Your Quick Start Guide to Implementing a Service Learning Program | Track It Forward

Your Quick Start Guide to Implementing a Service Learning Program

Last updated by James McBryan on 09/02/2022

In this quick start guide to service learning, we will share ideas about service learning projects you can implement at a grade school, share examples of universities with well-known service learning programs, how to track service learning hours and other additional resources to help you implement a service learning program at your school.

Definition of Service Learning 

Before we begin, some of you may be wondering what is service learning and is it the same thing as volunteering? We were wondering the same thing. According to the National Service Learning Clearinghouse (we’ll talk about them later), service learning is “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”

In simpler words, it means using academic knowledge through community service to address a community need AND reflect on it to enhance the volunteer’s experience and the community in the long term. Today, more and more grade schools and higher education institutions are implementing service learning curriculums to expand student knowledge and enrich community involvement.

Examples of Service Learning Programs in Universities

In higher education, service learning programs are incorporated into a course or a series of courses by combining learning and community engagement. According to Vanderbilt University, community engagement amongst students improves institutional commitment to the curriculum, improves student retention and enhances community relations.

In 2018, Barb Witteman from Concordia College, in Moorhead Minn won a National Service Learning Award for being an inspiration in the field of service learning amongst students, and through her example, she’s even encouraged students to take up a life of service. Among many examples, Social Work Degree students had a study of food insecurity, which grew into a program where the college students taught literacy and numeracy skills rooted in packing and delivering dried beans to a food pantry. Since the program, a former student, who is now a farmer, has donated over 1,500 pounds of beans to this food pantry in one year. Around this same issue, Witteman developed a freshman service learning program that pairs college students with 4th graders to present on hunger issues at schools, grocery stores and city commission meeting. Out of this, resulted another need where through this project, more than 8000 students were eligible to receive birthday bags consisting of handmade cards, cake mix and frosting. And of course, all these projects are tied to their academic courses.

Here are some other examples of service learning courses that JU offers based on major:

Computer Information Systems
Students in a computer course assist senior citizens at a local housing development establish a computer lab and then students teach the seniors how to use the Internet.

Students in an Adaptive Physical Education course assist children with disabilities at local schools.  The service-learning activities culminate with a game of Challenger Ball in which every child is a winner!

Students in a Nursing course work with individuals living in homeless shelters and other non-profit organizations.  Students complete a final project of organizing a health fair for the JU campus and its neighborhood.

Social Sciences
Students in Geography and Sociology courses have the opportunity to travel internationally to places such as Ecuador and the Dominican Republic to put their classroom learning into action.  Students serve at orphanages and schools.


Service Learning Project Ideas

To help you remember the difference between community service and service learning, here is an example from WeAreTeachers:

Community Service: If students remove trash from a streambed, they are providing a service to the community as volunteers

Service-Learning: When students remove trash from a streambed they:

  • Analyze what they found
  • Share the results and offer suggestions for the neighborhood to reduce pollution
  • Reflect on their experience

A key point to having a successful service learning project is to allow the students to offer and select ideas of where to want to participate in. With that being said, here are some ideas that you can start brainstorming around with your students.

Service Learning Ideas for Elementary Schools:

  • Read to nursing home residents to improve reading skills and socialize with those who do not have any family
  • Start a school garden to learn about the lifecycle of plants and share produce with a local food pantry
  • Pick up litter at a local park and develop student responsibility and learn about environmental preservation.
  • Collect aluminum cans and bring to a recycling center to reduce the amount of aluminum waste in landfills and learn  about how it affects the earth


Service Learning Ideas for Middle and High Schools

  • Start a Buddy Program to teach students about equality and bullying
  • Create an environmental awareness program to help manage recycling on campus while learning about good stewardship of the environment
  • Partner with local Head Start Programs where students partner with at-risk youth to develop friendships and inspire them to develop their reading skills
  • Work with food support services to explore the implications of hunger and poverty at a local or national level and how they can make a difference 


Should you use technology to implement service learning

We work with some large universities, like Stanford University and John Hopkins University, as well as some smaller schools, like The Academy for Classical Education, that used to track their service learning hours by excel spreadsheets, or even worse - pen and paper! Sure, some may say that spending a few hours a week manually inputting and sorting through data isn’t that bad. However, if you can show savings by purchasing a web-based time tracking platform to your board, it’ll be a win-win. 

We know that there are many options out there for managing student service learning hours. However, not many of them solely focus on time tracking like “Track it Forward” does (it’s even in the name).

Track it Forward is one of the few cost-efficient time tracking programs that has a web version and mobile app, that is super easy to set up and simple to use, and has auto-generated reports to manage student hours and hour requirements. 

The advanced verification features make spot checking and verifying service hours easier. To eliminate extra work for the coordinator, the mobile app will allow students to take selfies, drop coordinates, and get digital signatures from the site coordinators on the spot. This will reduce procrastination and delays in time submissions and will allow the organizer to see results from a high-level overview dashboard, as well as easy access to look into each submission if necessary. 

Track it forward offers a free 30-day trial to try out the program and provides account management support to help your school determine if this is the right fit for your students or not.


Service Learning Resources Available on the Web

There are many service learning resources available to all. Our favorites include: 

Campus Compact
Learn and Serve America: Corporation for National and Community Service
National Service-Learning Clearinghouse

 Service Learning Books

    Service Learning Essentials  by Barbara Jacoby 

    The Complete Guide to Service Learning: Proven, Practical Ways to Engage Students in Civic Responsibility, Academic Curriculum, Social Action by Cathryn Berger Kaye M.A.

    Learning Through Serving: A Student Guidebook for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Across Academic Disciplines and Cultural Communities by Christine M. Cress, Peter J. Collier, Vicki L. Reitenauer 

Service Learning Videos

Teaching Through Civic Engagement - Barbara Jacoby
Liberating Service Learning - Randy Stoecker
Service Learning in the PreK-3 Classroom Webinar - Vickie Lake and Ithel Jones
Service Learning and Higher Education Part 1 -  Tamera Sakota & Peace Jam Foundation
Service Learning and Higher Education Part 2 -  Tamera Sakota & Peace Jam Foundation

Service Learning Conferences 

NYLC Service Learning Conference
ASPA Symposium on Service Learning 
The International Association for Research on Service-Learning and Civic Engagement (IARSLCE) Annual Conference 
Global Service Learning Summit