Volunteer Abroad

What's the Difference Between Service Learning and Volunteering?

Experiential travels comes in many different forms. Learn about the key differences and similarities between service learning and volunteering.

What's the Difference Between Service Learning and Volunteering?

Have you heard of service learning? In an era when it seems like everyone has a college degree and no amount of internships is enough, many see it as a great example of experiential education, and a valuable step on the road to a successful career. But is it really all that different from regular community service? In the world of international education, what exactly is the difference between a service learning program and volunteering abroad?

Service learning is a blend of studying and volunteering at the same time.

In this article, we'll help define service learning and give you a better idea of how it's different from traditional volunteer abroad projects.

What Is Service Learning?

Service learning is a blend of studying and volunteering at the same time. Both the volunteering and the studying part focus on the same field, so each experience reinforces the other. This makes both more compelling and valuable to both the volunteer and those they serve.

In addition to classroom learning, reflection is an important component of any service learning experience. Participants share what they learn, troubleshoot difficulties, and bring their service experience into meaningful classroom discussions to better apply their education to the real world.

What Kind of Work Can I Do in Service Learning?

What's the Difference Between Service Learning and Volunteering?: What kind of work can I do?

When it comes to service learning, the sky's the limit! There are programs focused on every field, although service learning is particularly popular in human services fields with direct service applications, since those provide a high number of placement opportunities. Talk to a guidance counselor or study abroad advisor at your school to see if there are any service learning courses in your area of study.

Don’t be afraid to try a service learning elective, either. While you could certainly get a lot of service learning focused on your career aspirations, the values of respectful, high-impact service in partnership with the community are valuable for any person, no matter their eventual career path.

How Are Service Learning and Volunteering Similar?

There’s a good reason people get confused by these two terms: they have a lot in common!

First, both involve giving your time without receiving financial compensation in return. In fact, you could see someone volunteering at the same organization, doing the same work as someone involved in service learning.

Both activities can take place anywhere in the world, whether in your own community or abroad (many of which are listed on Go Overseas' volunteer abroad section). Some programs blend these activities with travel.

How Are Service learning and Volunteering Different?

While that's all nice and well, what exactly are the differences? I've broken this down in a few different categories so as to better explain in-depth.

  Service Learning Volunteering
Education Learning is the goal and classroom sessions are purposefully integrated. Tangential and unintentional
Skill level Requires skilled (or about-to-be-skilled) volunteers Unskilled or skilled volunteers
Time commitment Typically one semester to a full year Any range of time
Career opportunities It's a good launching point for a career in that field; you gain professional experience It counts as professional experience
Community ties Stronger focus on working with and learning about the local community Less structure in place to be explicitly educated on the local community
Travel Sometimes blended with travel Sometimes blended with travel
Work Voluntary; no compensation -- you may have to pay for the educational component Voluntary; no compensation. Some programs charge participation fees.


While volunteers often learn a lot during their placements, their education is often tangential and unintentional. It is a side benefit of the experience, not a focus. Service learning, as the name implies, involves a classroom learning component in addition to volunteering.

Ultimately, learning is the goal of service learning. Volunteering is rewarding and valuable, but it is an education method above all else. Of course, many students find the lessons they acquired in service learning serve them well in a related career, so the service component should not be discounted, but service is still a means to an end, rather than an end unto itself.

Skill level

Due to the nature of service learning, participants are often considered skilled volunteers, which changes the types of volunteer positions they take. For example, a nursing student in a service learning program could assist in a medical setting in a way other volunteers cannot. They still wouldn’t be able to perform all the duties of a registered nurse, but they would be able to move beyond clerical or customer service work. This can make service learning volunteers incredibly valuable to an organization.

As a result, many service learning programs are quite competitive. Obviously applicants must meet the minimum skill requirements, to carry out their service placements, but the reflection inherent in the classroom learning usually leads to small class sizes.

Moreover, since experiential learning is valuable for building a career, it’s not uncommon for many students to apply to these limited programs. Competitive programs means that the best of the best will get in, leading to a rigorous classroom experience and high-caliber volunteers.

Whether you participate in volunteering or service learning, giving your time is an incredibly valuable experience.

What's the Difference Between Service Learning and Volunteering?: Differences

Time commitment

Volunteer opportunities come in all shapes in sizes. Some may be a one-off for a few hours, while others are a sustained commitment over weeks and months. With service learning, your volunteer placement will last the duration of the program, usually a semester or a full year.

For students who are participating in a service learning project abroad, it's often treated as a study abroad program by their home universities. You'll have the ability to petition for credits or will be required to treat it as a research project with a final presentation at the end. However, since it is a little different from your traditional study abroad program, be sure to talk to your advisor and study abroad advisor before leaving so you're all on the same page about what you have to do in order to receive academic credit.

Either way, the lengthy duration means that participants get to know the organization as a whole, and learn to operate more independently than a casual volunteer would. This makes you more valuable to your placement, and also propels your experience to a level where you can engage more deeply with the more nuanced aspects of your area of study.

Career opportunities

While your service learning doesn't have to be in the industry you want to pursue as a career, it can certainly improve your career prospects as well as your efficacy as a volunteer. Service learning experience on a resume communicates that you not only have hands-on experience, but that you have thought critically about how to improve your work and your field as a whole.

Further, the community-centric nature of service learning, which we’ll discuss below, shows a respect and thoughtfulness for those you serve that many employers value.

Some placement organizations may look favorably upon c and the commitment to pursue service learning shows that you value the work they do. However, don’t assume they are hiring. The best way to make the most of your experience is to work hard, get to know the staff, and try to secure at least a few solid contacts for your network, if not a recommendation.

Community ties

Service learning is explicitly community-centric. As such, you'll have active collaboration with the population you're serving. While the hope is that standard volunteering does the same, that is not always the case.

Some nonprofits or NGOs that take volunteers are run without staff, management, or board members who are part of the community their organization serves, eliminating several opportunities for meaningful collaboration. The needs of the people you serve are a common theme of the education portion of service learning.

Often, schools or other educational programs will have long-term partnerships with organizations relevant to their area of focus (both abroad and at home). Regularly placing students semester after semester means the organization can count on the school for a steady flow of qualified, reliable volunteers in a given position. This helps fill a specialized need for the organization, and being able to rely on those volunteers means staff can focus on other necessary tasks.

Depending on the experience levels of the students in the service learning program, they may not need as much supervision as a standard community service volunteer, again freeing up those resources for other valuable work. This type of relationship makes the school and the placement organization true partners, which leads to a better-served community and students with more enriching experiences.

How to find service-learning programs

If you're still in high school, head on over to Go Overseas' list of high school service learning programs abroad.

If you're in college, you can take a look at our volunteer abroad listings. A service learning page is soon to come!

Some good providers to consider include:

Either Way, it's a Valuable Experience

Whether you participate in volunteering or service learning, giving your time is an incredibly valuable experience. Your decision will likely come down to a time commitment and the availability of a program that suits your needs. Now, you can make an informed choice about the best way for you to serve your community!