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Comparing Service-Learning Project Types

Choices depend on goals, available time and resources, skills, school programs, etc.

TypesDescriptionProject Examples
Class Project-FocusedIncorporating service elements (concepts and at least some experience) into a class projectAdvocating for indigenous rights as part of a National History Day project
Community Service-BasedIncorporating academics into a required or voluntary community service experienceReflecting or presenting on a service experience
Extended learning opportunities(a.k.a. ELOs) Learning outside a traditional classroom, either focusing on or including serviceInternship, independent study, online course, or private instruction
Problem-FocusedWorking with community members to address a substantial issue, typically for college course creditIncreasing access to physical activity opportunities in a neighborhood
To view an expanded table comparing project types, click here

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Benefits of Service-Learning

(Note: results vary, including with project duration, community partner relationship quality, activity types, and use of best practices.)

Increased or improved
  • Overall knowledge, including the amount of course content retained (including by observing and participating in applications of it outside of class)
    • Understanding of different social contexts that can lead to "systematic problems" (and otherwise influence people's lives)
      • Moral judgment/ability to learn from challenges to their attitudes and beliefs (including assumptions, stereotypes, prejudices, etc.)
        • Attitudes about acting in ways likely to have positive community impacts (and sense of being impactful)
          • Specific workplace skills or knowledge, including about conditions in a non-profit or other setting
            • Sense of purpose/the ability to make more informed career decisions based on practical experience
              • Preparedness for active civic participation in a diverse democratic society
                • Self image and self-confidence, including in having impacts and applying their knowledge beyond the classroom
                  • Teamwork and leadership skills, including working with adults
                    • Emotional well-being/satisfaction of contributing to personal, community, or environmental health
                      • Ethics, inter-cultural understanding, and respect for diversity

                      Building contacts for future networking and career opportunities
                      Adding to a career portfolio
                      Having opportunities to test, apply, and add to knowledge/skills learned in school
                      Preparing to transition to a workplace or post-secondary education/training
                      • To integrate social emotional learning
                        • To enhance academic, civic, and personal development (e.g., responsibility-taking) among learners
                          • To integrate educators' and learners' personal values and areas of interest
                            • To apply differentiated instruction and learning and use alternative assessment methods

                            • Ability to support learner identities as community members/contributors
                              • Year-to-year variety (when project topics vary)
                              Improved relations with surrounding communities
                              Increased student interest in and ownership of the learning process
                              New opportunities for students to meet service requirements (including to graduate or complete restorative justice agreements) AND get academic credit
                              Improved relations and cooperation with schools
                              Access to new energy, enthusiasm, and participant perspectives to help achieve community goals
                              Staffing connections/leads on potential new hires or long-term volunteers

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                              Service-Learning Project Steps

                              (Note: The total number of steps varies with project types and advisor roles. Our Premium resources provide extra support for each of these.)

                              Pick an ongoing project or
                              Pick a topic target group or population (see Project Topics on this page) and non-profit (if hoping to work with one)
                              Sketch out a project idea, including time span and either potential community need to address or question(s) to answer
                              Research the project idea and conduct interviews (including to focus the idea and check for relevance and feasibility)
                              Plan the experience, specifying the steps involved and filling out a timeline for completing them
                              Prepare skills, materials, volunteers, etc.
                              Engage in the planned service-related (community) activities
                              Develop a product to apply skills/knowledge gained or extend positive impacts (where applicable)
                              Present/demonstrate competencies gained and other outcomes
                              Use rubrics, surveys, other to evaluate student performance and the project experience for all
                              Share findings or products publicly
                              Acknowledge effort, accomplishments, and contributions by participants
                              Additionally extend positive impacts, such as by publishing results so others can learn from them or add to the work
                              Not actually a step but occurring throughout the process

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                              Participant Roles and Challenges

                              COMMON ROLES:
                              • Actively participate in steps like selecting a topic, interviewing guest speakers, and designing presentations
                                • Engage in regular reflection, including about the significance of challenges, events, and outcomes
                                  • Evaluate the project, including their own performance, impacts, and goal attainment

