Service-learning and Community engagement


Design and plan learning activities and/or programmes of study

Acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates, recognising the implications for professional practice

What can I do?

  • Embed community engagement opportunities into your subjects
  • Afford students opportunities to reflect on their community engagement experiences and what they mean for their studies, future careers, and personal lives
  • Link community engagement experiences with discipline content

What is this about?

Service-learning in higher education refers to a teaching and learning approach that combines classroom instruction with real-world service experiences. This can involve students participating in community service projects, volunteering with organizations, or working on service-based research projects, among other things. The goal of service-learning is to provide students with the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills in a meaningful way, while also contributing to the community and promoting social responsibility. Service-learning can be used in a variety of fields, including education, healthcare, social work, and more, and can be an effective way to facilitate experiential learning and promote personal and professional development.

What's the evidence say?

Service-learning (or community engagement) is a learning and teaching strategy that integrates social outreach with the academic curriculum.

Examples of service learning

  • Education students providing homework support for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds
  • Business students providing job readiness support to young people from refugee backgrounds
  • Health students providing basic care to individuals in aged care facilities or who access disability services
  • Arts students coordinating creative and performing arts events for rural communities

Hallmarks of service learning include

  • Mastery of academic concepts and content
  • Engaged students, institutions, and communities
  • Contributions to the social good of the individual and the community

Connecting community outreach programs and academic curriculum enhances an array of desirable student outcomes, not just learning.

Service-learning has been shown to have a positive effect on academic skills and performance, personal attitudes and beliefs, interpersonal and social skills, and socio-cultural awareness and moral reasoning.

Kolb's experiential learning theory helps explain how service learning works.

Experiential learning theory centres on the idea that life experience is core to learning. In the conceptualisation of his theory, Kolb articulates that learning through experience is a cyclical process comprised of 1) concrete experiences, 2) reflective observations, 3) abstract conceptualisations, and 4) active experimentation.

“knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” David Kolb (2015)

What's the underlying theory?

There are several theories that help explain the benefits of service-learning on student outcomes in higher education. These include experiential learning theory, which suggests that learning through direct experience is more effective than learning through passive observation; social learning theory, which emphasises the importance of social interactions and relationships in learning; and self-determination theory, which suggests that people are more motivated and engaged when they feel a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Together, these theories suggest that service-learning can be an effective way to facilitate meaningful and engaged learning, promote personal and professional development, and contribute to the community.

Where does the evidence come from?

We're not necessarily going to do a song and dance about these findings. This evidence summary is based on four meta-analyses and one systematic review. Despite the abundance of research, the quality of these studies is low; hence some caution should be taken when applying these findings. The principal limitation concerns the lack of any reports of research bias. None of the studies in this evidence summary report information about research bias. There are also other concerns for individual studies (e.g., a small number of studies in one meta-analysis).


Celio, C. I., Durlak, J., & Dymnicki, A. (2011). A meta-analysis of the impact of service-learning on students. Journal of Experiential Education, 34(2), 164-181.

Conway, J. M., Amel, E. L., & Gerwien, D. P. (2009). Teaching and learning in the social context: A meta-analysis of service learning's effects on academic, personal, social, and citizenship outcomes. Teaching of Psychology, 36(4), 233-245.

Novak, J. M., Markey, V., & Allen, M. (2007). Evaluating cognitive outcomes of service learning in higher education: A meta-analysis. Communication Research Reports, 24(2), 149-157.

Salam, M., Iskandar, D. N. A., Ibrahim, D. H. A., & Farooq, M. S. (2019). Service learning in higher education: A systematic literature review. Asia Pacific Education Review, 20(4), 573-593.

Warren, J. L. (2012). Does service-learning increase student learning?: A meta-analysis. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 18(2), 56-61.

Yorio, P. L., & Ye, F. (2012). A meta-analysis on the effects of service-learning on the social, personal, and cognitive outcomes of learning. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 11(1), 9-27.

Additional Resources