Teaching Commons > Teaching Guides > Instructional Methods > Service Learning

Service Learning

Students at a community service site
At DePaul, we conceptualize service learning as a pedagogical model that intentionally integrates relevant and meaningful service with academic learning. Service Learning is an established method for teaching and learning that includes a community-based component.

There are a number of community service models appropriate for service-learning courses. In each, advancing students' academic and civic learning and benefitting the host community organizations is paramount.


Students support initiatives that directly address social, economic and political inequality and that lead to systemic change.

Direct Service

Students undertake community service that directly benefits an organization's clientele/consumers. This model works well in many courses, including those in which a real world component would advance student learning and in courses focused on community service, social justice, community participation, and the H2H competence in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Examples include tutoring youth, providing health screenings, and serving meals at a homeless shelter.

Project-Based Service

Students undertake an effort, individually or in groups, needed by the host community organization. This model works well in many courses including those focused on developing students' skills. Examples include developing an advertising campaign, improving a webpage, and creating a strategic plan.

Community-Based Research

Students contribute to a research effort needed by the host organization, often for advocacy purposes. This established research method involves the community organization in most if not all phases of the research project, from generating the research question to analyzing the data. This service-learning model works well in a number of different types of courses and especially well in research methods courses. Students typically undertake survey development, data gathering, and/or developing a program evaluation. The Steans Center assists faculty and students in the development and implementation of such research projects created in collaboration with community partners. The Center provides opportunities for students to become research assistants for faculty teaching CbR courses, to participate in CbR internships, and to present research findings at academic conferences and community meetings.

If you think of community service as a significant opportunity to advance student learning, similarly to how you think about other course learning strategies (e.g., readings, writing assignments), you will want to require it. Faculty requiring community service in their service-learning course perceive the pragmatic experience as equivalent to a text for the course.

If you think of community service as a way to embellish the learning in your service-learning course but have reasons not to require it, then you may want to consider the service as optional. With "service optional," students are given the option to do the community service or not. The Steans Center frowns upon this because involving students in community service is a powerful teaching/learning tool. Nevertheless, we work with faculty who choose "service optional."

In those courses in which the service is optional, those students opting to undertake the community service may do so for extra credit or in lieu of another course requirement. How this is handled is up to the faculty member. Once a student commits to this option, however, it becomes mandatory, as backing out of the service component will have an adverse effect on the host community organization. The Steans Center is reluctant to abet such student decision reversals. We ask faculty to insist that students choosing the service option make a firm commitment to complete their community service.

Faculty often ask for guidance on the number of hours to require of their students. For Junior Year Experiential Learning (JYEL) courses, DePaul University has stipulated 25 hours over the course of the quarter. For all other courses, the Steans Center has found that 20 hours, as a guideline, works for community organizations to perceive a positive return on investment of their staff time orienting, training, and supervising students. Fewer hours tends to result in a low return on investment for our community partners, though some partners are amenable to hosting students for fewer than 20 hours. In addition, if students are working directly with a vulnerable population, such as youth in an underperforming school, fewer hours might contribute to adverse effects on the youth; thus, we rarely advise less than 20 hours of commitment from students.

Outside of JYEL courses and the 20-hour guideline, the decision regarding the number of community service hours is based on the needs of the community partner, the demands of the project (in project-based courses), the likely student year in college (e.g., first-year students vs. seniors), and the course learning objectives. The number of hours for non-JYEL courses are made on a case-by-case basis with the Steans Center's assistant director for faculty development.

For more information contact: Helen Damon-Moore, Associate Director, Steans Center 

Steans Center for Community-Based Service Learning and Community Service Studies

The Steans Center develops mutually beneficial relationships with community organizations to engage DePaul students in educational opportunities grounded in Vincentian values of respect for human dignity and the quest for social justice. It provides an academic bridge between the university and community that supports student learning, community development and faculty teaching and scholarship.

There are a number of resources for faculty provided by the Steans Center, including:

  • Partnerships with hundreds of Chicagoland nonprofits
  • Community-based research support
  • Faculty development materials, including sample syllabi and reflection aids
  • Profiles of faculty members who incorporate service learning in their teaching
  • Information on grants for service learning
  • and much more.
Steans Center - For Faculty

Site Placements Involving Minor Children

Faculty offering a course with a service learning component have options for community site placements that are carefully chosen to complement the learning goals and objectives of their course. In some courses, students may be placed at community organizations that work with minors (under 18 years of age). Students who select sites that work with minors are required to complete the Illinois Mandated Reporter training designed to help them understand the state mandated reporter laws and requirements. Faculty are responsible for communicating to students that the training must be completed prior to service at the site. Faculty must monitor students’ completion of the training to ensure compliance with DePaul’s Protection of Minor Children Policy.

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