What is Community Engaged Learning?

Studenten buiten aan het werk

The term Community Engaged Learning (CEL) is used more and more often. And this is not likely to diminish: in the coming years Utrecht University will offer more courses that include Community Engaged Learning. But what exactly is Community Engaged Learning? In this article Thea van Lankveld explains the theory. She touches on the most important characteristics, the impact for students and teachers, and which potential issues are seen with CEL.

What is Community Engaged Learning?

Community Engaged Learning is experience-based education in which students and teachers together with external partners work on issues in society. These partners can be governmental organisations, NGO’s, social organisations, or people from the local community. CEL integrates academic education with societal engagement. This form of education is sometimes also called (community) service-learning (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995). The UU prefers the term Community Engaged Learning, because it better expresses the role of the societal partners.

Not education for society, but education with society

A core aspect of CEL is de reciprocity and the cooperative relationship with the societal partners (Butin, 2010; Farnell, 2020). In this CEL distinguishes itself from other valorisation activities, in which the university only ‘delivers’ and ‘transfers’ knowledge. Rather, in CEL, societal partners, students, teachers, and researchers have an equal position. They contribute valuable knowledge and learn from each other. Contact with societal partners is often quite intensive. As such, CEL is not education for society, but with society.

A second aspect of CEL is that the societal issues that are worked on are based on questions and needs from the societal partners. The university does not position itself as an organisation that collects data for its own gain, but rather, the issue that is researched is truly one of the issues that the societal partners are facing.

Contributing to a better world

CEL often has an ideological basis; the idea that students and teachers contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (or ‘contributing to a better world’), such as more a more sustainable world, a more inclusive society, or the empowerment of people who live in poverty or other less privileged and vulnerable people (Farnell, 2020).

This progressive social justice agenda is not always explicit. Often (be it implicit or not) there is already a vision that students together with their societal partners can elicit a transformative change, no matter how small. Combined with the idea that it can be the role of education to make that contribution to the world. In this context, CEL is often seen as a way to improve citizenship, leadership, and cooperation competences (Thomson et al., 2011).

However, there is also criticism that the social impact that CEL claims to want to have, in practice often remains modest (Butin, 2010; Farnell, 2020).

What does CEL require of students and teachers?

Learning in CEL is very experiential; students don’t acquire knowledge from books but learn by doing and interacting with society. To maintain the academic character in the education, reflection and connection to scientific literature have a prominent place in it. This can be reflection with fellow students, the teacher, the partner, and/or by writing. This requires of students that they can handle non-transparency and complexity. A learning experience in a CEL-context can, therefore, be quite disrupting and impactful for students (Butin, 2010).

CEL also requires great flexibility from teachers. They have less the role of an expert and more that of a coach who helps with dealing with ambiguity and who stimulates the depth in the reflection. Both students and teachers are required to be able to act respectfully towards the societal partners.

CEL sometimes evokes questions about the value and limitations of scientific knowledge and our implicit assumptions about learning. This too is something a teacher needs to be able to handle and be able to discuss with students. CEL requires the societal partners to have a willingness to learn.

Research has shown that, in addition to academic learning outcomes, CEL also has outcomes in citizenship (such as cultural competences and being more open to diversity), and personal and professional development (such as identity development and discovering what you want and are able to do with your academic knowledge) (Celio et al., 2011; Warren 2012). These elements also make that Community Engaged Learning can be impactful for students.

Example from practice 1: Action learning with impact

Together with societal partners such as welfare organisations and social enterprises, UU-students try to create a positive impact on disadvantaged areas such as Overvecht, Lombok, or Kanaleneiland. Together they conduct an action study in which they combine research with implementing interventions after which they subsequently reflect on their own experiences (first-person reflectie; Marshall, 2016). [course Actieleren met impact, part of Learning Lab Overvecht].

Example from practice 2: Podcast on the history of Utrecht

Bij Geschiedenis doen een aantal studenten stage-onderzoek naar de geschiedenis van de stad Utrecht. Het onderzoeksthema is aangedragen door de maatschappelijke partner, in dit voorbeeld Utrechters zelf, en tijdens het onderzoek zoeken studenten contact met deze stadsgenoten om ze bijvoorbeeld te interviewen of de bronnen te raadplegen die deze inwoners op zolder hebben liggen. Gedurende hun stagetijd maken de studenten bovendien een podcast over het onderzoeksproces, die voor iedereen te beluisteren is. [DOMcast, cursus van Pim Huijnen].


Bringle, R. & Hatcher, J. (1995). A service learning curriculum for faculty. The Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning, 2, 112-122.

Butin, D.W. (2010). Service-learning in theory and practice: The future of community engagement in higher education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Celio,C.I., Durlak, J., & Dymnicki, A. (2011). A meta-analysis of the impact of service-learning on students. Journal of Experiential Education, 34(2), 164-181.

Farnell, Th. (2020). Community engagement in higher education: Trends, practices and policies. NESET report. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. doi:10.2766/071482.

Marshall, J. (2016). First person action research: Living life as inquiry. London: Sage.

Thomson, A.M., Smith-Tolken, A.R., Naidoo, A.V., & Bringle, R.G. (2011). Service learning and community engagement: A comparison of three national contexts. Voluntas, 22, 214-237.

UU College van Bestuur (2020). Implementatieplan Community Engaged Learning. Universiteit Utrecht.

Warren, J.L. (2012). Does service-learning increase student learning? A meta-analysis. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 18(2), 56-61.


Dr. Thea van Lankveld