Service-Learning Course Development

Service-learning courses offer a combination of academic content, service experience, and critical reflection. To make service-learning successful, consider the following recommendations from Barbara Jacoby, Faculty Associate for Leadership and Community Service-Learning at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Start with the learning outcomes. “Figure out what those learning outcomes are and go over the wide range of pedagogies that they can use to help students to achieve the outcomes. If, in fact, service-learning is the best pedagogy to achieve those outcomes, that’s when you move ahead and think about what that might actually look like,” Jacoby says.

Service-learning can be an effective pedagogy when a course’s learning goals include having students understand how a discipline plays out in a social context or how the discipline addresses the big questions facing society.

Understand the importance of critical reflection. Contrary to what some people might think, critical reflection is not about reflecting on one’s emotions. Rather it is metacognition—thinking about one’s thinking. “For example, in a service-learning course that I teach, I ask students, ‘Why do you want to change the world?’ Then I ask them, ‘Why does it matter to know why?’ That’s the metacognition part. They have to think about their reasons for wanting to do something,” Jacoby says.

Involve community partners in course design. A major challenge of designing service-learning courses is finding community partners and understanding their needs and all the logistical issues. Community partners deeply understand the issues, and Jacoby recommends sharing a draft of the syllabus with community partners to get their input on learning outcomes.

Explain to students what service-learning is. Make clear to students what the commitment to the service project will be. By participating in service, students take on a responsibility beyond their performance in a class. For example, if a student does not complete a term paper, his or her grade suffers but it does not affect others. If the student does not show up for a service activity, community members can be adversely affected. It’s also important to explain to students what critical reflection means and why it’s an essential part of service-learning.

Find support. If your institution has a staff member whose role is to help with service-learning, start there. If not, check with the center for teaching and learning. The center’s staff may not have specific service-learning expertise, but they may know of faculty members in other departments who do. Also, faculty who are involved in experiential learning or fieldwork may have some relevant expertise. As for finding a community partner, the outreach office has relationships with community organizations and the local government that could be helpful.

In addition, Jacoby recommends checking with student affairs staff. “If there is a service-learning office or person, they are as likely to be located in student affairs as they would be in academic affairs. Student affairs folks have lots of resources. There’s generally a volunteer office in student affairs that will have community partnerships. Also, student affairs people are generally very good at leading student groups, so they may be able to assist faculty members in leading reflection. They may be able to help faculty connect academic content to some of the other kinds of outcomes that student affairs people seek, such as helping students understand leadership and interpersonal relationships and work collaboratively.”

Barbara Jacoby will lead Magna’s Service-Learning Course Design Workshop & Consultation, an online program that consists of a two-part workshop and a week of guided syllabus development. It is slated for June 21 and June 28. Learn more about the workshop »

Reprinted from Service-Learning Course Development Academic Leader, 27.6 (2011): 2, 6.