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The Community-Based Course Designation

Community-based Learning (CBL) (also known as service-learning) at American University is an academic, course-based pedagogy that extends and deepens classroom-based learning through meaningful involvement with a community agency, nonprofit organization, or school.

Through a planned collaboration between the professor/class and community partners, all stakeholders benefit from the CBL experience, both by meeting course objectives and addressing community-identified goals and needs. During the course of the semester, students critically process and reflect on their experiences to heighten their engagement with central academic themes, bridge theory and practice, and contribute to clarification of their own personal values, career goals, and sense of social responsibility. Student-produced CBL service, projects, or research contribute positively to the community or organization.

CBL Request Form

If you wish to designate your course as a Community-Based Learning course please complete the request form found here. Currently the designation is available for undergraduate courses. Once approved, your course will be listed with the letters "CB" through the registrar. This will enable students to search for a list of all community-based learning courses.

For a list of previous and current CB courses, visit this page.

The deadline to apply for Spring 2023: Friday, September 30, 2022.

Submissions are reviewed by staff in the Center for Community Engagement and Service. They will be evaluated based on American University's definition and criteria for Community-Based Learning. You will want to be sure to note how your class meets these criteria through your syllabus or other supporting documents. Once processed, you will be notified of designation approval or with feedback on the changes necessary to earn the designation.

CBL Criteria

The following eight criteria must be met in order for a course to receive the Community-Based Learning (CBL) designation at American University.

The entire class is involved in community-based learning; it is integral to course learning goals as indicated on the syllabus and course content informs and enhances the service-learning that occurs.

Sample Learning Outcomes

  • Students will connect their research in the classroom, the library, and writing process to practical experiences in the greater Washington, D.C. community. (LIT 101: College Writing, Professor Amanda Choutka)
  • Gain knowledge of useful frameworks and relevant theories for approaching community-based learning with an understanding of inequality, social troubles, and said institutions, across a wide range of contexts. (SOC 150: Global Sociology, Dr. Salvador Vidal-Ortiz)
  • Develop professional projects, interventions, initiatives, communications, measurements, reports, or other material to meet the needs of community partners and, if appropriate, their clients. (PUB 480: Public Health Capstone, Dr. Jolynn Gardner)
  • Students will learn how to manage relationships and build rapport with nonprofit staff and the people they serve. (ANTH 544/COMM 528: Community Documentary, Professor Nina Shapiro-Perl)
  • By the end of the semester students will be able to engage in community service and critical reflection in order to gain a deeper understanding of issues related to poverty, diversity and civic engagement. (SIS 140: Cross-Cultural Communications, Professor Easten Law).


Reciprocity is a key characteristic of the service-learning partnership. The community partnership/s meets community or organizational needs and the learning needs of students.

Timeline for Partnership Development

Prior to the Start of the Semester

8 weeks- Faculty and Partners reach out to the CCES office for assistance in developing a partnership. Faculty and Community Partners explore different options.

4 weeks- Faculty and Partners complete MOU formalizing the partnership.  

2 weeks- Faculty and Partners finalize details and prepare for students. 

During the Semester 

Week 1- Students connect with community partners and prepare for service.  

Week 3- By this point, students have entered community or begun work on their culminating CBL project.

Ongoing- Students, faculty, and community partners are critically reflecting on the experience and learning from each other.  

Week 8- Faculty and community partner review the MOU to ensure goals are being met. 

Week 14- Students final CBL projects are due. This gives time for reflection and changes to be made if necessary for the community partner. 

Week 15- Students complete SETs, faculty e-mails community partner evaluation tool. Faculty can use community partner feedback to inform evaluations of students.

After the semester concludes

Faculty and community partners follow up and evaluate the experience. 

Faculty send CCES data on partnering agencies and culminating outcomes/impact.


A minimum of 20 hours of service per semester is expected of CBL students or a comparable project or product if that better suits the course.

Hour Tracking

Each faculty member determines his or her own way to track student service hours. Some utilize blackboard, facebook pages, or google forms. We use GivePulse.

Project-Based Courses

Other courses are project-based. While these students are encouraged to engage with the community directly, they are not expected to spend 20 hours in direct service with the community. 

These students are assigned a project that capitalizes on their classroom education and produces a product that meets an organizational need. 

  • Visual Literacy Courses partner with community agencies to develop visual products such as:

    • Websites

    • Posters

    • Brochures

  • Public Relations Portfolio courses contribute PR skills to nonprofits through:

    • Social Media guides

    • Videos

  • Nonprofit Financial Management courses review organization's financials and make helpful recommendations around:

    • Grants

    • Potential donors

    • Cost saving measures

CCES Support 

Interested in partnering with one of these project-based courses? Review the list of current classes and e-mail Harry Gilliard, Program Coordinator, Community-Based Learning ( specifying your course of interest.

Need help developing a community-based learning project for your course? Contact Harry Gilliard, Program Coordinator, Community-Based Learning (, for ideas.


Faculty will prepare students for community entry and responsible participation and communication with community partner staff through academic readings and conversation.

Background Knowledge

It is important to ensure that students are informed about the partnering agency, regional issues, political climate, and community culture prior to entering into service. 

Methods of Preparation Include: 

  • Students watch films about the nonprofit partner (check out AU's Community Voice Project)
  • Students read and reflect on local news sources
  • Students utilize DC Neighborhood Walking Tours produced by Cultural Tourism DC
  • Students conduct a community mapping project
  • Bring a speaker to class to offer background on the neighborhood or organization or issue area.

Personal Preparation

All of us carry our own backgrounds and experiences with us. These experiences influence how we interact with and perceive others, they can include biases and prejudices. It is important that our acknowledge and own this background. 

