What is Service Learning?

"Service Learning is an academic strategy that seeks to engage students in activities that enhance academic learning, civic responsibility and the skills of citizenship, while also enhancing community capacity through service". (Furco and Holland, 2004)

Service Learning, aso termed ‘community based learning', is a relatively new pedagogical approach in Ireland. Essentially, it is experiential education with a civic underpinning within a community context. In practice, what this means is that students attain academic credit for the learning that derives from reflecting on an experience within community and society. Academic staff guide students through structured reflective activities and encourage the integration of theory with practice.

The community experience is linked directly to the student's academic discipline and they work on needs or projects identified by the community. The aspiration is that not only does the student gain from a rich educational experience but also that they enhance the capacity of the group or community with whom they work. Through service learning students explore issues that are vital to society and community through a mix of methods that could include interviews, surveys and analysis, development of prototypes, active participation in the work of the group, readings, discussion and reflection. The ultimate goal is to imbue in students and graduates a sense of their role as agents of change and active citizens.

Service Learning at NUI Galway

Service Learning and civic engagement are core aspects of NUI Galway's Mission, Strategic Plan and Learning, Teaching & Assessment Strategy.

As of 2013, over 40 degree programmes have been developed so as to include service learning modules and over 1,400 students annually engage in this pedagogical approach. Over the last ten years over 10,000 students have engaged their learning within the community and this has enabled the development of deep community/university partnership across the disciplines.

The CKI acts as facilitator to support academic staff develop modules, offering academic training, seed funding and introductions to the community. In turn the CKI works directly with the community to identify needs that students can address. This forms the basis upon which service learning modules can be developed.

Service Learning Characteristics

Active participation in the community is promoted and linked to academic discipline;
Community organisations are valued as partners;
Academic theory is viewed in a real world context;
Issues vital to social, civic, cultural, economic and political society are explored;
Experiential education techniques and opportunities are promoted;
Reflection strategies underpin the process.

Policy Level

The value of service learning and other forms of civic engagement within higher education has been recognised nationally and internationally in a number of major reports and strategy documents, as well as in practice.

Within Ireland, the National Strategy for Higher Education (2011) priorities engagement and comments on the need to educate students for their role as "citizens who will add to the richness of society". This education for participatory, democratic citizenship has been echoed in other international declarations and lies at the heart of service learning.