Community service learning brings education out of the classroom


Community service learning (CSL) is experiential education that combines classroom learning with learning in the community.

Students provide service to a non-profit community organization, while the community organization acts as a co-educator.

Reflection assignments or research papers are often assigned to encourage students to link theory and practice.

Wilfrid Laurier University summarizes the three main goals of CSL:

  • engage students, community partners, staff, and faculty in a collaborative relationship
  • link classroom theory, community based service, reflection, and research
  • increase individual understanding and community capacity

Placements can generally be categorized into three types:

  • Placement-based CSL: Students in CSL courses sign up for individual placements (approximately two hours per week) at organizations have identified a need (e.g., non-profit organizations, schools, daycares, etc.). Sometimes students can suggest their own placements as long as the placement is relevant and there is appropriate supervision. Each student in the class could be placed at a different organization.
  • Project-based CSL: Organizations identify a project that integrates into the curriculum of students’ CSL course. Students work in groups with peers from their class to complete the project. The time line of these projects, unlike the placement-based CSL, could vary from week to week.
  • Co-curricular CSL: Students combine service (e.g., on reading week, weekends, etc.) with structured learning activities (e.g., reflections). These placements or projects can be local, national, or international in scope.

What are the benefits of CSL?

Many students avoid or drop CSL courses because they fear the time commitment. First, though, students should consider some of the benefits:

  • Career exploration: You have the opportunity to explore careers that are of interest to you and that are relevant to your field of study. If you are unsure about a career direction, you might be more willing to commit two hours a week over the course of a term, rather than completing an internship.
  • Professional development and networking: Many students complete a placement in a more professional setting than their part-time jobs and say that they learn about appropriate office language and dress, office politics, and even about how they might apply their education to their career. Students can also network within a profession of interest, and perhaps even launch a career.
  • Leadership development
  • Intellectual pursuits
  • Social change / justice

Does my school have CSL?

Some Canadian schools call this type of education service learning, community learning, experiential learning, etc., but they are all part of the Canadian Alliance for Community Service-Learning (CACSL). The CACSL has participating institutions in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland.

Check here to learn more about CSL courses offered at your school.

Let’s discuss

Have you taken a CSL course already? If so, what was your experience? If not, would you consider taking one of these courses in the future?

Photo credit: Group Effort by NazarethCollege on Flickr
About the author

Elizabeth Baisley is currently studying for an Master of Arts in Political Studies at Queen's University, where she works as a teaching assistant. She recently completed her Honours Bachelor of Arts in Human Rights & Human Diversity at Wilfrid Laurier University's Brantford campus. Elizabeth's academic interest in the rights of marginalized populations translates into her volunteer work and extracurricular involvement in the fields of rights advocacy, immigrant settlement, literacy, health, environmental issues, and local democracy. In September 2013, she will begin her PhD in Politics at Princeton University.