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Service Learning (for students)

A few months ago, I wrote a short piece for ProfHacker about the benefits of service learning activities (or community involvement) for faculty. One of the benefits of volunteering in your local community, I argued, was to help keep your busy life in balance. Volunteering in my community has helped me balance the stresses of a (new) academic career with challenges of my (not so new) personal life, but volunteering has also helped me keep perspective about what I do, where I am, and where I’ve been. That perspective has been—at times—invaluable.

Service learning has been an important part of higher education and pedagogy for over 20 years because it adds richness and reality to an academic experience for both students and faculty. Service learning activities and experiences allow students to combine what they are learning in the classroom with the “real world” experience of working with a community partner. Service learning activities, as noted in the previous article, help students balance what they are learning in a classroom, what they may already know, and what the community can teach them. SL can also help us help them keep their lives in balance.

Since I teach writing, integrating service learning into my courses has been an easy thing to do. I have had students participate in Writing Partners (a program started years ago when I was part of a nonprofit organization) wherein older students and younger students write letters back and forth to each other throughout a semester, writing about their academic work and experiences. The older and younger students learn very quickly what it’s like to have a real audience for their writing, not the anonymous teacher-person they typically see as their sole reader. This awareness changes their writing. The end-of-semester celebration includes the younger students coming to the university campus for the partners’ face-to-face meeting. This activity is a small portion of a semester’s graded work. But the work becomes highly significant to all the students involved. The dozen or so times I’ve used Writing Partners in the university writing classroom, the older students have—by a very large majority—lost some of their cynicism and engaged with the real audience reading and responding to their writing. The WP activities changed the way they wrote the other graded work throughout that term.

In this past spring semester, I taught an advanced composition course about social networking and new media. During the second half of the semester, students were to engage with a local nonprofit organization and, using the online networking/new media tools they’d learned in the course, create documents for that nonprofit. Students chose their own nonprofit organizations; in small groups, they worked with immigration agencies, domestic violence shelters, tourism agencies, and agencies concerning children and animals. By being able to put some “real world” applications to the tools the students learned, students found value in the “real world” uses of the tools.

While Service Learning can add a significant amount of work onto a faculty members already full plate, I think the expenditure of time and effort is worth it for the amount of student growth I’ve seen. But these are my experiences.

Service learning has a great number of benefits to all the participants involved, the students, the faculty member, the university, and the community organization. The University of Minnesota has a comprehensive list of these benefits.

In short, for higher-education institutions, service learning has been known to increase retention and engage students more fully in their campuses and their communities. For the community agencies, service learning helps these agencies meet the very real needs of their clients. Community agencies can see college students—indeed, the university—in a new, positive light. For students, service learning has been known to engage students more fully in their campuses and their communities, they can achieve higher academic goals, and the collaborative nature of many service learning activities can help students understand how their collegiate experiences prepare them for real world work experiences.

There are hundreds of resources on the web that can be helpful to someone creating service learning experiences for students. Clearly we can’t list them all, but here are a few major sites and journals that can get you started.

Most universities have an office devoted to service / community involvement, an office that connects the university with its surrounding community. Interestingly, this office knows of ways the university can connect with community partners that most faculty had not considered. If you are unsure how to get started integrating service learning into your courses, what agencies might need your expertise, or what resources you might need, this office is a terrific place to start.

How about you? How have you used service learning? What positive effects have you seen in your classes and in your students by including this type of pedagogy in your classes? What resources could you share with the rest of us? Please leave your suggestions in comments below.

[Image by Billie Hara and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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