David Wangaard, Ed.D., is the Director of the School for Ethical Education and author of this post.

In working or visiting with teachers, I often find they think service learning is just adult-led community service. Service learning is, however, quite distinct from community service. See the eight quality standards for service learning that The National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC) has published to define effective practice. 

I want to talk about three of these standards to highlight how they advance excellent character and academic growth in students: 

  1. Students are engaged in planning, implementing and evaluating the project;
  2. Teachers plan into the project specific academic objectives aligned with school curricular goals or standards; and
  3. All project participants engage in formative and summative reflection.

All three of these standards, in addition to the other five noted by the NYLC, create a meaningful distinction between traditional community service and the robust teaching strategy of service learning. These standards are also linked to many of Character.org’s 11 Principles.


Involve students in planning, implementing and evaluating the project

Well-designed service learning should begin as a collaboration between students and teachers. We all recognize the time authentic collaboration requires and the demand that teachers face to keep students focused on academic goals. Sometimes student aspirations can pull a project into something that is too expansive in service and removed from specific academic objectives. The teacher’s good professional judgment needs to help guide the collaboration, but not derail student input into project planning, implementation and evaluation.

Student engagement in the full project can be ensured in a variety of ways. First, set student leadership as a goal and then identify opportunities for student leadership roles and additional student tasks that can be assigned. These roles and tasks should be documented by job descriptions and task timelines. The point is to have students participate in meaningful work where they can practice and develop their character as they face challenges and the requirements of cooperative work. 

Plan the project with specific academic objectives aligned with school curricular goals or standards

The teacher must align a service learning project with specific learning objectives – an important distinction between service learning and most community service activities.

Let’s consider the example of Seckman High School (Imperial, MO) and its Books of Hope project. This Character.org Promising Practice engages students to write positive stories for English language students in impoverished and war-torn Uganda. Seckman Language Arts students apply basic concepts of poetry to write the books. Business Education students apply Microsoft Publisher knowledge to add artwork and publish the books. Additionally, middle school students read and edit the stories and send revisions back electronically to the high school language arts class. Academic objectives remain clear throughout the project while providing students great motivation and an intrinsic reward to learn how their books help Ugandan students. Their good academic work provides a service to children with a great need for academic resources. 

Completing a clear service objective is key to effective service learning both for student academic learning and character development. Students recognize and are highly engaged by the intrinsic reward of serving something bigger than themselves.

Engage all project participants in formative and summative reflection

The final service learning quality standard highlighted here is the value of student formative and summative reflection. An important strategy to support individual and group improvement, reflection anchors lessons learned during the project. In addition, reflection takes place in the preparation, practice and evaluation of lessons after they are presented. Time is often cited as an inhibitor for student reflection during service learning. The benefits of well designed reflection should convince teachers to make reflection part of every service-learning lesson plan.

Service learning does require more teacher planning and time to implement. This is one reason why service learning is not more frequently practiced. However, the research-validated effectiveness of service learning to achieve student character and academic growth is a great encouragement to apply the strategy regularly as one tool for instruction. 

Visit the Character.org webinar training link for more information about this professional development opportunity (live or via archive) to support the implementation of service learning.