Service Learning

Service learning is any pedagogy that partners students with profit or non-profit organizations to do work that serves and supports the community. Service learning classes are generally divided into two categories, reflective and client-based. In the reflective model, students are assigned to do community service work and then write reflectively about their experiences. Students might work at a soup kitchen for the homeless or in a tutoring center, for example, and then write essays about their experiences. In the client-based model, the organization becomes a “client” for the students, who work on projects that contribute directly to the marketing or information infrastructure of these organizations. In this type of class, students might create brochures, generate web content, design websites, or write grant proposals and white papers.

Service learning courses are different from traditional “didactic” courses in several ways. First, they tend to employ an experiential or “active” learning model; thus, students learn important concepts by participating in activities first and then reflecting on them. Second, the service learning approach typically creates a more complex, richly layered network of interactions; instead of the linear student-instructor interaction that occurs in most classrooms, a triangular model emerges between students-instructor-community partner(s). And finally, service learning courses are unabashedly civic-minded and reciprocal in their approach. Underlying the course is the conceit that students and instructors share a responsibility to the community that extends beyond the classroom. This relationship is not one-sided; service courses become learning opportunities for both the academic community and the community partners.

Guidelines for Successfully Implementing Service Learning Projects

Service learning projects can be fun, engaging, and challenging for both students and faculty, but most instructors who engage in this pedagogy agree that they require a high degree of time, planning, and supervision by the instructor. Here are a few guidelines for successfully implementing service learning projects:

  • Service learning projects should fit into a service learning course—Assume that the service learning approach requires a course-level commitment to the model. Service-learning projects have a high degree of complexity built into them. Instructors should acknowledge this complexity and allow projects to become the centerpieces of their class, rather than treating them as individual assignments to be completed in isolation from other assignments and activities in class. Successful service learning courses require buy-in by the students, which is usually achieved by structuring the entire course around a service learning theme, with a semester-long assignment sequence that supports it.

Service learning projects sometimes go awry because the instructor either has not properly calculated how much time the project will take or has left the project to run itself, trusting that students and community partners know what to do. Service learning is reciprocal. In other words, service projects must meet a specific need or needs of an organization/client while at the same time supporting and intersecting with learning objectives/outcomes for the course. This perspective ensures that both students and community partners equally benefit from the service that is being done.

  • Establishing relationships with community partners—Once an instructor has developed a course focus, they should contact Dr. Rebecca Burnett to discuss their initial ideas for the course design. Once support from the Writing and Communication Program has been gained, instructors should begin establishing relationships with viable community partners. Since many new Brittain Fellows may not be familiar with organizations in Atlanta, they should contact the Office of Community Service for assistance in arranging partnerships with relevant local organizations. The Office of Community Service formally contacts prospective partners and sets up an initial meeting between the instructor and resulting interested partners. At this meeting, a liaison from the Office of Community Service provides a brief introduction about service learning expectations, objectives, and responsibilities on the part of an instructor, students, and community partner(s). After this initial meeting the instructor’s is responsible for maintaining contact with each organization and negotiating project parameters.
  • Manage the community partner relationship—Service-learning projects differ from traditional classroom projects because one of the major stakeholders, the community partner, is not sitting in the classroom every day. The instructor should therefore assume an active role in managing the relationship between students and community partners, facilitating good communication and checking in regularly. In the reflective model, the instructor should maintain regular communication with the community partners and verify that students are fulfilling their responsibilities. In the client-based model, some students can be assigned the responsibility to manage communication, work that can be analyzed and graded, but the instructor should also check-in regularly to gauge the health and progress of the projects.
  • Tour the facilities / meet the major players —Instructors should be active rather than silent partners in these projects. Meet your partners, tour their facilities, and become a familiar name and face for the staff. By cultivating the relationship in person, you improve the chances that your students can have a more meaningful, productive experience when they begin working on their projects.
  • Design projects that can be realistically completed in a semester —In the reflective model, students should be assigned to service work that produces a tangible result over the course of the semester; in the client-based model, students should be assigned to projects with a deliverable that can be completed by the end of the semester.
  • Create opportunities to periodically assess the community partner relationship(s)—The most effective service learning classes make the relationships with community partners an explicit topic for discussion in the class.
  • Devote some class time to project work—In the client-based model, the project itself should become part of the classroom. These projects create limitless possibilities for analyzing writing and communication as it occurs. Instructors should bring this communication into the classroom.
  • Begin planning projects well before the semester begins—Service learning courses depend upon relationships, and like any relationship, the classroom-community service partnership requires time to gestate. A semester is rarely enough time to make contact with a new community partner, cultivate a relationship with them, plan interesting projects for students, create procedures, assign students to projects, and complete the projects. Begin the process at least a half-semester in advance. By the time the semester begins, instructors should have completed everything but assigning students to projects.

