What is Service-Learning?

Service Learning:

  • Combines community service with academic coursework.
  • Provides students with opportunities for structured reflection on their service experience.
  • Enhances students' learning; knowledge gained in the classroom can enhance their service in the community.
  • Integrates classroom theory with practice in the real world.
  • Places equal emphasis on service and learning goals. It equally benefits the service provider and the service recipient.

Community service consists of providing service to individuals or communities in need. Service-learning links community service with structured reflection to promote academic learning. Service-learning can take place in co-curricular service projects or within formal courses.

  • A health education course in which students practice the health concepts they've studied by teaching stress management skills to a community group
  • An engineering course in which students work to design adaptive devices for people with specific disabilities
  • A Spanish course in which students practice their speaking skills by providing recreational programs for children in the Latino community

Service-learning can help students:

  • Apply what they learn in the classroom to problems in the real world
  • Explore different majors
  • Deepen their understanding of course content
  • Integrate theory with practice
  • Enhance their skills in working with diverse groups of people
  • Locate internship and job opportunities
  • Make professional contacts in their fields
  • Explore career choices

Faculty choose to include community service in a course for various reasons. Often they believe service-learning will make the course material more relevant to students. They recognize that active learning strategies such as service-learning help students learn more effectively and easily. Service-learning can be a powerful motivator and often appeals to students with different learning styles.

Service-learning within courses can take many forms. A faculty member might require a certain number of hours of community service in a course or make it an assignment option. The service activities might become a major focus of discussions throughout the course or they might only be addressed for a class session or two.

  • Consider the course objectives and how community service experience might help your students meet them. Consider what types of community agency sites might work best for your students.
  • Contact Leadership & Community Service-Learning for consultation.
  • Consult the materials in this on-line resource for detailed information and other resources.

It is likely in every class that some students will be resistant to participating in service-learning. There are many reasons for this resistance: lack of previous experience in the community or with a particular population or type of service, the perception that service is not a typical course assignment like an essay or research paper, concerns about time, concerns about transportation, prejudices about people with whom they would be working, and concerns about personal safety. In addition, many students come from high schools that had service-learning requirements. Although many students had positive experiences with these requirements, some might have had negative experiences with service.

Regardless of the reason for resistance, students often find it challenging to make the transition from passive learning modes to active learning modes. Many students who are initially resistant, however, find the experience valuable by the end of the semester. We certainly do not eliminate other useful educational tools (e.g., library research, exams, or oral presentations) from the classroom when students express resistance to them, but the resistance should be addressed and the service-learning component should be included in the syllabus and discussed on the first day of class.

Some of the most important benefits of service-learning stem from the fact that it involves going off-campus and engaging with different people in unfamiliar settings. Some students, however, may find it more feasible to volunteer on campus, particularly those for whom transportation off-campus is an impediment. It is important that faculty determine what kinds of service will be appropriate for meeting course objectives. If on-campus service is appropriate, are there guidelines for the service? For example, is serving a student organization considered service? Is on-campus service work with people from off the campus acceptable? Some programs bring community members to campus and utilize volunteers as tutors, mentors, and buddies. LCSL can help you consider these choices and identify appropriate and convenient sites both on and off campus.

Agency needs do change frequently. While agencies are often eager partners in the enterprise of educating our students, their primary purpose is to serve their clients in the community. Since service-learning emphasizes reciprocity, faculty and agency representatives need to be flexible enough to respond to changing circumstances. If faculty and agency staff negotiate up front under what constraints each operates, then unexpected changes can be minimized.

Thirty students are not too many to have in a service-learning course but you will want to structure the service-learning component to make it as manageable as possible. You might choose to make service-learning an option rather than a required component in the course. That way only a portion of the class will choose to participate. Or, if you want to require service-learning for all students in your course, you can use students who have had prior community service experience as team leaders for other groups of students. Particularly in the case of large classes, you will probably find enough students who have prior community service experience to assist those without such prior experience.

