Placing and Preparing Students
The placement of students into meaningful work in the community is critical to the success of a service-learning course. There are a number of strategies for making these planning decisions but these strategies fall into three categories:
- Strategies that support the intellectual base of the course (faculty driven);
- Strategies that lend themselves to the interests, talents and skills of the students (student driven); and
- Strategies that shore up an on-going plan for working with the community (community driven).
Each of these approaches has its merits and its faults.
Faculty driven approaches to placement
- A faculty member who is teaching a course on immigration may decide that the best placements for her students are with non-profit agencies serving the immigrant population. She knows that here students will encounter the kinds of experience and work with the people and issues that she will be covering in her course.
Student driven strategies
- A faculty member may feel that students will do their best work if they have a wide latitude for choosing placements so they can find sites which will fit with their talents and interests. This faculty member may use a large list or database of possible sites and allow students to choose their placement.
Community driven strategies
- A faculty member, an academic unit or even the university itself may have on-going relations with a designated geographic area or a limited set of community partners. Placements may be made to promote and enhance this relationship.
Central to the notion of service-learning is the idea that community sites are partners in the education of students. There are certain qualities to partnerships that we believe are central to an effective service-learning effort. These include on-going communication, agreed upon service and learning objectives, and mutual respect. These qualities favor faculty driven or community driven strategies that can be maintained over time. While we respect the fact that faculty members believe allowing students to select their own sites will empower students, we have not seen evidence that this approach is very effective. We have seen that it is difficult if not impossible for a faculty member to develop communication with far-flung agencies that are "partners" only for the term. Some degree of continuity is critical for the continuing improvement of any service-learning effort.
It is our belief that students are more likely to be effective in their service work if they have some type of pre-service training and/or orientation. This can be done in class, at the individual agencies, or through separate sessions offered through the campus service-learning office.
The purposes of this pre-service session are to:
- describe the community,
- impress upon students their responsibilities as representatives of the college or university,
- introduce students to the work of the agencies with which they will be working,
- provide some information/training on the work that students will actually be doing in the community,
- describe typical problems which they might encounter and offer suggestions about how to over-come those problems,
- explain the role of reflection and the mechanics of evaluation.
For an outline of the information we present to students at the University of Southern California, click here.
There is a large and growing body of literature on service-learning and also a growing number of professional organizations that are integrating service-learning into their agendas. The list below is only a partial list that represents major milestones in the service-learning movement. Where possible, references to web-based resources are linked to those sites.