Service Learning and the Liberal Arts Curriculum

Gina Dow, Associate Professor of Psychology and Alford Coordinator for Service Learning, Denison University
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I have been studying child development, in one way or another, for my entire adult life – as a child care worker in high school and college, in my graduate program in Child Psych at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, and in my current role as a 25-year veteran faculty member in Denison University’s Psychology department. During that same time, and mostly unbeknownst to me, “Service Learning” (alternatively referred to as “Community-Based Learning”) was developing as a field in its own right, with journals, graduate certificate programs, secondary school policies,  professional organizations devoted to service learning / civic engagement / experiential education, scholarship based on theory and best practices, helpful guides, intramural arguments (here’s another, and another), inter alia. Rather than reviewing all of this, I would like to use this essay to reflect on what I have learned about service learning in a liberal arts context, and in particular, what I have learned both as a practitioner of this pedagogy, and as someone who works with faculty colleagues to help them incorporate service learning into their courses. (Using service learning as a pedagogical tool to deepen content learning does not preclude a focus on other learning goals, civic learning, for example – since service learning is a flexible and adaptable pedagogy, and best practices are often shared. But I’ll focus here on what I know best.)

The most common definition of service learning (as contrasted with volunteering, not that there’s anything wrong with that) is that it is

A course-based … educational experience in which the students (a) participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs, and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of personal values and civic responsibility (Bringle & Hatcher, 2009, p. 38).

This definition hits all the “best practice” highlights (see above) – but what does it mean in practice? And why should faculty consider incorporating this practice? There are probably as many reasons to avoid service learning as to engage it. After all, many things can go wrong when you add stakeholders outside of your classroom, it takes time, and what about COVERAGE? So why bother?

Why Bother?

For me, the best explanation is that my students learn more, and learn more deeply, when I include a well-designed service component in a class, than when I do not. Thus, learning to use this pedagogy well is no different than any other professional development work we do to improve and enhance our effectiveness as teachers.

This past January, several colleagues and I offered a workshop on backwards course design, that incorporated service learning as a pedagogical element. In backwards design, we start by establishing goals – ideally at all levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Like any other “text,” the learning associated with working with a community partner can fit at multiple levels. However, service learning is not like reading a text in that we have real obligations to our community partners, and to our students, to act in an ethical, respectful, and transparent manner. How do we do that?

  • Be authentic (in class and in community) and transparent – everyone should know why the students are there, and what they are supposed to be learning. Students should understand how this learning fits into the larger learning goals of the class.
  • Respect your students by avoiding “random acts of service” – the work should be meaningful and should fit with the mission and work of the community partner. It should not be busywork, superfluous, or trivial. There should be clear learning goals for the experience – that is, why this place, this work, for this class?
  • Your community partners will have roots in the community; establish relationships with them, and be sure to convey to them and to your students, your respect for the work they do. Their ongoing efforts provide continuity for programs in which students serve.
  • Respect the time and expertise of your partners by making sure that your students are oriented to the community, the site, and the work, and that your students understand your expectations for them. There should be a clear meeting of the minds – faculty, partner, student – around expectations.

That last point is crucial. We must provide proper training and orientation for our students, as well as opportunities for reflection. Training is especially important given the investment of time (and sometimes scare resources) that partners can make in working with our students, and the sometimes vulnerable state that clients and other community members may be in during a service activity. We must always remember to “First, do no harm” – and training is the first step in this process. Crucial information for training can include relevant local history, issues around privilege and positionality, ethical practices for interacting with vulnerable populations (e.g. people with disabilities, young children), etc. (Training is also essential for risk management considerations, but that is a different essay.)

Closing the Circle

Close the circle with reflection and integration – well-designed activities will allow you and your students to make connections between the experience and the topic under study. To be effective, reflection must

  • be structured, guided, purposeful;
  • occur regularly; and,
  • include both private reflection (for example, journaling with prompts, or directed writing assignments), and public reflection (guided discussion in class).

In conclusion, service learning is one of several High Impact Practices that have been shown to result in more student engagement, learning, retention, and understanding, if accompanied by good pedagogic practices including:

  1. students’ having a clear understanding of the client’s or community’s needs and how their work can contribute to meeting these needs;
  2. a deep orientation to the community and to the intended learning goals associated with the activity;
  3. pedagogy appropriate to and integrated with the experiences the students had, are having, or will have;
  4. academic work that is graded by appropriate disciplinary standards; and
  5. regular, structured, guided, and purposeful reflection about the experience and learning.

Bringle, R.G. & Hatcher, J. A. (2009). Innovative practices in service learning and curricular engagement. In L. Sandman, A. Jaeger, & C. Thornton (Eds.), New directions in community engagement (pp. 37-46). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Editor’s note: For more on “Community-Based Learning,” another approach to “service learning,” in GLCA colleges, see Tania Boster, “Community-Based Learning at Oberlin: Democratic Engagement Plus Significant Learning.”

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