A transformative teaching method

Teaching and learning through societal engagement

Our society and the associated experiences of everyday living are becoming increasingly more complex. As a result, social challenges and problems are expanding in their complexity and require multidimensional solutions that are developed, supported and attended by different actors. We enable our students and societal actors to participate in a transdisciplinary knowledge transfer, their own learning experience in course-setting that focus solutions and scientific methods and various interdisciplinary forms of knowledge production. But what does all that mean exactly?

© BZH / Nina Andreasova

What is Service Learning?

Service learning is a didactical approach that origitnated in Northern American higher education. In German-speaking countries, people often speak of learning through engagement. Yet, generally speaking the English term service learning has become more established at German universities. Service means a service for or contribution of something benificial to society. Learning refers to academic learning in the classroom.

Similar to other transfer and experience-oriented teaching forms (e.g. community based learning, problem based learning, community based research, social entrepreneurship learning, etc.), this form of teaching aims to further develop societal involvement within the fields of higher education. At the same time, this approach to experience-based learning intends to provide students with skills that prepare them for increasingly rapid changes of society which are often accompanied by complex challenges. In teaching, this specifically means that students have the opportunity to gain practical and application-oriented experience. They design projects together with partners from outside of the university or commit to a periodical engagement with a focus on a civic service. This project or engagement activity is accompanied by a course in which guidance is provided to the students in order for them to reflect on their experiences from the practical experiences and thereby establish a connection to academic learning content (the curriculum).

Key aspects of Service Learning

In order to better understand an grasp what Service Learning is all about in regard to course design an curriuculm, or simply to identify potential courses, we provided a list of the most important key aspects of the didiactical approach below.


A central component of the course should be that students have a space and time for reflection. Students should be guided/supported in reflecting on the challenges but also the successes they have experienced in applying academic skills in a socially relevant, practical context.


Service Learning courses should enable transdisciplinary forms of collaboration. This means that methods or forms of knowledge from a socially relevant and practice-oriented field are used in a form appropriate to the respective objectives of the course.


The objectives and approach of the Service Learning course should also involve public stakeholders with their perspectives and interests. A public from outside the course context can thus either participate directly, contribute their own perspectives and/or gain access to the results of the course.

shift in roles

The course opens up opportunities for the roles of teachers and students to shift. Teachers also take on roles of support, guidance, advice, learning and facilitation. Students take on the roles of designers, teachers, knowledge mediators, users and experts, among others.

societal challenge

The thematic focus of a Service Learning event should always be aligned with a field of current (overall) social challenges. For example, the overarching topics of sustainability, diversity, digitalization (but also, for example, social change, demographic change, political education, post-colonialism ...).

design and experience

Students should be given the opportunity to experience the effectiveness of their own actions through a service learning event. As part of the course, students should have the opportunity to make a contribution to a problem that offers a starting point for the actors involved, regardless of the overall success. Ideally, the courses conclude with a course assignment (or examination) that enables students to reflect on the development of their contribution.

The role of Service Learning

We understand service learning as a transdisciplinary and transfer-oriented teaching approach in which the learning context of the university is expanded by external, practice-oriented spaces and forms of knowledge. But what exactly does that mean? Service Learning at the University of Bonn opens up a teaching and learning approach that focuses on many different actors from different backgrounds working together to find solutions to current social challenges. This form of teaching thus also serves as one of several building blocks to strengthen and develop the research and transfer-oriented profile of the University of Bonn. Working transdisciplinarily in this context means that the guiding methods, knowledge and expertise not only come from academia, but are contributed equally by all stakeholders involved and from different institutional contexts. A transfer of knowledge between all participants is an important basic component in this way of working, as all participants inform each other about their own specialist knowledge and expertise on an equal footing and thus create opportunities for participation. At the same time, however, the results-oriented contribution is an important component of service learning: the end, the aim should always be to present or develop something that all interested and committed people from society or the university sector can build on.

© BZH / DR
Eine Wissenschaftlerin und ein Wissenschaftler arbeiten hinter einer Glasfassade und mischen Chemikalien mit Großgeräten.
© BZH / Nina Andreasova

Our longterm goal

There is now a valuable variety of experiences and at least as many conceptual approaches to Service Learning, not only internationally but also in Germany. Our goal at the University of Bonn is to establish a broad understanding of and interest for experience-based forms of teaching such as Service Learning in order to generate a broad horizon of experience with engagement- and transfer-based teaching concepts. Service Learning as one suche teaching method can be utilised to address important current, complex social issues and create a sense of responsibility among students, teachers and the social actors involved for engaging in socially transformative processes.

