Feature Article

Service learning courses in gerontology

Definitions, opportunities and costs of service learning in gerontology.

By Lyn M. Holley, PhD

Evidence of the beneficial impact of service learning on the experience and learning outcomes of students in higher education is becoming more robust, and many institutions of higher education are advocating the use of service learning in instruction. Those who teach may wish to consider the applicability of this pedagogy to their courses. Some may find—as I did—that they already have included service learning in their courses but have not labeled it as such. The following observations and suggestions are based on my experiences with service learning in my Introduction to Gerontology, Programs and Services for the Elderly and Working with the Minority Elderly courses and with the pedagogy itself, as a faculty partner and currently faculty fellow with my university's Service Learning Academy.


“Service learning” is variously defined – the difference between “service learning” and “service” is often unclear. Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day by picking up litter in a public park could be straightforward service or, if it were embedded in a curriculum (e.g., public health) with identified learning outcomes and directed student reflections about and assessments of what was learned, it could be service learning. A course that requires students to interview elder individuals about their life experiences and their experience of aging either may be service (as support for an elder's process of life review has established beneficial value) or it may be service learning, which, in addition to a positive student experience of conferring benefit, has (a) identified content learning outcomes (e.g., increased dimensionality of observation; better integration of classroom information about aging with understood reality) and (b) additional personal growth opportunities through directed student reflections about their learning experience (students are required to write learning journals).

Many types of service learning are being distinguished and labeled. Service learning is labeled community engaged service learning (CESL) when the benefits that the students or student projects confer are intentionally linked to specific community needs. Community engaged service learning is widely believed to be effective for nurturing student commitment to community and good citizenship. Many universities and colleges add a code or designation for service learning to course titles whenever appropriate and track the number of courses and students that use this pedagogy. Experimentation with transforming service learning classroom courses or designing service learning courses directly for online or blended delivery is well-advanced, and universities may additionally code or otherwise designate service learning courses as online.


Courses in many disciplines already have a component that is of benefit to the community, environment, youth of America, etc., that is a service. Courses with a service component often can become service learning courses rather simply by adding the other two components — outcomes and journaling. Other courses may already include all three components of service learning, but connection of the components with service learning may not be explicit (e.g., learning outcomes may be identified for the course overall but not linked with the service learning experience, and end-of-course learning journals may be required but not necessarily cover the service learning component). Courses that include all three components usually can clarify the connection of the components and then be designated service learning.

University participation in this pedagogy is part of the basis for an institution's ranking in the community engagement category by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Each year, the U.S. president recognizes institutions of higher learning that “demonstrate relevant and meaningful service and achieve measurable impacts in the community” by assessing and selectively listing higher performing institutions in a national honor roll. Service learning is a pedagogy on the rise and linked by research with enrichment of the student experience of learning; that link suggests that service learning also is linked greater professional satisfaction, although instructor satisfaction is not much studied.


Some instructors are discouraged from using this pedagogy by the costs of service learning. Service learning takes more time and effort; opportunities for service learning projects for each student, team or class take time to develop and typically must be redesigned each semester. Service learning is still unfamiliar to most students and may challenge them to engage with learning at a deeper and more personal level than is comfortable – that discomfort may be reflected in student evaluations of courses and teachers. Recipients of services (community members or organizations) share the experience with the student and, as such, develop and may voice opinions about the course; the instructor also must take all reasonable measures to ensure that no harm results from attempts to provide service. Finally, many reappointment, promotion and tenure assessments do not recognize the connection of service learning with improved student outcomes and do not reward the extra effort and risks of service learning.


Resources for service learning and the number of courses and students in which service learning is applied continue to increase. Leading universities are actively seeking ways to revise reappointment, promotion and tenure assessments to appropriately credit service learning (e.g., see excellent article by Saltmarsh, J. (2015). Creating an academic culture that supports community-engaged scholarship. Diversity & Democracy,18 [1]). A substantial and growing research literature and many awards, instructional resources and stated strategic goals of colleges and universities are focused on increasing the use of the service learning pedagogy. An established and growing international professional association has been established to facilitate research about service learning and advocate for its further development. A few of the many good resources for learning more about service learning are:

In conclusion, faculty application of service learning is most often a personal choice, and for each instructor considering whether or not to use service learning in any particular course, there is a unique mix of costs and benefits for using this pedagogy. I would be remiss not to mention that I began using service learning more than 10 years ago as an untenured assistant professor and have used CESL every year since. Although some learning adventures have been more successful than others, I have been awarded the rank of professor “on time” and, even more importantly, feel confident that my students have had the best learning opportunities that I could possibly have provided to them. I wish every colleague all the joy of that pedagogy and hope that the information in this article may be useful to you.

Lyn M. Holley, PhD, is a professor at University of Nebraska at Omaha and 2015 UNO Service Learning Academy faculty fellow. Holley has received awards for teaching excellence that include the 2009 UNO Alumni Association Teacher of the Year Award, the 2010 UNO Faculty Service Learning Award and nomination for the 2014 OTICA. Holley's research helps improve services for elders — in general and for minority elders — and helps improve intergenerational relationships.