The information contained on this website is intended as a general introduction to establishing a service learning program in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. It is recommended that you refer to relevant fieldwork policies at your university if planning a service learning placement for students.

What is service learning and what are its benefits?

Service learning is a form of work-integrated-learning that can help deliver key graduate attributes. There are many definitions, however, it is generally understood 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. If well designed, service learning in this context can assist student to develop intercultural capability.

Developing the capacity of graduates to work collaboratively with community members is recognised as an essential strategy to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Universities Australia, 2011)

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 their own provides students with a context which much this learning can occur.Service-Thinking-Framework-Model2

Fig 1: Service learning with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

A note on cultural capability and nomenclature

‘Cultural capability’ rather than ‘cultural competence’ is now the accepted terminology to recognise an individual’s capacity to work across cultures. This reflects a move away from a ‘competency’—to be achieved with an implied end point—to ‘capability’ which suggests lifelong learning and skill development through a range of settings (Taylor, Durey, Mulcock, Kickett, & Jones, 2014).  In addition, many minority cultural groups resent the suggestion that someone (particularly from the dominant culture) can be ‘competent’ in their culture (Department of Health, 2014). Cultural capability development occurs through a continuum initially beginning with cultural awareness and extends to more complex capacity to adapt behaviour appropriately in different cultural contexts (Coffin, 2007; Hammer, 2012). It is highly dependent on reflective ability and critical thinking. Understanding how this development occurs through engaging with relevant literature in teaching and learning is important to understanding the student’s journey (see, for example, Working Together: Intercultural Leadership under ‘Additional resources’ below).

Community engagement

The form of community engagement undertaken to establish service learning programs is an indicator of quality (Rowland, 2006). It is well established that all communities are seeking (Holland & Ramaley, 2008, p. 35):
…to develop project connections with universities if there is evidence of commitment to reciprocity and mutual benefit, as defined by the community. In particular, partners look for evidence that academic partners are willing to spend time getting to know the community, listening to community voices, respecting cultural values and practices, and sharing resources and knowledge in ways that are useful to the community initiatives and interests.

The history of colonisation in Australia makes this crucial when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to avoid replicating colonial discourses (Miller, 2015). The recent Department of Health Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Curriculum Framework (2014), for example, provides guidelines on implementing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curriculum including:

•  Develop partnerships and ‘formalise’ working relationships with campus Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Learning Centres (e.g. memorandums of understanding centred on Indigenous culture and knowledges)

•  Engage with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

•  Build relationships with relevant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations (e.g. health services or local Land Councils)

•  Allocate resources (staff time and funds) to enable meaningful engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders (i.e. be conscious that past experiences have resulted in mistrust and it may take time to build relationships)

•  Build Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation on curriculum development, review and implementation committees (if no formal committees exist—if the program is small—involve Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples in the learning design and review processes).

(adapted from Department of Health, 2014, pp. 11-12)

Learning design

Service learning with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities has the potential to transform students’ world view. However, for this to be achieved, it is essential that the learning experiences are designed in alignment with good practice in fieldwork (Smith, Ferns, & Russell, 2014). One of the most commonly adopted theories for fieldwork and, indeed, service learning, is Kolb’s (1984) model of experiential learning (Passarelli & Kolb, 2012): Kolb’s (1984) Experiential Learning Cycle

Fig 2: Kolb’s (1984) Experiential Learning Cycle

Students, therefore, require structured opportunities to engage and experience, be reflective, conceptualise their learning, and then test their learning. As a consequence, and given service learning is resource intensive, such programs are best scaffolded within the curriculum to maximise learning (Billett, 2009). This approach also aligns with current theories of intercultural skill development as a continuum (Hammer, 2012).

In addition, quality service learning programs 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). Dependent on the service learning model and resourcing, you may also wish to consider a selection process for student participation.

Feedback and assessment

Formative reflective assessment tasks during the service learning placement are recommended to assist students to engage in the experiential learning cycle. In accordance with Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle assessment tasks that require students to reflect on their performance and learning with opportunities to put into practice the knowledge gained from the initial cycle is advantageous. Reflective assessments can be formative and summative and involve a range of forms including video. Consistent with the recommended community engagement model, it is suggested that Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders be engaged to determine the assessment criteria.

