Gabriela Gonzalez, Department of Criminology, Law, & Society

Making a Murderer, The Keepers, Mindhunter, Criminal Minds, How to Get Away with Murder. One need only flip open their laptop to get a glimpse of society’s obsession with true crime and crime drama. This obsession can also find its way into the classroom. All things considered, it is no surprise that students enroll in criminology courses with preconceived notions (informed by television shows and stereotypes) about crime and criminals. Indeed, these represent a very elementary understanding of a truly complex social issue. As a result, student preconceptions tend to favor individualistic explanations of criminality and make it difficult to teach concepts such as the social construction of deviance (Nurse & Krain, 2006).

Service-learning is an ideal pedagogical tool to combat such stereotypes and encourage a more meaningful academic experience for students in the social sciences. While traditional teaching styles may still reign across many campuses, research has shown that non-traditional styles are more effective for student learning (Lumpkin et al., 2015; Hyun et al., 2017). Given that, criminology professors should be encouraged to develop exercises to help students understand the social construction of deviance and social theories of crime.

Service-learning, as defined by Love (2008), “uses community service as a vehicle for the attainment of students’ academic goals and objectives while concurrently incorporating an element of social activism that serves the community.” Through service-learning, students should be able to see the impact of their own work, the community their work serves, and the changes that need to occur within these communities to attain social justice (George et al., 2015).

Here are some tips for successful service-learning in the field of criminology:

1. The service-learning activity must be explicitly linked to the course and its objectives

Instructors should treat service-learning as one of the main components of the class, not only as a stand-alone assignment. In doing so, there should be mini assignments or reflection papers leading up to a final project. These give students multiple opportunities to discuss their contribution and understanding of social issues. This would also allow the instructor to make adjustments and discuss progress of the service-learning activity with the community partner.

2. The service-learning activity must be especially tangible

In order to have a successful service-learning experience, professors should initiate contact with suitable community partners (e.g., non-government agencies, faith-based organizations, criminal justice agencies, etc.) and establish a relationship before students become involved. Indeed, depending on the length of term, it might not be feasible to complete a service-learning project from start-to-finish. At this stage, the professor can explain the purpose of service-learning and gauge interest and/or identify areas of need for the community partner.

3. The service-learning activity should be particularly beneficial for the student AND to the community

What primarily differentiates service-learning from community service is the ability for students to learn and practice theoretically-relevant textbook examples and link classroom concepts to meaningful service. However, this should also be approached as a partnership in which the non-student (e.g., program, organization, establishment, etc.) gains something more than an extra pair of hands on deck. Equally important, community partners in service-learning projects should have the opportunity to set guidelines and request tangible deliverables at the conclusion of the student’s involvement that will fit their own needs.

Criminology majors are the future law enforcement personnel, practitioners, and researchers in the Criminal Justice field. As such, it should be the goal of faculty in these departments to find innovative ways to educate students about social issues and blur the black and white constructions of crime and punishment.


George, M., Lim, H., Lucas, S., & Meadows, R. (2015). Learning by doing: Experiential learning in criminal justice. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 26(4), 471-492.

Hyun, J., Ediger, R., & Lee, D. (2017). Students’ Satisfaction on Their Learning Process in Active Learning and Traditional Classrooms. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education29(1), 108-118.

Love, S. R. (2008). Keeping it real: Connecting feminist criminology and activism through service learning. Feminist criminology3(4), 303-318.

Lumpkin, A., Achen, R. M., & Dodd, R. K. (2015). Student perceptions of active learning. College Student Journal49(1), 121-133.

Nurse, A. M., & Krain, M. (2006). Mask making: Incorporating service learning into criminology and deviance courses. Teaching Sociology34(3), 278-285.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on April 23rd, 2019.