Thematic/Issue Focus for Service Learning Courses

ENGL 1101, 1102, and LMC 3403 are all amenable to the intersection of community-based learning with an instructor’s research and teaching interests. Instructors are encouraged to choose particular topics around which service learning courses will be organized and to approach relevant organizations in the metro-Atlanta community that might like to partner with Georgia Tech for the semester. Organizations expect a course overview and a rationale for why they are being approached; instructors should consider the reciprocal emphasis of service learning when crafting their courses.

In community-based learning environments, students can expect to deal with a wide range of subject matter, some of which may be controversial. Instructors should always clearly explain the thematic dimension of the course at the very beginning of the semester, as part of their first-day introductions to their course and in their syllabus. Additionally, instructors should offer a diversity of project options for students. Although group assignments may be made at the instructor’s discretion, allow students some latitude to choose projects. Similarly, students should be encouraged to consult with their instructors early in the semester if they have specific concerns about the project(s) to which they have been assigned.

The Writing and Communication Program supports the research and teaching interests of its faculty and encourages them to incorporate them into their course design. Recognizing that some subjects might be controversial, instructors should meet with Rebecca Burnett to strategize successful ways for developing this course theme according to the standards and rules of Georgia Tech. For more tips on assigning groups projects and sample assignments from Dan Vollaro or Andrea Wood’s previous service learning courses, please see the Brittain Fellows Resources section on T-Square.


Typically, 15-20 hours of service per student over a semester is the standard requirement for service learning courses in universities and colleges. The Office of Community Service at Georgia Tech supports this level of service commitment for students in community-based learning courses; instructors should adhere to this time restriction and make sure that both students and community partners understand these parameters. Service learning projects can be very intense and involved, but they are not the same as internships. Students are often enrolled in three to four additional courses and should not be overburdened by the service requirements of a service learning course. Therefore, instructors should account for these hours when developing course schedules.

Instructors may determine what constitutes service hours and how they are logged. For example, travel time to and from the organizations with which students are working generally does not count toward service hours. Instructors should make the details about service hours very clear in their syllabus.

Common Concerns

In community-based learning courses, students are often required to travel outside their comfort zones, both geographically and intellectually. Instructors should acknowledge this basic fact at the start of the semester and prepare appropriate reflective assignments that will help students process their experiences and ideas. At the same time, instructors are encouraged to emphasize the positive outcomes of service-learning, such as increased civic and urban awareness, heightened ability to function professionally in a variety of different environments, and stronger interpersonal communication skills. Many of these points are reiterated in useful service learning textbooks.

