What is service learning and why bother?

Service learning is an educational experience (usually for credit) where students work collaboratively with a community using their discipline or course knowledge to meet identified community needs. By working in real-world contexts—and reflecting on their experience—students broaden their discipline knowledge and develop key generic graduate capabilities such as communication, critical thinking and team work (adapted from Bringle & Hatcher, 2009, p. 38).

Service learning with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities provides students with an opportunity to learn not just about traditional culture and knowledge, it, very importantly, provides students an opportunity to better understand themselves, and their own culture and its practices.

Employers are increasingly seeking graduates with more than just discipline knowledge; they want employees with initiative and excellent communication skills including the ability to work with people from diverse background in complex work settings. Service learning in communities different from your own provides the context for much this learning to occur. Reflection is a key approach in service learning.Service-Thinking-Framework-Model2

Fig 1 Service learning with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

How to get the most out of your service learning experience

Selecting a good service learning program:

• Select a service learning program that has a demonstrated commitment to working collaboratively with the community to address their needs (defined by the community) (Holland & Ramaley, 2008; Mason O’Connor, McDwen, Owen, Lynch, & Hill, 2011).

• Ask questions about the length of the university’s relationship with the community involved and whether cultural values and practices are respected. For example, does the area administering the program have good relationships with the university’s centre for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander studies? How is this evidenced? How does the service learning program engage relevant community groups?

•  A good service learning program will have clear learning objectives, preparatory sessions (e.g. clear information about the program and its objectives, cultural training [verbal and non-verbal], information about the community, professional expectations, and conflict management strategies), a good supervision model (e.g. a good staff to student ratio and experienced supervisors), a structured reflective assessment activity, and debrief/reflection sessions (Tan, Flavell, Ferns, & Jordan, 2016). Excellent service learning programs will also provide you with an opportunity to meet with students who have experienced the program, although this will depend on the service learning model.

•  Simple immersion into a community is not enough (Hammer, 2012)! Seek a service learning program with the elements described above.

Although a good service learning program will structure your preparatory activities to incorporate the following learning outcomes, be curious.

•  Whatever your level of experience working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, be curious! Find out as much as you can about the community: for example, what country will you be on (who are the traditional custodians?). What can you find out about their history and key community members including Elders?

•  If you were travelling abroad you would likely take the time to learn some key words in the local language. Do the same for the community you will be working with. There are growing numbers of language resources on the internet; to start you search see:

•  If you’re new to this space, research the history of Australia from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander worldview, watch National Indigenous Television (NITV) and movies by Aboriginal directors like Warwick Thornton. First Australians (Perkins & Cole, 2008) is also highly recommended.

•  To direct your research test your knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and politics:

Flash points

•  Examine your motives. Although service learning has the potential to help you develop key graduate attributes essential for employment and career success, this mustn’t be just about you. Service learning is about working collaboratively with the community to achieve the community’s needs and is designed to be mutually beneficial.

•  Do not approach your work with any community with a desire to “fix” their problems. This is an approach that is not only ineffective it is patronising and replicates many colonial discourses.

•  Expect to be unsettled; it is normal to feel this way in the intercultural space as many of your common sense ways of understanding the world can be challenged. Having said that, however, a good service learning program will have supports in place (e.g. good facilitators and structured debrief and reflection processes) to assist you.


Bringle, R. G., & Hatcher, J. A. (2009). Innovative practices in service learning and curricular engagement. In L. Sandmann, A. Jaeger, & C. Thornton (Eds.), New directions in community engagement (pp. 37-46). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hammer, M. R. (2012). The intercultural development inventory: A new frontier in assessment development of intercultural competence. In M. Vande Berg, M. R. Paige, & K. Hemming Lou (Eds.), Student Learning Abroad: What our students are learning, what they’re not, and what we can do about it (pp. 115-136). Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.
Holland, B., & Ramaley, J. A. (2008). Creating a Supportive Environment for Community-University Engagement. Paper presented at the Engaging Communities: Proceedings of the 31st HERDSA Annual Conference Rotorua, New Zealand.

Mason O’Connor, K., McDwen, L., Owen, D., Lynch, K., & Hill, S. (2011). Literature review: Embedding community engagement in the curriculum: An example of university-public engagement. Retrieved from

Perkins, R., & Cole, B. (Directors). (2008). First Australians: The untold story of Australia. In D. Dale & R. Perhkins (Producers). Australia: Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), Madman.
Tan, B.-K., Flavell, H., Ferns, S., & Jordan, J. (2016). Quality in Australian outbound student mobility programs: establishing good practice guidelines for international work-integrated learning.   Retrieved from