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Teaching Guide: Using Service Learning in Writing Courses

Service-learning unites students, faculty, and community members to benefit the community while advancing educational goals and enhancing students' academic development.

The following guide provides practical information on service-learning in college classrooms, with an emphasis on writing and writing-intensive courses. Select from the links below or use the sidebar to navigate this guide:

Introduction to Service-Learning

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With roots in colonial education and industrial-age rethinking of community, service-learning has become a formal component of undergraduate education. Select from the following links for an overview of service-learning:

Definition of Service-Learning

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Service-learning practitioners emphasize the following elements in formulating a definition of service-learning:

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Justification for Service-Learning

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The justification for adopting a service-learning approach involves pedagogical and practical considerations.

Pedagogical Implications of Service-Learning

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Public administration professor Thomas H. Jeavons identifies several ways in which service-learning is more effective than traditional presentational modes in supporting the goals of liberal education.

As an experiential and collaborative mode, service-learning:

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Benefits to Participants

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Colorado State University's Office for Service-Learning and Volunteer Programs (SLVP) identifies the benefits of service-learning to the groups listed below. The benefits listed in each section are adapted from SLVP's Service-Learning Faculty Manual (6-7) and other sources, as indicated.

Benefits to Students

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Students benefit from service-learning through:

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Benefits to Faculty

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Instructors benefit from service-learning through:

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Benefits to Community

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The community benefits from service-learning through:

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Benefits to Community

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Academic institutions benefit from service-learning through:

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Service-Learning Participants

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Colorado State University's Office for Service-Learning and Volunteer Programs (SLVP) identifies the following participants in service-learning. Click on each link to view the roles of each participant as identified in SLVP's Service-Learning Faculty Manual (16-17).

Faculty Role in Service-Learning

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As an instructor implementing service-learning in your classroom, you will likely have the following responsibilities:

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Students' Role in Service-Learning

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Students are expected to:

View Community Partners' Role in Service-Learning

Community Partners' Role in Service-Learning

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Community partners are expected to:

View Service-Learning Office's Role in Service-Learning

Service-Learning Office's Role in Service-Learning

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If you are working with a campus service-learning office, they might serve any or all of the following functions:

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Service-Learning in Writing Courses

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Composition scholars have noted a natural alliance between service-learning and writing. The following links provide discussion of that alliance and associated benefits and caveats. Material in these sections is adapted from the American Association for Higher Education Series on Service-Learning in the Disciplines, Composition Volume and Michigan State University's Service-Learning Writing Project (see Resources).

Service-Learning and Writing: A Happy Marriage

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Composition scholars point to several features of both service-learning and writing instruction that support a convergence of service and writing in college-level courses:

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Benefits of Service-Learning in Writing Courses

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Advocates of integrating service-learning and writing frequently speak in terms of transitions. Consider the following potential transitions:

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Caveats of Service-Learning in Writing Courses

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Courses that combine service-learning and writing are particularly vulnerable to the following constraints:

View Sample Service-Learning Assignments for Writing Courses

Sample Service-Learning Assignments for Writing Courses

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Michigan State University's Service-Learning Writing Project offers the following examples of service-learning assignments for writing courses:

In general, consider how any of the following might provide meaningful writing opportunities for students involved in service-learning:

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Implementing Service-Learning

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The following tips will help you put service-learning into practice in your classes:

Allowing Ample Planning Time

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According to Colorado State University's Office for Service-Learning and Volunteer Programs, it's common for enthusiastic faculty to scramble to integrate service-learning into an upcoming course when it might be wiser to wait a semester and devote more time to planning. Because service-learning is not a supplemental activity but an alternative teaching method, thoughtful planning is required to develop a unified package of syllabus, orientation, reflection and assessment.

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Determining Course Objectives

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Seasoned service-learning practitioners caution against making every course a service-learning course. Course objectives should drive teaching methods, and some courses more than others lend themselves to service-learning. Articulate objectives in writing to determine the suitability of service-learning. Having decided to implement service-learning, identify community needs that are related to course objectives.

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Considering Class Make-up

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Factors such as students' ages, academic levels, living situations, and background experiences will influence the effectiveness of any approach to service-learning. Traditional undergraduates, for example, are less likely to be familiar with the community and will tend to benefit from a more structured approach. Graduate students are likelier to have existing ties to community agencies and will appreciate greater freedom in deciding how-or even whether-to enhance their learning through community service. Commuters will have greater difficulty scheduling service hours with local agencies, while lack of transportation might restrict younger students to agencies within walking distance of campus. Taking these factors into account will promote a beneficial service-learning experience for each unique group of students.

