There are many definitions of service-learning; however, one of the earlier and well-cited definitions of service-learning within academic scholarship was developed by Bringle and Hathcher (2002): Service-learning is a credit bearing educational experience in which students participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of their social responsibility.
A more recent definition describes service-learning as a merger of learning, engagement, and reflection through various academic and community partners (Bringle, Clayton, & Hatcher, 2013). Although, different institutions and service-learning educators vary on the definition and application of service-learning, many agree that it requires taking students out of the classroom and placing them into the community to learn by interacting with real people and directly impacting their community in ways that produce tangible outcomes. This learning process requires academic institutions to cultivate and nurture partnerships with other institutions, agencies, and community organizers.
Some service-learning educators allow their students to choose service initiatives that are of interest to them or are closely related to their chosen career field. Other educators require their students to participate in group activities in which classroom instructors encourage their students to discuss their experiences, also referred to as critical reflection. Whether reflection is done in a group environment or in an intimate setting, all agree on the necessity of reflection. It is through the reflection process that students gain greater insight into and appreciation for the many benefits they receive from helping others. The reflection component of service-learning is often noted as one of the most crucial part of the program (Gibson, Hauf, Long, & Sampson, 2011).
Eyler and Giles (2002), agree that the most beneficial outcomes of service-learning occur through a cycle of action and reflection as students work with others through a process of applying what they are learning to community problems, and at the same time, reflecting upon their experience as they seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.
Service-learning advocates that this pedagogical approach to community engagement has tangible, genuine, positive, and significant outcomes (Bringle, Clayton, & Hatcher, 2013), yet there are those who question whether or not these outcomes can be truly quantified. Additionally, beyond the benefits service-learning have on student comprehension; this academic approach is partially utilized to help solve society’s most challenging and pressing problems (Stewart & Webster, 2011). As service learning becomes increasingly popular, educators are seeking answers beyond how service-learning can improve student comprehension and social consciousness.
One area within service-learning research that has not gained much attention is the impacts of service-learning on the development of student-leadership and, specifically, which critical incidents might occur throughout a academic semester. Additionally, Social Impact Assessment (SIA) as a form of service-learning, has yet to be considered in similar student-leadership development research.