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“When done well, Service Learning moves the curriculum forward integrating essential skills with content knowledge, advancing competencies and confidence.”Cathryn Berger Kaye

Thoughtfully performed Service Learning offers a wide range of multifaceted benefits for students and, most importantly, for the people and communities their efforts serve. As Service Learning methodology has evolved, it has become an increasingly viable way to build lasting relationships between cultures, organizations, and individuals. 

When approached in collaboration with the group at the focus of the action, Service Learning can harness collective intelligence and mobilize community resources.  

The cycle of Service Learning is typically broken down into five stages, which can interact in various ways depending on the project. For the best outcomes to be achieved, every step must be fulfilled mindfully and ethically, in a way that continually interrogates its purpose and is adaptable to changing circumstances. 

Let’s take a look at how each can be addressed to provide maximum benefit. 

1. Inventory & Investigation

The first stage of the process will be inquiry-based and involve gathering authentic information about an issue or a community in need. This is the time to ask questions, be observant, and show curiosity. Students should be encouraged to challenge their assumptions and be assured that it is ok to change their research focus or scope. 

Students should pursue a Service Learning project aligned with their interests to stay engaged while building knowledge. They should reflect on their relationship to the issue and what they have in common with the group they are hoping to serve. 

The 169 Targets and 232 Indicators contained within the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals can act as a practical filter through which students can narrow their focus and determine where they would like to take action. 

Additionally, the research designated to each UN SDG provides ample background information for understanding the broader context of how key global issues affect humanity and the planet. 

A Service Learning project will necessarily be indebted to, and reliant upon, existing work and research. It is necessary to become familiar with any pre-existing material before building upon it. 

Students should ascertain the central ideas and conclusions of dominant literature in the field and outline how they believe they can contribute to or enhance it. 

2. Preparation & Planning

Next, the student will determine how the ideas they formulated throughout the research stage will be responsibly transferred into a new setting and situation to realize their objective. This is the right time to reach out to community partners and begin getting input regarding realistic action goals. 

Through the creation and adherence to a cohesive action plan, students can stay organized and track their progress throughout. 

The plan should include questions like: 

  • How will I know the project is achieving its objectives and helping the community?
  • How will the team acquire the skills and knowledge needed to realize the objective?
  • How will I reflect on my progress?
  • How will I incorporate multiple perspectives?
  • What resources do I already have for the project, and what additional resources do I need?
  • What steps do I need to take to secure additional resources or leverage existing ones?

Additionally, the project’s activities should be outlined according to duration, deadline, and budget in an easy to follow format that will serve as an ongoing reference point. 

The SMART goal framework is another useful tool to introduce at this stage. Asking if the stated goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely will ensure the project is realistic and likely to succeed. 

Overall, the planning process should be collaborative and informed by a commitment to maintaining integrity in thought and action throughout. Students should be reminded that if something does not feel right, it is all right to take a step back, rethink the approach, and acquire assistance as needed. When possible, the project should include local organizations, bolstering any existing initiatives dedicated to the same topic. 

3. Action

When both student and teacher are confident that a plan has meaning, purpose, and the capacity to generate real consequences—it is time to take action. There are many ways to undertake a Service Learning project’s action component, but they can be broken down into four main categories. 

Direct: Service that involves interacting with people, the environment, or animals. 

Indirect: Providing service that does not require face-to-face interaction. 

Advocacy: Speaking out on behalf of a cause of concern to promote action. 

Research: Using research and information to report on a topic to generate change or influence. 

4. Demonstration 

This is the stage in which students seek to capture the essence of their Service Learning experience and share it with others. 

From the initial conception, the student documents all parts of the process. Hence, they have a complete and comprehensive ability to tell the story of what took place in each stage and increase awareness through critical informative reflections. 

5. Reflection 

The reflection process is ongoing throughout all stages of the experience and involves repeatedly returning to several vital questions, such as: Was my theoretical knowledge used to enact tangible change? Were care and logic operative at all stages of the project? 

The reflection component should also include feedback from partners and participants, an evaluation of impact, and considerations for how the project could be improved or what future initiatives could do to build upon what has been accomplished.