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Service-Learning and Community Service in K-12 Public Schools
NCES: 1999043
September 1999


The definition of service-learning employed for this study differs from definitions of service-learning used on past surveys. This is not unusual, as noted by the University of Colorado, a leader in the collection and promotion of information about service-learning: "Definitions of service-learning vary considerably among those who embrace it" (University of Colorado, 1998). Kraft (1996) presents a similar argument in his discussion of the practice of service-learning. He states that some agreement has been achieved on the definition of service-learning in recent years, but that practices do not always match the definition. For these reasons, specific definitions of community service and service-learning were developed in cooperation with the Corporation for National Service for use on the National Student Service-Learning and Community Service Survey. The following definitions were provided to respondents to help clarify the definitions of both terms:

  • Community service. For the purposes of this survey, student community service is defined as community service activities that are non-curriculum-based and are recognized by and/or arranged through the school. The community service:

    • May be mandatory or voluntary;
    • Generally does not include explicit learning objectives or organized reflection or critical analysis activities; and
    • May include activities that take place off of school grounds or may happen primarily within the school.

Community service activities may be carried out as school-wide events, separately organized school programs, or projects conducted by school-sponsored clubs (e.g., Girls/Boys Clubs, National Honor Society). Examples of service activities could include cleaning up a local park, visiting the elderly, or collecting and distributing food to those in need.

  • Service-learning. For the purposes of this survey, service-learning is defined as curriculum-based community service that integrates classroom instruction with community service activities.
  • The service must:

    • Be organized in relation to an academic course or curriculum;
    • Have clearly stated learning objectives;
    • Address real community needs in a sustained manner over a period of time; and
    • Assist students in drawing lessons from the service through regularly scheduled, organized reflection or critical analysis activities, such as classroom discussions, presentations, or directed writing.

Example of service-learning: Students in a middle school science class studying the environment help preserve the natural habitat of animals living at a local lake. Through classroom studies, the students learn about the environment. The students keep the area around the lake clean, post signs providing information to the public, and study soil and water composition as well as the impact of industrial development on wildlife. Throughout the project, students write about their experiences in journals and participate in class discussions about the project and its effect on their lives and the local community.

These definitions appeared on the cover page of the survey and were incorporated into questions that asked if the school had students participating in community service (question 1) and/or had students participating in service-learning (question 6). Some schools may have interpreted the definition of service-learning more loosely than as stated. In addition, some states, school districts, and schools supporting community service and/or service-learning have established definitions different from the ones used for the survey.

This may have created confusion for respondents who have become accustomed to labeling the service activities in their school as either community service or service-learning. They may have inadvertently disregarded the definitions established for this survey in favor of the definitions they have been using. In cases where response inconsistencies were noted, followup calls were made to the schools to resolve those issues. On the basis of their responses, it was determined that the majority of schools that reported having students participating in some form of service-learning did have students participating in curriculum-related service activities distinct from community service.