Benefits and Challenges of Community Engagement Service Learning (CESL)

Definition of Community Engagement Service Learning

Community engagement is any learning activity in the community undertaken by students as a consequence of their affiliation with Red River College

At RRC, Community Engagement Service Learning is recognized by a range of each of the following characteristics:

  1. Combines academic coursework with non-paid service in the community.
  2. Integrates meaningful community service with instruction, assessment, and student reflection for credit.
  3. Demonstrates evidence of service to a community as a primary purpose of the activity.
  4. Addresses authentic community needs. 
  5. Involves collaboration by all stakeholders (faculty, students, and community organization representatives) in design, planning, implementation, reflection, and follow-up.
  6. Emphasizes real world critical thinking and reflection, communication, problem-solving, and teamwork skills.
  7. Assesses evidence of learning related to course learning outcome

This definition includes a continuum of community engagement activities and practices - ranging from volunteer activity through project work, practicums, co-op education, clinical placements, to formal service learning projects. All models should be included under the above RRC definition.

Community Engagement Service Learning

Principles of good practice

  1. Articulates clear service and learning goals for everyone involved.
  2. Allows for those with needs to define those needs.
  3. Clarifies the responsibilities of each person and organization involved.
  4. Matches service providers and service needs through a process that recognizes changing circumstances.
  5. Expects genuine, active, and sustained organizational commitment.
  6. Includes training, supervision, monitoring, support, recognition, and evaluation to meet service and learning goals.
  7. Provides structured opportunities for people to reflect critically on their service experience.
  8. Insures that the time commitment for service and learning is flexible, appropriate, and in the best interests of all involved.
  9. Commits to program participation by and with diverse populations.

Source: Honnet, E.P., and S.J. Poulen. (1989). Principles of Good Practice for Combining Service and Learning, a Wingspread Special Report. Racine, WI: The Johnson Foundation, Inc.


To Students

  1. Helps students understand a variety of issues such as diversity, ethics, social responsibility, illiteracy, and globalization.
  2. Enriches local and international learning experiences.
  3. Teaches civic and social responsibility.
  4. Improves academic achievement.
  5. Enhances the course content.
  6. Enhances students' beliefs in their personal effectiveness.
  7. Applies academic learning outside the classroom.

To Communities

  1. Becomes an integral part of the student learning experience.
  2. Provides new insights to student perspectives.
  3. Allows the organization to increase community supports.
  4. Strengthens relationship between the College and community.
  5. Increases awareness of College programs and resources.

To Faculty

  1. Engages in teaching that makes a difference in the community.
  2. Connects theoretical concepts to real-world settings.
  3. Engages students in self-directed learning.
  4. Improves interaction between faculty and students.
  5. Creates/improves business and community connections.
  6. Benefits faculty research.

To the College

  1. Integrates concepts throughout the College’s strategic plan.
  2. Fulfills the College’s mission.
  3. Enhances teaching, learning, outreach, and research.

Risks and Challenges


  1. Students need to be able to make connections between community service and learning.
  2. Students need to be academically or developmentally ready.
  3. Students need to be provided with guidance on critical refection.
  4. Students may be uncomfortable if their values are challenged.
  5. Students may be unreliable and/or not motivated or committed.
  6. Students need to be sufficiently prepared for the experience.

Recipient organization

  1. A lot of time is needed by recipient organization to train students.
  2. Timing of desired project commitment needs to match institution’s curriculum plan.  
  3. Timing can conflict with other priorities.
  4. Needs to be clear about expected fit between students and organization-values, work to be done, time commitment, quality, etc.


  1. Faculty require significant time for planning, implementation, monitoring, and assessment to maintain the community partnership.
  2. Need clear expectations and communication between instructor and community organization.
  3. Need to be able to structure the learning to benefit students and recipient organizations.
  4. Faculty may not be prepared for developing students' "social consciousness".