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Designing Courses

Courses - Creating anew or reconstructing?

There is a growing subtext to the debate about service-learning in the curriculum. Some argue for very pristine models that are created as "pure" service-learning courses and adhere to a specific set of service-learning requirements. At one extreme are those who argue for service-learning majors, programs, and credentials. At the other extreme are those who believe that service-learning ought to be everywhere and are comfortable tacking on a service component to almost any course, no matter how spacious the intellectual connection between the service and course content.

There is a danger in creating yet one more intellectual box on campus - a service-learning box. We believe there should be some standards that guide people's thinking about this classroom-community connection but that there should be room for creativity and testing new limits. This applies to new courses as well as the revision of existing courses.

Caution is advised, as well, to those who advocate for the "purest" service-learning courses in which the content of the course is service-learning, volunteerism, or civic engagement. It is not that these topics cannot be taught in intellectually defensive ways. Indeed, there are wonderful examples of courses that use a multi-disciplinary approach to look at the philosophical, historical, social, and intellectual underpinnings of a phenomenon like volunteerism. Occasionally, however, these courses lack intellectual rigor and seem to be light-weight excuses for giving students credit for service. As a result, faculty members -- and students -- may marginalize these courses.

We think that the pedagogy of service-learning can be used to structure a course from the ground up but that it can also be used to reshape existing courses. Pragmatically, it is easier to re-shape existing courses in that generally they do not have to go through curriculum review committees. It is our experience that whether old or new, it will take a couple of trial semesters to get it right and to iron out the inevitable wrinkles.


Setting Up Courses - Designing Course Syllabi

We have come to believe that the single most important act of a faculty member in launching a well-designed service-learning course is the construction of the course syllabus. Such a syllabus illustrates and explains the connection between course readings, lectures and community service work and offers clear information to students about their service and learning obligations so they can make an informed decision about remaining in the course and planning their schedule.

Despite the rapid growth of service-learning courses over the past few years, we see few really stellar examples of course syllabi. Typically, the service-learning component is described at the end of a "regular" syllabus with far too little explanation of how the service is connected to the course and the details of student engagement. We believe that a good service-learning syllabus should contain the following elements:


  • 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.


Click here for sample syllabi from a USC course or Campus Compact.

We also designed a Service-Learning Tool in April 2009 for the CBLC conference as a reference.