Criteria for Service-Learning Designated Courses

1. The course has as a central feature a required service-learning project that strongly relates to the academic content of the course (i.e., it’s not an add-on or afterthought, but rather integral to the course [theory, research, and/or practice of the course and its goals) and makes up at least 25% of the course grade.
  • The centrality of service-learning should be evident with a prominent placement in the syllabus, including in the course goals. The service-learning work should be explained as an integral part of the course in the syllabus. The ways that service-learning relates to the academic content of the course also should be explicit and clear.
  • As for grading, service-learning should be academically rigorous. Courses give academic credit to students for learning derived from the service and not for the service alone, as academic credit is given for demonstrated learning. (Any service given to the community should be the top effort a student can give, or in other words “A” work or as close as the student can get to that level.) Thus, the course assesses the learning that students gained from their service. The assessments should account for a minimum of 25% of the students’ grade. Such assessments can take the form of questions on an examination, academic papers, journals (if a rubric for grading is established), class participation, or other formats.
  • Most internship courses do not qualify as service-learning. The aim of service-learning courses is to have students gain a richer knowledge of theories and academic content in a class, while benefitting the community, whereas an internship’s primary goal is to for students to get hands-on experience in a field.
2. The project is designed as a joint, equal effort between the faculty member and community partner (or partners), with a clear goal that students’ involvement benefits the partner.
  • The partnership, for which planning typically should begin well before the course begins, should be equal in that the faculty members and community partners have ample opportunities to express their needs and desires for what students will do and how they will do it. (In this process, sometimes faculty and community members will realize that they are not well-matched partners and can avoid a negative outcome by not partnering.)
  • It is vital to avoid the faculty member (or students) coming up with independent visions of what the community needs and then pushing those ideas without collaboration. As Porter Honnet and Poulsen (1989) wrote in their Principles of Good Practice for Combining Service and Learning: “An effective program allows for those with needs to define those needs.” Good projects also consider people’s strengths and possibilities for building on them. But whatever the nature of the project, the community members should define their needs and assets. Students’ efforts thus work on matters the community has stated it wants addressed, in ways the community has stated it wants them addressed.
  • The faculty member’s regular involvement with partners is crucial. Faculty members are more experienced and stable than students, and their communication with and availability to partners increases the possibility of longstanding, positive partnerships in which future students will be welcome. Faculty involvement also decreases the possibility of negative events, as well as the damage that occurs when negative events (e.g., an irresponsible student whose presence is detrimental to the agency) occur.
  • Student involvement in designing projects also is desirable, but given the brevity of a semester, it is not imperative. One way to involve students is to work before the semester begins with those who have enrolled in the course and are interested in helping design the service-learning experience. Another way is to have students in previous service-learning experiences provide feedback that helps improve and design experiences for future students. Even if students are not involved in planning the experience before the semester, faculty and community members should be receptive to student opinions and ideas as the project begins and takes shape.
  • It is desirable for faculty members, community members and students to sign a contract detailing responsibilities and expectations for each. This can help avoid misunderstandings and make it easier to solve any problems that arise.
  • A good goal, if possible, of service-learning is to leave behind significant, demonstrable, and sustainable community benefits. If possible, the faculty member or students should assess community benefits during, and after, the service-learning takes place.
  • Partnerships typically take place between the faculty member and a non-profit organization or governmental agency. Exceptions to that practice will be considered.
3. The faculty member prepares students to undertake their service-learning. The overarching point is that faculty members should bear in mind that most students are novices in community work, and therefore benefit from guidance. Without it, there is the risk of negative experiences for students and community members with whom they work.
  • This means discussing and providing readings on topics such as:
    • Being professional representatives of the university and fitting in with the culture of their placements
    • Respecting cultural norms of people different from themselves
    • Understanding how students’ cultural norms have influenced them and their views
    • Understanding students’ assumptions and expectations about service-learning as they head into the experience
    • Being open to learning from community members (their supervisors and others)
    • Understanding that change and progress on issues and problems usually takes time
    • Understanding the role of reflection in service-learning
    • Understanding how they will bring their service into the classroom
    • Understanding typical problems that can occur and solutions for them
    • Understanding ethical considerations, such as confidentiality
    • Understanding the agency where students will work, its role and place in the community
  • One vital area to cover is risk assessment and management. Faculty members should assess any risks that students are likely to face and develop a plan for minimizing them. Part of that plan should include faculty members communicating regularly with students about risks or concerns they have.
  • This does not mean that all risks have to be eliminated. Rather, it means that a project assessed as too risky might need alterations. It also means that students and faculty members should be in regular communication before and during service-learning to ensure that no one’s safety is in jeopardy.

4. Students regularly reflect on the service-learning experience.

  • As Eyler and Giles (1999), emphasize, reflection is a critical element of good service-learning. It should help students connect the service experience with academic content. It should be challenging, asking them to use critical thinking. It also should be regular, which typically means an average of at least one reflection activity at least every other week (which would mean a minimum of roughly six to eight in a semester in which the project lasted most of the course). Ideally, reflection begins before students enter the field, as that gives faculty members a chance to understand and address any concerns, anxieties, and other views students may have and address them as needed. A final reflection should occur after the work is done. Reflection also should give students a chance to learn from each other, as well as from the instructor and community partners.
  • The reflection can be in multiple formats (e.g., class discussions, class activities, journals, papers, wikis). If graded, a rubric with clear criteria should be used.

5. The project requires a minimum of five hours of service to the community for each credit hour.

  • Hence, a three-credit course would have a minimum of 15 hours of service. Ideally, courses will go past this minimum.
  • Although agencies vary, when students come for very short stints, the organization spends more time orienting the student than receiving service from him/her. The hours of service may be divided over a number of service sessions, at the discretion of the faculty member and the community partner.
  • Faculty should try to ensure that the arrangement works well for the partner as well as for students. Service means work done directly for the partner; it does not mean journaling, paper writing for the course, or other academic parts of the project that do not directly benefit the partner.

6. The professor, students, and community partner complete a pre- and post evaluation provided by the Key Center.

  • The results will be provided to professors, students, and, if appropriate, community partners. Professors and partners are welcome to do additional evaluations, but may not do their own in lieu of the Key Center evaluations.
  • The evaluations are designed both to help professors keep their courses on track and understand ways to improve them, as well as help the university as a whole understand the overall impact of its service-learning efforts.



  • Eyler, J. & Giles, D. (1999). Where’s the learning in service-learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Porter Honnet, E. & Poulsen, S. (1989). Principles of good practice for combining service and learning. Racine, WI: Johnson Foundation.