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How to Develop Your Service Learning Course

runner starting a raceHOW DO I START?

There are many ways to offer Service Learning in a college class. What follows is a description of the most common and successful models but feel free to adapt these to the needs of your particular course and students.

Steps to Consider:

You may be starting this project with a great deal of knowledge and expertise about Service Learning or with simply a great eagerness to learn more about it. As with any project, careful planning and preparation can make this a rewarding experience for you, your students and people they assist.

1. Think about your course goals.

Use this as a brainstorming session. The goal is to generate ideas. later you will evaluate them, but for now just get some ideas on paper. Ask yourself, " What are some of my most important course goals? What would I like to see my students achieve in this class?"

Some examples could be increasing a skill level, such as writing a good topic sentence, understanding a concept like polynomials, applying a method like the scientific method, developing personal responsibility or promoting civic engagement.


2. Find a community partner.

Think of this as a research project. Many campuses now have a Service Learning Center to help you with this step. If yours does, tell them about your class and your goals and they can help you find appropriate placements for your students. Often they will have a list of appropriate community agencies that you can look through.

If your campus does not yet have a center, find out what connections it does have with the community such as a Volunteer Center or a work-study program. For several reasons, it can be a good idea to work through established campus programs. They have already established relationship with the organizations and can help you with referrals and possibly troubleshooting if needed. They can give you advice about risk management and insurance policies and procedures when students engage in off campus activities. Again policies and procedures vary from campus to campus but it is important to know how your campus handles this specifically and what they will require from you and your students.

Service Learning Policies

Other ways to find agencies include using one you already know, possibly one that you have worked with. You could also go to a local volunteer center and get a list of organizations from them. Try your local school district. They may have a volunteer coordinator who can help you find classes where your students can contribute.

3. Identify a community need.

Ask your community partner about their specific needs. Try to get a fairly detailed "wish list" from them since the longer their list is , the greater the chance you can make useful connections between their needs and your course goals

It can help to tell your community partners about your class and your objectives. Give them an idea of some of the skills your students can bring to them; for example ESL students might be able to translate or computer students could create databases.

4. Connect your course goal to a community need.

Now that you have a list of community needs consider how your course goals could connect to some of them. Again remember to brainstorm at first, letting the ideas flow freely. Ask yourself," What connections between my course goals and community needs could there be? A good brainstorm tool to use at this point could be clustering. Try doing a cluster that connects your goals with the agency’s needs.

5. Determine how you will integrate Service Learning into your course.

Most service learning programs strongly recommend offering service learning as an option, or for extra credit rather then as a requirement. Otherwise some students may feel coerced or do it in a last minute rush. Surveys at Pasadena City College have shown that when students were required to do service Learning, even the students who enjoyed the projects resented having to perform the service. In a different class where students did Service Learning as an option, no such resentment was expressed. An option can be presented as an alternative to required project such as a research paper or as requirement for course completion.

6. Select a Service Learning option that suits your course.

The most common choices are individual projects, where students volunteer at a nonprofit agency or a school, small groups, where small groups of students collaborate on a community service project or "one shots’, where students volunteer for a prescheduled one time event such as a beach cleanup. Decide the number of hours of service hours you will require. Generally 10 --15 hours is feasible for community college students. If you think your particular students may have many time constraints, consider a "one -shot" project. Also think about how you will evaluate the service-learning component of your course.

7. Design reflective activities to help your students achieve your course goals.

Experience is valuable but it is only part of the process. Most students will not make the connections between their experience and their coursework on their own. Therefore carefully guided reflection, processing that experience, will produce the best results. Determine which kinds of reflective activities will work best with your students. Some examples are journals, research papers, oral presentations or essays.

8. Develop ways to help students connect their service experiences to the course content.

Keeping your course goals in mind schedule regular time to connect these goals to your students service experiences in class. Recent research by Alexander Astin of UCLA showed that regular in class discussion of Service Learning experiences was the most effective way to help students make these connections. In addition to this, journal assignments and reflection sessions can also help.

9. Consider how to address/access/incorporate service-learning experiences students are having to benefit those who aren’t having them.

As you begin to think about this, several possibilities like the following ones may occur. Sometimes the students who are not actively doing the service can do research on questions that arise from the service project. They can provide background reports on issues such as literacy, homelessness that the service students deal with in their placements. Problem solving groups or panel discussion might combine students from both the service and nonservice options.

