Service Learning

What is Service-Learning? 

Service-Learning is a strategy that integrates community needs, intentional learning objectives, and structured opportunities for reflection. Service-Learning projects take community service or volunteer projects to the next level by emphasizing both service and learning to create a more meaningful experience for youth. 

For more information, check out, Service-Learning in Community-Based Organizations: A Practical Guide to Starting and Sustaining High-Quality Programs.

How Does Service-Learning Differ from Community Service?

Service-Learning projects:

  • Are developed by youth and focus on what they see as important community needs
  • Help the community while providing a powerful learning opportunity for youth
  • Allow youth to connect learning outcomes and skills to real world experiences
  • Are typically not “one-time” efforts


Community Service – Youth prepare and serve a meal at a local homeless shelter.

Service-Learning – Youth research homelessness in their community and contact local homeless shelters to learn about the types of services they provide.  Youth then decide together on a service project that will support this community need.  After planning and completing the service project, youth reflect upon both the Service-Learning process and the service project. 

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From Community Service to Service-Learning 

The main difference between traditional volunteer projects and Service-Learning projects is intentionally linking the service to learning objectives or 4-H project work.  In community-based settings, the learning objectives are found outside of the school curriculum. 

 Add these Service-Learning components to take your volunteer project to the next level!

  1. Add opportunities for youth to investigate and identify community needs
  2. Include youth in all aspects of the project planning and implementation process.  To learn more about the importance of including the “youth voice” in Service-Learning projects, check out Learn and Serve America’s Youth Voice Guidebook.
  3. Provide purposeful opportunities for young people to reflect on both the service project and the Service-Learning process (view the Steps of Service-Learning section below for more information on this process)
  4. Incorporate opportunities for youth to demonstrate and celebrate their success

4-H Citizenship and Service-Learning

4-H citizenship projects provide a great opportunity to incorporate elements of Service-Learning.  In fact, many of these projects might already be considered Service-Learning! 

The 4-H citizenship curriculum incorporates many of the elements of Service-Learning.  A comprehensive list of 4-H citizenship project manuals and resources can be found on the Citizenship Project Page.

Project leaders and young people who are interested in adding an element of Service-Learning to their group are also encouraged to check out the following resources:

Steps of Service-Learning

Promoting Quality Service-Learning Experiences 

Based upon research and best practices gathered by Learn and Serve America, quality Service-Learning projects include six core components.  These components are often known as the “IPARDC” process for planning and implementing quality Service-Learning projects:

1. Investigation – Youth determine the needs in their community.  This might be accomplished by conducting a community needs assessment or another type of assessment.  Once a community need has been identified, young people conduct some form of research or investigation to document the extent and nature of the problem in their community.

2. Preparation– Youth share ideas to meet community needs and access available resources, discuss what they can do to help, and how they can make it happen.  This step may also include developing a common vision, timelines for success, a project budget, etc.

3. Action– The service portion of Service-Learning.  To make the project more purposeful and meaningful, youth take on leadership roles and are actively involved in all parts of the service project. 

4. Reflection– Youth participate in and lead activities that allow them to assess their accomplishments, to examine the impact of their work in the community, and to consider how they could improve their action plan for future projects.

5. Demonstration & Celebration–Youth celebrate their successes and educate others on what they have learned, the impact of their work, and recommendations for future projects.


Reach Out Iowa staff are also available to provide Service-Learning trainings, orientations, and resources for your youth group, even if you are not a 4-H club. 

Service-Learning Training

Reach Out Iowa Service-Learning Training Module

Within the next few weeks, a free training module will be accessible on this webpage. 

The training module has been designed as a tool to orient and train individuals who will provide subsequent Service-Learning trainings and orientations in their local communities. Information is also provided throughout the training module that is applicable to adult leaders of youth groups that implement, or would like to begin implementing, Service-Learning projects.

This training is intended to teach the techniques and processes that will guide youth through the IPARDC (Investigation; Preparation; Action; Reflection; Demonstration/Celebration) process of planning and implementing quality Service-Learning projects.  For more information on the IPARDC process, visit: Steps of Service-Learning section above.


Benefits of Service-Learning

A growing body of research recognizes the benefits of Service-Learning as an effective strategy that builds civic skills, improves social behavior, increases youth engagement, strengthens communities, and improves academic achievement.

Successes from Reach Out Iowa Evaluation Reports

To evaluate the successes of community-based organizations that received funding and support from Reach Out Iowa to complete Service-Learning projects, the Research Institute for Students in Education (RISE) at Iowa State University conducted interviews and evaluations with young people and adults who participated in the projects. 

Successes from Reach Out Iowa Evaluation Reports

The following themes emerged from these evaluations and interviews:

  • Youth who completed the stages of the IPARDC process experienced increased positive outcomes of the Reach Out Iowa projects; they felt proud of their work and reported an eagerness to continue to be engaged in their communities
  • For most projects, youth were successful in completing the bulk of the Reach Out Iowa projects themselves
  • Projects created a sense of community responsibility in youth
  • Adults in the community began to see youth as capable, responsible, and generous
  • Youth learned communication, teamwork, leadership, and other practical skills
  • Youth enjoyed their experiences with Reach Out Iowa and experienced a sense of accomplishment

Reach Out Iowa Project Final Evaluation report