Using Service Learning in Nursing Education

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Service learning lets RNs learn more about community health vulnerabilities and work with underserved populations.

Service learning provides an opportunity for registered nurses (RNs) to learn more about health vulnerabilities that communities face and gain firsthand experience of working with underserved populations. Nurse educators often incorporate service learning in coursework so students can directly apply classroom education to clinical experience.

Service learning, also called community engagement, uses experiential learning, reflection and reciprocal learning to increase student awareness of community health needs. Nurse educators who utilize service-learning principles in coursework teach students to embrace change, among other things, RN Maxine Adegbola said in “Relevance of Service Learning to Nursing Education.”

“Nurse educators can increase their effectiveness by intentionally including service learning and reflection as a thread in courses, thus engaging civic-minded healthcare professionals who develop as engaged and intentionally caring citizens,” Adegbola said.

Service learning in nursing education has been found to increase competencies for students seeking Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degrees. The most successful MSN students show a strong understanding of nursing terminology, such as community engagement, and can apply the learned principles to daily practice.

Foundations of Service Learning

Service learning has roots in volunteerism and grew through the 1960s and 1970s as a result of community concerns and activism. While the origin of the idea of service learning is not clear, American philosopher and educator John Dewey has been largely credited as the founding father of the movement. Dewey, who died in 1952, believed a progressive education was the byproduct of learning by doing. Service learning helped students develop balanced views to construct creative solutions to society’s diverse problems, he said.

Later, American psychologist and educational theorist David Kolb expanded the role of experience in education by creating a cycle of learning: experience, reflection, conceptualization and experimentation.

“Overall learning effectiveness is improved when individuals are highly skilled in engaging all four modes of the learning cycle,” Kolb said in 2009.

Other educational leaders, psychologists and theorists, including Robert Sigmon, Barbara Jacoby and Donald Schon, participated in the current working definition of service learning as well.

Service learning is based on three tenets ― experiential learning, reflection and reciprocal learning ― that together create an educational experience:

Experiential learning

Kolb proposed and defined the theory of experiential learning as a process in which knowledge is created through experience.

“Knowledge results from the combinations of grasping and transforming the experience,” Kolb said in his landmark 1984 research.


Reflection is vital to service learning because it allows the learner to connect service and learning. Researchers identified four essential components of reflection:

  1. Continuous reflection

The deepest learning occurs when learners continually ponder an experience. Continuous reflection can take place before, during and after an experience.

  1. Connected reflection

When experiences are connected through learning, personal reflection and personal experience theories become real.

  1. Challenging reflection

When old experiences are seen in new ways, learning can be changed and challenged. Without a challenge, students may not see new elements in old experiences.

  1. Contextualized reflection

Through contextualized reflection, students use the learned information from the service experience to process new information and experiences. At the most basic level, contextualized reflection is seeing an experience through a new lens.

Reciprocal learning

Service learning is based on the premise of mutual learning, which takes place when a student learner comes together with other parties (a community, civic organization or other stakeholders) toward a common purpose.

Fundamentally, service learning differs from other experiences, such as volunteering or internships, because it is primarily focused on connecting to educational outcomes.

Service Learning in Nursing Education

Within the spectrum of nursing, service learning helps participants visualize and experience the pathways that patients take when navigating the healthcare system.

Adegbola, in “Relevance of Service Learning to Nursing Education,” said service learning promotes improved cognitive growth, stronger academic skills and civic responsibility for students.

“Service learning embedded in nursing courses will enable future healthcare providers to develop an appreciation of the vulnerabilities that marginalized segments of the population experience,” she said.

Nurse educators who are responsible for curriculum development and learning are continually seeking new opportunities to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Service learning is just one way to achieve that goal.

A Canadian study also found that service learning allows nursing students to practice leadership roles and decision-making skills, thus improving confidence levels, communication, interpersonal skills and cultural sensitivity. Through service learning, nursing students develop critical thinking skills and can more easily make the connection between nursing theory and everyday practice, researchers wrote in “Community service learning: Fostering first-year nursing students’ understanding of others.”

“The need to be creative and facilitate learning opportunities for students is important for all nursing programs,” researchers said in the Canadian study. “Not only will this prepare students for their career, [but] it also serves to provide them with the necessary skills in understanding others.”

Indeed, service learning is becoming an indelible component of nursing education. RNs seeking MSN degrees, whether to become nurse educators or for any other nursing specialty, benefit from taking part in service-learning experiences. The leading MSN programs, including online master’s in nursing programs, provide students with an opportunity to expand their knowledge of healthcare and diversity in underserved communities through service learning.

About Duquesne University’s Online MSN in Nurse Education and Faculty Role

Duquesne University’s online master’s in nursing program prepares RNs for careers as faculty members in nursing programs. The university’s online master’s in nursing program develops MSN-educated nurses who are ready for the challenges of the future. As nurse educators, RNs can develop service-learning programs that empower student nurses to work to the best of their abilities.

Students enrolled in Duquesne University’s online master’s in nursing program may also add a concentration in Forensic Nursing or Transcultural Nursing. Nurses with MSN degrees are also eligible to enroll in the university’s online Nurse Education and Faculty Role Post-Master’s Certificate program. The university’s programs prepare RNs for advanced practice nursing certification exams. For more information, contact Duquesne University today.



Service Learning in Undergraduate Nursing Education: Strategies to Facilitate Meaningful Reflection: NCBI

Relevance of Service Learning to Nursing Education: NCBI

Unpacking John Dewey’s Connection to Service-Learning: Journal of Education & Social Policy

Experiential Learning Theory of David Kolb: Verywellmind

What Makes Service-Learning Unique: Reflection and Reciprocity: Faculty Focus

Community service learning: Fostering first-year nursing students’ understanding of others: Madridge Journal of Nursing