Defining Service Learning by Examining What it is Not

    Posted: April 20, 2016

    Service Learning is a unique type of educational opportunity that many teachers are incorporating into their curriculum. However, with so many buzz words flying around, surrounding out of classroom learning opportunities, it can be hard to keep track of what distinguishes one from the other. Below we outline the differences between service learning and other educational techniques.

    What Service Learning is Not

    Experiential Learning

    Defining Experiential Learning:

    Experiential learning is any learning that supports students in applying their knowledge and conceptual understanding to real-world problems or situations where the instructor directs and facilitates learning.

    Service Learning falls under the umbrella term of experiential learning but is a more specific approach to the concept. Service learning differs mainly in the purpose of it’s out of classroom experiences. Experiential learning can cover a wide variety of real-world experiences, but service learning focuses solely on reciprocal community involvement.

    For example, an experiential learning program might have students go on a four day camping trip in order to better understand environmental realities. Service Learning, on the other hand, would revolve around installing solar panels which have a direct and positive impact on the local communities and environment.


    Further reading: To learn more The Starting Point Project has written a detailed explanation of the differences between the two concepts.

    Community Service

    Defining Community Service:

    “Services volunteered by individuals or an organization to benefit a community or its institutions.”

    Community service has a pure focus on taking action without any emphasis placed on education. Students may very well grow through the experience but this is not monitored or necessarily discussed, as it is in service learning, during the duration of the program.


    Defining Volunteering:

    A person who performs a service willingly and without pay.

    During volunteer experiences, the focus is on the service that the individuals are engaging in and the informal learning that accompanies it. The difference mainly being that a developed curriculum is not in place. In service learning, the curriculum spans pre and post service involvement. With volunteering, learning still happens but in comparison to service learning, it takes place in a less structured manner.

    Further reading: What’s the Difference Between Service Learning and Volunteering?


    Defining Hands-on-Learning

    “Learning by doing.

    The key difference between hands-on learning and service learning is reflection. While both practices use kinesthetic learning techniques, only service learning incorporates reflection as a way to connect the experience with classroom knowledge.

    Gap Year

    Defining Gap Year:

    A year that you spend traveling, working, etc.. before continuing your studies.

    During a gap year, the focus is solely on the travel and the journey, seen as a break from studying, instead of a continuation of it. A gap year is an informal way of traveling whereas a service learning experience is a structured program that typically includes travel as well as; community involvement, education, and reflection.



    Defining Internships:

    Any official or formal program to provide practical experience for beginners in an occupation or profession.

    Career development is the main focus of partaking in an internship. Developing both hard and soft skills that can be translated onto a resume is the main goal prioritized above community involvement and educational pursuits. A service learning program will help to develop career directed skills, but the main focus will be on creating educational connections.

    Service Learning Can Be Defined As

    Defining Service Learning

    A teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.

    Service Learning is a five-step process that includes investigation, planning, action, reflection, and demonstration. All elements are aimed at providing meaningful community involvement that enhances student’s educational growth.

    Further reading: An expanded definition on what is service learning

    GVI is a multi-award winning service learning organization. Find out more about our international service learning programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.