Everything an #SAPro Should Know Before Designing a Service-Learning Project

We all want to help our students become better people.

…Or at least, any student affairs professional I’ve ever met has had that lofty goal in mind. We envision our students using their hard-earned co-curricular skills not just to acquire impressive job titles and steady salaries but to better the communities around them. 

Ideally, we can extend this vision to practice, giving our students chances to apply their new and in-progress skills to real-world scenarios. One key way to do so is through service learning.

This post is meant for anyone looking to start a new service-learning project, program, or course at their institution or to improve upon ones that already exist. I’ll talk you through what service-learning actually is (hint: it’s not the same as volunteerism nor community service), along with its goals, benefits, and best practices.

(Looking for examples of great service-learning projects that are already happening across the country? Check out this post.)

What is it?

Much like “student affairs”, service learning doesn’t have a singular universally accepted definition. Many institutions and service-learning facilitators have developed their own ways to explain the concept.  

And taking the time to thoughtfully develop your very own definition, considering each and every word, might be a helpful exercise for setting your specific program’s vision.

But, you need to start somewhere. So, here’s one definition I especially like, from Janet S. Eyler and Dwight E. Giles, Jr in their 1999 book Where’s The Learning in Service Learning?:

“[Service learning is] a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students … seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves. In the process, students link personal and social development with academic and cognitive development … experience enhances understanding; understanding leads to more effective action.”

Or if you’d prefer something shorter and snappier, Arizona State University has you covered:

“Service-learning is a teaching methodology that enables students to apply knowledge and skills learned in the classroom to meaningful service to the community.”

Service learning shares many buzzwords with other high-impact practices. Yet, it’s not synonymous with volunteerism, community service, or internships. 

the differences between community service, internships, and service learning as explained further in the blog text

Service-learning projects benefit both the provider (AKA the students) and the recipients (AKA your community partners). As its name implies, the focus is dually on service and learning, which is fully integrated into an academic curriculum. 

Also, unlike internships, service learning focuses on essential skills — such as leadership, teamwork, and communication — rather than on job-based hard skills, such as bookkeeping, copywriting, or data engineering. 

Yet another way to think about service learning is through its attributes. The University of Washington will only label student opportunities as “service learning” if they meet all six of these qualities:

  • Integrative: “Service-learning holistically integrates class learning objectives, faculty guidance, as well as community perspective and priorities.”
  • Reflective: “Structured opportunities for reflection can enable learners to examine and form the beliefs, values, opinions, assumptions, judgments and practices related to an action or experience, gain a deeper understanding of them and construct their own meaning and significance for future actions.”
  • Contextualized: “Working alongside community members and experienced professionals, the opportunity to construct learning and responses can be immediate and uncontrived.”
  • Strength-based: “A strength-based approach focuses on the capacity and expertise that exist in every community, rather than on what is absent.”
  • Reciprocal: “The service-learning relationship offers all parties involved some measure of benefits; it is a two-way street.”
  • Lifelong: “Service-learning is beyond memorable; it can influence one’s career path and enhance civic responsibility.”
service learning qualification: integrative, reflective, contextualized, strength-based, reciprocal, lifelong

What are the goals?

Direct goals for service-learning programs typically relate to learning outcomes. In other words, success is measured by students’ acquisition of essential skills — those sort of personality traits and skill sets that will aid them in persisting academically, empower them in campus leadership roles, and make them competitive job applicants after graduating.

Perhaps, like many institutions, you’ll find CAS’s six broad categories of learning outcomes (known as “domains”) inspirational for creating your service-learning goals. They are:

  • Knowledge acquisition, construction, integration and application
  • Cognitive complexity
  • Intrapersonal development
  • Interpersonal competence
  • Humanitarianism and civic engagement
  • Practical competence

To make your goals measurable, be sure to narrow these domains down further to specific skills. For example, what sets of knowledge do you want students to acquire? What intrapersonal and interpersonal skills can your program help students learn? What practical competence should they be able to display? 

You should answer these sorts of questions, then outline your outcomes, in conjunction with the community partners of each service-learning project. In addition to the partner’s own goals and learning outcomes that will be inherent to the service-learning experience, you should consider the mission and values of your institution. If, for example, your institution’s mission mentions “building future leaders”, then you should consider how each service-learning project will help develop students’ leadership skills. 

'the great aim of education is not knowledge but action' - Herbert Spencer

Be sure to also consider the practical benefits of students acquiring these skills and knowledge sets. Perhaps you’ll like to increase the rate of full-time job offers for students within six months of graduation. In this case, you can design learning outcomes related to the workforce readiness skills employers desire most. Or, if your institution has charged your department with increasing retention rates, you can consider learning outcomes that help students persist from term to term. Assessing behavioral trends and involvement data can help you determine specific skills.