                                  POTENTIAL CHALLENGES:
                                  • Designing or completing the project in ways that minimize harm and maximize positive community impacts
                                    • Collaborating, often including with new people
                                      • Communicating effectively with advisor(s), community liaisons, community members, etc. (e.g., about any issues or concerns)
                                        • Being an active learner and (where applicable) a project leader
                                          • Dealing with uncertainty about what to do
                                          COMMON ROLES:
                                          • Selecting goals and objectives
                                            • Providing guidance, such as by designing or reviewing plans, answering questions, and addressing issues that arise
                                              • Regularly checking progress based on a project timeline and reflection plan
                                                • Including academic content to prepare learners for the process, applying skills and knowledge, and reflecting
                                                  • Assessing progress and final outcomes, including impacts and goal attainment

                                                  POTENTIAL CHALLENGES:
                                                  • Developing criteria for credit-worthy experiences in non-classroom settings
                                                    • Setting thresholds to measure proficiency
                                                      • Funding (e.g., ELOs may not be an "allowable expenditure") (note: some schools use braided funding strategies (fed, school improvement grants, private, other sources)
                                                        • Having greater variation in student learning outcomes vs. traditional teaching methods
                                                          • Giving up some control over learning situations, including allowing students to make, understand, and learn from "mistakes"
                                                            • Including academic content that prepares students to be active learners, work with people different from them, and make connections between the course and project experiences
                                                              • Balancing providing guidance and allowing student autonomy
                                                                • Assessment time (e.g., grading reflections can take longer than multiple choice quizzes etc.)
                                                                  • Having interdisciplinary knowledge (depending on topic variation)
                                                                  COMMON ROLES:
                                                                  • Help identify a community need to address
                                                                    • Provide on-site supervision and tasks
                                                                      • Share feedback (including any concerns) with students and advisors
                                                                        • Assess learner performance and experience outcomes

                                                                        POTENTIAL CHALLENGES:
                                                                        • Training and supervising students with limited time commitments
                                                                          • Providing experiences that satisfy academic needs

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                                                                          Service-Learning Best Practices

                                                                          Purpose: To maximize project quality and outcomes for all. These may be extra helpful for designing and evaluating. Our premium resources include a checklist.

                                                                          Learners have personal interest in the topic and activities
                                                                          To maximize relevance, activities align with learners' cultural experiences (e.g., voice in political decision-making)
                                                                          There is regular attention to creating a meaningful experience for all involved (e.g., relating actions to others' or Global Goals for Sustainable Development)
                                                                          Participants approach each step with care and consciousness (including about why the step is important for learning, the community, or both)
                                                                          Learners have and use opportunities to
                                                                          • Explore and ask questions
                                                                            • Listen, process, summarize, and retain useful information
                                                                              • Observe others' and their own actions
                                                                                • Work independently, in pairs, and in groups
                                                                                  • Identify and apply their skills and talents
                                                                                    • Get help when needed
                                                                                      • Solve problems step-by-step

                                                                                      The experience builds appreciation of diversity and mutual respect for all participants
                                                                                      Learners take leading or active roles to maximize personal meaning and growth (e.g., selecting a topic, site, product design, or presentation content)
                                                                                      Reflection occurs during each step so learners think critically about their actions and observations
                                                                                      For class projects or activities all students have opportunities to actively participate and apply special skills or interests
                                                                                      Academic content informs students about various dimensions of the project
                                                                                      • Skills to be applied or developed through activities
                                                                                        • Nature of the work to be performed
                                                                                          • Characteristics of quality reflection and evaluation (with examples and practice opportunities)
                                                                                            • Broader issues related to the project (e.g., population characteristics and contexts like power structures and history)
                                                                                            Project collaborators learn and view one another as equal colleagues in the process (vs. treating a group as needy)
                                                                                            Community representatives are involved throughout (e.g., in initial research and planning, guest lectures, site visits, project evaluation, etc.)
                                                                                            Learners, educators, and community partners understand and commit to specific roles and responsibilities with a checklist or similar method
                                                                                            There is frequent sharing (via social media or other means) to build and maintain school and public awareness throughout
                                                                                            Collaboration between students, teachers, and community members is open and thoughtful to promote win-win outcomes
                                                                                            • Needs assessment includes people and groups with relevant knowledge and experience (community leaders, public service offices, orgs, other)
                                                                                              • All are aware of any past miscommunication or conflict between the school and neighbors and design the project to effectively prevent them
                                                                                                • All show flexibility designing parameters to balance academic development and addressing community needs (which may not align perfectly)
                                                                                                  • Participants share expectations for the collaboration and check for possible conflicts or challenges for meeting them

