SIP 3.5 Civic Engaged Service Learning

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

“Will this be on the test?” How many of us groan (sometimes audibly) when we hear that question?  It clearly indicates that the student has been taught to jump through the hoops, but that he or she does not see the big picture.  We want students to care about the content of our classes, but we often do not help them to see how the content really does matter outside of a classroom. Using service learning in a class gives instructors another way to help students see relevance.  Service learning allows instructors to say, “The test is not the test—the test is when the client is in your office.  When you help out in the community, your expertise makes the place work better.”

Take a SIP of this: Civic Engaged Service Learning

Service learning is a form of experiential learning in which students combine classroom experience with community-based service.  (See SIP 1.15 Service Learning)

Service learning actually has two components: 1) the academic side and 2) the civic engagement side.

The academic side provides students with the opportunity to apply their classroom learning out in the community and then to integrate their service experience with the theory. Done well, service learning also requires civic engagement by encouraging students to make contributions to and learn from diverse or challenging environments in their community.  Civic engagement can include performing service at a local agency or school, providing marketing ideas for a small business start-up, or working for a justice-oriented cause.  Civic engagement is important because citizens (which includes students!) take ownership of their communities and the possibilities for change.  The opportunities are manifold and can be artfully chosen to challenge students’ integration of theory with practice.

Here’s an example of service learning right here on our campus: students in MSU Denver’s VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) class, offered through the Accounting program, work with low-income and elderly clients doing tax preparation. Students have the opportunity to apply their tax preparation skills in a way that makes an impact on the community. They see first-hand the importance of getting the numbers right AND the human aspect of their profession.

In another example at MSU Denver, theater students presented a faculty-written play on hearing loss prevention at local elementary schools.

How can you start to incorporate service learning into your class? Think of the intersection between your discipline and a community-identified need. Talk to people you already know or meet people at local organizations about how your students might become involved with them.  Have discussions with your students about what they are learning about the tension between theory and practice. Then, contact the MSU Denver Service Learning Program. They can help with course design, finding community partners, identifying relevant literature, and securing any funding necessary for your service learning project.

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of Civic Engaged Service Learning

Many universities (including MSU Denver) have departments of service learning and/or civic engagement.  Check out some the examples and resources on our web pages.

Other places to start:


Jacoby (2014) – pdf of a presentation by one of the gurus of Service- learning.

Partnerships: A Journal of Service Learning and Civic Engagement –

What the American Psychological Association has to say –


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