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Considerations for Course Design

Is service-learning appropriate for introductory and lower-level courses?

Yes. Students at any level can have substantive and rewarding service-learning experiences. The key is for students to be placed at organizations where they will have responsibilities appropriate to their skills levels. The Center for Community-Engaged Learning's service-learning coordinators will help you identify service-learning opportunities that work well for your students.

Is service-learning manageable in large courses?

Yes. We have supported service-learning courses with enrollments as high as 250 students and as low as 10 students. In large courses, the key to success is the involvement of teaching assistants. Be sure all your teaching assistants understand the service-learning component and are prepared to facilitate students' reflections on their community work in discussion sections. (See "How should I grade students?" answer below for information on reflection activities and grading.) Service-learning logistics are more complicated in larger courses, so it is important to stay in close contact with our office. We can help facilitate and track student placements, and their logging of community-work hours.

Do students have time to do service-learning?

Many students juggle classes, jobs, family obligations, or other activities. Fitting in the 2 to 3 hours per week for a service-learning requirement can be a challenge, but we've found that most students can fit that in, and are glad they did. Furthermore, often students who don't think they will have time decide to continue volunteering after the course ends.

We are diligent about offering service-learning opportunities that meet varying schedule and location needs. If a student seems to be having a particularly difficult time meeting the service-learning requirement in your class, we can help you think about alternative assignments for exceptional cases. When you incorporate service-learning into a course, you should adjust the workload of readings and other assignments in recognition of the time students spend working in the community. We are always happy to review your syllabus with you if you have any questions or concerns.

Should I require service-learning in my course, or make it optional?

Either can work well, and there are pros and cons to each approach. When service-learning is optional, students are allowed to choose an alternative assignment, such as a research paper. When service-learning is required in a class, all students will have a shared experience to draw on during class discussions. This will make it easier to facilitate students' service-learning reflection and discussions. The downside to required service-learning is that you may send some students into the community who don't want to be there.

Our office offers guidance to faculty as you decide whether to require service-learning or not. We can share sample syllabi of both models. If you decide to require service-learning in your course, be sure to mention that in the course description so students know about it when they register.

How should I grade students on their service-learning? What is reflection?

Think of students' community work as a "lived text" for the course. Their time spent at community organizations is somewhat like required readings. When you assess students' reading assignments, you don't simply assess whether they have completed the readings—you assess what they learned from the readings, and how well they demonstrate that in exams and papers. The same is true when assessing service-learning.

Your service-learning class should require students to discuss what they're learning from their community work, and how that connects with other course texts, lectures, and discussions. This type of assignment is commonly known as reflection. Reflection sets service-learning apart from other types of volunteer work. See our Reflection page for in-depth information and examples.

Should I require a minimum number of volunteer hours? How many and why?

Most service-learning instructors do require students to complete a minimum number of community-work hours during the semester. This is similar to requiring class attendance or participation. We recommend that students be asked to commit 2 to 3 hours per week to their community organization, for a total of 25 to 30 hours total for a semester. By setting a minimum number of hours you help ensure that students do enough community work to fulfill the course's learning objectives and that the community organization receives enough benefit for the time and effort they invest in hosting a student.

How do I make sure service-learning is well integrated into my class?

First, be sure service-learning isn't an "add-on" to the course. For it to be as effective as possible, it should be woven into the curriculum throughout the semester. Reflection assignments are the most effective way to integrate service-learning into your course. Reflection helps students connect their community work to the course content.

When we ask students at the end of each semester how service-learning could have been better integrated into their class, a common response is that more time could have been spent in class discussing students' experiences in the community. We strongly encourage you to keep this in mind as you plan the course. Whether you require service-learning or make it optional, think about the ways students can learn from each other through these discussions.

What if something happens to a student, or if their actions cause damages to someone else?

Every service-learning student will need to complete a Participant Agreement, in which they acknowledge "that there are risks involved in doing community work and that the University does not assume any responsibility for injuries or loss to my personal property while I am participating in a community organization." We work to minimize these risks by visiting community organizations to see where and how they operate. To facilitate our support of service-learning classes at the U of M, our office has developed partnerships with more than 200 Twin Cities community organizations. 

Note that the University of Minnesota's liability insurance does provide coverage for all academic credit-bearing student activities, including service-learning. If a student reports an incident to you, please let us know as soon as possible. If there' is any question about liability, the U's Risk Management staff will work with the community organization and the student to resolve the issue.

What are some of the challenges encountered by faculty doing service-learning?

When you first teach with service-learning, you may have questions about how to integrate it into your course. Our office is here to provide guidance in whatever way we can. The following are challenges service-learning faculty sometimes have to manage:

  • how to reduce other parts of the course workload to accommodate service-learning
  • how to create new assignments to facilitate students' reflections on what they learn in the community
  • how to assess students' performance on those assignments
  • how to build flexibility into the curriculum so students can discuss and explore unexpected experiences in the community
  • how to answer students' service-learning questions when you don't have ready answers

You may also have concerns about the additional time it might take to manage the service-learning component of your course, or whether your efforts will be rewarded within the promotion and tenure process. We can help you think through all aspects of service-learning course planning, manage the logistics of your students' placements, and connect you with campus-wide efforts to support and recognize engaged teaching as an important tool for fulfilling the University's educational mission.