                                                                                                  The project follows IRB guidelines (where applicable, to ensure respect and just treatment for community members)
                                                                                                  Partners are willing to collaborate, communicate, and provide necessary resources to effectively work with learners
                                                                                                  Partners can provide experiences with the potential to meet academic and civic learning objectives
                                                                                                  Site locations (if outside of school) are safe and accessible for students
                                                                                                  Partners have positive local reputations and ideally successful experience working with learners, especially on similar or ongoing projects
                                                                                                  There is adequate information available (e.g., online, through interviewing, other) to make informed decisions about the workability of partner relationships
                                                                                                  Goals promote academic content integration and mutually beneficial community engagement
                                                                                                  Objectives are attainable and appropriate based on learner skill levels, time commitments, and project scope/duration
                                                                                                  Fundraising efforts (where applicable) are based on a target amount to raise and plan for doing so
                                                                                                  If partnering with an organization, site orientation includes learning about community members' lives, the org's mission and activities, and specific learner tasks
                                                                                                  Site visits and other activity scheduling promote efficient use of participants' time as part of a total project timeline
                                                                                                  The amount of planned student community activity time is sufficient to meet learning objectives
                                                                                                  Learners have previously demonstrated necessary skills or receive training in them
                                                                                                  • Active learning (reinforced via teacher modeling and practiced in classroom settings before community ones)
                                                                                                    • Working with a diverse community (e.g., through research and discussion of potential diversity issues in the field)
                                                                                                      • Writing effectively in papers or in journals (e.g., by reading high-quality examples of each)
                                                                                                        • Recognizing significant events or information in a community setting and reflecting on them
                                                                                                          • Self-assessment and evaluation, including creating or using rubrics
                                                                                                            • Special skills (e.g., making quality videos if involved)
                                                                                                              • Recognizing and avoiding potential ethical issues (e.g., replacing stereotypes with greater understanding)
                                                                                                              On-site activities relate to an organization's mission (if involved)
                                                                                                              Learners alert and discuss with advisor(s) and community reps any possible deviations from the plan in advance, as well as recording them
                                                                                                              Classroom learning complements and reinforces civic lessons from the community experience (e.g., by using group activities)
                                                                                                              Community engagement/activities promote learning course content at deeper levels than otherwise likely
                                                                                                              Involves problem solving, critical thinking, analysis, applying concepts, putting experiences in greater context, or theorizing
                                                                                                              Journaling format(s) match learning styles and abilities
                                                                                                              Includes self-assessment - students assess how effectively they met the learning and community objectives of the course, ideally throughout the process
                                                                                                              Is frequent enough to "take the temperature" throughout to ensure students have competencies, are staying on task, etc.
                                                                                                              Advisor responses are nonjudgmental, appreciative of what's being revealed or discovered, and honest
                                                                                                              Involves problem solving, critical thinking, analysis, or applying concepts
                                                                                                              Reflects or compliments learner abilities and knowledge (vs. requiring significant special training time)
                                                                                                              Is useful to the community, directly or by supplementing a partner organization's efforts
                                                                                                              Is made public (e.g., published) if possible
                                                                                                              Audiences are as inclusive as possible
                                                                                                              Community partners are present for the final presenation, and results are shared publicly
                                                                                                              Promotes offshoot projects addressing the same or a similar community need (e.g., by sharing ideas for continued work)
                                                                                                              All involved in the project have opportunities to provide feedback
                                                                                                              Formative assessment (during the process)
                                                                                                              • Is based on regular progress reports where appropriate
                                                                                                                • Promotes identifying and addressing any issues to enhance success

                                                                                                                Summative assessment (at the conclusion)
                                                                                                                • Assesses project impacts and elicits ideas for improving future projects
                                                                                                                  • Utilizes multiple feedback formats (e.g., class discussions, community partner surveys)

                                                                                                                  Learners are involved in developing the rubric or other means of evaluation
                                                                                                                  Publicly celebrating student and community achievements (and the process) leaves people feeling acknowledged and attracts interest, including from media
                                                                                                                  Publishing results (and adding them to a project database, once available) allows others to learn from them or add to the work
                                                                                                                  School-community relationships grow via multiple projects addressing given needs, ideally with different learners and advisors over time
                                                                                                                  Checkoway B and Aldana A. Four forms of youth civic engagement for diverse democracy. Children and Youth Services Review 35 (2013) 1894–1899
                                                                                                                  Checkoway B and Aldana A. Four forms of youth civic engagement for diverse democracy. Children and Youth Services Review 35 (2013) 1894–1899.