Methods of Preparation Include: 

  • Assign readings that challenge student perspectives of themselves
  • Assign readings that challenge student perspectives of service and helping
  • Facilitate activities to assist students in understanding their own identity, privilege, and culture, to prepare them for working with others of diverse backgrounds

Practical Preparation

It is also essential that students have a basic logistical questions answered and are practically prepared for service. 

Items to Review:

  • Dates and times of service
  • Location of service
  • Transportation plan and time necessary for travel
  • Dress code
  • Point of contact
  • Safety tips


Activities and assignments in the class provide a method or means for students to critically reflect on what they are learning through their community experience. These activities can take multiple forms, including group discussions, online reflective questions, journals, and participatory activities.

Reflection Guide

Follow the link to this helpful guide with resources on: 

  • Reflection activities
  • Reflective writing prompts
  • Facilitating reflection
The Reflection Guide

The Four C's of Reflection

There are four principles to effective critical reflection. It must be Continuous, Connected, Challenging, and Contextualized.
  1. Continuous reflection ensures that reflection, as well as community involvement, are ongoing components in the learners education. Often short-term experiences can lead to more complex long-term involvement which gives the student extensive material for observation, reflection, and experimentation. Continuous Reflection also means that reflection should be utilized before, during, and after an experience.
  2. Connected reflection helps students link the "service" they are doing with community organizations to the structured "learning" they are working through in the classroom. Without structured reflection, "students may fail to bridge the gap between the concrete service experience and the abstract issues discussed in class;students may become frustrated and wonder why they are involved in the community as part of their course work."
  3. Challenging reflection poses new, sometimes uncomfortable questions and ideas to the learner to encourage growth. During this type of reflection it is especially important for students to feel they are in a safe and mutually respectful atmosphere where they can freely express their opinions, ideas and thoughts.
  4. Contextualized reflection ensures that the reflection activities or topics are appropriate and meaningful in relation to the experiences of the students. For example, should the reflection be more formal or informal? Or should it occur in proximity to the community the students will be working with?
Taken from Eyler, Janet & Giles, Dwight (1996) A Practitioners Guide to Reflection in Service Learning Nashville: Vanderbilt University.

Readings to Prompt Critical Reflection

Eby, J. (1998). Why Service Learning is Bad.

Davis, A. (2006). What we Don't Talk About When We Don't Talk About Service. The Civically Engaged Reader.

Strom, S. (2010). Does Service learning Really Help? The New York Times.

Tatum, B. The Complexity of Identity: "Who Am I?"


Academic credit is given for the completion of required academic assignments, not for service alone. 

Grading Rubrics

As with any other course assignment, it is important to set standards for assessing community-based learning work. 

Follow the arrow to view a sample grading rubric for evaluating student journal entries. 

Grading Rubic


Research indicates that students of community-based learning demonstrate higher grades in comprehension and critical analysis of course concepts. This make sense as students are regularly reflecting upon the connections between their classroom education and service. 

Follow the arrow for a sample community-based learning paper or final exam prompt based in Blooms Taxonomy.

Bloom-based Paper Prompt


"Academic Credit is for Learning, Not for Service"

According to Jeffrey Howard (1993), this is the first principle of good practice for service-learning pedagogy.

Howard states: "In traditional courses, academic credit and grades are assigned based on students' demonstration of academic learning as measured by the instructor. It is no different in service-learning courses. While in traditional courses we assess students' learning from traditional course resources, e.g., textbooks, class discussions, library research, etc., in service learning courses we evaluate students' learning from traditional resources, from the community service, and from the blending of the two. 

So, academic credit is not awarded for doing service or for the quality of the service, but rather for the student's demonstration of academic and civic learning."

Howard, J. (1993). "Community service learning in the curriculum. In J. Howard (Ed.), Praxis I: A faculty casebook on community service learning. (pp. 3-12). Ann Arbor: OCSL Press



The class fosters learning from other students, from the instructor, and the community;all serve as co-educators. 

Through a community-based learning experience, all involved serve as co-educators in the process. We encourage faculty members to provide opportunities for students to learn from each other, community representatives, neighborhood explorations, and to view all interactions as opportunities for learning. 

Consider the following: 

  • Bringing a community partner to campus to teach a component of your class
  • Assigning students to interview a member of the community to learn more about their background and connection to the issues the organization address
  • Providing opportunities for students to work in small groups and share their experiences and insights
  • Facilitating classroom discussions in which all students are invited to participate

Assessment of service-learning courses is essential. Evaluative feedback is needed from: (1) students, (2) community partner(s), and (3) the faculty member. CCES offers tools to achieve this criteria and will need access to this data.

SET Questions

All community-based learning courses are evaluated through 4 designated ITS questions. These are automatically added to the online ITS's and completed by students at the end of the semester. 

Students are asked the following: 

  1. My professor helped prepare me for work in the nonprofit sector and community.

  2. The community work I carried out deepened my understanding of assignments, lectures, and readings in the course.

  3. My community-based learning work contributed to the community or organization.

  4. I had the opportunity to reflect critically on my community work and its relationship to the course content with my class and professor.

The ITS results are returned to the CCES office and used to inform future CBL faculty trainings.

Community Partner Survey

It is important to receive feedback from our community partners. 

CCES provides the following survey to evaluate the community-based learning experience from the partner's perspective. 

Follow the link below to preview the survey. We ask that faculty forward this survey along to their community partners during the 14th week of the semester.


Designate Your Course

Are you a faculty member teaching a course incorporating community-based learning or research? Follow the link to register your course for the CB designation. 

The deadline for Fall 2023 CB designation will be posted in December.

For more information, contact

Interested in Community-Based Learning?

Email to join to our listserv and follow the link below for upcoming Community-Based Learning events.

Campus Compact and the Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning are also helpful resources on CBLR best practices.