What is Service Learning?

"Service Learning is an academic strategy that seeks to engage students in activities that enhance academic learning, civic responsibility and the skills of citizenship, while also enhancing community capacity through service". (Furco and Holland, 2004) 

Service Learning is a relatively new pedagogical approach in Ireland, although we at University of Galway have been embedding it since the early 2000s. Essentially, it is experiential education with a civic underpinning within a community context. In practice, what this means is that students attain academic credit for the learning that derives from reflecting on an experience within community and society. Academic staff create these curricular experiences, guide students through structured reflective activities and encourage the integration of theory with practice.   



A broad array of terms has been ascribed to service learning over the last four decades including community engaged learning, community service learning and student community engagement.   In fact, a detailed study (Kendall, 1990) noted that there existed over 140 terms for this teaching and learning approach in the USA.  McIlrath (2018) in her study of service learning in Europe notethat different terms are given to the pedagogy in different contexts that stems from cultural and historical influences.   

What do students gain? 

The community experience is linked directly to the student's academic discipline and they work on needs or projects identified by the community. The aspiration is that not only does the student gain from a rich educational experience but also that they enhance the capacity of the group or community with whom they work. Through service learning students explore issues that are vital to society and community through a mix of methods that could include interviews, surveys and analysis, development of prototypes, active participation in the work of the group, readings, discussion and reflection. The ultimate goal of service learnng is to imbue in students and graduates a sense of their role as agents of change and active citizens.   

Why do students want tbe involved in service learning? 

At University of Galway, as well as other higher education institution internationally, students can be drawn to service learning and the reasons for this vary.  Very often students come with values and leanings that could be described as altruistic in nature and they may want to be of use to community and society.  

They also may have been involved in community through their familial, primary and post primary education experiences, perhaps through the Gaisce Award, sporting commitments, Young Social Innovators or through the Red Cross and may want to continue or extend this engagement. 

Some students want to make themselves distinctive and are looking to apply for a post-graduate opportunity or for a graduate job.  A community engaged learning experience can enhance their distinctiveness within a competitive interview situation.  

Some would like to make valuable contacts that might also help them professionally and personally. 

Many students like the experience of just getting out of the classroom and into a real-world context where they can apply their knowledge, be of use and learn from the experience.  It can be a welcome change from the normative learning experience. 

Why do academic staff at University of Galway embed service learning? 

Why would an academic wish to create and develop service learning opportunitiesAcademics may see this as an opportunity to mature students in terms of their social and academic skill development through engagement and communication with the community partners. 

It may be an opportunity to make the curriculum content useful to an external stakeholder, namely the community. 

It may also be an opportunity for the academic to make valuable contacts in the community sector that could help them with further academic research or applying for grants that may require a community partner. 

In some instances, if the higher education institution is committed to community and promotes community engaged learning through policy and strategy, it might be an opportunity for an academic to advance their career and contribute towards promotion criteria. 

In addition, service learning may fundamentally be something an academic wants and needs to do in terms of their own professional practice.  This want and need may stem from their political, cultural, personal and educational experiences. 

University of Galway Strategy and Commitment 

Service Learning and civic engagement are core aspects of University of Galway's Strategy 2020-2025 ‘Shared Vision, Shaped by Values’, Strategic Plan and Learning, Teaching & Assessment Strategy.  One of the four core values of this strategy, namely Open, unpins this commitment.  The President of the University, Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, stresses that University of Galway is for the public good and we are; 

. . . open to the world. We recognise that we cannot achieve our ambitions alone. We are a university with no gates. When darkness comes, we don’t close. Openness means we welcome friends and strangers in. It also means we go out, seeking new and deeper research co-operation, new ideas, new partnerships, new communities, and new ways of engaging. We stand with the dispossessed, those on the periphery, in dialogue with the powerful and the powerless. This is a strength of disposition that replenishes and sustains us and our varied communities.” (2020, p3) 

Within our Strategy 2020-2025 we aim to:  
  • embed the distinctiveness of our region in our curriculum by providing our students with opportunities for work-based learning, fieldwork, and community-based and service learning 
Since 2004, over 40 degree programmes now include a range of service learning modules and over 1,400 students annually engage in this pedagogical approach. Since then, over 15,000 students have engaged their learning within the community and this has enabled the development of deep community/university partnership across the disciplines. 
The Community Knowledge Initiative acts as facilitator to support academic staff develop modules, offering academic training, seed funding, training and educaitonand introductions to the community. In turn the CKI works directly with the community to identify needs that students can address. This forms the basis upon which service learning modules can be developed. 

Service Learning Characteristics 

  • Active participation in the community is promoted and linked to academic discipline; 
  • Community organisations are valued as partners; 
  • Academic theory is viewed in a real world context; 
  • Issues vital to social, civic, cultural, economic and political society are explored; 
  • Experiential education techniques and opportunities are promoted; 
  • Reflection strategies underpin the process. 

National Policy Level 

The value of service learning and other forms of civic engagement within higher education has been recognised nationally and internationally in a number of major reports and strategy documents, as well as in practice. 

Within Ireland, the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 (2011) priorities engagement and comments on the need to educate students for their role as "citizens who will add to the richness of society".  It states that ‘engaging with the wider society’ is ‘one of the three interconnected core roles of higher education’ (Department of Education and Science, 2011, p75). It goes on to reference service learning or what we call community engaged learning as one particular mechanism to promote engagement.  

This education for participatory, democratic citizenship has been echoed in other international declarations and lies at the heart of service learning.  Some institutions want to ensure that their graduates are global citizens and wish to contribute meaningfully towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.