5 Stages of Service Learning

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As teachers develop academically rigorous service-learning it is helpful to understand the five stages of service-learning and to explore how to best incorporate them into specific curriculum.

Complete Guide to Service LearningIn our work with the eight high schools in our service-learning network, we found The Complete Guide to Service Learning by Catherine Berger Kaye to be an invaluable resource and a tool. In her book, Catherine describes the stages of service -learning, which we have modified slightly in order to use them as a framework for showcasing the service-learning projects from our network.

The following descriptions of the stages are adapted from:

The Complete Guide to Service Learning
Catherine Berger Kaye (2004)
Free Spirit Publishing www.freespirit.com


Because most of the teachers in our service learning network focus on service-learning that is tightly aligned with the curriculum, they often begin by identifying an essential question and the core academic skills and knowledge that will be the focus of the project. Then students, community partners and teachers work together to identify a need, issue or project that aligns with the course goals. At this critical first stage, students draw on previously acquired skills and knowledge and they identify what new information and skills they might need to acquire to complete the project. Through this process the students learn and apply the related subject matter. At this stage, students act as problem-solvers–identifying the underlying problem, conducting research and creating a plan of action.


At this stage, students carry out a plan of action within the community and classroom. This action might take the form of direct service, indirect service, research, or advocacy. It is critical that the action has value, purpose and meaning and offers unique learning experiences. It is here that students apply previously learned and newly acquired academic skills and knowledge. It is also important that the action has real consequences and provides a safe environment for all to learn, to succeed and even to make mistakes.


Reflection is a critical piece of service learning. It is most effective conducted before, during and after service. Reflection provides ongoing integration of learning and experience with students’ personal growth and awareness of connections to their lives through a variety of strategies. Reflection helps place the experience and the learning in a larger context. It also helps students connect the service experience to the content they are studying.


This is an essential part of the service learning experience. This is where students have an opportunity share their work publicly and is a process of demonstration and celebration. At this stage, students document evidence of learning through a variety of strategies that might include exhibitions, portfolios, public presentations, publications, etc. This oftentimes also includes celebration and recognition.

Recognizing student accomplishment in a public way helps students make connections about the work they did and how the community appreciates and benefits from it. It creates tangible connections between what was learned and the contributions they made to their community. It is also an opportunity for students to publicly acknowledge and thank their community partners.

Please note, that for purposes of showcasing projects implemented by schools in our service learning network, we pulled assessment out of the fourth stage of demonstration and have added it as a fifth stage, described below.

Performance Assessment

Performance assessment connects synergistically with service learning, portfolios and culminating exhibitions of student work. It is a natural partner to service learning because it is complex and multi-dimensional, centers on feedback and is rooted in context. Performance assessment is ongoing – so throughout the project there is a continuous feedback loop that allows for adjustments, skill development and acquiring knowledge and information that will ensure success. Performance assessment works in service of learning and helps teachers, parents, and community partners to better be able to help students succeed in school and beyond.

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