Over the past 30 years, service learning has become a feature of increasing interest in higher education (Mayhew et. al, 2016). Service learning is a meeting of an academic credit-bearing course with a community service activity, supplemented by critical reflection—an opportunity to apply course material in a real-world setting in a way that benefits the community (AAC&U, 2023; Bringle & Hatcher, 1998, Butin, 2005; Kaak & LaPorte, 2022). Bringle and Hatcher (1998) distinguished service learning from students’ other possible intentional community experiences:
Unlike extracurricular voluntary service, service learning is a course-based service experience that produces the best outcomes when meaningful service activities are related to course material through reflection activities such as directed writings, small group discussions, and class presentations. Unlike practica and internships, the experiential activity in a service learning course is not necessarily skill-based within the context of professional education (p. 222).
In short, service learning experiences are distinct from extra- and co-curricular service, mission trips, internships, and practica. It is the connection to a specific class, complete with related assignments, that truly defines the service learning experience.
Why Do Service Learning?
Service learning has been identified as a “high impact practice” by the American Association of College and Universities (AAC&U), a designation “based on evidence of significant educational benefits for students who participate in them—including and especially those from demographic groups historically underserved by higher education” (AAC&U, 2023). But in what ways does service learning actually benefit students? In their comprehensive metanalysis, Mayhew et al., (2016) noted that exposure to a service learning program has a positive effect on course learning outcomes and on civic and community attitudes, both while in college and the years following. They found, however, that research has been mixed regarding the effect of service learning on college students’ moral reasoning (Mayhew et al., 2016). Kuh et al. (2006), identified additional benefits to students, writing that “Service-learning courses help students clarify and define their identities and strengthen their self-esteem, internal locus of control, and interpersonal skills” (p. 83). Furthermore, these experiences can benefit the community being served, and they can provide opportunities for mentorship and aid students in their faith development (Dirksen, 2020).
Though a high impact practice with potential benefit students and the local community, service learning is best conceptualized as a teaching strategy as opposed to the new normative paradigm for all education (Butin, 2005). Certain courses may lend better to the incorporation of service learning than others based on epistemological differences between disciplines (Butin, 2006). For example, Butin (2006) pointed out that disciplines such as physics, chemistry, or engineering that are based on quantification and cumulative knowledge may be less apt to use service learning than disciplines that focus more on qualitative, iterative, knowledge and interpretation such as English, management, and education. However, this reality does not mean that an instructor who wishes to incorporate service learning into their class should avoid the attempt.
How to do Service Learning?
The effective use of service learning requires thorough planning and consideration prior to the beginning of the course term. At this point four initial questions will guide the direction of the service learning component of a course:
- Will the instructor provide community partners or will students be responsible for finding their own (Meyers et al., 2014)?
- How will this experience connect to the course objectives (Gibson et al., 2011; Meyers et al., 2014)?
- How will students be assessed or evaluated through the experience? Though this is typically done through reflective assignments (Bringle & Hatcher, 1998, Butin, 2005; Kaak & LaPorte, 2022), there is room for creativity.
- How long will students serve in their placements?
The first question will depend on the nature of the course, the availability of personal connections or personal knowledge of potential partners, knowledge or connections of colleagues familiar with the field in question, or the availability of Baylor’s Office of Engaged Learning to help students find relevant partner organizations. It is also advisable to check with university counsel or risk management to ensure the proposed activity does not pose a legal risk. Regarding the second question, service learning could readily be tied into broad course objectives such as “understand the complexities of the foster care system” or specifically tailored objectives such as “apply psychosocial theory in a classroom setting” or “develop a marketing strategy for a local nonprofit.” For the third question, consider asking your students reflection questions such as “what is an experience from your placement this week that connects with something we have discussed in class?” or “what has your time in the placement taught your about yourself?” The answer to the final question will depend on the nature of the placements and the instructor’s goals for the experience, as the literature is vague regarding the ideal duration of placements. However, a case could probably be made for the benefits of having a longer exposure to the service placements so as to give students more opportunities upon which to reflect throughout the semester—though a one-time service opportunity, if designed well, could also prove highly impactful.
