Community-Engaged Learning

Community-engaged learning (CEL) is a form of experiential learning (EL), which educational theorist David A. Kolb (1984) has described as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (p. 38). Within this transformative process, university students and instructors learn from and collaborate with community partners to support the priorities identified by the community, while enhancing students’ disciplinary knowledge and fostering a sense of social and civil responsibility (Experiential Learning Hub, 2020).

Defining CEL

We distinguish CEL from other forms of EL by four key defining characteristics:  

  1. Enabled through partnerships with communities or grassroots, nonprofit, or public organizations 
  1. Responsive to community-defined priorities 
  1. Rooted in reciprocity, where community partners and students all benefit from the engagement 
  1. Supported by reflection, where students connect community engagement to defined learning objectives 

CEL activities may be embedded in a specific course for credit (also known as curricular CEL), or they may be organized by university staff or faculty outside of a course context (co-curricular CEL). 

Some examples of curricular CEL activities include: 

  • Hands-on team projects that address engineering design challenges in specific community contexts 
  • Virtual consulting services to examine organizational challenges faced by social enterprises 
  • Digital and/or arts-based storytelling projects that collect and analyze local oral histories 

Some examples of co-curricular CEL activities include: 

  • Alternative Reading Week (ARW), a three-day initiative during which students volunteer in teams to support the needs of different organizations 
  • Community Action Projects (CAPs), during which students can participate in remote volunteer opportunities with local nonprofit and public sector organizations 

Community-Engaged Research

Closely related to CEL, community-engaged research (CER) describes structured research experiences that equitably and actively engage community partners in the research process in response to community-identified priorities.

For more information about developing a community-engaged research project, consult the resources available through the Research Services Office


Experiential Learning Hub. (2020). Retrieved from 

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.