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Integrating service with classwork boosts learning, speaker says

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - October 1, 2007

An approach that integrates community service with academic coursework – promotes learning, fosters civic engagement, and accommodates different learning styles, according to John Saltmarsh.

Known as service learning, it is rapidly gaining currency at institutions of higher education nationwide.

Saltmarsh, director of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, made his remarks during a one-day forum on Sept. 21.

The event marked the launch of the University’s new Office of Service Learning at the Greater Hartford campus.

Service learning has three components, Saltmarsh said: academic knowledge, relevant and meaningful service to the community, and purposeful understanding of how communites work.

“It is going on around the country, at institutions like UConn,” he said. “Ten to 15 years ago, service learning was on the margins of higher education. Now it’s right at the core of the work that we do.”

He noted that the Carnegie Foundation has a new elective classification known as Community Engagement.

To date, only 62 institutions have earned the full classification, he said.

These include Michigan State among public, four-year, land-grant colleges, and research institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania.

Saltmarsh said service learning helps improve both teaching and learning, and is consistent with current educational research that shows students learn best through engagement and active participation.

In addition, it accommodates changing student demographics. Service learning takes account of students’ varied learning styles and different life experiences, he said, noting that more than 80 percent of first-year students already have some form of community service experience.

Saltmarsh said the key components of service learning are placement; making connections between course content and what is happening in the community; reflection; and community voice.

If students remove trash from a stream bed, for example, they are providing service as volunteers but it’s not service learning, he said.

Service learning would occur if students in an environmental science course analyzed what they found in the field in a lab, shared the results with the community, formulated recommendations, and then reflected on the experience in order to connect the service activity with the academic course content.

Students are assessed on the learning that takes place, not the service they perform.

Saltmarsh said community partners have a role to play in identifying relevant public problems and assessing students’ contributions.

“We’re no longer talking about taking expert knowledge and applying it in the community,” he said. “Instead we’re taking both the knowledge of the academy and the knowledge of the community to create new knowledge.”

Some critics hold that service learning is not rigorous, Saltmarsh said, but “we’re saying this is actually more rigorous than the way we traditionally teach.”

Also speaking during the forum, Lynne Goodstein, associate vice provost and director of the Honors Program, said there has been a surge of commitment and interest in service learning as urban universities, including UConn’s Greater Hartford campus, have become increasingly responsive to the surrounding community.

She said service learning focuses on the relationship between students and communities.

“The concept of instilling citizenship in our students is very important,” she said. “We want to help them become educated and informed citizens.”

Goodstein said service learning goes back a long way at UConn, but the various initiatives have not previously been coordinated.

A report prepared by the Provost’s Service Learning Committee in 2005 recommended greater centralization and institutional support for service learning. The committee included members of the Service Learning Council, a longstanding ad hoc faculty group.

David Williams, director of the Greater Hartford Campus, said the new Office of Service Learning will help coordinate the University’s efforts.

Working together with the Office of Community Outreach and the Institute for Teaching and Learning, it will offer support for course design and for scholarship, and will help build partnerships with the community. 

Tom Deans, associate professor of English and director of the University’s Writing Center, teaches a service learning writing course that integrates class work with community service projects lasting up to six weeks.

The challenges in developing such a course are many, he said during the forum. Working in the community doesn’t always fit well with the typical academic class schedule, for example.

And ensuring a satisfactory learning experience for students must be balanced by the responsibility to make the experience worthwhile for the community partners.

But the benefits make it worthwhile, Deans said.

“Students are so used to writing for me as the teacher, that even when I say, ‘Let’s imagine you’re writing to a local newspaper,’ it rings hollow,” he said.

“There’s something about really having an audience out there.”

Deans limits class size to 20 and generally has about five projects in play, with a small group of students working on each.

Specific projects have included drafting a presentation on a lead remediation project; preparing a research report on hunger and homelessness for the Public Interest Research Group; writing profiles of residents at a homeless shelter to be used in grant writing; and composing advocacy letters for Upward Bound.

Before embarking on their projects, Deans’ students read essays on the dynamics of outsiders coming in to help.

Their own written assignments include reflecting on their experience in the community, and analyzing the different types of writing skills required for class essays and practical pieces.

Deans said students come to realize that writing for the community comes with constraints, and this gives them a greater appreciation for how most academic writing affords them space to express their own ideas.

He said the different contexts for writing have an impact on students’ motivation.

“Students persist through more drafts in their community project – seven or eight, as opposed to one or two for a typical essay,” he said.

“In their community project, they don’t feel they have permission to do a bad job – it’s got to be publishable, it can’t be C or B quality. They’re writing for an audience they’ve come to care about.”

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