Difference Between Community Service and Service Learning Back »

Most people are familiar with community service and know that it is important to help out and volunteer, but the new term/initiative is service learning. Some of you may be thinking: "Is there really a difference between community service and service learning, or are they just changing the name?"

Community Service

Community service: “The goal is to help these groups or people to better their program or life in some way, and we hope the youth providing the service will learn things such as life skills and processes along the way. However, the learning is secondary and unintentional,” according to Roxanne Turner of Michigan State University Extension.

Service Learning

“Service learning is a community service on steroids, with intentional learning being the primary goal and the service secondary,” according to Roxanne Turner.  Service-Learning is a method of teaching that enriches learning by engaging youth in meaningful service in their schools and communities. Through careful integration with established curricula, lessons gained from hands-on service heighten interest and enhance academic achievement, citizenship and character development (NYLC, 1994).

Here are some elements of high quality service learning to take into consideration:

  • Integrated Learning: When integrated learning occurs, the service activity enhances the important knowledge, skills, or goals of the class, school, or youth group.
  • High Service: Work that is considered high service meets a real need in the community (as defined by the community), is age appropriate, well-organized and gets something done.
  • Youth Voice: Youth should be engaged in as many aspects of project planning as possible.
  • Reflection: Reflection should take place before (to prepare), during (to troubleshoot) and after (to process) service activities.
  • Collaboration: All stakeholders (including administrators, agencies, businesses, community members, parents, youth, teachers, volunteers, and teachers) are involved in planning, execution and evaluation.
  • Evaluation: Evaluation seeks to measure progress toward the learning and service goals. All partners, especially youth, are involved in evaluation.

TIPS for conducting a Service-Learning project in your youth group:

  • Start small and be successful.
  • Seek youth ownership and leadership of the service project.
  • Be clear and explicit about the goals for the youth— learning, leadership and personal development.
  • Explore the causes for the social issues the youth are addressing.
  • Plan far enough ahead to allow community organizations to participate — usually a minimum of four weeks.
  • Serve the youth; lead by example.
  • Conduct formal reflection with the youth.
  • Maintain open and regular communication with the volunteer coordinator at the agency for the service project.
  • Celebrate when the project is over and recognize youth accomplishments. Media coverage of the project is an excellent form of recognition.
  • Conduct an evaluation of the project with the youth, parents, agency, clients, etc.
  • Recognize the community organization's efforts —through thank-you cards, letters, newsletter article, etc.

I want to leave you with this famous quote by General Colin Powell “By teaching young people the joys of service, we make good citizenship a vital, transforming and continuing aspect of our national character."


  • Turner, R. "Community service & service learning." National Young Leaders Conference: 1994.
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