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Community service learning (CSL) – an introduction

Community Service Learning is a form of education, in which students use their academic skills to contribute to societal issues. This module covers an introduction of Community Service Learning (CSL). What are the benefits of participating in CSL for all parties involved (why CSL?), who is involved in CSL?, and what are various formats for CSL courses?

Community Service Learning (CSL) is a pedagogy that promotes students’ learning through their active participation in experiences of community engagement (Folgueiras et al, 2020). It is considered an effective pedagogy for improving social engagement and at the same time enhancing students’ skills and aptitudes. CSL stimulates (among others) critical thinking, problem-solving competencies, personal development, interpersonal skills and cultural understanding (Aramburuzabala et al, 2019; Celio et al, 2011; Conway et al, 2009; Warren, 2012; Yorio & Ye, 2012). Moreover, CSL has the potential to benefit community partners. In addition to more direct tangible outcomes as a result of a project, CSL activities are said to increase community capacity as they have the potential to bring together various community partners and members (Gelmon, 2001; Norton et al., 2018; Vernon and Foster, 2002). It has also been suggested that CSL can benefit faculty members as it fosters personal growth (Harrison, et al, 2013) and improves teaching experience (Pribbenow, 2005) and practices (Bringle, 2017).

Community Service Learning at VU Amsterdam

Teachers (Prof. Marjolein Zweekhorst and Dr. Pim Klaassen, Athena Institute, VU), a student (Kevin Boekhoudt, Master Student - MPA) and a community partner (Floor Wijnands, Project Manager, VoorUit) talk about their experiences in community service learning, its benefits for them, and its value in ensuring meaningful engagement between science and society.

Listen to the entire conversation via this podcast.

Elements of Community Service Learning

  • CSL, a mix between classroom-based and community-based activities

    Furco and Norvell (2019) describe community service learning as a mix between two essential components/activities: classroom-based activities and community-based activities. They visualize the complex nature and true essence of community service learning as a real integration between classroom-based learning activities and community-based service activities (Furco & Norvell, 2019). According to these authors, such an integration implies that activities in both of these components reinforce each other so that

    1. classroom-based activities are designed to generate learning experiences that better prepare students to perform the community-based service activities, and
    2. community-based service activities are intentionally organised to influence and enhance students’ learning in classroom-based activities.
  • Who is involved in Community Service Learning?

    Within Community Service Learning (CSL) teachers, students and community partners collaborate to address existing (complex) societal issues. In CSL, the learning experience is based on practice rather than merely focused on acquiring formal knowledge. Overall, we consider an educational project to be CSL when:

    • There is a crossover between higher education and a (complex) societal problem.
    • This crossover provides reciprocity, referring to both an academic learning experience for students as well as benefits for involved (community) actors surrounding the identified problem.
    • Students (critically) reflect on their academic and practical learning experiences.
    • The project is integrated in the curriculum and students get credits for it.
  • What are formats for Community Service Learning courses?

    There are various possibilities for integrating CSL in an academic course. Here we provide some examples for inspiration. However, there are many ways to realize CSL in a course and there is no ‘one size fits all’. Bearing this in mind, CSL courses/projects can generally be divided into 1) a CSL acquaintance course, 2) CSL as part of a course, and 3) Capstone courses and Internships. 

    Read more on the different formats of CSL courses.