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Service Learning

FAQ

The questions and answers below have been compiled from a variety of university service-learning programs facing the same issues and concerns. Some information has been adjusted to reflect the specific situations facing Northeastern University students and faculty.

Academic Rigor: Is this another feel-good excuse to water down academic standards? This is an important matter for all who are concerned with quality higher education, and is the focus of much of the past and current research on service-learning.  Academic credit should never be given for service, only for learning. If applied properly, the pedagogy is actually more rigorous than traditional teaching strategies.  Students are not only required to master the standard text and lecture material, but they must also integrate their service experience into that context. This is a high level skill for students requiring effective reflection techniques designed by faculty to accomplish academic outcomes. It is important to emphasize that incorporating service-learning does not change what we teach, but how we teach it. With this change comes a new set of challenges for both the student and the teacher.

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Competence in application of the strategy: Will I be able to apply the strategy successfully?
Trying anything new is a risk, and it challenges our competencies. Most practitioners report a steep learning curve with confidence developing fairly rapidly once the strategy is allowed to work. Relinquishing full control of the classroom is hard for many of us to do, but once we move from being the “sage on the stage" to the "guide on the side," we find that students can and will play an active role in their learning if given the right structure. The path to becoming effective in using the service-learning strategy is not always clearly marked. We often find ourselves "making the road by walking." Fortunately, you are not alone on the road. There is considerable literature on the subject, and many people right here at NU can assist you. Conversing with some of your colleagues who are currently using this pedagogy and attending a few workshops and seminars related to service-learning will provide an opportunity for more active exploration of some of the skills and philosophy of the pedagogy.  We have also developed a series of Service-Learning Best Practices documents for your reference, found here.

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How can I fit something new into an already cramped curriculum?
Service-Learning is not an add-on to your current course requirements. It does not change what we teach; it only changes how we teach it. Some of the traditional classroom content or assignments may be replaced or enhanced with more dynamic information processing activities. Students’ service experiences are intended to act as a “text” from which they can draw during class or out of class assignments to express what they have learned.  Therefore, some out of class time students might have otherwise been reading additional text or working on a broader research papers might be spent in meaningful action and involvement in their service environment.  However, we never encourage cancelling classtime to account for the time students spend serving.

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Most of our students work in addition to their school attendance. How can they fit service-learning experiences  into their already busy schedule?
In fact, the majority of students say the workload in their service-learning course was manageable because their placements options offered opportunities for their varied schedules.  As faculty, you must identify appropriate partnerships for the content, but also ones with a variety of service options that can accommodate students with varying availability.  However, in order to create a schedule acceptable to our community members, we recommend requiring of your students a minimum of 2 hrs/wk (and up to 5 hrs/wk) of service from the designated start date through the last week of class.  Depending on the model you implement, not all service activities of our students have to happen “on site.” Some models provide opportunities for students to facilitate the majority of their service related work on their own time, on campus, and using their own/campus resources.  We can discuss which of these options work with your course and partners' needs. 

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What if something happens to my students or their actions result in damages to someone else?
There is an inherent risk in any out-of-classroom activity. All service-learning students should be fully informed about their placement and knowingly consent to undertaking any risk associated with the placement. In most cases, the agency or site that provides the service-learning experience will be responsible for the acts of students assigned to it and also assumes responsibility for the student. However, due care and judgment must always be exercised to assure that we do not place student in situations fraught with danger or unreasonable risk. We must also use any information or knowledge we have which might disqualify a student from engaging in certain activities to protect either the student or the public.

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How are students evaluated or graded?
Faculty should evaluate and grade students based on their academic performance and demonstration of learning, which includes their ability to draw connections in their assignments between service experiences and course content. Students may be graded directly for their service only when the service itself demonstrates understanding of the course content (i.e. when students engage in project-based service and create a tangible product/deliverable for the community partner). In all cases, the expectation is that students are responsible for fulfilling their service commitment. For more information, see our Service-Learning Best Practices Series here.

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How do students get to the community organizations to perform service?
The Center and/or faculty member should chose to work with community partners located within close proximity to the University. Organizations within walking distance or within a reasonable bus or T ride away are appropriate. Students are asked to consider transportation when choosing a service placement (they are responsible for getting themselves to and from their service).

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Should I arrange to reimburse my students for their travel expenses?
Faculty members and students should view the transportation cost sometimes associated with service-learning experiences as equivalent to the expectation of purchasing materials for the course (such as a book or lab equipment), a request already expected from in a course.

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How can involvement in service-learning strengthen my professional research?
Professional academic associations now include sessions on experiential education at national as well as regional conferences. Other associations such as the National Society for Experiential Education and the American Association of Higher Education hold annual conferences and provide opportunities to present papers on service-learning and the scholarship of engagement. Involvement in service-learning can augment and redirect one's professional research interests, especially when a strong partnership is created with the community agency. Service-learning can contribute to research by engaging students in action research and applied research projects.

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Promotion and Tenure Considerations
Tenure and promotion decisions are based on an assessment of teaching, research and outreach accomplishments. Evaluation of these areas reflect not only what faculty do, but also how well they do it. Scholarship is fundamental to the role of university faculty. Service-Learning can take valuable time from scholarly activities, or it can be used to advance scholarship and enhance academic contributions.

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