November 15, 2013

Service + Learning: Not Merely Two Words Combined

By Christine Darby, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, VA Maryland Healthcare System

Community service has always played an integral role in my life.  I have found meaning, fulfillment, and even my husband by donating my time and resources to helping those in need.  My belief in voluntary work is so great that, when relevant and appropriate, I think that every educator should consider integrating it into his or her course.

So, how do you create a great service-learning experience?  Whether service-learning is intended to supplement a course or its the entire goal of course, there are a series of steps that you can take to make it most successful.  A great service-learning experience can lead to positive outcomes, leaving students feeling that they positively and directly influenced people.

What is service-learning?

Service-learning is 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.”1 The hyphen between “service” and “learning” indicates the importance of reflection and assures that learning is integrated with the service activities.2  Service-learning is not equivalent to volunteering, in which the recipient of the service is the primary beneficiary.  Service-learning benefits both the server and the served.3

In pharmacy education, the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE) defines specific criteria that service-learning must meet.  Many criteria are listed, including the opportunities for inter-professional interaction and the extension of student learning into the community.4

Steps to designing a service-learning course

Keeping in mind the definition of service-learning, you first need to decide whether service-learning is right for your course.  There are a series of steps that Barbara Jacoby, Ph.D. recommends you do: 

1. Consider how it will help your students achieve your learning outcomes.
After having determined the learning objectives for your course, what instructional methods (such as service-learning, lectures, and class discussions) align with your objectives?5 Look for resources such as the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning.  This workbook includes worksheets not only for determining your learning outcomes, but also for outlining teaching strategies (such as service-learning) that can help you achieve your outcomes.6

2.  If service-learning is a good fit, determine what service and educational content will enable your students to achieve your outcomes.
Decide upon what type of service is appropriate, how frequently the students should be engaged in the service, and for how long.  Establish prerequisite readings or other materials, as well as activities to complete after the course, such as reflection.5 Reflection is a critical element for the “learning” component of service-learning.6 It involves metacognition, or thinking about one’s own thinking.7  Examples of reflective activities include structured journals, portfolios, simulations, discussion groups, and oral presentations.6

3.  Form community partnerships.

Establish who will be responsible for the initiation and development of partnerships.  Decide how many students are needed, the skills and knowledge considered necessary (and prerequisite) for students to participate in the service, and the tasks that the organization needs completed.5 Create timelines and decide upon the level of supervision needed.  Plan a student orientation to introduce students to the community.6

4.  Establish standards to assess and evaluate students.

Clarify how students will show what they have learned and how often you will assess them.  Figure out what role community partners will have in student assessment on-site.5 The Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning also contains worksheets for aligning assessment methods with learning outcomes.6

5.  Create the syllabus.
Provide details about the rationale behind service-learning in the course, roles and responsibilities of students, prerequisites and training, course materials, assessment methods, and reflection activities.5  Communicate what service activities and service sites are available.  Explain how service-learning is different from volunteerism.6 You may want to share the syllabus with community partners to obtain their input and make revisions as necessary.7 

6.  Prepare to manage the course.
Address any logistical issues that arise, including transportation and safety.  Determine what resources are available to assist you during the course.5 Get feedback from those who have experience with service-learning and ask for copies of syllabi they may have created.

Outcomes of service-learning

By thoughtfully and systematically planning your service-learning experience you will greatly enhance the likelihood that students will have a positive learning outcomes.  There are many examples in the literature of positive outcomes from service-learning.  In a study assessing first-year pharmacy student, service-learning was shown to positively impact knowledge.  Knowledge regarding cultural differences and their impact on health improved was significant higher among student who participated in a service-learning course when compared to a control group of students who did not participate in service learning activities.8

In another study, a majority of students who participated in a service-learning course felt a high level of personal responsibility toward their community and a greater interest in participating in local community organizations after course completion.  The service-learning activities helped students to see the connections between class discussions and real world, which enhanced learning in both settings.9 

Service-learning helps students develop caring attitudes toward people, rather than relying strictly on clinical skills during their interactions with patients.10 John W. Gardner describes the development of values and citizenship skills that are fostered through service-learning as follows:

Young people do not assimilate the values of their group by learning the words (truth, justice, etc.) and their definitions...they learn these through intensely personal interactions with their immediate family or associates...they do not learn ethical principles; they emulate ethical (or unethical) people. They do not analyze or list the attributes they wish to develop; they identify with people who seem to have these attributes. That is why young people need models, both in their imaginative life and in their environment, models of what—at their best—they can be.11

In this way, by being true champions of patients and active members of the community, not only do students thrive, but so too society.  Service-learning goes beyond “merely” service and beyond “just” learning.


1.  Jacoby B and Associates. Service-learning in today’s higher education. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers; 1996. 416 p.
2.  Eyler J and Giles DE. Where’s the learning in service-learning?. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers; 1999. 352 p.
3.  Stanton TK, Giles DE and Cruz NI. Service-Learning: a movement’s pioneers reflect on its origins, practice, and future. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers; 1999. 304 p.
4.  Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education. Accreditation standards and guidelines for the professional program in pharmacy leading to the Doctor of Pharmacy degree [Internet]. Chicago: Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education; 2011 Jan 23 [cited 2013 Nov 3].
5.  Bart M. Six steps to designing effective service-learning courses [Internet]. Madison (WI): Magna Publications, Inc.; 21 April 2010 [cited 2013 Nov 2].
6.  Howard J, editor. Michigan journal of community service learning. Ann Arbor (MI): OSCL PRESS; 2001. 82 p.
7.  Kelly R. Service-learning course development [Internet]. Madison (WI): Magna Publications, Inc.; 12 June 2012 [cited 2013 Nov 3].
9.  Nickman N. (Re-)learning to care: use of service-learning as an early professionalization experience. Am J Pharm Educ. 1998;62:380-387.
10. AACP Commission to Implement Change in Pharmaceutical Education. Maintaining our commitment to change [Internet]. Alexandria (VA): American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy; 1996 [cited 2013 Nov 3].
11. Gardner JW. Self-renewal: the individual and the innovative society. New York: Norton & Company; 1981. 176 pp.

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