10. Inform your students about the project in your syllabus or in a separate handout:

  • Provide your with students with a concise definition of Service learning,
  • Explain why it is a beneficial learning tool
  • Show how it applies to that particular class’ learning objectives,
  • Describe course requirements, such as number of hours, types of assignments
  • Discuss signing up and getting started.


11. Remember to discuss your plans with your department chair or division dean.

Determine if you would like to develop the project and then present it to your department chair or division dean or check in with them before you start. While many chairs welcome initiative and innovation, they also will want to know that the idea is educationally sound and well thought out. You might want to let him or her know what service learning is, why you think it will be a valuable experience for your students and how you will proceed.


character with light bulb over headWhat is Reflection?

Reflection is a process designed to aid students’ abilities to analyze and interpret their experiences. There are several forms this process can take; the most common are journals, directed writing assignments and discussion groups.

Why Should I Use Reflection in a Service Learning Project?

While service itself can be a very rewarding experience, reflection transforms that experience into learning by encouraging students to think critically about their experiences. Through reflection, students can become active shapers of knowledge as they practice applying concepts, analyzing experiences, and forming opinions. Problems can be reframed as opportunities to explore new perspectives and to examine beliefs, opinions, and values.

"The academic payoffs of having students engage in community service are substantial when the service activity is integrated with traditional classroom instruction. The key word here is integrated. The kinds of service activities in which the students participate should be selected so that they illustrate, affirm, extend, and challenge material presented in readings and lectures. Time in class meetings should be set aside regularly for students to reflect upon and discuss what they are learning in the community. These recommendations are consistent with conclusions of others who have studied service-learning. (e.g., Barber, 1992; Hedin, 1989; Station, 1990)."

Markus, G.B., J.P.F. Howard, and D.C. King. (1993). "Integrating Service and Classroom Instruction Enhances Learning: Results from an Experiment." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 15 (4):410-419.

How to Implement Your Service Learning Course


The first few weeks of the semester can also lay the groundwork for recruiting students. Start recruiting for the Service Learning project after the semester begins. Of course it is mentioned in your syllabus, so students will know a little about it and some of the more interested ones may have already asked to know more about the program. Now is the time to let the whole class know about the project. It is better to start actual service least a couple of weeks into the semester:

First, the students need to adjust to their new schedules; also if you are working with a local school, the teachers need to get their classes settled and routines established as well.

The first few weeks of any semester are so busy that college students and local teachers who might otherwise be enthusiastic about your project may be just too busy to participate.

Class discussions of topics or issues related to the Service Learning project can lead students to ask "What can we do about these issues?" These questions are a perfect lead in for the Service Learning project. If your students don’t ask you these questions, you can always raise them yourself.

Another important recruitment strategy is to give the program "a human face." Students are often interested in the idea but unsure about their own abilities. Seeing people like them who’ve successfully participated in the program makes it seem much more possible. There are several ways to do this.

A good way to spark interest for the program is to have class visits from agency representatives who are enthusiastic about their programs and about the work your students can do with them.

Another good visitor could be college students from earlier semesters who could can come in and speak about their experiences. If this is your first time doing the program your Service Learning Center may be able to refer students who’ve done Service Learning in another class.

After the presentation, pass out an information sheet and talk about how you’ll run the program in your class. Be sure to talk about the time commitment and the journals and paper that they will write for you. Have students who are interested sign up. (LINK TO MARY ERIN’S SHEET AND OTHER SERVICE LEARNING FORMS HERE)


Conceptual: Often the agency will have a standard orientation for its volunteers and it is reasonable to ask the agency to provide this for your students. However, it is a also good idea to prepare the students in class before they begin. Some students will be very conscientious but others will need some guidance as they prepare.

A good way to begin is to have your students figure out their purpose for doing this Service Learning project. Raising people’s awareness, increasing understanding or offering hope, are all noble purposes and they are all slightly different. Whatever their purpose is, keeping it in mind will help them to shape their actions and responses to their experiences.

Expect this activity to be very difficult since part of the student passivity that this program addresses stems from a lack of clearly defined purpose. Ask your students what changes they would like to see and what effect they would like to have. This is also a good time to talk about what our expectations are of change and how it actually works. Change activist and researcher Fran Peavy has some good insights on the obstacles people have to changing and the conceptual models people have of change and how these models affect their ability to change (Peavy 1986).

To clarify their own constructive Change Model, students might reflect on a significant learning experience they had and think about what they might do to replicate that in their Service Learning project. Additional subjects to cover include the agencies expectations, your expectations and the students’ expectations as well.

