Writing@CSU 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.

This guide provides practical information on service-learning in college classrooms, with an emphasis on writing and writing-intensive courses.The following sections are provided.

Introduction to Service-Learning

With roots in colonial education and industrial-age rethinking of community, service-learning has become a formal component of undergraduate education.

Definition of Service-Learning

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

  • Service-learning involves students in community service activities and applies the experience to personal and academic development.
  • Service-learning occurs when there is "a balance between learning goals and service outcomes" (Furco 3). Service-learning differs from internship experience or volunteer work in its "intention to equally benefit the provider and the recipient of the service as well as to ensure equal focus on both the service being provided and the learning that is occurring" (Furco 5).
  • Service-learning course objectives are linked to real community needs that are designed in cooperation with community partners and service recipients.
  • In service-learning, course materials inform student service and service informs academic dialogue and comprehension.
  • Service-learning engages students in a three-part process: classroom preparation through explanation and analysis of theories and ideas; service activity that emerges from and informs classroom context; and structured reflection tying service experience back to specific learning goals. (Jeavons 135)

Justification for Service-Learning

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

Pedagogical Implications of Service-Learning

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:

  • enhances critical thinking skills such as analysis and synthesis by involving students in identifying and framing problems in settings that transcend disciplinary boundaries.
  • involves students in assessing outcomes in a way that reveals the practical implications of chosen theories, research tools, analysis techniques, and presentation modes.
  • prepares students for life-long learning by connecting formal education more fully with real-world experience.
  • prepares students for citizenship by engaging them in dealing directly with community problems, challenging their assumptions and requiring them to integrate multiple points of view.

Benefits to Participants

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

Benefits to Students

Students benefit from service-learning through:

  • Hands-on application that increases the relevance of academic knowledge
  • Accommodation of different learning styles
  • Interaction with people of diverse cultures and lifestyles
  • An increased sense of efficacy and social development
  • Practical career preparation
  • Meaningful involvement in the local community
  • Moral and ethical growth (Lisman 40)

Benefits to Faculty

Instructors benefit from service-learning through:

An enhanced teaching repertoire

  • Increased contact with students
  • New perspectives on learning and increased understanding of how learning occurs
  • Increased awareness of community issues and their relationship to instructors' academic interests
  • Identification of current trends and issues that might inform research
  • Potential for interdisciplinary collaboration
  • Contribution to tenure and other review files

Benefits to Community

The community benefits from service-learning through:

  • Increased awareness of and ability to articulate community issues
  • Short and long term solutions to community problems
  • Access to campus resources
  • Relationship opportunities with academic institutions
  • Opportunities to contribute to the educational process
  • Opportunities to foster future active community members

Benefits to Academic Institutions

Academic institutions benefit from service-learning through:

  • Enhanced teaching, research, and outreach activities
  • Faculty and student engagement in local and state issues
  • Opportunities to extend campus resources
  • Positive community relationships
  • Increased preparation of graduates

Service-Learning Participants

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
  • Students
  • Community partners
  • Campus service-learning office

Faculty Role in Service-Learning

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

Create a syllabus that clearly articulates the relationship between service-learning and academic objectives and outlines the process by which students will engage in service activities.

  • If you are working with a campus service-learning office, provide them with a copy of your syllabus.
  • Select and contact community partner(s) to initiate the service-learning relationship.
  • On the first day of class, inform students of the service-learning course component and their required commitment. Emphasize the importance of finding placements early to allow for flexibility in meeting hour requirements.
  • Consider asking students to complete a commitment form indicating their understanding and agreement to participate in service-learning.
  • Become familiar with the service site(s) and monitor student participation throughout the semester.
  • Provide a structured forum for student reflection.
  • If you are working with a campus service-learning office, you might be asked to attend workshops, participate in online discussions, provide your campus office with any news articles featuring your course, and/or administer student evaluations for return to the service-learning office.

Students' Role in Service-Learning

Students are expected to:

  • Find placement and arrange hours with a service site by the deadline established in class.
  • Be prompt, willing, and respectful at their service site.
  • Be willing to learn about cultures and lifestyles that differ from their own.
  • Fulfills all duties agreed upon in their commitment form and with their site supervisors.
  • Respect confidentiality of the people they serve.
  • Speak with site supervisors if they are uncomfortable with or uncertain about their responsibilities.
  • Participate in class discussion regarding the service-learning experience.
  • Participate in the course evaluation process.

Community Partners' Role in Service-Learning

Community partners are expected to:

  • Orient students to agency mission and goals.
  • Provide work that is meaningful and valuable to students.
  • Provide training, supervision, resources, and feedback.
  • Ensure a safe work environment and reasonable hours.

Service-Learning Office's Role in Service-Learning

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

  • Provide resources and consultation based on course objectives articulated by faculty.
  • Create a community partners list and recommend placement sites specific to course objectives.
  • Refer new faculty to experienced service-learning practitioners.
  • Assist faculty with research efforts, including support for presentations and publications.
  • Inform faculty of resource and recognition opportunities.
  • Maintain and share service-learning course roster.

Service-Learning in Writing Courses

Composition scholars have noted a natural alliance between service-learning and writing. The following sections 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

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:

  • The critical awareness demanded for college-level writing is similar to that required for effective community participation.
  • Like service-learning, writing instruction bridges academic and nonacademic communities because communication and writing skills are in wide demand and are frequently observed in assessing higher education.
  • Multidisciplinary in nature, service-learning and composition programs are in positions to facilitate institutional and community cooperation; conversely, both are challenged to secure their positions without strong ties to a single discipline.
  • Both service-learning and composition are relatively undertheorized, and their union helps to raise questions about each, as well as about larger issues.

