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A guide to Service Learning

We use this term to refer to a community service activity that is imbedded within an academic course, and that provides university credit. Not all “volunteer work” is appropriate for service learning. Most importantly, the targeted service experience has the purpose of improving students’ understanding of the discipline while also developing their sense of civic responsibility. This section provides a set of guidelines and ideas that may help an instructor who is interested in integrating service learning into a course or curriculum.

1. What is Service Learning (what is not)?f

2. What are the options for structuring a Service Learning experience?

3. How do I connect with partnering organizations?

4. What does a Service Learning course and syllabus look like?

5. How do I prepare students for Service Learning?

6. How should Service Learning be evaluated?

7. How do I represent Service Learning in my tenure or promotion dossiers?

8. How can Service Learning be combined with Study Abroad?

9. Who is already doing service learning locally at UAlbany?

10. Where can I get more information and/or read the research?


1. What is Service Learning (what is not)?

Service learning is a structured experience in which students participate in and reflect upon a community service activity for university credit. The experience is related to a specific, targeted area of study in the curriculum. The goal is to improve students’ understanding of the discipline while also developing their sense of civic responsibility.

Service Learning vs Volunteering & Internships

In general, volunteering, internships and service learning overlap in some areas; however, it is service learning's foundation in pedagogy that separates it from the others. As a volunteer a student would work in a soup kitchen for a day. As a service-learner he or she must also go home and think about why soup kitchens exist, what type of people are at the soup kitchen, what are the circumstances that led them there, if soup kitchens should exist or be reformed in some way, etc.

As an intern the student is encouraged to network, gain job skills, and associate "book learning" with the outside world in order to help them find work after graduation. As a service-learner the student engages in a partnership with the community in order to gain the skills necessary for working with diversified groups of people.

So while internships, volunteering and service learning afford students the opportunity to help the community or gain work skills, service learning adds several elements: a partnership between the community and the volunteer/student; reflection on the part of the student, the community, and the institution involved; a connection between the volunteer experience and a student's credit bearing academic coursework.


2. What are the options for structuring a Service Learning experience?

In many cases, service learning is done as its own course, but there are many other ways to incorporate service learning into your curriculum. Each instructor must decide how service learning can best be incorporated into learning goals and what to look out for in each case. In general service learning can be used as:

+ Students are able to incorporate learning from many courses

- Not all students have had the same classes and experiences

+ It can incorporate different learning styles and will diversify class discussion.

- Students might see service-learning as the 'easy way out'

+ Only self-motivated students will do this.

- It is harder to incorporate it into the class.

+ Students will all have similar experiences. (bonding factor)

- Some students will have considerable trouble participating. (transportation, child care…)


3. How do I connect with partnering organizations?

You may want to start with an agency like Volunteer Match or Idealist who can point you in the direction of organizations in need of a service-learning partnership. There are also organizations in UAlbany with already-established partnerships that may be able to help you out or you may already have some links in the community that you would like to capitalize on. Before contacting an organization you should consider some of the following factors:

Once you have established contact you should make the process as transparent as possible for everyone involved. Some questions you might want to ask of the organization include the following:

After students have started working, get feedback from the organization about the process. You can do this in the following ways:


4. What does a Service Learning course and syllabus look like?

Syllabi organized by field of study (Campus Compact)
Big Dummy's guide to SL (Mark Cooper, Coordinator, The VAC)
Art Service Learning Internship Course Syllabus (Arizona State University)
School of Pharmacy Service Learning Syllabus (University at Washington)

Incorporating service learning into a course or curriculum can be especially challenging due to the amount of semi-unstructured time spent outside the physical classroom. The addition of this element of uncertainty makes it particularly important to design the course and syllabus well. While many of the elements that must be in place when designing any course ( Fink 2003) are still valid there are extra factors to consider:

  1. What are your service learning goals for the course? How do you want your students to be better at the end of the semester? (Do you want them to improve communication and teamwork skills, self-understanding, leadership and public problem solving, critical thinking skills, understanding of the community they will be working with, etc?)
  2. What organizations are available to you? What are the biggest needs in your community?
  3. What theme will tie these learning goals and community resources together?
  4. What reflective activities will help the students in this class reflect on the learning process and reach these goals? (Journal/blog, webpage, newsletter, presentations, research paper, etc…)
  5. How will I give feedback and grade their service-learning experience? (This question is covered in more detail in a later section.)
  6. How will I design my syllabus? (Take into consideration that Campus Compact requires a syllabus to include elements of engagement, reflection, reciprocity, and public dissemination in order to be considered.)

