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Career Advice

How to build service learning into your course

A pair of profs seasoned in service learning offer their thoughts

BY BALBIR GILL | SEP 08 2009

The typical undergraduate expects to attend lectures, write essays and exams, and weather the occasional caffeine-fuelled study session. But, at a growing number of universities, students are taken beyond that traditional route and at the same time are making a difference in their community.

The concept is called service learning. These are courses that combine classroom-based work with projects that send students to outside organizations where they apply theory to practice. Some work in hospitals and nursing homes, others on community action or environmental projects. The aim is to give students a sense of civic engagement while benefiting the community.

For example, University of Calgary professor Tania Smith partnered with U of C’s office of sustainability for her course on research in communication. Students conducted research using methods they had learned in class and the sustainability office benefited from the results.

If you are a teacher looking to integrate service learning into your course, the experts say to keep these questions in mind.

Is service learning a good fit for you as an instructor?

Dr. Smith describes service learning as a three-way partnership between the instructor, the student and the community placement. It changes the instructor’s role, she says. “You have to give up some individual control in order to gain the benefit of collaborative wisdom. Service learning is attractive for teachers who see the benefit of that rather than the desire to be sole orchestrator of the learning process.”

Does your university have the infrastructure to support service learning?

St. Francis Xavier Professor Margo Watt incorporated service learning into her forensics course last year. Although she already had correctional services contacts, this prison had not partnered with her before, and there was a lot of work involved in getting it off the ground.

Do you have experienced colleagues to ask for advice?

When Dr. Smith started applying service learning in her courses, she turned to colleagues and professors at other universities for advice. Last year, the University of Calgary opened a Centre for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement. The Canadian Alliance for Community Service-Learning is a useful resource, especially for those professors who don’t have service learning support networks on their own campuses.

How amenable is your course to service learning?

Dr. Smith suggests professors new to service learning look at existing literature to find out how other instructors in their fields have used it to their advantage. She has included a service learning component in her advanced technical and professional communication course for five years, and students’ service work depends on the community partner’s needs. For example, students designed a better delivery system for Meals on Wheels and tested the usability of a website for the Kidney Foundation of Alberta.

Sample course outlines and suggestions for courses across several disciplines are available at the CACSL website, communityservicelearning.ca.

Which community group would be a good fit for your course?

Professors should be prepared to invest some time in helping community partners understand what students have to offer, says Dr. Watt. “Not everyone was clear on what it meant to have students come into the prison or court,” she says, referring to her forensics course. “They weren’t sure if the students would just be shadowing them. Once they understand that the student is there to do work, that opens up a whole new set of opportunities and becomes valuable for the site.”

Is service learning a good fit for all your students?

Not all the students in Dr. Watt’s class participate in service learning, because not everyone who applies is accepted. “We don’t want students to miss out on other academic activities that may be more to their benefit,” she says. In some cases, she adds, students’ needs may be better served by more traditional methods.

See related: Read Léo Charbonneau’s feature on community service learning entitled “Community Connections“.

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