Doing Service Learning Right

Building blocks

At many institutions, service learning programs are pursued in an ad hoc manner. Here’s how to realize the full potential of a service learning initiative.

Service learning programs have proliferated on college and university campuses over the past decade, leading in the best cases to measurable gains in student learning and engagement; yet at many institutions, these programs are still pursued in an ad hoc manner. Among the obstacles to realizing the full potential of a service learning initiative:

  • Lack of clarity around the intended outcomes of the initiative, or in some cases a lack of clarity in the intended relationship between the “service” and the “learning”
  • Ownership of the program by one faculty champion or one department, with limited buy-in from other offices across academic and student affairs

To learn from the success of one of the more effective programs, we turned this week to Drew Stelljes, director of community engagement at the College of William and Mary. That institution has effectively scaled its interests in service learning up to a comprehensive civic engagement initiative with defined outcomes and structured collaboration across both the academic affairs and student affairs division.

Here is Stelljes’ advice for colleagues at other institutions who may be looking to achieve more with their service learning efforts.

Defining Your Outcomes

First, Stelljes advises establishing clarity around the purpose of the initiative:

  • Is it a response to student retention issues?
  • Is it a way of cultivating students’ civic responsibility?
  • Is it a way for faculty to teach more effectively?

“Tease out the objectives that are important to your school,” Stelljes advises, “and then articulate those to the faculty you hope to involve.”

“We need to be careful that the learning does not trump the activity such that it becomes a voyeuristic exploitation of those with community-defined need — a perpetuation of a cycle of socioeconomic hierarchy veiled in a language of charity or sympathy (i.e., “we need to help the poor people”).”
Drew Stelljes, College of William and Mary

The College of William and Mary’s commitment to a specific outcome for its service learning effort can be seen even in the initiative’s nomenclature. Stelljes speaks of community-engaged learning rather than service learning. He explains, “I have found that the term ‘service learning’ unfairly implies that faculty are involved in charitable volunteerism, where service trumps the course objective. ‘Community-engaged learning’ is a pedagogy, a teaching tool with a genuine ability to transform student learning so that the theoreticals in the class become real and students are invited to apply theoreticals to real-world issues. The goal is to have students coming to class engaged in their learning and aware of the impact of the course’s subject matter.”

Collaborating Across Silos

“Close collaboration between academic and student affairs is necessary,” Stelljes notes, “because the developmental and affective goals that govern student affairs programs and the diverse academic goals that govern service-learning initiatives require different training, management strategies, and assessment techniques. The clear lesson from institutions that have built civic engagement centers under the leadership of one person, rather than the co-direction that we propose here, is that one side gets diminished in importance, misconceived, or underfunded.”

Stelljes adds that it’s not just about producing a more effective civic engagement program. By bringing together faculty integrating service learning into the curriculum and student affairs professionals who collaborate with the same array of schools, government agencies, and local nonprofits, and by coordinating the institution’s interactions with those community partners “under one roof,” Stelljes suggests that an institution will avoid missing opportunities for:

  • Joint community projects
  • Collaborations on campus events (such as visiting speakers and films)
  • Joint honors and awards events

To co-locate and integrate programs effectively, Stelljes recommends establishing an institution-wide task force to look at how the institution can best move toward an institution-wide office that supports both the students’ individual and affective development and their intellectual development through the service learning initiative. The task force could include:

  • A key administrator in academic affairs (such as an associate provost for undergraduate studies or the dean of a college)
  • At least one community partner
  • Student representatives
  • The director of civic engagement or service learning

Questions for the Task Force to Address

We asked Stelljes about the steps the task force should take. He advised:

  • Begin by reviewing the history of civic engagement or service learning at that college or university
  • Interview students, community leaders, and faculty about challenges and successes
  • Review best practices from peer institutions, and evaluate how similar efforts have been implemented successfully
  • Identify the desired outcomes and purpose in moving forward with the effort, and how it will enhance the strategic goals of the institution
  • Identify possible threats to success, and initial steps
  • Identify, up front, how you will assess the success of the effort

The College of William and Mary was fortunate in that its effort had the visible commitment of the president, the provost, and the vice president of student affairs. If you are starting at a more grassroots level, Stelljes suggests making the case by a) articulating clearly how the effort will support the strategic priorities of the institution, b) gathering data to determine the level of student interest in civic engagement (do the students see it as an integral part of their growth and development?), and c) researching the potential and the propensity for faculty to integrate community-engaged learning into their courses.

“Finally, invite students to take on volunteer leader positions in helping to implement your efforts, and establish an advisory committee that will meet quarterly to guide and assist them.”
Drew Stelljes, College of William and Mary