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                                                                                                                  Categorized Project Goal Possibilities

                                                                                                                  (Note: Most of these come from previous high school or college level S-L projects. Consider using 3 to 5 to focus project activities and assessment.)

                                                                                                                  Apply course concepts/material to understand or address a community need or issue
                                                                                                                  Recognize applications for academic skills outside of school, practice them, and identify ones to add or further develop (included: researching, presenting, etc.)
                                                                                                                  Includes being able to adapt to new information and life changes
                                                                                                                  Learn and extract meaning from new experiences, including by reflecting on them
                                                                                                                  Learn across disciplines and connect ideas between them and to life outside of school
                                                                                                                  Obtain, analyze, and integrate information from diverse sources
                                                                                                                  Understand, explain, and account for complexity (e.g., interrelationships) in daily life
                                                                                                                  Stay current on new developments (including vocabulary) in a field
                                                                                                                  Use information technology to discover or share ideas
                                                                                                                  Includes being effective in a variety of job settings
                                                                                                                  Effectively make and receive critiques, including of one's own performance in order to improve it
                                                                                                                  Adapt to new situations to increase work satisfaction, options, and earning potential
                                                                                                                  Work independently and with others, including by identifying, articulating, and resolving issues in academic and work settings
                                                                                                                  Build familiarity with a work setting, including job training processes, types of tasks, and characteristics of impactful work (e.g., at a non-profit)
                                                                                                                  Design or manage a project by planning, prioritizing tasks, structuring time, and staying organized in order to meet objectives
                                                                                                                  Includes being active citizens in a democratic system
                                                                                                                  Recognize the role of civic engagement (including voting, following laws, and participating at local, state, regional, national, or global levels) in maintaining a functional society
                                                                                                                  Demonstrate ethical behavior in personal, academic, professional, and civic activities
                                                                                                                  Promote a healthy natural environment (e.g., suited to agricultural/economic health and democratic participation)
                                                                                                                  Contribute to social well-being, including civic, economic, physical, or emotional health
                                                                                                                  Work with diverse groups (e.g., with ethnic, socioeconomic, age, or other differences)
                                                                                                                  Develop awareness of current community issues, needs, strengths, interests, experiences, and resources, including by identifying social and historical contexts
                                                                                                                  Recognize the role of group dynamics and mobilization in politics and social change
                                                                                                                  Recognize the presence of unique knowledge within communities (e.g., Native Americans)
                                                                                                                  Work with community support providers or advocates
                                                                                                                  Share information with non-experts, in some cases including people with limited English skills
                                                                                                                  Know (by reading, discussing, observing, journaling, etc.) and accept yourself, including by identifying values and commitments and being complete with the past
                                                                                                                  Identify skills, attitudes, and ideas (e.g., empathy, sense of purpose and belonging, and self-confidence) that allow for creating mutually empowering relationships
                                                                                                                  Challenge and restore yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually to be able to keep developing abilities to create
                                                                                                                  Use abilities (like self-awareness, skills, attitudes, and ideas) to plan, make decisions, and connect in fulfilling ways at the levels of body, group, and Earth
                                                                                                                  Demonstrate integrity and responsibility for yourself, life outcomes, and impacts on others
                                                                                                                  Build relationships/reciprocity between schools and surrounding communities
                                                                                                                  Meet community needs
                                                                                                                  Support community organizations' missions and projects
                                                                                                                  Increase cooperation between teachers and departments within or across schools

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                                                                                                                  Premium Educator and Student Support

                                                                                                                  Along with what you see here, we have two sets of Premium Resources for educators/advisors and learners! Contact us about spring 2020 no-charge testing opportunities. To see a list of the contents, visit the Premium Support Preview page.