Community Service Learning


Community Service Learning (CSL) is a form of EE in which “students engage in activities that address community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote intentional learning goals” ( CSL takes students into the community as part of the learning experience. The real-life situation provides the concrete experience for students to apply their developing knowledge and skills and to deepen their understanding by reflecting on their learning. CSL is often used as a strategy to address not only course-based material but also to help students develop an awareness of the value of civic engagement.

Note: There are forms of Community Service Learning that are co-curricular in nature. They often include volunteering opportunities for students. In these forms, CSL is not-for-credit. For our purposes, we are addressing only academically embedded CSL.

Another commonly accepted definition for academic CSL comes from Bringle and Hatcher (1996):

"A course based, credit bearing institutional educational experience in which students participate in organized service that meets community needs, and reflect on the service to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic or social responsibility."

When embedded in the curriculum, Community Service Learning has the following characteristics

  • Linked to course content and learning outcomes
  • Community Experience (unpaid)
  • Reflection

How to do Community Service Learning (CSL)

CSL is fundamentally about relationship building; relationships between faculty members and community partners, community partners and students, and students and faculty members. As students are exposed to new environments, significant learning occurs. Here are some discreet steps to help you in the planning, implementation and evaluation of an academic CSL opportunity.

Step 1: Forming partnerships

4 months before the start of the course

Before the course begins, it is important to establish a dialogue with the partner organization(s) with whom you intend to work. This can either be done by you or with the help of the experiential education coordinator, who has a wealth of community contacts. At this stage, the coordinator can facilitate the signing of an Affiliation Agreement between the partner organization(s) and York University, often an essential step for allowing students to work within the organization.

Step 2: Planning your Project

2 months before start of course

Aside from signing an Affiliation Agreement, it is important to meet with your community partner(s) to discuss the details of the student assignments. If interested, the EE office can provide you with a Project Planning Form that  will walk you and the organization(s) you are working with through all the important questions to ask before implementing a successful project. Your experiential education coordinator is also available to help.

Step 3: Informing your Students

2 months before start of course

Some partners will require students to do reference checks or certifications prior to working with them. Examples may include standard first aid, vulnerable sector police screening, or other processes. It is important to find out if your partner will require these and if so, the students must be informed as soon as possible. Therefore, you can send out an email to all students currently registered to take your course to inform them of these requirements.

Step 4: Ensuring Paperwork is in Place

Students must fill out all applicable paperwork for their CSL assignment, most importantly a Student Agreement outlining student codes of behavior while off-site. In many cases, an Affiliation Agreement with each learning site may also be required. Consult with your experiential education coordinator to know what is required for your course.

Step 5: Holding an Orientation Session

During the first day of their assignment, students should be properly orientated to their learning site. You and your partner(s) can develop this orientation collaboratively (if interested, we have a list of items that should be included in a student orientation for you to consult).

Step 6: Creating Learning Plans

Students are encouraged to create a one-page Learning Plan to help them set goals and reflect on their experience (a template is available through he EE office, designed as a simple way to ensure that the course director, community partner, and student all have a clear understanding of the student goals and deliverables as they relate to the project).

Step 7: Communicating Throughout the Project

Keep the lines of communication open with your partner. This will help them deliver relevant feedback, and will positively impact the student experience. If you wish, your experiential education coordinator can help you to coordinate feedback meetings.

Step 8: Evaluating and Following Up

After the project is completed, aside from grading student assignments, this is the time to sit down with your partner and talk about what went well and what can be improved.

Sending Students into the Community

Students can be tremendous assets to community organizations. In order to ensure that both the community partner and the students have positive experiences, it is important to prepare the students properly to interact and function in a community setting. The Academic CSL Handbook for Students, available through the EE office, was developed with this purpose in mind. It outlines everything from general professional behavior, to communication guidelines, to punctuality, attendance, and many other facets of professional behavior. In addition, it gives students vital information on health and safety, and what to do in any number of challenging situations that may arise in the community placement. The manual is designed to not only help students behave properly in the community, but also minimize the risks associated with students working in a community setting.