Practical: An agency will expect student volunteers to be punctual, reliable, responsible and cooperative. They will expect good attendance with advance notice of any absence. They will want students who will fulfill their duties and responsibilities and communicate well with the people they serve as well as their supervisors and peers. Often, they will look for people who are respectful of other cultures and are willing to learn more about them.

Prepare for Evaluation in Advance: Have your students establish some learning objectives and then let them brainstorm some ways they might achieve these objectives. Explain the steps they will need to take to find appropriate placements. Go over your timetables and establish the deadlines for finding and beginning service. Distribute copies of the paperwork and discuss how you will want them to do it. Discuss how the project will be evaluated. Stress the important role of the reflective activities, discussion groups’ journals or papers in integrating the service experience with course content.

Give students a Service Learning contract which outlines the agency’s responsibilities as well as the student’s and states the anticipated learning objectives. Encourage students to go to their placement sites before their actual starting date just to look it over and get familiar with it.

Finally, remember to schedule regular class time to discuss placement problems, challenges and epiphanies. This can be an excellent time to reinforce your course goals, work on students’ critical thinking skills and to develop their sense of agency. Give students opportunities through class discussions and activities to integrate their service with course materials.


ribbon associated with awardsPCC STAR (Students Talk About Race)

The PCC STAR program involves students in a Service Learning program that makes them active, responsible problem solvers. Students in the STAR program lead an 8 week series of student discussions on diversity in nearby Middle School classrooms after they first study critical thinking , conflict resolution, discussion facilitation and prejudice reduction.

The program focuses on diversity because the rise of racial tensions on and off campuses nationwide has shown us there is an urgent need to address the complex interweaving of bias and prejudice based on gender, "race" and class. To do this, we need to uncover our own biases and to engage in meaningful dialogues, so we can build alliances that respect differences while searching for common ground..

The first part of the semester the class creates a positive classroom climate for civil, yet probing discussions and in the latter part of the semester, students have the option of doing a service learning activity. If they choose this option, PCC -STAR provides them with training, curriculum materials, a partner and makes the placement. The students then lead eight to ten weekly discussions in a nearby Middle School classroom. They also have regular debriefing/training and planning sessions as part of their 1C Critical Thinking classes and further reflect about their experiences through a series of analytical writing assignments.

The program, now in its sixth year at PCC, has involved over 3,915 Middle school students and over 300 PCC students. In exit interviews and evaluations students have remarked that as a result of the STAR program they now see personal and social change as much more possible and perhaps most gratifying they now see themselves as active change agents.

After creating a positive climate for discussion, the class reads and discusses articles on gender, race and class. As the students’ awareness increases they often ask "What can we do about racism or sexism?" Since we have also talked about change throughout the class and how people create change, they now see a least the possibility of change which is a step up from passivity. At this point, the Service Learning unit begins.

Students may choose to participate in the PCC STAR program where they lead discussions on diversity in a nearby middle school for 8 weeks and then write an analytical paper about their experiences. Since voluntary commitment is an integral part of this service learning program, students may choose to do a research paper instead in which they choose a conflict, research it and write an analysis of it along with a recommended solution, much as a professional arbitrator might. Students who choose this option are later involved in the STAR program as "consultants’ who help STAR volunteers solve problems that occur during their sessions.

Students who choose to work in the STAR program begin with a six hour participatory interactive student based workshop, especially designed at PCC. The workshop is led by the PCC -STAR director, Professor Lou Rosenberg. A professional diversity trainer, she has conducted numerous trainings in diversity sensitivity and conflict resolution throughout Southern California.

In this workshop, students engage in a variety of exercises and activities, role-playing and discussion designed to prepare them to lead similar discussions and exercises in local middle school classrooms.After a review of listening skills, the students explore the nature of prejudice and discrimination as well as ways of resisting them. They also learn about facilitation and leading group discussions. They are then matched with a partner, usually one who differs from them in ethnicity and/or gender

PLACEMENTS: The students are placed in a middle or high school classroom. They work in the same classroom at the same time for eight to ten weeks, conducting one hour discussion sessions. Students are well supported as they work since the middle or high-school teacher is always in the class with the students as they lead the discussions and they have a step-by-step curriculum to draw from as they prepare their sessions.

INTEGRATING THEORY AND PRACTICE: There is always an interesting gap between theory and practice. No matter how well prepared the students are, no matter how much they’ve studied and practiced, their experiences in the classroom will be different from their expectations and they will come back to their college classroom ready to complain (or afraid to talk) about this differences: the students didn’t talk enough, they talked too much, the teacher was indifferent the teacher took over, all of these are fairly common "problems."

