Key Components of Service-Learning
by Cheryl Hofstetter Duffy

Four key components of any service-learning project are (1) preparation, (2) action, and (3) reflection, (4) assessment

Students need some background before their main interaction with the selected community. Preparation can take many forms-readings, discussion, journal writing, classroom visits, and so on. For example, before my comp. students work with students from the Hays Language Institute, they write in their journals and then develop a personal essay about a time when they themselves have felt like "outsiders," and they also write about their experiences with and attitudes toward international students. As further preparation, they read and discuss essays out of Crossing Customs: International Students Write on U.S. College Life and Culture, and then a panel of HLI students visits our classroom. (Not all preparation need be so elaborate-it all depends on the scope of the service-learning project. The first time I tried service-learning, before I broadened its scope from one assignment to a semester-long focus, our preparation consisted of journal writing and a panel discussion only.) Students planning to spend their time at a senior citizen center would benefit from a classroom talk delivered by the center's supervisor. Students planning to organize a writing workshop for an after-school program would benefit from an observational on-site visit to that program before starting their actual involvement.

Here is a partial list of some possible preparation activities:

Teacher Lecture: "What Is Service-Learning?" "Why are we doing this?"
Journal Entries
Essay Writing
Class Discussion
Online Discussion
Small-Group Discussion
Classroom Presentation by Agency Staff Member(s)
Panel Discussion (agency staff and/or their clients/participants)
Training Session
On-Site Visit/Observation
Video Watching
Staged Debate
Presentations by Students from a Previous Semester
Research/Internet Browsing on the Related Social Issues

Action is the actual interaction/service performed by the students. It can be brief (e.g., one or two hours editing a high schooler's scholarship application or cleaning gutters for a community member in a wheelchair) or ongoing (e.g., six to twenty hours tutoring over the course of the semester). The time spent is typically out-of-class time, treated like a homework assignment, although certain aspects (such as the initial visit) might be conducted during class time.

Some teachers set up the community activity ahead of time, and the whole class works with the same agency. (Logistically, this is the more manageable route.) Other teachers contact and make arrangements with a variety of agencies, present the list of possibilities to their class, and then let students pick according to their interests and schedules. (Obviously, this has the benefit of increased motivation for the students.)

Still other teachers leave it up to students to locate agencies and make their own arrangements for service-though students might be given a list of local agencies and a letter of introduction (explaining the project) to give to a prospective agency. (This option seems like less work for the teacher initially, but greater follow-up energy is required to deal with students procrastinating.)

Reflection is primarily what separates service-learning from volunteerism or community service, so I'll devote quite a bit of space to it. For service-learning to be effective, students must reflect critically on their attitudes and experiences. That reflection can be written (journals, essays, letters to teachers or classmates, portfolios) or oral (in pairs, in small groups, in class discussion) or, obviously, some combination of written and oral.

Bill Grace of Seattle, Washington, suggests the acronym S.O.W. for prompting reflection:

Self - What are you feeling? What questions do you have? How do you see yourself differently? (and so on)

Other - Whom did you serve? What new impressions do you have-any new insights or perceptions? How could that apply to others in similar circumstances? (and so on)

World - What new questions do you have of your world? Describe your preferred world. How should the world be different? What is one small practical step you could take to get closer to that ideal vision? (and so on)

By choosing carefully the kinds of reflection you have your students do, you can direct them towards the type of critical thinking you want to foster and the course goals you want them to meet. For example, if your students wrote brochures for local agencies, you might ask them to respond to the following questions: "What kind of audience were you writing to? What writing decisions were affected by your consideration of that audience?"

Reflection should be continuous. Ideally, some reflection occurs before, during, and after the action phase of the service-learning project. Beforehand students might consider such questions as "Why did you choose this service activity?" "What do you think this agency does?" "What do you expect?" "What are your current feelings about _____?" "Why do you think people end up in nursing homes?" During the actual on-site interaction students can record their experiences (journal fashion) and then connect those experiences to their own feelings and the key issues/concepts covered in class. Afterwards, students can respond to their earlier reflections, comparing expectation to reality. This is also a good time for students to apply their experience to their career choices or to the academic goals of the class. ("What have you learned that you can see yourself using once you've graduated and begun working in your chosen field?")

Reflection should be contextualized. That is, reflection hinges on the type of course being taught, the type of service performed, and the particular goals of the teacher, students, and agency. For example, if the service is intended to inspire and inform a later persuasive essay, then the reflection prompts might be something like, "What controversial issues do you see surrounding nursing homes (or public schools or humane societies or whatever)?" "What are the two sides to one of those issues?" "Which side do you lean toward?" "Who needs to be convinced that your side is valid?"

Reflection should be connected. That is, the theories, concepts, statistics, readings, etc. of the classroom need to connect somehow to the service work students are doing. For example, a reflection prompt might ask (based on an earlier reading), "Like Devyani Sharma in 'Living by Leaving Behind,' what have the international students on your writing team left behind, at least temporarily?"

And finally, reflection should be challenging. Chris Anson cautions us: "Journal writing in many service courses may serve the purpose of creating a log or record of experience, but falls short of encouraging the critical examination of ideas" (169). One way to challenge students in their reflection is to require that they incorporate into their journal entries key terms and phrases from their classroom work. Another method is the double-entry journal, where students record experiences, thoughts, and feelings in a column on the left side of the page, and then on the right side "discuss how the first set column relates to key concepts and materials covered in class. (Note that these methods also keep the reflection connected.) Another way to challenge students is to use reflection prompts that force them to consider the systemic nature of a given problem-what's wrong with the political or social system that allows this problem to exist or makes the work of this agency necessary?

Assessment is "the process of gathering information in order to make an evaluation. An evaluation is a decision or judgment about whether an effort is successful and to what extent that effort has or has not met a goal" (Campus Compact). In service-learning, assessment falls into two broad categories: (1) assessment done before you complete a service-learning project ("assessment of assets and needs") and (2) assessment done after you complete a service-learning project ("assessment of impact").

Assessment of Assets and Needs (before service)

  • What are the community's assets and needs?
  • What are a particular agency's assets and needs?
  • What are your assets and needs as a learner in this course?
  • What are your assets and needs as a member of society?

Assessment of Impact (after service)

  • Did you and the agency meet the goals for the project?
  • Did you learn what you set out to learn?
  • Did your attitudes, beliefs, or values shift in any way?

Keep in mind that dividing assessment into before and after categories can be a little misleading. You may well find yourself reassessing assets and needs during the action phase of your service project, when your increased involvement leads to increased understanding.

Maybe you will be in the middle of a service-learning project for your Spanish III class-writing a Community Guidebook for Spanish-speaking residents-when you discover that a deep religious faith is one of the assets of this Hispanic community. You therefore change your plans and add a section to your booklet on "Churches Offering Programs in Spanish" (i.e., "Iglesias con Progamas en Espanol").

You can also assess impact during the action phase of your service-learning project, not just after it is done. For example, at the midway point of your ten sessions tutoring inner-city students in reading, you could seek feedback from the students you're working with, their parents, and/or their teacher to find out if you need to adjust your focus or your methods for the remaining sessions.

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