February 2nd, 2011

Service-Learning: Tips for Aligning Pedagogies with Learning Outcomes


While it is easy to see how service-learning meshes with courses in the social sciences, public health and education, can it work equally well in other areas, such as the hard sciences and the humanities?

Yes. While service-learning is not appropriate for every course, it can and does work well in every discipline. No matter the discipline, research has shown that service-learning helps students identify and examine the “big questions” and the social context in which the disciplines are situated.

Service-learning also asks students to consider a discipline’s knowledge base and how it is used in real practice, and consider the larger questions that lie outside the boundaries of many traditional courses. With service-learning, students see the interdisciplinary nature of problems and solutions. They see the complexity of the social fabric.

Students love seeing the relevance of course content to real-world issues. Can you work service-learning into your curriculum so there’s time for both? Don’t think of it as “working in” service-learning, but as designing or redesigning the course. If you add a service-learning element to an existing course, remove another element. If you’re adding an assignment (service), reduce the volume of assignments accordingly.

Service-learning course design
When looking at course design, the first question to ask is, “What pedagogies will align with desired learning outcomes?”

You know that learning outcomes are hot topics for discussion today. They’re required by all the regional accrediting associations at the course major and college levels. Learning outcomes need to be stated in concrete, measurable terms. And, they also need to make it clear to students what they can expect to gain from the course.

And there are other concerns you should address, too. For example:

  • What do you want students to know as a result of taking the service-learning course?
  • What desired learning outcomes are best achieved through service-learning? Why?
  • What new awarenesses do you want them to gain?

As faculty members, we understand what it means to select and use a text in a course to enhance student learning. With service-learning, a good guideline is to look at it as the equivalent to text. While it is not literally a text, it serves an equivalent function. Service can be equal to written work in terms of learning potential.

When it comes to using a text, we can make it required or optional. The same applies to “service-as-text.” We determine how much of the texts students will be required to read and we can determine how much, or how many hours of service students will do. We know how to provide structures for reading, analyzing, discussing, and evaluating a text.

This means the service experience and the course materials are equivalent to course content. Second, like text, you must decide which service experiences are appropriate for the course, and whether they’ll be optional or required. Third, it means structures need to be provided so students can thoroughly read, analyze, and discuss the “text.”

Finally, it is necessary to evaluate how well students have learned. The service-learning-text analogy suggests that evaluation should be based on what students learned from their experience.

Let’s look more closely at creating a course design. Here’s an example of a course description, the service-learning outcome and how it was achieved.

Introduction to Chemistry course: The students in this course take and analyze water samples from the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. At the same time, they’re studying the periodic table. That interaction brings the table alive as they study the chemicals that cause the pollution. The results are reported to an organization that uses the information to improve the ecological health of the Bay.

Desired learning outcome: Identify the causes of pollution in Chesapeake Bay.

How it was achieved: Students worked with a conservation organization and took water samples from the Bay, analyzed them, and added them to the organization’s database. That organization then used that information to help them lobby for additional funding to preserve the Bay.

Excerpted from Service-Learning Course Design: What Faculty Need to Know. Learn more about this white paper »

  • A very useful post. As service learning is becoming more pervasive in academic programs I think some awkwardness is to be expected (eg classes taking "field trips" that, while generally intriguing and related to curriculum, can't be considered curriculum themselves per se). There are, however, ways to achieve learning outcomes without overcomplicating the field work or stunting the immediacy of learning in a real-life environment, and you capture some examples. As a teacher friend of mine told me, it's all about inquiry-based learning – asking students questions about what they're doing and getting them to ask questions themselves.

    I run the blog for buildOn, an organization with youth service afterschool programs across the US, and I thought you might be interested in our Youth Engagement Zone (via a National Corporation for Community Service grant) in the Bronx. We're using service learning techniques to help transform an under-performing school and cataloging the efforts on our blog. 9th grade science students at the YEZ recently took a service learning trip to Kensico Dam, and there are a handful of other similar events planned with learning outcomes in mind. You can read up on it here: http://buildonfromthefield.org/2011/03/04/buildon

    Thanks again for the post!

  • Monsky

    Dear Sir/Madame,


    I am new on this site, and I can see that this could help me find out the answers about curriculum development used in your country.

    I am a student in Polytechnic University of the Philippines, currently taking up PBTE (Post Baccalaureate in Teacher Education), and as part of my research, am presently gathering information for educational purposes and thesis writing via joining different educational blog sites, therefore, I ‘d like to ask assistance with regard to the following topics:

    A. Model of curriculum designs
    B. Types and approaches of curriculum designs
    C. Principles that guide curriculum designs

    Hoping and praying for your immediate response.
    Thank you for your time and your help are highly appreciated.
    God bless!

    Best regards,
    Monaliza Lanuza