Oddly enough, this complaint filled moment can be very rewarding. Rather than being another problem for an already busy college teacher to solve, this is a vital opportunity to link academic subject matter, in this case, Critical Thinking directly to their workplace situations. One of the most valuable lessons students can learn is to turn their complaints into subject matter - which, after all is critical thinking and the kind of "real world " life skills we want them to have.

In the Critical Thinking class, Students form an imaginary company, "Thoughts R Us." They imagine that its ten years in the future, they have their advanced degrees and wonderful jobs as critical thinking consultants. They then break up in to small groups where they practice applying their problem solving skills. Prompts from Richard Paul’s Center for Critical Thinking work well here but there are a variety of analytical tools that could be used in this situation.

PCC STAR students bring in problems they’ve encountered in the course of their activities and the groups help them to define the problem (it always surprises them how difficult, important and revealing this stage is). After defining the problem, students look for assumptions they have made about it , bring out underlying concepts, explore multiple perspectives, etc. and then generate possible solutions.

Again, even with structure and guidance, the process is not automatic, and left to themselves, the "clients" would probably just gripe and the "consultants" would sympathize and give them advice, and/or agree that the situation is hopeless. But, with reinforcement, direction and encouragement -

the teacher gives the students "time’ for each step,

announces when they should be heading into the next phase,

circulates among the groups to help them to stay on task

solutions are generated, acted upon and refined.

After the sessions, each participant writes a brief anonymous assessment of what they gleaned from the experience. The results are encouraging.

It helps students to switch from seeing themselves as victims to seeing themselves as problems solvers.

In addition they experience very directly and concretely how analytical thinking can help them in the workplace. to see a challenge as an opportunity to ask questions and generate solutions - to apply the techniques they ‘ve learned and discussed in the classroom.

Hopefully there is a ripple effect beyond this: that when faced with challenges of any kind students remember that they have choices available to them and that they can analyze a situation and find ways to make it better.

JOURNAL: Another link between experience and analysis is the reflective journal. There are several good ways to use journal writing in Service Learning. One example is to divide the page into three sections, in one students record their experiences in the next they reflect on them and generate questions and in the third, they relate their experiences to specific class readings discussions or exercises. Another model is they may have a series of questions to respond to after each session.

PCC STAR uses an adaptation of Critical Incident Journal as developed by Tim Statton, Director of the Haas Center for Service Learning at Stanford. In this process, students first keep journals of their experiences, writing about their experiences after each weekly session and noting their reactions to these events. At the end of the sessions, they then pick a critical incident, a moment that caused them to question or reflect. They then analyze the incident by applying concepts and materials from the Critical Thinking class in a final evaluative paper.

PAPER: The final "product" is a two page reflective paper. Students are given a detailed prompt ,and must do at least one draft, a peer review and a revision plan, all of which is turned in with the journal and the final paper. This gives the teacher a pretty good overview into the "process" as well as the "product." In addition, doing the work in stages focuses the students’ attention on analyzing their experience.

Before they write their papers, students go over some sample papers from previous semesters so they can see the difference between straight narration and analysis. In small groups they distinguish between a paper that merely reports experience and one that analyzes and develop a set of criteria for an analytical paper that helps when they begin to write their own works.

RESULTS: The results of this program have been encouraging in terms of combating student passivity, resignation and hopelessness: well over 90% of the students surveyed in these classes reported significant change in how they saw their own ability to effect change and attributed this to their experiences in the class.

The PCC STAR experience also plays a vital part in changing students’ alienation when it makes abstract concepts more concrete. For example, writing teachers stress the importance of knowing your audience and purpose and PCC STAR reinforces these concepts in a very concrete way as STAR volunteers challenge themselves to find the right tone to set with their classes and to define their own mission or purpose for doing the program. As one STAR volunteer recently remarked "You can’t just describe a theory to these kids. You’ve got to bring it home." Students also learn about responsibility in this program since there are very real consequences. If they don’t show up or prepare they let down their peers or younger students who look up to them. Also given that education for many of our students takes them further away from their communities, STAR can be a way to reintegrate them back into their communities as they progress in their studies.

The program also has positive effects on students when they prepare to transfer. One very active student in the program helped to write an addendum to the national STAR curriculum to make it more accessible to Middle School students. When she transferred to USC , she won a place in a very competitive program and community service - based scholarship for her work with PCC STAR.


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