In addition, we see the methodology behind Service Learning - but also the conceptual framework - as an opportunity to initiate transformative processes in university development and didactic innovations. One focal point here is to take a closer look at the experience of self-efficacy in complex transformation processes. In other words: how exactly do we change when we start to shape collaborative?

Thematic starting points for Service Learning

ESD stands for Education for Sustainable Development and refers to an educational approach that aims to empower stakeholders to act in a sustainable and future-orientated way. Reflecting on one's own perspectives plays a major role here, as does acquiring the skills to solve complex problems. This is because most of the questions and problems surrounding the sustainable transformation of society extend into many different areas. In order to meet these requirements in teaching, service learning has emerged as a method that provides a suitable framework for ESD, alongside other forms of teaching.

Our society is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. Digitalisation in particular and the social changes it has triggered mean that we as stakeholders in society are confronted with new media, methods of collaboration and forms of communication at short intervals. This requires us to relearn or learn differently and at the same time enables completely new approaches to increasingly complex challenges. It is precisely because service learning forms an interface between universities and society that not only new digital forms of collaboration are used, but can also be explored and developed performatively. Through service learning, a broad range of knowledge can be generated through the large number of actors involved, which deals specifically with current complex issues such as the integration of artificial intelligence into everyday worlds.



Service Learning thrives on the fact that the results obtained are made available to a broad public. In this respect, service learning is a teaching method that enables students to transfer knowledge and prepare information in a target group-orientated way. At the same time, a successful service learning approach is also dependent on an infrastructure that offers the opportunity for a broad transfer of knowledge and insights. This is why OER in particular is an important interface, as we want to be able to work with various stakeholders at different levels.

n transdisciplinary work, research and teaching, the boundaries between the different dimensions of knowledge production and transfer are overcome. This means that not only knowledge from academic contexts is taken into account, but that practical knowledge and methods are also integrated. Transdisciplinarity thus forms an important methodological cornerstone for service learning and is simultaneously experienced, developed and lived through service learning events.

Our support structure at the University of Bonn and beyond

Vice Rectorate for Learning, Teaching and University Development

As part of the Bonn Centre for Higher Education, we directed by the Vice Rectorate and therefore enjoy extensive support for university development.

Vice Rectorate for Sustainability

We are supported by the Vice-Rectorate and the Sustainability Office and work closely together in the conceptualisation of our approach. Service Learning is one of the ways in which sustainability issues can be addressed in teaching.


We can fully rely on our cooperation partnerships for the conception, organisation and implementation of courses as well as the generation of new project ideas and the associated exchange of experience.

We are a member of the University Network for Social Responsibility e. V. (HBdV).

OER (Open Educational Resources) are also a key topic for us, as they allow us to share teaching and learning materials as well as knowledge and results with external stakeholders. ORCA NRW is currently an important interface for us here.

Within the university, we are part of the teaching sub-group of the BOOST network. This network has set itself the goal of embedding sustainability in all areas of the university.

Qualitätskriterien für Service Learning

Quelle: Hochschulnetzwerk Bildung durch Verantwortung/Redaktionsgruppe Qualität

Projects and measures arise out of real societal problems and challenges and aim
to provide the individual, a group or society at large with a specific benefit.

All the parties involved define common goals, work together in an effort to
achieve them and, finally, assess whether the goals have been achieved.

Service Learning is integrated into the degree course in terms of structure and
content and is linked to the learning objectives of the degree course.

In Service Learning, students acquire personal, social, technical and professional
skills in connection with the content and didactic structure chosen by the
teaching staff and non-profit organisations.

Students study and take action outside their own university and study

All of the parties involved work together to plan, prepare and shape Service

The parties involved reflect on their Service Learning experiences with the aid of
technical and academic guidance.

Students are provided with support and supervision while they are planning and
executing Service Learning projects.

Service Learning projects include evaluation measures, particularly with regard to
quality assurance and development.

In Service Learning, the commitment and performance of the parties involved are
acknowledged and valued, particularly on completion of Service Learning.


Service Learning University of Bonn

Feel free to contact us at any time if you have questions about service learning or current events on offer and if you need support for new ideas or are just generally interested in getting involved and participating.


+49 228 / 73-4064



1. floor, room 1.001
Quantiusstraße 4
53115 Bonn

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Sutainability at the University of Bonn

Service learning at the University of Bonn focuses primarily on sustainability issues. The Vice-Rectorate for Sustainability and its associated initiatives are a major driving force.

You can find out more about sustainability at the University of Bonn and the committed stakeholders here

Transdisciplinarity and clusters of Excellence

As a University of Excellence, the University of Bonn has six different TRAs and an extensive network of research scientists working on future-oriented topics.

More information about the TRAs and who is involved can be found here

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