Beth Niehaus graduated from UVA in 2002.  During her time at UVA she was a volunteer with tutoring, boosters, and Alternative Spring Break, and a volunteer/PD for HELP Line.  After graduating from UVA she spent three years working with community service and civic engagement programs on college campuses before going back to school to get her Masters degree in American Culture Studies.  She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she is focusing on the intersections of service-learning and study abroad programs for college students.

When I graduated from UVA in 2002 I had never heard the term “service-learning.” Although the idea had been around since the 1970’s, at that time it was just becoming a growing trend in higher education. As a doctoral student studying service-learning in higher education and a member of the Madison House Alumni Council, I am often asked to explain what service-learning is and whether or not Madison House is, can be, or should be doing it. I don’t have the definitive answers on the last part of that question, but here is an overview of service-learning for all who are interested.

What is Service-Learning?

Barbara Jacoby (1996), one of the leading scholars and practitioners in the field, defines service-learning as “a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development. Reflection and reciprocity are key concepts of service-learning” (p. 5).

Jacoby’s definition provides a great summary of the key features of service learning. First, service-learning is experiential in nature – students go out into the community and actually do something. Second, the goal of service-learning is to “address human and community needs” – student’s aren’t just doing anything, but they are doing something to improve their communities. Third, and this is an important point that distinguishes service-learning from traditional community service, service-learning involves intentional efforts to promote student learning in conjunction with the service activity. Often this is done through structured reflection opportunities where students, individually or as a group, think through the activity in which they are engaging, the impact (or lack thereof) they are able to have in the community, their own reactions to and feelings about the service activity, and the larger social issues related to the activity. Finally, reciprocity– the idea that both students and the community benefit from the activity – is a key focus of service-learning

While many good community service programs include some of the key features of service-learning (e.g. they are experiential in nature, meet community needs, and focus on reciprocity between students and the community), as I mentioned above, the key feature of service-learning is the intentional focus on learning and reflection. Students who participate in traditional community service programs may learn all sorts of things from their experience, but the focus is really on performing service. In service-learning there is equal focus on service and learning.

Although some argue that service-learning can only happen as part of a formal academic course, I believe (as do many others!) that service-learning can and should happen outside the classroom, too. One reason I believe this is that the unstructured learning that happens through traditional community service has the potential to be mis-educative. Often students encounter situations in their community service activities that are challenging or uncomfortable. Without an opportunity for structured reflection and learning it is possible that those students may walk away from that experience with a decreased sense of their ability to make a difference, feeling less engaged in their community, and/or reinforcing previously held stereotypes.

On the other hand, research has shown that service-learning has amazing potential to contribute to students’ learning and development. In their 1999 book Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning, Janet Eyler and Dwight Giles outline the results of a large-scale study of service-learning programs. They found that service-learning contributes to students’ personal and interpersonal development by reducing negative stereotypes and increasing tolerance for diversity, promoting greater appreciation for other cultures, increasing self-understanding, contributing to students’ spiritual growth, fostering confidence in one’s ability to make a difference in the world, increasing community involvement, and providing an opportunity to develop relationships with other students. Service-learning also contributes to students’ academic development by providing hands-on experience that helps students come to a deeper understanding of academic content. Students improve their problem-solving skills and are able to come to a greater understanding of the complexity of social issues. Importantly, students who participate in service-learning also show gains in citizenship – feeling a sense of responsibility towards a larger community, having knowledge and understanding of social issues, feeling a sense of efficacy around addressing those issues, and committing to engage in future action to address social problems.

Can/should/does Madison House do service-learning?

So with all of the great outcomes related to service-learning, should Madison House do it? Can Madison House do it? Is Madison House already doing it?

What do you think?

Eyler, J. & Giles, D.E. (1999). Where’s the learning in service-learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Jacoby, B. (1996). Service-learning in today’s higher education. In B. Jacoby & associates (Eds.), Service-Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices. (pp. 3-25). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Other Suggested Readings
Butin, D. (Ed.). (2005). Service-Learning in Higher Education: Critical Issues and Directions. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Jacoby, B. & Associates (Eds.). (2003). Building Partnerships for Service-Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Strait, J.R. & Lima, M. (Eds.). (2009). The Future of Service-Learning: New Solutions for Sustaining and Improving Practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Other Resources
National Service-Learning Clearinghouse:
National Youth Leadership Council:
Campus Compact:

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