Understandably, safety is a key concern in any academic course. Consequently, instructors should take necessary precautions:

  • All students must sign official GT waivers at the very beginning of the semester. Instructors must keep these on file for the duration of the academic year.
  • Instructors should encourage students to travel in groups of two or more when going to and from their organization, especially after dark.
  • Instructors should keep communication open and regular with their students.
  • Instructors should know ahead of time what type of work their students will be doing for community partners and whether they will be in proximity to any dangerous or hazardous materials.
  • Students should be encouraged to learn the safety procedures of their organization (usually provided during their orientation).
  • Instructors should discuss transportation issues with students at the start of the semester. If students will need to use public transportation to get to and from their organization, instructors should indicate this cost requirement in the syllabus. NOTE: In cases of extreme financial hardship on the part of a student, the Office of Community Service may be able to assist with the cost of public transportation for service hours. Inquiries of this nature should be addressed to the Assistant Dean of Students, Danielle McDonald <>.
  • Instructors should caution students not to give out personal information except to appropriate project personnel for professional purposes.
  • Instructors should keep Rebecca Burnett and Andrew Cooper informed about their course and any difficulties that may arise throughout the semester so that they can provide support and assistance as necessary.

Resources for Service Learning

Office of Leadership & Civic Engagement ( The Office of Leadership & Civic Engagement applies a student centered approach for students to develop and clarify identity, to understand others, and to promote social change. The Office provides avenues for student learning and global awareness to nurture the development of responsible, global citizens and inclusive leaders who are committed to building community in the intricate, multilayered world. Georgia Tech students achieve success by engaging in meaningful spaces to build connections, apply purpose, and develop mutually-beneficial partnerships.


  • Sarah Cantrell Perkins, Assistant Director – Civic Engagement
  • Dr. E. Gerome Stephens – Director of Leadership & Civic Engagement
  • Kelly Cross – Student Organizations & Leadership Coordinator
  • Stephanie Travis – Jumpstart Site Manager

Office address
Student Center Commons, Room 2211
350 Ferst Dr. NW
Atlanta, GA 30332-0285
Phone: 404-894-3458

Academic Resources on Service Learning


  • Adler-Kassner, Linda, Robert Crooks, and Ann Watters, volume eds. Writing the community : concepts and models for service-learning in composition. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education ; Urbana, IL : Published in cooperation with the National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.
  • Balliet, Barbara J., and Kerrissa Heffernan, eds. The Practice of Change: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Women’s Studies. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education, 2000.
  • Bowdon, Melody, Shelley Billig, and Barbara A. Holland, eds. Scholarship for sustaining service-learning and civic engagement. Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Publishing, 2008.
  • Canada, Mark, and Bruce W. Speck, editors. Developing and implementing service-learning programs. San Francisco : Jossey-Bass, 2001.
  • Harkavy, Ira, and Bill M. Donovan, eds. Connecting Past and Present: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in History. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education, 2000.
  • Heffernan , Kerrissa. Fundamentals of Service-Learning Course Construction: A resource to assist faculty in the design, development, and construction of service-learning courses. Providence, RI: Campus Compact, 2001.
  • Nadel, Meryl, Virginia Majewski, and Marilyn Sullivan-Cosetti, eds. Social work and service learning : partnerships for social justice. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.
  • Rimmerman, Craig A., ed. Service-learning and the liberal arts: how and why it works. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009.


  • Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Online Syllabi and Curricula Resources

The following is a simplified step-by-step process for implementing a service learning course in the Writing and Communication program, but it does not substitute reading carefully all the information in this section of the handbook:

  1. Begin the process a half-semester in advance.
  2. Evaluate whether your course is suitable for a service learning approach.
  3. Evaluate whether service-learning projects could fit into your course.
  4. Consider the demands of teaching a service learning course.
  5. Contact the Director of the Writing and Communication Program to discuss initial ideas, course design, and approval.
  6. Contact the Office of Community Service (very important).
  7. Begin establishing relationships with viable community partners.
  8. Tour facilities and cultivate relationships with contacts in partner organizations.
  9. Design projects that can be realistically completed in a semester.
  10. Plan diverse project options from which students can choose.
  11. Identify projects that require no more than 20 hours of service.
  12. Anticipate issues of transportation and safety.
  13. Prepare a detailed syllabus explaining ALL the processes and procedures involved.
  14. The first day of class, explain in detailed the scope of the course to students.
  15. Make sure students sign official GT waivers.
  16. Continue constant communication with students.
  17. Inform the Director and Associate Director of the Writing and Communication Program of any problems.