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Bringing the Inside Out and the Outside In

There is no single “right way” to do service learning, but it must fit both the learning needs of the student and the service needs of the community.

What is Service Learning?

Despite the increasing popularity of service learning, there is often confusion as to what it really is. Like other community-based experiences—volunteering, community service, field work, and internships—service learning engages students in hands-on activities that provide opportunities for learning and development.

Where other methods emphasize student learning (internships and field work) or community outcomes (volunteerism and community service), service learning is unique in its imperative to balance the educational needs of students with the practical needs of the community. For this to happen, it is essential that community entities be involved in identifying their own needs and also in working with students to establish approaches that will address these needs most effectively.

In designing a service learning experience, one must consider how the service work and course content relate. What are the students likely to learn from their experience? How are they likely to learn this? What other learning outcomes might one need to anticipate? Prescience would be helpful here, but most of us have to settle for good planning, flexibility, and a sense of humor.

It is also essential to provide students with opportunities for reflection—assignments designed to help students find the meaning in their service and how it relates to the course. Such reflection can take many forms, from in-class discussions and “mad minute” essays, to journals, papers, and portfolios.

In addition to formal assignments, reflection can be facilitated through regular classroom interactions. For example, I usually ask students for examples from their service learning. A student from Introduction to Gerontology once noted: I really like shopping with (my community partner). I help her read labels and she's a really cool lady – but I don't know why she always has to give me cookies before I go. Does she want me to get fat?

The student's deceptively simple comment opened a discussion that went far beyond the planned lesson. In fact, the focus of class that day shifted from a lecture on age-related vision changes to a lively debate about reciprocity, independence, and dependence (issues slated for later in the semester). Service learning facilitators need to be open to the unexpected opportunities or classroom serendipity that may present itself. This is not always easy or practical, but as in the case just mentioned, the event led to an unplanned but highly effective learning opportunity for the entire class. Furthermore, the cookie incident became a building block for subsequent class discussions.

Establishing Goals

A growing body of research aligns service learning with a range of positive outcomes. Student benefits include interpersonal skills development, time management development, a deeper appreciation of civic engagement, and enhanced critical thinking skills. The community benefits by receiving assistance with a variety of important projects and a renewed appreciation of the skills and talents of local students.

The service learning process begins by identifying the learning goals and objectives for the class. The more explicit the goals, the easier it will be to envision ways of accomplishing them. While service learning may not always emerge as the best option for achieving a particular goal, keep in mind that it can be effective in almost any discipline.

For example, pairing students with older adults in a volunteer chore assistance program educates gerontology students about the daily lives of older adults while helping support essential community services.

Foreign language students needing conversational practice with native speakers find that their talents fill a gap at ESL programs, community-sponsored interpretation service centers, and even facilities for persons with dementia (who may contain residents who revert to a childhood language proficiency level).

Writing students can find opportunities to write the life stories of those who can't. Mass communication majors gather valuable experience assisting non-profit groups generate publicity. Education majors offer reading workshops at after-school programs. Political science students arrange local candidate forums.

But social science, health, and humanities are not the only areas where service learning has been successful. Environmental science students work with local agencies to chart climate changes and to identify potential environmental hazards. Physics students hone their ability to simplify complicated material by teaching school children. The possibilities are as unlimited as the needs of the community and your imagination as an instructor.

Service Learning Resources

Because one of the most obvious resources for service learning is the community, forming community partnerships is an essential part of the process. Sometimes, community partners find you, but usually, you must work to find them. One must consider the size of the targeted community; one's familiarity with local services and agencies; and prior relationships and previously established trust between one's educational institution and various community entities.

Transparent communication is essential to building a solid community partnership. Be clear and forthright with your goals and objectives. Be open to the community's unanticipated needs which your students might address.

Support from one's home institution can significantly ease the burden of getting started. Such support can be in the form of peer assistance, community contacts, recognition for promotion and tenure, and possibly even time and/or monetary resources. Many schools have service learning coordinators or similar staff willing to help. Colleagues (local and otherwise) can serve as valuable resources, as can the growing body of discipline-specific literature on service learning practice.

Finally, do not overlook the value of your own creativity and that of your students. If practical, include students in the discussions of possible community interactions, and most certainly include them, along with the community, in the evaluation of project outcomes.

Further Challenges

While few service learning challenges are insurmountable, anticipating problems can limit their impact. Some of the toughest roadblocks I have faced are ones I didn't see coming. For example, I was experiencing strong support from my institution while my students worked to design an accessible community playground. But this support vanished when we began to fundraise and needed a fiscal agent. “You can't do that here” became the administration's mantra—not because it couldn't be done, but because it had never been done before. In the end, I was lucky enough to find a community-based fiscal agent who satisfied the administration.

Student dishonesty or cheating in service learning is another challenge I hadn't anticipated. One of my students, as planned, had turned in a completed time sheet along with his final reflection assignments. Imagine my shock when our community partner called to inquire about the same student who had disappeared after his first day. The story of this major misstep now serves as a “don't even think about it” allegory for new students, another good lesson in “learning by not doing.”

References & Resources

Several service learning links, as well as information on the programs described here may be found at
Click on “Service-Learning” and/or “Kaleidoscope.” Also, see the AAHE's 20 volume series on Service Learning in the disciplines:

Bringle, R. & Hatcher, J. (1999). Reflection in service learning: Making meaning of experience. Educational Horizons, 179-185.

Campus Compact (2000). Introduction to Service Learning Toolkit: Readings and Resources for Faculty. Providence, RI: Campus Compact.

Eyler, J. & Giles, D. (1999). Where's the Learning in Service Learning? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Furco, A. (1996). “Service-learning: A Balanced Approach to Experiential Education.” Expanding Boundaries: Serving and Learning. Cooperative Education Association, Columbia , MD.

Gelmon, S., Holland , B., Driscoll, A., Spring, A., & Kerrigan, S. (2001). Assessing Service Learning and Civic Engagement: Principles and Techniques. Providence, RI: Campus Compact.

Heffernan, K. (2001). Fundamentals of Service Learning Course Construction. Providence, RI: Campus Compact.

Howard, J. (Ed.) (1993). Praxis I: A Faculty Casebook on Community Service Learning. Ann Arbor, MI: OCSL, Press.

Karasik, R. (2005). Whispers and Sighs: The Unwritten Challenges of Service-Learning. In S. Chadwick Blossey & D. Robertson, (Ed.) To Improve the Academy: Vol. 23.

Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development (pp. 236-253). Bolton. MA: Anker.

Rhoads, R. A. & Howard, J. (Eds.). (1998). Academic Service Learning: A Pedagogy of Action and Reflection. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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