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Considering Class Size

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Class size will influence the number and diversity of community partnerships formed. Larger classes generally require the cooperation of a greater number of community partners, which can enrich learning by bringing several perspectives to class discussions. Smaller classes, on the other hand, might glean deeper understanding and work toward more lasting goals through a group partnership with one agency. Keep in mind that different agencies can absorb different numbers of student volunteers and plan accordingly.

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Contacting Community Partners

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Because arranging community partnerships typically requires a considerable time investment, early contact is recommended. Initial contact involves communicating course objectives and class particulars (make-up, size, timeline, etc.) and gathering information regarding agency needs, contact person(s), location, number of volunteer positions available, orientation and training requirements and hours of operation. When partnerships have been formed, consider inviting agency representatives to address the class during its first or second session. Maintain contact with community partners throughout the semester and attempt to visit the service site(s) at least once.

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Drafting a Syllabus

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A service-learning course syllabus should clearly articulate service requirements and communicate their relationship to course objectives and other course content such as writing assignments, readings, discussions, and presentations. It should include a timeline that factors in agencies' required training period and a description of how students will be assessed. It should allow flexibility for students with special needs and should incorporate reflective assignments and activities.

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Anticipating Time Requirements

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Service-learning courses require significant out-of-class time commitments for both instructors and students. To provide students with a realistic estimate of time requirements, mentally take on a student's role and walk through orientation and training, service hours, class attendance, and other class assignments. To estimate instructor time commitment, account for contact with community partners, class visits from agency representatives, discussion and written comments acquainting students with service-learning objectives and addressing students' fears and concerns, and preparation of academic content that complements service activities.

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Considering Assessment Methods

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Assign grades to reflect the processing of students' experience and not the service hours alone. Look for ways to evaluate analytical skills, communication skills, and critical thinking and judgment through paper, presentation, and discussion grades. Create assignments that require students to integrate course content and service experience. Consider asking service supervisors to submit student evaluation forms that may or may not contribute to students' course grade through incentive points. As in any other course, students' final grades in a service-learning course should reflect academic development and skill application.

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Considering Collaboration

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When multiple sections of the same course adopt a service-learning approach, instructors and their students will benefit from instructor collaboration. In freshman composition courses, for example, one instructor acting as coordinator can spearhead syllabus changes that fulfill composition program objectives, form ties with the campus service-learning office, establish a pool of initial agency contacts, recruit and train other freshman composition instructors to implement service learning, and monitor service-learning sections for continuity between sections and within the larger composition program.

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Precluding Student Objections

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Service-learning is not productive when students view service as a chore; distinguishing service-learning from volunteerism will help students understand how they will benefit from the exchange. Repeatedly highlight connections between service and other course content and emphasize the contribution of service activities to course objectives. Other preventative measure against complaints about service requirements include:

Recognize that students might have legitimate grounds for objecting to service requirements and consider offering optional opportunities for involvement or directing them to traditional sections or courses that will fulfill their degree requirements. On the other hand, don't assume that students will complain. A recent UCLA study found that freshmen entering U.S. colleges and universities were the most service-oriented class in the thirty-one years the nationwide survey had been administered (CIRP). Students may well be seeking opportunities for community involvement and will be enthusiastic about a course that facilitates that desire.

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Challenging Stereotypes

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One benefit of service-learning is its potential to challenge students' stereotypes about persons whose backgrounds are different from their own. Inadequate preparation for diversity issues, however, can result in an experience that reinforces rather than breaking down stereotypes. Literacy tutoring, for example, can enhance students' visions of themselves as "saviors" bestowing their services upon undeserving "others" (Schutz & Gere 133).

Addressing stereotypes in class is the most effective safeguard against the perpetuation of stereotypical beliefs. Set parameters to discourage inappropriate comments in class as well as at service sites, but do provide an open forum for students' sincere questions and concerns. For example, students might fear entering an environment where they are uncertain what constitutes acceptable speech or behavior. In addition to classroom discussion, reflective writing can challenge students to articulate and examine their beliefs and enable to instructors to respond to individual concerns.