Best Practices for Service Learning (Howard 1993)


5. How do I prepare students for Service Learning?

While each faculty member will find his or her own ways to foster the development of their learning goals, there are a few suggestions that will help in this area:


6. How should Service Learning be evaluated?

Due to the less structured nature of the service learning experience, special efforts should be made to assure that students are giving and getting feedback throughout the semester, not just at the end. You may even want to consider using the results of this feedback for a small study or conference paper although you should be sure to get approval from IRB before starting any study involving human subjects. Student feedback is crucial in developing your class, in monitoring the students' learning, and in measuring the success of the partnership. Besides class discussion, some commonly used techniques for eliciting informal feedback include the following:

Grading students' service-learning experiences can be challenging and rewarding at the same time. Since part of the grade will involve a student's progress on-site you will need to decide how you will include that process of engagement with the community and reflection in the final grade. Remember, you are evaluating the learning outcomes from service experiences and not necessarily the service itself. Here are some things to consider while developing a grading scheme for your class:

Example End of Semester Survey Questions


7. How do I represent Service Learning in my tenure or promotion dossiers?

Incorporating service learning can be both challenging and rewarding, and with careful planning you can take this student-centered learning experience and make it work for you. Consider opportunities for service learning research and scholarship and publishing and presenting in service learning at a conference or even applying for a grant.


8. How can Service Learning be combined with Study Abroad?

In the past, faculty members from Anthropology, the School of Social Welfare, Africana Studies, and History, among others, have led short term study abroad programs in the summer or winter sessions. In these programs, students had the chance to interact with communities abroad while participating in activities such as learning an indigenous language ( Anthropology) or participating in AIDS awareness programs ( Africana Studies). If you are thinking about incorporating service learning into a faculty-led study abroad trip, please contact the Study Abroad Office and ask to speak to one of the advisors about faculty-led programs. Each faculty member is in charge of logistical and academic arrangements; the Study Abroad office handles the administrative side (paperwork, billing, health insurance, registration, etc). The Study Abroad office is also associated with Global Service Corps (, which you may want to use to help a student set up his or her own experience.

Office of International Education
Study Abroad and Exchanges
Science Library G-40
1400 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12222
Phone: (518) 591-8170


9. Who is already doing service learning locally at UAlbany?

The Community Service Program (Africana Studies)
Opportunities are available to majors, minors, and graduate students in Africana Studies with the Homeless and Travelers Aid Society of the Capital District, Equinox Youth Shelter, Equinox Youth Outreach/Prevention Services, NYS Office of Children & Family Services, the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York, Arbor Park Child Care Center, Albany County Youth Advocate Program (YAP), Adolescent Employability Skills Plus Program, Inc., and other governmental and nonprofit agencies.

Contact Person: Dr. Sutherland (BA 114) 518/442-4248

Students have also had the opportunity to have a service-learning experience in Africa ( Summer 2004, AIDS awareness in Africa).

Capitalize on Community (The Sociology Department)
Capitalize on Community is an HIV Prevention project that represents a collaboration between the Department of Sociology, School of Public Health, and the School of Social Welfare here at SUNY-Albany.

Project Director: Dr. Hayward Derrick Horton (

Community Public Service Program (The School of Social Welfare)
The Community and Public Service Program (CPSP) has helped UAlbany students make a volunteer commitment to the Capital Region since 1970. They can choose to volunteer at one of nearly 500 not-for-profit and public AGENCIES in the Capital Region and arrange for other placements in their home communities.

Website: Community and Public Service Program (CPSP)
Search for organizations that participate here
Phone: (518)442-5683

Middle Earth (Counseling Center)
Middle Earth operates a peer assistance hotline and an info-tape line, uses peer theater to help shape students' perceptions of alcohol and other drugs, and publishes a weekly column on mental health and physical health issues.

NYPIRG has many service-learning programs in the areas of voting, environment, hunger and homeless efforts, and consumer protection.

You can find out more at


10. Where can I get more information and/or read the research?

Websites :

References :