Since many students at UM commute to campus, considering the needs of both commuter and residential students in designing the service-learning experience is crucial. Most students have multiple responsibilities while in school including working, helping with family responsibilities, and maintaining their own community involvement. There are many ways faculty can incorporate the realities of students' lives into a service-learning course. For example, if a student is already involved in a community organization, explore with them how that involvement can serve as their service site for the course. Providing them with structured opportunities to reflect will allow them to view and experience the service in new ways. This also communicates the message that learning can occur outside the classroom, and that the community can be a valuable teacher. Providing information about transportation can assist students in reaching the service sites. If students will be volunteering in groups, commuting students may find it more convenient to meet at the service site rather than campus if it is closer to their home. Also, allowing students to volunteer in carefully selected campus service sites may allow them to volunteer during the day, between classes, and avoid adding another commute to their schedule. For students who have partners/spouses/children/or other family members, finding service sites that allow them to volunteer together may help them make time for service.

Many agencies, particularly those working with children, require volunteers to go through a series of tests before volunteering. These tests may include, but are not necessarily limited to, police background checks, physical health exams, finger printing, and tuberculosis tests. Faculty should provide information on how to obtain these tests, as well as provide service opportunities that do not require these tests. Some students prefer not to undergo these tests because they take time, can cost money, or because they believe that such tests are an invasion of privacy.

Some agencies are able to reimburse volunteers for costs incurred in obtaining these tests. The University of Maryland Health Center provides physical exams for students and tuberculosis tests. (Some insurance plans will reimburse students for these claims.) The University of Maryland Campus Police Department provides finger printing services (link to Time to obtain all necessary tests and verification should be built into the course timeline.

Provide a range of service opportunities so that students with different needs can find suitable sites. For example, some students will be concerned about transportation. Identifying sites within walking distance, driving distance, and on bus and metro lines will help students choose service sites to which they can reasonably travel. If there are costs associated with transportation or other aspects of serving at a site, let students know if your academic department or another entity can defray some of those costs. Since student schedules vary widely, it is wise to identify opportunities for service on weekends, weekdays, daytime, and evenings. Organizations' philosophies (in terms of political, religious, or professional beliefs) also differ. Give students an array of choices so that they can serve at a site that may be generally comfortable. Although some discomfort may be acceptable, or even lead to a learning experience, individual students have different levels of tolerance for environments that introduce them to new or unfamiliar ideas. Of course, it is not advisable to place students at a site where their attitude (i.e., unwillingness or unreadiness) could do harm to those served.

Some faculty create systems of reporting and documenting hours worked. Some ask the agency to initial a sheet on which the students keep track of the hours worked. Many agencies will be able to do this; others may not be equipped to do so. These methods will leave some questions unanswered though. Will hours worked away from the service site be included in the number of hours served? If a student works on a brochure for an agency at their home computer, must a staff person verify the hours? As an alternative, another option is to emphasize the value of commitment and academic honesty in reporting service hours worked. Just as students are expected to act with integrity in regard to assignments, tests and other requirements, so should they in regard to service. It is often possible for the faculty member to determine from the journals and other service-based written assignments whether an adequate number or hours was served.

If students need help understanding how academic integrity issues apply to service-learning, it might be helpful to provide them with written explanation. Faculty may want to inform students that the following acts constitute academic dishonesty:

  • Misrepresenting hours completed at a service-learning site
  • Signing in hours for fellow students at a service-learning site
  • Writing up reports, journal entries, or essays on events the student was supposed to attend, claims to have attended, but did not actually attend
  • Signing in at a site and leaving before the hours were completed

How easy is it to find service sites that can accommodate students with physical disabilities?

If a student with a physical disability is looking for service opportunities, first determine the area in which he or she is interested in serving and what accommodations the student will need. If the area is working with other individuals with physical disabilities, it is likely their facilities and programs would be accessible. If the student does not intend to work with an agency that serves people with disabilities, then the student would need to determine what kinds of accommodation will be needed in order to volunteer. Federal, state and local government buildings and programs "should" be 100% accessible. Do not assume they are. Contact the individual agencies to see if they can provide the needed accommodations.