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Importance of Student Reflection

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Reflection, a key component of many writing classes, is vital to the success of a service-learning course. Reflection is a process of examining and interpreting experience to gain new understanding. The following links highlight this important element of service-learning:

Benefits of Reflection

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Reflection is integral to the service-learning experience in the following ways:

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Facilitating Reflection

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The following tips for facilitating reflection are adapted from Colorado State University's Office for Service-Learning and Volunteer Programs:

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Reflection Activities

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Reflection activities may include any or all of the following:

Varying activities will accommodate multiple learning styles and will help students understand reflection as part of the learning process, not as an isolated activity.

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Service-Learning at CSU

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As a land-grant institution, Colorado State University upholds service and outreach as essential elements of its mission. Experienced professionals at CSU offer advice, assistance, and resources to support instructors in implementing service-learning. The following links highlight sources of support for service-learning instructors at CSU:

Office for Service-Learning and Volunteer Programs

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The Office for Service-Learning and Volunteer Programs (SLVP) exists to build and maintain partnerships between CSU and the broader community that address community needs and contribute to student learning and leadership. SLVP coordinates service projects and events, provides consultation services to on- and off-campus groups, maintains a database to match students and faculty with service opportunities, and provides a resource library containing books, articles, syllabi, videos, and pamphlets related to volunteerism and service-learning.

SLVP is located in Room 27 on the lower level of the Lory Student Center. Contact SLVP at 491-1682 or visit them on the web at

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Service Integration Project

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The Service Integration Project (SIP) is the service-learning arm of the Office for Service-Learning and Volunteer Programs. SIP offers the following faculty services:

SIP also supports community partners through training workshops, meetings, and networking opportunities.

SIP is located in the Office for Service-Learning and Volunteer Programs, Room 27 on the lower level of the Lory Student Center. Contact SIP at 491-1682 or visit them on the web at

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Faculty Advisory Committee

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The Faculty Advisory Committee acts as a link between Colorado State University's Service Integration Project and CSU faculty. Members guide SIP activities, mentor faculty new to service-learning, help match student assistants to appropriate faculty, engage in grant reading, and work to increase awareness of service-learning among campus administrators and faculty. The Faculty Advisory Committee recently supported a policy change that allows CSU faculty to include service-learning activities in applications for tenure and promotion.

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Additional Resources

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Visit the following links for additional reading and resources:

Additional Resources

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The following sources were consulted in preparing these pages:

Adler-Kassner, Linda, Robert Crooks, and Ann Watters, eds. American Association for Higher Education Series on Service-Learning in the Disciplines, Composition Volume. Washington, D.C.: AAHE, 1997. (15 April 2002).

Cooper, David D. and Laura Julier. "Writing in the Public Interest: Service-Learning and the Writing Classroom." Curriculum in the Academy and the World Series. East Lansing: Writing Center at Michigan State University, 1995. (15 April 2002).

Furco, Andrew. Service-Learning: A Balanced Approach to Experiential Education." Building Connections. Washington, D.C.: Corporation for National Service, 1996.

Higher Education Research Institute. "Volunteerism Among U.S College Freshmen at All-Time High, UCLA Study Finds." Los Angeles: UCLA, 1997. (15 April 2002).

Jeavons, Thomas H. "Service-Learning and Liberal Learning: A Marriage of Convenience." Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. Fall 1995: 134-140.

Lisman, C. David. "Ethics in the Curriculum." Community College Journal. Dec. 1999/Jan. 2000: 37-41.

Office for Student-Learning and Volunteer Programs, Colorado State University. Service-Learning Faculty Manual, 2nd ed. Fort Collins: 2002.

Schutz, Aaron and Anne Ruggles Gere. "Service Learning and English Studies: Rethinking "Public Service." College English. 60 (1994): 129-147.

Suggested Links

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These sites contain additional information that might help you integrate service-learning into your courses:

Sample Syllabi

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The following syllabi illustrate how several instructors have integrated service-learning into their writing or writing-intensive classes:

ESL Syllabus

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College of Liberal Arts, Colorado State University

E324: Teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language

Instructor Dr. Sarah Rilling


Peregoy, S. F. & Boyle, O. F. (2000). Reading, writing, & learning in ESL: A resource book for K-12 teachers, second edition. NY, NY: Longman.