Facilitator capabilities

The facilitator/s capacity to effectively support non-Aboriginal students through their service learning experience requires considerable skills and abilities including the capacity to model collaboration, reflection and capacity to work in a culturally safe manner. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Curriculum Framework (2014) provides a detailed list of the capabilities required. For more information including a list of additional resources visit (section three of):


Cyclical and reflective evaluation should be conducted regularly. Although designed for medical curriculum the Critical Reflection Tool (CRT) (available on the LIME Network website) can be adapted to support service learning programs with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. For example, the CRT (adapted from Medical Deans Australia and New Zealand, 2007, p. 31) asks key questions about:

•  Current evaluation measures (which could include the Scholarship of Learning and Teaching; see for example Part Two of (Bringle, Hatcher, & Jones, 2011))

•  Contextual factors that influence the program (including community partnerships, resourcing issues, limitations etc.)

•  What goals for improvement you have, and

•  How you will achieve your aims (strategies, plans priorities, responsibilities, timeframe).

Flash points

Several key issues that need attending to have been highlighted above, however, the following are essential to consider:

•  Preparatory sessions for students are essential to ensure the cultural safety of community is maximised. For example, many non-Aboriginal people hold strong negative stereotypes of Aboriginal people (often the consequence of media representations); these need to be unpacked in a safe learning environment (without shaming) prior to their placement.

•  Service learning programs must involve local community Elders and staff from your university’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander centre.

•  Nomenclature can be a potential flash point due to colonial discourses. For example, ‘Indigenous Australians’ is not terminology welcomed by many community members. It is important when initial conversations occur there is some sensitivity around the use of terminology. Many people prefer to be referred to by their language group name, e.g. ‘Wadjuk Nyungar’ in Perth, Western Australia.

•  Do not underestimate the need for culturally appropriate community engagement when establishing your service learning program.

•  Before embarking on service learning program development, reflect on your own intercultural abilities as well as your motivations.

Additional resources

To develop your capacity to lead and teach in this space (an Office for Learning and Teaching project: read through module notes):

Another Office for Learning and Teaching resource for leading general fieldwork:
As already suggested the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Curriculum Framework has much relevant information (although not specifically about service learning):


Billett, S. (2009). Final Report on the ALTC Associate Fellowship: developing agentic professionals through practice-based education. Retrieved from Surrey Hills, NSW:
Bringle, R. G., Hatcher, J. A., & Jones, S. G. (Eds.). (2011). International service learning: conceptual frameworks and research (Vol. 1: IUPUI Series on Service Learning Research). Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.
Coffin, J. (2007). Rising to the Challenge in Aboriginal Health by Creating Cultural Security. Aboriginal & Islander Health Worker Journal, 31(3), 22-24.
Department of Health. (2014). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Curriculum Framework. Canberra: Australian Governmennt Retrieved from
Hammer, M. R. (2012). The intercultural development inventory: a new frontier in assessment and development of intercultural competence. In M. Vande Berg (Ed.), Student learning abroad: what our students are learning , what they’re not, and what we can do about it. 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.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as a source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Medical Deans Australia and New Zealand. (2007). Indigenous Health Project Critical Reflection Tool. Onemda VicHealth Koori Health Melbourne. Retrieved from
Miller, M. G. (2015). Consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in early childhood education: the impact of colonial discourses. Adult Education Research, 42, 549-565.
Passarelli, A. M., & Kolb, D. A. (2012). 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. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.
Rowland, S. (2006). The Enquiring University: compliance and contestation in higher education. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press.
Smith, C., Ferns, S., & Russell, L. (2014). The impact of work-integrated-learning on student work-readiness. Sydney: Office for Learning and Teaching
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
Taylor, K., Durey, A., Mulcock, A., Kickett, M., & Jones, S. (2014). Developing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural capabilities in health graduates: A review of the literature. Adelaide: Health Workforce Australia.
Universities Australia. (2011). Guiding principles for developing Indigenous competency in Australian universities. Retrieved from Canberra, ACT:

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