Service-Learning Theory & Practice

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Designing Course Syllabi

  • A clear connection between the academic content and the service component
  • A description of the service requirements - is service an option or is it mandatory, how many hours a week are involved, what is the general nature of the work, the anticipated timeline, etc.
  • A description of the placements - where, how, when
  • Clear information about requirements for the reflective process - how often, what format, oral or written, feedback process.
  • A concise description of the evaluation structure - what will be evaluated and how will service-related evaluation be weighted with the rest of the course.


1.    A Clear Description of the Connection between the Academic Content and the Service Component - We need to be absolutely clear at the very beginning of the syllabus about the role of service-learning in any particular course. What will students get from their community work that will support and enhance their readings, research and in-class experiences? We've identified three general ways in which community service provides support for more traditional learning:

  • Participant Observation - Often students trade their services for entree into a community. If students are studying the sociology of organizations, working with an organization provides them with a first hand account of one particular organization and how it does business. If students are studying immigration, working at a school in an immigrant community will offer them some personal glimpses into the lives of immigrants.
  • Practicing Newly Acquired Skills - Through their work in the community, students put to use newly acquired skills and, in so doing, deepen their understanding of the complex links between theory and practice in the work-a-day world. Students in a database course can work as teams to develop database applications for agencies that can not afford technical expertise. Students studying Spanish can use their Spanish in classes with immigrant children. Students in an environment studies class can conduct a study of pollutants in a local stream.
  • Learning through Teaching - This approach is probably used the least by educators but is one of our favorites. We have seen students struggle to understand abstract concepts like the laws of supply and demand in order to teach it to children at a local elementary school. Teachers especially love our science mini-courses where teams of students teach about earthquakes, marine studies, and biology.



2.    Whatever the approach, it is critical that students be informed through the syllabus, as well as in the opening verbal description of the course, about how service is connected to the learning of course material. The more specific this information is, the better the students will understand their responsibilities as experiential learners. Some faculty members use written learning agreements which detail the specific learning outcomes that are anticipated through community service. These are often done in cooperation with students and, in many cases, are a part of student work agreements (see Specific information about placements).



3.    Stated Course Objectives - When offering course objectives to students, faculty members will want to be very explicit about how work in the community will be connected to course content. These objectives can be:

  • Performance-based (Teams of students will develop data-base programs for community agencies that are responsive to agency needs and make use of the most current data-base technologies) or
  • Knowledge-based (Students will submit end-of-semester papers which analyze some specific social problem from a theoretical and applied perspective, citing personal observations, texts, and contemporary media publications).



4.    A Description of the Service Requirements - Once students understand why they are being asked to engage in service, they need to know the particulars about that service. This description should include the following:

  • Is community service optional or mandatory? If it is mandatory, what are the options for students who can not fit community service into their schedule? Must they drop the course or are there some alternative paths? If it is optional, is the service extra credit, does it work in lieu of a paper or some other requirement, or is it merely an alternative way of gathering data for an end-of-semester paper? (There is a continuing controversy about mandating service. Our point of view is that a faculty member who integrates a well-developed service-learning assignment into a course is not "mandating service" but an alternative way of learning. Just as they should not have to explain why they require term papers or class projects, they should not have to justify student work in the community as long as they can justify the learning that ensues.)
  • What is the total number of hours of service that is required, or how many hours per week for how many weeks? If students are to make informed decisions, they must understand the commitment in relation to their other requirements. This has become ever more important as we have seen a growing percentage of students working large numbers of hours to help cover the increasing costs of higher education. The estimate should include service hours and approximation of time needed for reflection.
  • What does the timeline for the semester look like? What is the deadline for finding a work site? When should community assignments be completed? When are the various reflective papers due? To the greatest extent possible, these elements should be integrated into the flow of the syllabus so that for any given week, students can see what their readings are, what their service requirements are and what quizzes and exams will be occurring.



5.    Specific Information about Placements - What sorts of service placements are students expected to take on? Will they find their own placement and, if, so, what are the requirements for a site to be eligible? Will they select a site off a list and, if this is the case, how do they make an informed decision about which site might be best for them? Will the list include a brief description about the agency and the type of work that students will be doing? Will an office on campus be available to help make the link and, if so, how do students hook up with that office? This information not only helps students get started but it gives them greater piece of mind about something that many students find more than a little threatening. (For background on thinking about placements.)

If students bear the responsibility for finding their own site or must pick a site off a list, how do they go about informing their faculty member about their selected site, their specific assignment at the site, and the name and contact information of the person responsible for supervising their work? Many faculty members use contracts or work agreements that students fill out with their site supervisor. This allows the student, the faculty member and the site supervisor to have copies and increases the likelihood that there is common understanding. An example of a contract used for the USC Public Service Internship Program is available here (pdf).

Again, it is important to set a specific deadline for students to arrange their service-learning assignments. Students can and will take half of the semester getting located, resulting in little time for service and/or the concentration of service hours in the latter half of the semester or quarter, thereby reducing the time available for reflection. Sixteen hours of experience in the community spread over eight weeks is far more educational than sixteen hours done on two successive Saturdays. Each trip to the community provokes new thoughts and promotes deeper understanding.



6.    Clear Information about Requirements for the Reflective Process - Nothing is more central to the experiential learning process than the process of reflection. Another section on this web site discusses the reflective process but here it is important to note that a faculty member's expectations about reflection should be conveyed in the syllabus. To what extent will regular and routine written reflection be required? Will there be an oral reflective process and how will that take place?

We like to see reflection in the form of questions that are embedded into the syllabus that can help students integrate new concepts with their observations and experiences in the community (see an example of this here). These may be questions requiring a written response or may be topics for oral discussion in class or in discussion sections. Some faculty members ask students to do semi-formal or very formal presentations based upon their service work. Again, we argue that these should be scheduled into the syllabus to the greatest extent possible.



7.    A Concise Description of the Evaluation Structure - How is the service and the learning to be evaluated? Will reflection be graded? Who will evaluate the work done in the community? What is the relative weight of the different components? Students want and need clear information about how all of these pieces fit together if they are to accept full responsibility for them and weigh their importance with other things in their lives. For more on evaluation.