic course for credit.

Community can be used in a number of ways to apply to almost any group of individuals. It is often used to describe a geographic group whose members engage in some face-to-face interaction. The term community can also be used in a more meaningful sense to emphasize the common bonds and beliefs that hold people together.

Community Development
Community members working together to achieve long-term benefits for the community and an overall stronger sense of community. Effective development has four important characteristics:

  • It is predicated upon the importance of social and economic institutions in the lives of community members.
  • It is planned and achieved with representation, input, and guidance from a cross-section of community members.
  • It builds efficient, self-sustaining, locally controlled initiatives to address social and economic issues in the community.
  • It promotes the economic self-reliance of community members and of the community as a whole

Community Needs Assessment
A process of involving citizens in both problem-solving and the development of local goals. This process is important because it not only allows people to learn more about the current state of their community, but, also, to feel like they have a voice in shaping its future.

The source of the above definition was a study done by the Commerce Department of Montana.

Community Partner in CSL Initiatives
The non-profit agency that joins in partnership with campus faculty, staff and students in order to exchange resources, knowledge and expertise.

Engaged Campus
A college or university which emphasizes community engagement through its activities and its definition of scholarship. The engaged campus is involved in community relationships, community development, community empowerment, community discourse, and educational change.

Experiential Education
Engaged learning in which the learner experiences a visceral connection to the subject matter. Good experiential learning combines direct experience that is meaningful to the student with guided reflection and analysis. It is a challenging, active, student-centered process that impels students toward opportunities for taking initiative, responsibility, and decision making.

The study of the teaching and learning process; service-learning provides a method that that informs and enhances the teaching/learning process.

Reciprocity in CSL Initiatives
A central component in community service-learning and community engagement that suggests that every individual, organization, and entity involved in service-learning functions as both a teacher and a learner.

The critical component of successful service-learning programs is “reflection”. Reflection describes the process of deriving meaning and knowledge from experience and occurs before, during and after a service-learning project. Effective reflection engages both teachers and students in a thoughtful and thought-provoking process that consciously connects learning with experience. It is the use of critical thinking skills to prepare for and learn from service experiences.

The performance of formal service to benefit others or one’s community without receiving any external rewards; such programs may or may not involve structured training and reflection. Effective community service-learning experiences are not considered to be the same as volunteerism.