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Community Engagement

Planning a service learning course

Prepared by Dr. Paul Green, Assistant Professor, Philosophy

What is service-learning?
Though awkward, the name “service-learning” is perfectly descriptive of the basic concept: Students learn based upon their service. Thus, there are two essentials components to any service-learning program: [1] students in organized community service that addresses local needs, and [2] academic outcomes, resulting in student learning of important concepts, skills, or attaining a sense of responsibility or commitment to the community. Service-learning is not discipline specific. Rather, it is a way of integrating school subjects into real world settings. It is the “learning” component that distinguishes service-learning from things like volunteer work and stand-alone community service projects.

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What are the components of a high-quality service-learning course?
In order to maximize student learning, a service-learning program ideally has the following elements:

Of course, these are generally desired qualities in a service-learning course. Service-learning requirements need to be tailored to the demands of your particular course, so you may (for example) have fewer contact hours or need to assign students to their service sites.

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How much more work is it to add service-learning to a course?
Ideally, service-learning is not something you add to a course; rather, it replaces another means of assessment because it is a more effective pedagogy. (For example, students often have research papers assigned as a culminating project in a course. Instead, why not have the students write a paper analyzing how the course concepts affected their perception of their service?) Thus, service-learning does not represent additional grading for the faculty member or research for the student. Rather, it takes time that was once spent on a different project and redirects it to the service-learning component. To determine how to identify course components to be replaced by service-learning, keep reading…. The main additional work for the professor is usually logistical: finding suitable service sites, connecting students with appropriate sites, and the like. Fortunately, the Office of Experiential Learning often solves this problem for faculty members through their Community Partners program.

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What are the benefits of service-learning for students?
Research documents both positive civic outcomes and academic outcomes for students engaged in high quality service-learning programs. Positive civic outcomes include increased leadership skills, greater moral development, personal social responsibility, and the development of civic values such as a commitment to community involvement and racial understanding. Positive academic outcomes include increases in GPA, writing skills, and critical thinking skills. In other words, students involved in service-learning tend to get better grades in the course, write better and become better critical thinkers. Students in service-learning courses also tend to think across boundaries of traditional disciplines, thus becoming more adept at seeing how concepts apply concretely across their experience. Students are also more likely to pursue a career in service if they have taken a service-learning course.

For more information, see:

  1. J. Beth Mabry, “Pedagogical Variations in Service-Learning and Student Outcomes: How Time, Contact, and Reflection Matter,” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Fall 1998, pp. 32-47
  2. Alexander Astin, Lori Vogelgesang, Elaine Ikeda and Jennifer Yee, “How Service Learning Affects Students,” Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2000. 

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What are the benefits of service-learning for faculty?
Faculty who are already engaged in promoting active learning in their classrooms tend to value service-learning. Service-learning changes the teaching role from “expert on top” to “expert on tap.” This change can encourage a new relationship with our students and a new understanding of how (and where) learning occurs. As faculty connect their course content to the community, we become more aware of current societal issues as they relate to our academic areas of interest. Often service-learning courses help us identify new areas for research and publication and thus increase our opportunities for professional recognition and reward.

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How do I incorporate service-learning in my course?
There are two basic planning approaches: top-down and bottom-up. (Neither is particularly well named.) The top-down approach is based on the assessment model of curriculum planning, though you don’t have to be familiar with that model to use this approach. You begin by identifying your goals for the students in the course, and identify how service-learning can help them achieve one or more of those goals. The bottom-up approach involves adapting the service-learning project/activities from a comparable course.

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How does top-down planning work?
If you are familiar with the assessment model of curriculum planning, you will find this approach easy to use.

Step 1: Identify desired student outcomes for the course. Every course is directed at changing the students in some way; if it were not, there would be no reason for them to take the course. In this first step, you think about the most important ways you want your students to be changed. One way to phrase this is to complete the sentence, “At the end of this course, a successful student will…” Student outcomes can involve cognition, skills, or attitudes. That is, the goals can be for students to know something (e.g., a core concept of the discipline), to be able to do something (e.g., solve a particular kind of problem) or to feel something (e.g., to appreciate the importance of a discipline). These outcomes are often called course goals or objectives. I use these terms interchangeably (though many others do not.)

Step 2: Identify student outcomes that service-learning can help achieve. There are at least four outcomes for whose achievement service-learning is pedagogically useful:

  1. understanding concepts & mastering skills: As teachers, we know that the best way to make sure you understand something is to teach it. We can use this insight to involve our students in tutoring opportunities—e.g., math students could teach math skills in after-school programs and nutrition students could plan a health fair at a community center.
  2. reflection: Since high-quality service-learning courses involve reflection, if one course objective is to make the students more reflective, service-learning can help achieve this goal.
  3. application of concepts to real-life experiences: If you want your students to be able to identify and use core concepts in other contexts, service-learning can help them learn to apply them outside of class.
  4. criticizing theoretical concepts on the basis of practice: If you want your students to ultimately reflect on the value of the concepts learned in class—their usefulness and insightfulness in practice—then service-learning provides students with a ready-made arena for reflecting on the value of these concepts.

Step 3: Plan and structure the service-learning component. Now that you know what you want your students to learn from service-learning, it’s time to work out the details. Consider the following:

To help you get an idea of what is suitable, click here to look over some of the class syllabi for similar courses.

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How do I find sites for student service?
Here the Office of Experiential Learning is an invaluable resource. To discuss your individual needs, contact Kim Terrill at 213-477-2662 or email Click here for a list of Community Partner organizations with whom the College has a longstanding relationship; to arrange for service with any of these organizations is usually quite easy—and they value the contributions that Mount students make to their organizations.

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What reflective activities can I use in service-learning?
As we have seen, reflection is one of the key components in a high-quality service-learning program. But it might not be an activity that our students know how to engage in. So here are some resources that might help you in planning reflective activities for students:

Step 1 pertains to the substance of the experience and what happened to you. It deals with facts and leads naturally into interpretation. The What? is used to start the reflection process by asking, "What happened in the service experience?"

Step 2 pertains to the difference the experience made to you. It looks at the consequences of the service experience and gives meaning to it. Abstract and generalize what you are learning and shift from the descriptive to the interpretive. The So What? asks, "What did your experience mean to you?" and/or "What did you learn from your experience?"

Step 3 involves the process of taking lessons learned from the experience and reapplying them to other situations and the larger picture. It is a time for goal setting and long range planning. The Now What? asks, "Where do you go from here?"

Note: Stephen Krebbs has his students go through 4 stages of reflection for his philosophy course in “Doing Good.”

  1. Recognize your own beliefs and preconceived notions about the client population. Descriptive reflections: factual information about experience, share feelings, articulate beliefs, and recognize that perceptions may be skewed.
  2. Connect service experience with class content. Can focus on the problem being addressed and the causes that lead to those problems.
  3. Question assumptions, gather more information, and analyze assumptions using what you have learned through service and course content. Should you modify your previous perspective? Conceptualize social change & concrete solutions.
  4. Move past why inequalities exist and move toward the changes in behavior and actions that are needed.

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How do I plan a course bottom-up?
To plan a course from the bottom-up, look over the syllabi for courses similar to yours that have incorporated service-learning. Think about how these might be used in your course.

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Where can I find syllabi for courses like mine that incorporate service-learning?
Courses from Mount St. Mary’s College:
Phi 15: Introduction to Philosophy
Phi 21: Moral Values
Phi 152: Theory of Knowledge

Other Resources:

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