ABCs of Service Learning and Community Engagement

This "Getting Started" page is designed to pull together materials critical to those who are exploring SL/CE in terms of developing a course.


Service Learning and Community-based Learning (SL/CE pronounced "slice") are methods of teaching and learning that integrate disciplinary concepts with real-world experiences and guided reflection in credit-bearing courses. The primary difference between the two lies in the aim of interaction. Community-based learning seeks to heighten students' awareness through direct involvement in a public setting or organization. Service learning adds the element of meeting a need identified by a community partner.


Service Learning and Community-based Learning are engaged pedagogies and often involve multiple characteristics of high impact practices (see also SL/CE is HIP). Benefits for students include increased GPAs, higher retention, higher satisfaction, enhanced critical thinking, and heightened self-awareness. Instructors also report benefits from SL/CE courses including more engaged students, increased sense of satisfaction, opportunities for scholarship, and, specifically at Upstate SL/CE, activities are increasingly recognized in the evaluation and promotion and tenure processes. Our community also benefits immediately from our service as well as in our preparation of future civically minded community members.

Is SL/CE right for me?

Before going further you may want to decide if SL/CE is right for you. We offer a simplified decision tree and a complex flowchart to help you decide. Start with the simple one, then if you're interested, check out the complex one for greater detail. 

Next it's time to decide which variety of SL/CE is right for your course. We offer formal designations in Community Engagement (CE), Service Engagement (SE), and Service Learning (SL). Check out the differences on our Comparing SL/CE Options page

Is e-SL/CE for me?

Service learning and community engaged learning at Upstate, as at most institutions, have traditionally focused on in-person interactions. Facing the unexpected shift to fully online instruction in Spring 2020 forced us all to consider how community connections can be shifted to a socially distanced mode. One happy result is that we can apply what we've learned to enhance the flexibility of our offerings for our diverse student population.

Get started!

When you're ready to move forward with a formal course, consider these resources as suggested guides:

Course Design Considerations

Following the principles of backward design, we suggest that you consider your overarching goals as you consider the structure of your course. Be thinking about your desired learning outcomes as you explore the subsections below. 

Curricular Need

Consider what course goals (disciplinary content, essential skills, etc) might be enhanced through a SL/CE experience. Work done in the community without connection to disciplinary/course content is volunteering. Service, but not service learning. 

Community Connection

As both service learning and community-based learning involve forces outside the university, developing community connections is key. In most cases, your connection with the community partner will have a direct effect on the outcomes of your course. Key elements include a shared goal, a clear understanding of the procedures for the interaction and the role(s) your partner will play, Ideally, your partner will become a co-teacher for your course and have a direct and significant impact on your students' learning. 

To avoid repeating historical errors of the Savior Complex and blind leadership from ivory towers, our SL/CE efforts emphasize the community's voice, recognize our partners as co-directors and co-instructors, and seek reciprocity in all our relationships. 

Also check out our Community Partner page designed to help faculty create and maintain quality, reciprocal relationships. 

Course Format

The following table highlights critical areas of course format and provides links to more detailed information. 

Instructional Mode

You can organize your SL/CE in a variety of ways. You can choose to have a uniform structure where all students in the course are involved in service, or you can choose a bi-modal approach offer separate sections where all students share the primary components of the course and choose to invest in service or take a more traditional structure. In this approach, service students may write weekly reflections in which they relate their service to course concepts and have a significantly reduced final project. Additionally, you may choose face-to-face, hybrid (F2F + online), or fully online (e-service) modalities. These are also listed under "Instructional Mode" on the OSLCE's Developing a Course page. 

Service Model

There are five common models for bringing students and community together:

  • Placement: Students work with a community organization on projects of their design
  • Project: Typically, group work, here community members and students collaborate to (devise and implement) research or implement a treatment addressing an existing issue
  • Product: Students (alone or collaboratively) produce a tangible product for a community partner
  • Presentation: Students explore and research disciplinary concepts, then share information for community audiences
  • Presentation Plus: Advancing the presentation model by having students organize and orchestrate a fair, mini-conference, or expo including learning stations &/or short workshops

An additional, related approach, more suited to a "Service Engaged" course because there is a concentrated push of activity in a single day and for a limited time, is the Event Model where, for example, marketing students organize and orchestrate a 5K run raising funds for cancer research. Read more about each of these under "Service Models" on the OSLCE's Developing a Course page.


