Best practices for faculty who integrate Service Learning
2010—by Leah Halper in preparing to implement Service Learning
Get training before undertaking Service Learning.
- Learn how others integrate Service Learning, but define for yourself how Service Learning will look in your own classes—how much it will weigh towards the grade, whether students go to placements alone or in groups, where students will go, what they do there, how they integrate the experience.
- Tie SL to course and academic major/field of study learning outcomes.
- Make SL part of the “text” for the course, which may mean replacing some written text with service. It may feel scary, but thousands of professors swear it works well.
- Reflective writing, reading, and discussion are essential to successful achievement of the goals of helping students analyze self, community, and context; gain knowledge; and practice important skills.
- Require reflective written work at the beginning, middle, and end of the service assignment. Plan to read students’ reflections often to catch problems or prepare for classroom discussion.
- Plan on making time to discuss the placements and to have students report formally or informally on what they’re learning and what challenges them.
- Consider how you can make the experience interdisciplinary by working with other faculty or by collaborating with others who are using the same placement agencies.
- If possible, offer a broad range of placements provide students with good choices, including a few placements on campus so students with mobility or transportation challenges may still participate
In working with students
- Emphasize at all times and in all ways the academic nature of this program. Tie SL to course and academic major/field of study learning outcomes. Tie it to what people do in your field. Tie it to the material in your class every chance you get.
- Introduce SL on the first day of class and discuss its benefits and its relevance to the course.
- Don’t be threatened by students who seem initially alarmed or negative; many have never encountered anything like this. Answer questions, review benefits, and discuss what you have changed or removed from the class assignments (a reading, a test) to make SL part of the class without adding more out of class hours. Explain the ways in which you have integrated SL into the material they will be learning. If someone still objects because of their schedule or other concerns, suggest that you talk outside of class so you can fully understand their concerns and help problem-solve. And then follow up. If there is really a poor fit, the student may wish to take a non-SL section of the same class.
- Require that students get oriented to community service learning, and standardize your orientation to include choosing a placement, applying and interviewing, expectations and responsibilities, ethics, confidentiality and appropriateness, learning plan, risk management, evaluation of placement by student and by agency, academic requirements, and troubleshooting.
- Give students at least two opportunities, one quite early, to evaluate their placements. Students whose placements don’t work out should switch by the fourth week of class.
- Regularly require reports of some kind—oral or written—about how the placements are going. Follow up with students who don’t turn in or do the reports; they may not be going to their placement.
- Students should produce tangible evidence of their learning at the end of their experience.
- Service learning should be a significant enough part of the grade so students do it, but not so much that a poor placement choice sinks an otherwise responsible student. Many faculty settle for something between 15-40 percent, which would include written work generated from the placement.
In relating to community partner agencies
- Establish contact early on, before the semester starts. Be sure your contact person still works at the agency and still wants to participate. Be sure she or he has specific projects in mind for students. Clarify whether students would be needed weekdays or weekends, and what they would be doing.
- Let agencies know when in the semester students will be contacting them for placements (February 4-14, for example), what are your expectations in terms of students’ doing preliminary applications or interviews, when students should start work (the week of February 18, for example), when their evaluations are due, and when the semester ends and students are graded. If the contact person isn’t available at the key time, students will get very frustrated—it may be best to use other agencies rather than risk turning off students at a key juncture.
- Communicate your contact information and encourage agency representative to contact you whenever there’s good news or bad news. Clarify what are the best ways to contact you, and ask the same of your agency contact.
- Invite agency contacts to present to your class. Look for other connections, such as joint grant applications or sharing conference materials of interest. Invite them to panel discussions or reports on student service learning experiences, which some faculty set up as a final project.
- Don’t work with more agencies than you can track. Start small if need be and grow your contacts over time. Most professors at Gavilan choose 3-6 great agencies.
- Provide agencies with what they need to start students off right: timesheets, copies of assignments you’ll give students (if relevant) that involve agency work, evaluation forms, and the Best Practices for Agencies sheet we’ve developed.
- Require a set number of hours and have the agency contact, not students, keep track and certify when the hours are finished.
- Thank your agency contacts; they are usually very busy people, and have taken a lot of time to orient, supervise, and evaluate students.