You can also pick some industry-specific skills — aka “hard skills.” These will vary widely, depending upon the program. Goals for a food security service-learning course, for example, might include increasing students’ knowledge of federal food stamp programs, local politics, and historical food insecurity trends. 

Loyola University New Orleans has more great examples of how to align service-learning with outcomes.

What are the benefits?

Service-learning is more than merely nice and noble — the sort of thing that students will clamor to post about on Instagram as “proof” of their altruism.  

Service-learning has proven, measurable rewards for students, far beyond increased Instagram likes and followers. Here’s a brief selection, based on research:

Self-learning can increase:

  • Campus belonging – Students gain socially from the experience, develop a common sense of purpose, and diminish feelings of isolation. (Greenberg, 1997)
  • Staff connections – Participants engage in greater interaction with faculty and staff on campus. (Keup, 2005)
  • Engagement – Service-learning students score significantly higher on measures of interpersonal, academic, and community engagement. (Gallini & Moeley, 2003)
  • Academic satisfaction – Service-learning students report increased satisfaction with courses and curriculum. (Gray et al., 1996)
  • Personal resiliency – Service-learning can build student’s resiliency by improving their interactions with others, strengthening their character, and allowing them to model the positive behaviors of others. (Kraft & Wheeler, 2003)
  • Coping strategies – Service-learning can help build approach coping strategies, internal loci of control, and academic/social self-efficacy. (Bean & Eaton, 2002)

And in addition to benefiting individual students, service-learning can help with arguably the universal goal of student affairs: Retention! 

“Service-learning has been shown to have a positive influence on retention of students during their first year and beyond, with marked impact on some students in particular, including women and first-generation students.” (Yob, 2014) 

Plus, faculty members stand to benefit from new avenues for research and publication, and local community organizations can gain fresh perspectives on their ongoing work. 

Vanderbilt University showcases many other benefits that faculty and community members might reap. 

What are some best practices?

Merely slapping the title of “service-learning” on a program alone will not make it one — at least not a high-quality one. Creating a fantastic experience, that’s valuable for both students and community partners alike, requires smart decision-making. 

So, whether you’re just getting started on your institution’s debut service-learning project or you’re looking to improve your current vast catalog, here are some tips to consider. They each come courtesy of institutions and professionals boosting great programs.

Some tips will be great for you, as a student professional, to bear in mind. And other words of wisdom should be passed on to faculty, student leaders, or colleagues across campus who’ll facilitate elements of your service-learning project. 

  • “The service-learning project should be well-integrated into the course content so that students clearly see the relationship between the project and the academic goals of the course. They should also be able to understand why the experience has intellectual value.” — The University of Massachusetts at Amherst 
  • The community partner, not the faculty member, should identify what the community needs and the goals to which it aspires.”. —  The University of Massachusetts at Amherst 
  • “The goal of service-learning is not voluntourism  …  structure the course with the goal of helping students understand that they are cultivating a real partnership with – and often at the behest of – community partners. Empathetic learning and relationship building are crucial.” — The University of Iowa
  • “The activity can take place during or outside of class time, individually, in small groups, or with the whole class, depending on the type of activity and the instructor and community partner preference.” — The University of Georgia
  • “Sincerely and passionately explaining why you, the instructor, chose service-learning can help build support among students.” — Bellevue College
  • “Each service-learning activity should have defined learning objectives outlined in the syllabus. Establishing these learning goals will help students relate the service that they are performing back to the overall course objectives.” -—The University of Kentucky
  • “Academic rigor does not need to be compromised as is sometimes assumed when integrating service activities. Students are mastering academic material while at the same time learning from more unstructured community experiences. Grades are similarly based on the extent that learning objectives are met, not the quality of the service performed.” — The University of Kentucky

I realize that all of this advice is complex. You won’t be able to whip up the perfect service-learning project, tailor-fit for your student and local community, in a day. It takes trial and error, along with research and reflections. 

But, fortunately, many colleges and universities are already excelling at it! Their ideas and successes may provide you with inspiration for your own institution. 

So, that’s why I’ve published another blog post. I’ve done the work for you of scouring the internet and reaching out to student affairs professionals to find some of the best, most creative service-learning projects around the country. You can check them out, complete with their syllabi and set learning outcomes, here

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Jodi Tandet

About the author: Jodi Tandet loves writing and editing posts about the complexities of campus life as Presence's Lead Storyeller. She's also passionate about making homemade ice cream, forging peace agreements between her calico cat and lab/dachshund mix, and reading novels about estranged family members with shocking secrets. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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