Online learning modes can enrich SL/CE pedagogies, and vice versa. Student involvement and investment in course content is a primary concern in online teaching. Involving students in SL/CE activities heightens there two critical learning dimensions. A primary concern for implementing SL/CE revolves around the spatial and temporal logistics of getting students into the community to experience and serve. Orchestrating virtual connections with the community removes spatial constraints entirely and often lessens time constraints as well, providing pathways to SL/CE experiences that many students would otherwise need to forgo. e-SL/CE also extends the possibility of international experience for students who would not even consider travel abroad because of job commitments, family commitments, or financial and other constraints. Adjusting to virtual service requires us to rethink traditional approaches, but the end result may be even stronger than the beginning.

For more details, visit the OLSCE's e-SL/CE page.

Reflection Strategies

Without guided critical reflection, service learning is just volunteerism and community engagement is a localized textbook activity, and both may do more harm than good by reinforcing negative stereotypes. Sturgil & Motley (2014) suggest that guided, dialogic, private reflections may be most effective. There are many models for guided reflection; two of the most influential: "What, So What, Now What? (Toole & Toole, 1994; Rolfe et al 2001), and the DEAL Model (Ash & Clayton, 2009) are described in detail on our "Reflection Models" page.

See also Reflection Techniques for a look at some strategies for implementing these models. 


As critical reflection resides at the heart of all service learning, our SLO assessment centers around techniques designed to engage students in reflecting on connections between service, course content, and career goals. We offer three options for formal assessment of the SLOs you select. 
Review SLO options.  

In order to promote best high-impact practices and create rigorous, career-relevant, accessible, and transformative service opportunities, USC Upstate has directly adopted the eight requisite career competencies identified by the National Association of Colleges and Employers as our target Student Learning Outcomes.
Review NACE competencies


Many Blackboard tools support collaboration and guided reflection. Below we provide five examples together with notes about how each may be employed in a SL/CE course. These are just a sample; many other tools exist both within and outside Blackboard. Best practice suggests we include a variety of reflection strategies in each course whatever the mode or model.  


For private reflection, shared only with you as instructor, a simple assignment works well. Blackboard Annotate allows instructors to respond to student work directly on their submission for many types of documents.
Video demonstration of Blackboard Annotate


Bb's equivalent of ZOOM for video conferencing and screen sharing, Collaborate enables synchronous (real-time) discussions and can be used to simulate a face-to-face class meeting and break-out discussions during large meetings. The option to chat on a side bar adds nuance and encourages less extroverted students to participate. Community partners from can be invited to join and students can have small group discussions with or without the instructor.

Discussion Board

When we want students to build collaborative conversations, the discussion board may be the most appropriate tool. Providing students with clear guidelines for appropriate online interaction may enhance the conversations your students share in this environment. Visit the Bb Tip: Discussion Forums.

OneNote Class Notebook

For collaborative work on shared projects, products or presentations and more, Bb enables creation of a Microsoft OneNote notebook for your class. An outstanding feature of this tool is that participants can work collaboratively on a document (or set of documents) at the same time or on their own time. A dangerous point is that work is not backed-up, so that if one student deletes another's work, that work is lost without hope of recovery. 


Change up the guided reflection style with VoiceThread. Students can contribute to type, talk, or add video to discussions, enhancing their sense of being part of a community which heightens both involvement and investment. This tool can also be used to simulate blogs and v-blogs.  


For public reflection that is more like a monologue with comments than a discussion, consider Wikis.

Wikis allow students to share, post and discuss photos, news articles and resources collected and created over a semester of service-learning. Students can post upcoming events at their agencies, share their experiences at their community agency, etc. Wikis give the opportunity for anyone in the community to contribute, including professors and community partners.