Willis, J. (1996). A framework for task-based learning. NY, NY: Longman.

Course Objectives

Course Requirements

Service Learning

Each participant will provide a minimum of fifteen hours of ESL service to the community through an approved agency. Students may choose service projects to suit their own interests and career purposes. There are several goals of this service experience including: 1) providing practical teaching experience to complement theoretical components of the course, 2) providing service to ESL learners and literacy agencies in our community, and 3) preparing students to teach in a variety of ESL contexts.

Service Learning Case Study

The Service Learning Case Study will have the following components:

  1. A brief report on the intake experience in the service context (2 points).
  2. A report of observations of one session of teaching/tutoring by experienced volunteers or professionals in the service learning context (3 points).
  3. A journal entry for each service learning encounter. This should include notes about your lesson plan, and brief post-teaching notes about what went well and what didn't, and how the lesson might be modified for next time. Also note a few points to keep in mind for teaching the next lessons. The journals will be used in class several times, so journals must be kept up to date (5 points).
  4. A 3-5 page description of the service learning context. Information to include: 1) a description of the physical space, 2) a statement of the agency's goals, 3) an explanation of the agency's funding source, 4) the number of regular paid employees in the agency, 5) a description of the curriculum and materials used with the ESL learners, 6) a description of the teaching process(es) employed with the ESL learners (10 points).
  5. A mini case study -- a 3-5 page description of one ESL learner in the service learning context. Information about the student's learning styles and strategies should be included. Discuss what you perceive to be your own strengths and weaknesses as a teacher/tutor in working with this particular learner. Do a needs analysis of this student and make recommendations about further language instruction (10 points).


Students will exchange ideas with Intensive English Program students once per week through an electronic forum linked to the course website. ESL students will pose questions, and the E324 students will respond to these as well as pose questions of their own.

Mid-Term and Final Exams

These exams will cover the readings and course discussions to date. Exams will include open-ended as well as short answer and fill-in-the-blank types of items.

Annotated Bibliography

Students will choose 3 articles to read from the following journals (TESOL Journal, ELT Journal, ESP Journal -- at least two journals must be represented). The articles should be selected to focus on a coherent topic or theme (for example, task-based learning, activities for a target age group). Review each article. Include in each review: a bibliographic reference in APA or MLA format, a brief summary of the article, and your reaction to the article -- How can you apply what you've learned in the articles? Have you seen this technique/theory in action? etc.

Textbook Analyses

Students will review three ESL textbooks suitable for targeted learners, such as those in the service learning context. Review templates will be provided on the course website and include criteria for analyzing such textbook features as content, use of graphics/visual elements, help items such as glossaries, etc.


Required Components may earn the following points:

Service Learning Case Study 30 points

Mid-Term and Final Exams 10 points each (20 total)

Textbook Analyses 7 points each (21 total)

E-Forum 10 points

Annotated Bibliography 10 points

Class Work (pop quizzes, group work) 10 Points

Total possible points = 101 90-101 = A, 80-89 = B, and so on. + / - awarded rarely.

Course Schedule

* P&B = Peregoy & Boyle W = Willis



Text *


Jan. 16- Jan. 18

Learning Context

P&B Chpt. 1


Jan. 23- Jan. 25

Context and Learning Theory

W Chpt. 1

P&B Chpt. 2


Jan. 30- Feb. 1

Classroom Practices

P&B Chpt. 3

W Chpt. 2

2/1 Part 1, service case study

Feb. 6- Feb. 8

Oral Language Development

P&B Chpt. 4

2/6 Textbook Review 1

Feb. 13- Feb. 15


W Chpt. 3

W Chpt. 4


Feb. 20 - Feb. 22


P&B Chpt. 5

2/22 Part 2, service case study

Feb. 27- March 1



P&B Chpt. 6

3/1 Textbook Review 2

March 3- 11

Spring Break



Mar. 13- Mar. 15

Literacy (cont.)