Once these preliminary decisions have been made, the service learning experience can be incorporated into an existing course structure, or a course can be built up around the service learning experience. The instructor will need to determine, also, if students will be expected to engage in the service element of the course in replacement of time that would be allocated to homework or if certain class times will be occupied by service instead of traditional classroom instruction. Because of the extent to which a service learning experience needs to connect to course learning outcomes to be truly effective (Gibson et al., 2011), it is important for instructors to put the work in before the start of the semester to make the experience intimately connected to the rest of the course, as opposed to just assigning a service project as a class activity. Kaak and LaPorte (2022) presented a helpful model for planning service learning that synthesizes literature on service learning with Jesus’s approach to ministry in Mark 6. Through this model, enacting service learning can be broken up into three main stages: Orientation/the Entry, Event/the Experience, and Debriefing/the Exit. Each is expounded upon in the following paragraphs.
The first stage is one in which students are introduced to the project. At this point, students should be provided with relevant information about the project, expectations for related assignments, any knowledge or skills needed to engage in the service element, and an overview of the do’s and don’ts of serving within the particular context (Kaak and LaPorte, 2022). If students are to find their own partners, Meyers et al. (2014) recommended the faculty create a written agreement that is signed by students, the community partner, and the instructor to establish expectations and maintain the project’s meaningfulness.
Instructors should also remember that some placements may require students to undergo background checks, depending on the nature of the service, so make sure they are aware of any preliminary steps they may need to take (in the case that the instructor finds placements) or that students who are selecting their own placements need to consider this possibility when making their placement arrangements. In addition to more logistical concerns, the orientation phase is a helpful time for instructors at faith-based institutions to have a conversation with students about the tension some students might experience between evangelism and service—a desire to focus on “soul winning” rather than the project (Dirksen, 2020).
When students have been properly equipped and all logistics have been arranged with partners, it is time for students to begin serving. As Kaak and LaPorte (2022) suggest, proper preparation helps mitigate the chance of unforeseen circumstances arising during the project. During the period when students are engaging in their service placements, they should be regularly connecting their thoughts and experiences regarding the service element with course material through reflective methods such as journaling (Gibson et al., 2011) or reflection in the classroom (AAC&U, 2023). Given that Mayhew et al. (2016) found the long-term civic outcomes of service learning were mediated by the reflective portion of the experience, instructors should be wary of overlooking this needed component of the experience.
Furthermore, conversations in class or feedback on written reflections are also a place where instructors can gently challenge what Dirksen (2020) described as a “savior” mentality among some students, which detracts from the desired outcome of cultural humility. Though most an instructor’s work should be completed before the students begin their service experience, it is crucial that the instructor remains involved to help students extract the educational benefits of service learning.
The final stage of the service learning experience involves post-experience debriefing and reflection. This final debriefing allows an opportunity for students to solidify their learning from the semester and process within the class how their own understanding of the course material has been augmented by their service experience (Kaak & LaPorte, 2022). Furthermore, this stage can serve as a time to celebrate what students have done and learned throughout the project and as a time to thank community partners (Meyers et al., 2014). Additionally, Meyers et al. (2014) provide a reminder that the concluding stage of a service learning experience is an ideal time to assess the project and to determine what changes need to be made in future iterations of the project. In taking the time to conclude well, instructors not only set themselves up to better leverage service learning in the future but also help students consider how they have grown in their understanding of course materials and how they can meaningfully serve their community.
A Few Additional Considerations
- If having students find their own community partners, provide a list of potential options (Meyers et al., 2014). Additionally, these pairings should be approved by the instructor, and—as mentioned previously—it is advisable to have the faculty, students, and community partner sign an agreement to make sure expectations are maintained (Meyers et al., 2014).
- Though Gibson et al. (2011) presented a method of including service learning, even with limited placement opportunities (meaning not all students actually participate), it is difficult to see a way in which the students who do not participate get the same benefits. As such, it is highly recommended that all students are in placements if you are going to use service learning.
- Instructors should maintain a high expectation that students honestly reflect upon what they are learning from their personal experiences, rather than just write what they think the instructor wants to hear (Gibson et al., 2011).
- As Dirksen (2020) noted, because of the nature of service learning, there will be circumstances that arise which are unexpected and entirely outside the control of the instructor, students, or partners. As such, maintaining flexibility and a willingness to adapt is key to navigating these surprise developments.
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