Benefits of Service-Learning in Writing Courses

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

  • Class members make the transition from students to writers and from commentators to collaborators.
  • Instructors make the transition from drivers to facilitators of student-directed and collaborative writing.
  • Writing moves from private to public. The investment of an audience outside the classroom raises the stakes of writing, and writing becomes a record that can inform continuing collaboration.
  • The traditionally isolated classroom becomes a member of a connected community. The promotion of connections rather than divisions is especially important in composition classes because they are among the earliest taken and contribute significantly to students' academic expectations and identities.
  • The academic institution and surrounding community move toward greater awareness of their ties to one another and to larger social systems.
  • The academic experience becomes an opportunity to bridge the gap between theory and practice. The marriage of service-learning and composition and rhetoric, which view communication as an interaction aimed at producing effects, challenges the traditional theory/practice dichotomy promoted by a view of communication as a means of revealing static concepts.

Caveats of Service-Learning in Writing Courses

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

  • Temporal constraints: The academic schedule is one factor that tends to separate academic institutions from the rest of the community. Community-based writing projects generally place more complex demands on students than do traditional writing assignments, and what can be accomplished in a single course during a single semester does not effectively address the needs of students or the community partners they serve.
  • "Spatial" constraints: Traditional disciplines tend to regard programs like service-learning and composition-programs that refuse to fit neatly into departmental structures-as competitors for resources and recognition. To gain institutional support, service-learning and composition programs generally must operate within a traditional framework that might not meet the needs of those "both inside and outside the academy who view the world in terms of issues and problems that cannot be neatly divided or fit into problems of Sociology, Composition, History, Engineering, and so forth" (AAHE).
  • Evaluative constraints: Especially when students are highly invested in grades, service-learning exposes some of the flaws in traditional methods of evaluating writing.
    • Instructor as sole evaluator: Writing for service-learning courses involves a real audience of community members whose stakes in the writing produced are at least as high as the instructor's. Thus, some instructors have experimented with various ways of involving community members in evaluating student writing.
    • Evaluating individual performances: Much of the writing done in service-learning courses is collaborative, and it is often difficult to evaluate any individual's participation. Furthermore, the content of a service-learning course frequently challenges beliefs in individualism and meritocracy that are perpetuated by the common grading system

Sample Service-Learning Assignments for Writing Courses

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

  • A series of articles for a local non-profit environmental agency newsletter, informing citizens of new policies covering trash pick-up and yard waste management
  • A report on strategies for leasing and managing public land for use as a summer community garden, for use by a local food bank
  • Brochures for a housing resources center, detailing rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants under state residential housing laws
  • Standardized entry forms and a state-wide index of self-help programs and 12-step recovery groups, prepared for a state referral service based on interviews and research

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

  • Letters
  • Newsletters
  • Reports
  • Editorials
  • Public service announcements for broadcast
  • Press releases
  • Grant proposals
  • Pamphlets or brochures

Implementing Service-Learning

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

Allowing Ample Planning Time

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.

Determining Course Objectives

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.

Considering Class Make-up

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.

Considering Class Size

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.

Contacting Community Partners

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.

Drafting a Syllabus

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.

Anticipating Time Requirements

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.

Considering Assessment Methods

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.

Considering Collaboration

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.

Precluding Student Objections

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:

  • Designating service-learning courses in the course catalog
  • Allowing for flexibility
  • Reserving class time for critical reflection of assumptions about service

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.

Challenging Stereotypes

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.

Importance of Student Reflection

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 sections highlight this important element of service-learning:

Benefits of Reflection

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

  • Reflection transforms experience into genuine learning about individual values and goals and about larger social issues.
  • Reflection challenges students to connect service activities to course objectives and to develop higher-level thinking and problem solving.
  • Reflection works against the perpetuation of stereotypes by raising students' awareness of the social structures surrounding service environments.
  • By fostering a sense of connection to the community and a deeper awareness of community needs, reflection increases the likelihood that students will remain committed to service beyond the term of the course.

Facilitating Reflection

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

  • Schedule regular opportunities for guided and purposeful reflection.
  • Communicate in writing students' responsibilities for reflection and provide well-defined criteria for evaluating their participation.
  • Seek to engage each student in both group and individual reflection activities.
  • Challenge each student to assess the knowledge, values, and skills he or she brings to the project.
  • Establish norms of behavior and a framework for reflection that guides students from objective observations and subjective responses to interpretation, awareness, and action.
  • Devote some reflection time to orienting students to people and problems they will encounter and allowing students to practice skills that will be required, such as active listening and observing.
  • Seek closure on emotional issues by the end of each reflective session.
  • Leave some cognitive and topical issues open for ongoing discussion to encourage reflection between class sessions.

Reflection Activities

Reflection activities may include any or all of the following:

  • Journals
  • Reflective papers
  • Class discussions
  • Small-group discussions
  • Presentations
  • Responses to course readings
  • Responses to outside readings, media content, and experiences relevant to the issues surrounding the service activity
  • Electronic discussions (e.g., chat, e-mail, online forum)

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

Additional Resources

Visit the following links for additional reading and resources:

Works Consulted

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.

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. 

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. 

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.

Sample Syllabi

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

Citation: Please adapt for your documentation style.
Kankiewicz, Kim. (2005). Using Service-Learning in Writing Courses. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/teaching/guide.cfm?guideid=114