P&B Chpt. 7


Mar. 20- Mar. 22


P&B Chpt. 8

W Chpt. 5

3/20 Mid-Term Exam

Mar. 27- Mar. 29

Task-Based Teaching

W Chpt. 6

W Chpt. 7

3/27 Part 4, service case study

April 3- April 5


W Chpt. 8

W Chpt. 9

4/3 Textbook Review 3

April 10- Ap. 12

Content-Based Teaching

P&B Chpt. 9


April 17- Ap. 19


Article TBA

4/17 Annotated Bibliography

April 24- Ap. 26


P&B Chpt. 10


May 1- May 3


P&B Chpt. 11

5/1 Part 5, service case study;

5/3 Part 3, service case study




Final Exam


Service Learning Possibilities

Public Schools (in Poudre School District, required application with mandatory background check with the VIPs office):

Other Agencies for Kids

Adult Education:

Poetry Project

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Spring, 2002

This project will surprise you.

This project will be fun (and that's not the surprise)!

This project will ask you to be engaged with poetry and creative expression in an everyday context.

This project will encourage you to reflect on the ways in which your academic development and creativity are linked to the communities in which you find yourself.

Several community agencies have agreed to work with us to develop a variety of poetry and creative expression projects this semester. Each of the agencies has a use for our services, and we will link with them to serve their needs while we enhance our own learning about American poetry. Here's the roster of partners:

The project begins after community partner representatives speak to the class on January 16.

  1. By Friday, January 18, you will choose which partners you'd like to work with. Come to class with your top two choices. We may need to negotiate with each other a bit, since we will need to divide ourselves among the agencies to keep from overwhelming them with numbers.
  2. You will work out your initial meeting with your community partner during the week of January 21. I'll let them know to expect your call. You should expect, at a minimum, to spend 15 hours of service with this partner during the semester.
  3. During the week of January 28, we'll take some class time to share with each other the exact nature of the work ahead. We'll pursue these projects individually and/or collaboratively throughout the semester, taking class time frequently to reflect on your experiences.
  4. You will keep a running field notes journal account of your service learning work. Make an entry after every service session. Each entry should include your observations about what actually happened during the session and your reflections on these events. We'll leave the organization of your entries up to you, but addressing the following questions should ensure that you're devoting adequate attention to observation and reflection in each entry. More importantly, they should help you use your journal as a tool for meeting the needs of the clients and/or students you're working with.

OBSERVATION: What happened? What did your see? What did you do? What worked? What didn't?

REFLECTION: What do you make of it? What "bugged" or interested you? How might it be better next time?

  1. By May 3, you will
    1. For our "Final Event" on May 6 (during finals week), come to class prepared to tell class members the story of one significant experience you had in the process of completing your service learning assignment. Props, handouts, overheads, slides, pictures, and product samples would be welcome additions to your presentation. Community partners will be invited to this session.

    WORDSHOP Project

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    Humanities and the Arts in Everyday Life

    THE WORDSHOP PROJECT is an umbrella for a variety of service learning activities that will place Colorado State students in community settings as practicing humanists and artists. Each student or student team will work with community partners on projects that draw on students' background in language, reading, writing, and literate performance to facilitate community partners' everyday use of those skills. The specific projects may vary from class to class. Students in "American Poetry," for example, may focus their attention on creative expression, while students in "American Authors to 1870" may use their historical understandings from early writers to explore some of the varied (even conflicting) ideas of community service that have developed in North America.

    WORDSHOP is predicated on the idea that people use their various oral and written literacies for purposes that go well beyond functional needs. We tell stories to children, keep journals, write poetry, collect oral histories, send letters to the editor, put our political or spiritual beliefs into words, organize creative readings, and bear witness to the events of our lives. These activities are not the exclusive province of schools and universities, but the stuff of everyday life.

    An example of an early WORDSHOP can serve to illustrate the value of this project for students and community partners. Pattie Cowell and Julia Doggart, both of Colorado State's English Department, developed a WORDSHOP for a section of "Modern Women Writers." Students were juniors and seniors drawn from majors across the campus. They worked in four teams to prepare books for Fort Collins' Education and Life Training Center. They prepared a history of the Center and compiled interviews with clients, volunteers, and staff. The Center has used the books as source material for grant-writing and students honed their skills for interviewing, writing, and collaboration. Students were enthusiastic about the value of their experience:

    Over the course of the last several years, the idea for WORDSHOPS has evolved from a collaboration among staff members in the Office for Service Learning and Volunteer Programs, several community partners, and Colorado State students and faculty members. It is an idea in motion. Participants are invited to suggest changes, or to develop WORDSHOPS of their own.

    For more information, contact Pattie Cowell in the Department of English at Colorado State University: or 970.491.3486.