Service-learning differs from other forms of community-based work in balancing both student learning and community needs/outcomes. Furco's (1996) model helps to illustrate the unique features of related community-based experiences:
Volunteerism and community service emphasize the benefits to the individual, organization, or community being served through such experiences. Volunteer activities often occur on a one-time or episodic basis and place little emphasis on learning and reflection. Community service experiences are designed and facilitated in a more structured manner to involve some degree of learning.
Internships and field education emphasize student learning. Internships allow students to gain practical experience in a potential career field while field education is often associated with experiential requirements in one of the professions (e.g. teaching or social services). In each, the focus is on enhancing students learning primarily and neither inherently involves learning about the historical, sociological, or political contexts that underlie the community and human needs associated with students' work.
Service-learning intends to find a balance and assumes that learning does not necessarily stem from experience, but is facilitated as a result of reflection designed to achieve relevant learning outcomes. Another key element of service-learning is reciprocity, the understanding that such experiences are approached with a spirit of partnership between all who are involved, specifically the institution and community. As such, the service component in a service-learning experience cannot be presented as an "add-on" or supplement, but instead must be presented as an integral element.
In 2011, the Office of the Provost and Civic Engagement Initiatives developed the following definitions for Chapman University to guide relevant curricular and co-curricular efforts:
Volunteerism - In volunteerism, students donate their time through providing assistance to activities or events that benefit a cause, institution, or organization, whether on- or off-campus. In volunteerism, the primary emphasis is on the assistance being provided.
Community Service - In community service, students donate their time (usually through participation in intentionally-designed experiences) to provide assistance to an off-campus community need or non-profit/public service organization/agency that directly serves an area/population of the community. In community service, the primary emphasis is on enabling students to provide either direct or indirect assistance to the community, through short or long-term involvement, while enhancing their awareness of community needs and sense of community engagement.
Service Learning - In service-learning, students learn from active involvement with community projects and organizations. They contribute skills and knowledge to community needs while integrating the experiential knowledge they gain with their academic studies. Service-learning helps students transcend classroom boundaries and traditional forms of learning, resulting in the development of mutually rewarding civic ties and enhanced social understanding.