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Potential Problems

No matter how well planned a service-learning course is, how carefully structured a community placement may be or how effective the training/orientation is, there will be problems. Experiential education is, by its very nature, messy. It is critical to create mechanisms that will allow faculty members, TAs, or others involved in student placements to carefully monitor student work. It is also necessary to create advocates and avenues of communication that students can use to actively seek help.

Monitoring Student Work

Frequently the problems that emerge are due to students being unprepared for the ambiguity of out-of-classroom experiences. There are problems of procrastination, intimidation, unwillingness to confront authority figures when a placement deviates from the plan, and problems with peers. Often students will not report these problems but it is critical for those implementing a service-learning strategy to be pro-active at locating, identifying and resolving problems. We have found several ways of identifying potential problems.

  • Reflection - Student journals or classroom discussions are a ready source of information about how a placement is going. While this is not the primary reason for reflection, it does provide ample information when reflective prompts are properly prepared. For more information, see Reflection
  • Classroom Surveys - Asking students to respond to a set of questions about their service-learning assignments two or three weeks after they begin their work in communities can also help identify problem areas.
  • Mid-Semester Training - Asking students to come together after the first couple of weeks in the community to discuss their experiences provide a way to see not only the problems of individual students but the problems they face in common (see Evaluation).
  • Electronic Conduits - Creating a chat room or an interactive web site with regular reporting-in requirements is a very successful way of staying in contact with students, especially when their service placements are far flung and/or their schedules are especially difficult to work with.
  • Calls to Community Supervisors - Often a call to a community agency or placement site can be used to identify gaps between what is in a service-learning contract, what students report and what actually seems to be happening. This information provides a much clearer picture because it provides another perspective.
  • Observations - While going out into the community and seeing students at work is very labor intensive, such visits provide a wealth of information and valuable opportunities to talk with community supervisors.

Advocates and Avenues for Open Communication

Students participating in a service-learning course or program should be well informed about avenues open to them if and when they encounter problems. Students should know whom they can talk to and how queries can be handled expeditiously. We recommend the following:

Advocates: Students should know to whom they should report any problems they encounter, and the person to whom they report should have the time and know-how to help them resolve most problems. In some cases this may be the faculty member or TA but it might also be:

  • A peer advocate who is a member of the class but who has experience in service-learning and who is serving as a advocate on behalf of the faculty member;
  • A JEP Program Assistant or other undergraduate student who has been hired to help administer the service-learning component;
  • A community-based service-learning coordinator who is familiar with the site delete: (This only applies to sites such as schools which can absorb large numbers of service-learning students).

Avenues: Students should know when they can meet with advocates (regular office hours), but also should have phone numbers and/or email addresses. Again, the electronic avenues (e-mail, chat room, interactive web site) hold much promise as an easy method that students can use to register problems.