During the last decade, there has been a demand from the public, legislators, and accrediting agencies for higher education to become more accountable for the learning that takes place in colleges and universities. One way this is being done is through service learning. There are many interpretations of service learning as well as different objectives and contexts. The core concept is that service learning combines service objectives with learning objectives with the intent that the activity change both the recipient and the provider of the service. This is accomplished by combining service tasks with structured opportunities that link the task to self-reflection, self-discovery, and the acquisition and comprehension of values, skills, and knowledge content.
An example of this is a school where students collect trash out of an urban streambed. They are providing a service to the community as volunteers – a service that is valued and important. When students collect trash from an urban streambed, analyze what they found and possible sources, and then share the results with residents of the neighborhood along with suggestions for reducing pollution, they are engaging in service learning. They are providing an important service to the community AND learning about water quality and laboratory analysis, developing an understanding of pollution issues, learning to interpret science issues to the public, and practicing communications skills by speaking to residents. They may also reflect on their personal and career interests in science, the environment, public policy or other related areas. Service learning combines service with learning in intentional ways. The combination is transforming to both community and students.
This is not to say that volunteer activities without a learning component are less important than service-learning. The two approaches are fundamentally different activities with different objectives. Both are valuable parts of community service.
There are some common characteristics of service learning:
This year, every undergraduate college sponsored at least one service learning course. 12% of faculty were offering service learning courses – with more in the process of developing them. On many campuses, there’s been a lot of talk about a graduation requirement for community service. Several universities around the country already incorporate a service requirement for graduation. Service learning is seen in many disciplines, such as horticulture, business, education, English, psychology, geography and many more.
Besides the community and educational benefits, there are many advantages of service learning. It connects the world of the university with the world the university inhabits. It is giving students valuable experience. They are learning realistic and practical skills, not just reading about them.
The jury is still out on service learning. Supporters argue that service learning prepares people for the responsibility of living in a democratic society, allows students to explore career possibilities, exposes students to different cultures, and encourages critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Others remain skeptical about what can be accomplished with service learning. A recent study found that service learning students developed slightly less favorable attitudes toward community service after one semester of program participation. Another study found that service learning can weaken the curriculum and place a burden on faculty members’ time. Further research on the outcomes and effects of service learning programs is needed to resolve these issues. Overall, service learning appears to be a concept worth exploring.
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