What defines service-learning and sets it apart form simply doing service, is reflection. The act of spending time and energy in the community is fantastic, and as a part of class coursework, even better. However, service- learning takes this even further, by processing the experience. When a student stops to evaluate what they will do, are doing, or have done, as part of their service-learning project, they are able to apply the in-class material to their time in the community and their interactions in the community they served applies to class. Thus a greater understanding of the issues that these classes address is attained.
Reflection does not simply happen on its’ own. It is imperative that time is set aside (in class, required out of class meetings, etc.) to deliberately and honestly evaluate what is happening in our world and our community. We cannot hope to have long-term effects and heightened awareness of the issues if the service that we do ends with our leaving the site. The first step in making this a valuable experience is to learn ourselves, and then teach college students, how to evaluate the experience and learn from it.
Because of our unique relationship with the community, it is necessary to set certain requirements for students who are doing service-learning. A professor can set these requirements by hours or contacts.
The Service-Learning Department recommends a minimum of 20 hours per semester/project. In an effort to provide a quality experience for those students who take advantage of the service-learning opportunity, we recommend that a student do their service-learning project over the entire semester and with weekly visits. Regular contact helps to build relationships within the community, and the greater the time that elapses over the course of the project, the better chance that the students will be able to see change and realize the impact of the service work. By designing the experience in this fashion, we demonstrate to our community partners that we are committed to addressing actual needs and working towards sustainable change.
The Service-Learning Department also recommends to have a number of contacts over the semester. In the past, professors have chosen to set a minimum number of contacts over a certain amount of weeks (i.e. no less than one contact a week over seven weeks). The professor should define the length of each contact. The total time spent should be no less than 20 hours. This is strongly recommended by our department as it clearly stresses the importance of regular contact with the community and is a clear statement of what a professor expects from a student's participation in a project.
In order to keep track of the number of contacts that students have with the community agencies throughout the semester and the total number of hours that they have toward their service-learning project, we primarily use public folders. The students are required to post after each time they visit their site. These posts should include the date and time at the site, any relevant concerns or issues for the academic coordinators to address, and a short reflection piece to help process the experience. There are, however, other options for recording hours available. The service-learning student academic coordinators read these posts and keep a tally of hours. They will regularly update the professor with totals along with any concerns or issues brought up by the students.
Ultimately, the decision is left to the professor to approve or decline this request. While many service opportunities are acceptable to use as a service-learning project, there are opportunities that do not fall under the mission of our service-learning program. Our program operates under the guideline that each student will serve the local community (St. Cloud, Central Minnesota, etc) on a semester-long basis. We believe that this is the soundest practice for learning to take place as it allows students to continually make applications throughout the semester between what they are doing in the community to what they are learning in the classroom. We also intentionally offer opportunities to students with organizations that we have a long-standing relationship with or with organizations where we intend to commit to an on-going relationship. This strengthens the commitment that organizations make to the students learning experience and allows us each semester to build on what students have done in the past. The goal in doing this is continual, sustainable growth. In some fashion we anticipate that a long-standing commitment to the community by individuals (although a semester-long experience is still very short) is optimal for change and growth to take place. For example, while Alternative Break Experiences are an invaluable type of service and a great way for our students to make contributions, they do not fall under this rationale.
Our department does recognize that there are many variables to this experience. For instance, students may not commit to an entire semester (start late or end early) or what they are experiencing is not continually tied to the many theories and concepts they are introduced to in a course. Because of this, it is up to the professor to decide whether the students’ experience relates to what they are learning. Other variables such as a lack of time for a student to commit to a service-learning project may also affect whether a student can fulfill a semester commitment. This needs to be considered as well and can determine what type of experience students commit themselves to.