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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is academic service-learning rigorous enough to meet academic standards?

Academic credit should not be given for service. If applied properly, this pedagogy is actually more rigorous than the 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 requiring effective reflection techniques designed to accomplish academic as well as affective outcomes. It is important to emphasize that incorporating academic 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.

Will academic service-learning use a lot of outside class time?

Time is needed to plan and set up the logistics of an academic service-learning class, to respond to individual students, and to work through the unanticipated challenges of site visitation. There are ways to minimize the impact of the time by garnering assistance from community agency staff, former students, and teaching assistants. The amount of time required is lessened as community-learning partnerships develop over time. The Center for Civic Engagement can provide assistance in locating partners and development of course content.

In the beginning, academic service-learning will require a little extra time for planning and preparation. But, you will find that the benefits strongly outweigh the additional time spent. Academic service-learning is a means of enhancing classroom learning and is not intended to add extra work for you. Take advantage of already existing resources for curriculum, utilize students and community members as resources, and consult with faculty who already teach academic service-learning courses.

Does academic service-learning take too much class time?

The faculty member is still in charge of how class time is used. Students can reflect on the experience outside class through journals and logs and more formal papers. Research, however, indicates that devoting time in class to discussing experiences that emerge from the service experience will increase student learning and satisfaction with the course. If the students' experiences become text for the class, then they will integrate what they are learning as they dialogue, make connections to course materials, and learn from the experiences of others.

Does academic service-learning fit into all courses?

Academic service-learning can be implemented in many courses, if not all. Academic service-learning components do not have to be the major components of a course. They can range from short to long-term commitments. Start by considering some existing projects. Could one of those be turned into a service-learning opportunity?

How do I evaluate student performance?

Academic service-learning is often defined with an emphasis on learning. Many professors do not change their evaluation technique, but assume that the service heightens student learning, and that monitoring the service contribution is all that is necessary. On the other hand, you might have specific papers devoted to reflecting on the experience, and grade those for analysis, critical thinking, and other standards normally used. Faculty who utilize academic service-learning must generate data documenting the impact that this pedagogy has on student learning. Otherwise, the question—"why should I utilize academic service-learning if it doesn't work any better than what I am already doing?"— is a legitimate one. There are a number of outcomes that can be assessed. These include: impact on student learning and student development, impact on the agency, impact on those being served, and impact on faculty development.

Should academic service-learning be a requirement of the course?

This question honestly does not have a “correct" answer. Practitioners of academic service-learning are probably divided evenly between those who think it should be required and those who think it should be optional. Regardless of how academic service-learning is used, the goal should be to provide a steady momentum, a gentle nudge, and a not-so-well-worn path for students to follow. We must not mandate personal and civic growth but should instead nurture and steer students toward the rewards of service and civic engagement. To assist with deciding which direction to go, a few helpful hints are provided below:

Required within a course: All students are involved in service as an integrated aspect of the course. If academic service-learning is required, it must be clearly stated at the first class meeting, and a clear rationale as to why should be provided. If all students are involved in service, it is easier to design course work that integrates the service experience with course objectives (i.e. class discussions, writing assignments, exam questions).

Optional within a course: Students have the option to become involved in the academic service-learning project. They can choose to replace a normal portion of the coursework with the academic service-learning component. For example, a traditional research paper can be replaced with an experiential research paper or personal journal that documents learning from the service experience. To “entice” students to choose the academic service-learning, some instructors have made the traditional research paper cumbersome and lengthy so that the time involved in either option is about the same.

Should students be allowed to choose their own service site?

This varies with the type of project. An English professor who assigns a persuasive paper may let her students choose their own site, with her approval. An automotive repair class may choose to create their own service opportunity serving the elderly or disadvantaged in car repair. An ESL professor may have his students read to a designated kindergarten class. Other professors may have specific requirements for a particular project and will choose the site without student input. Whatever method is chosen, the important thing to remember is to verify that the site is a safe and appropriate environment for academic service-learning.

Should there be a minimum number of hours that students are expected to serve?

It depends. Just as the length of a research paper varies from course to course, so too does the amount of service. As a rule of thumb, the more often a student works on the project, the more benefit is derived from the service experience. Try not to overwhelm students when expressing the time commitment associated with the service component.

How can involvement in academic service-learning strengthen my professional research?

Many professional academic associations now include sessions on experiential education at national and regional conferences. The International Conference on Academic Service- Learning Research and 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 academic service-learning and the scholarship of engagement. Also, publishing opportunities exist for professional journals, such as the "Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning" and other disciplinespecific journals. Involvement in academic service-learning can augment and redirect one's professional research interests, especially when a strong partnership is created with the community agency. Academic Service-learning can contribute to research by engaging students in action research and applied research projects.

Are there other issues to be considered?

Yes. Students, faculty and community partners should be aware of other factors that could affect service experiences.

Reliability – Volunteers play an essential role in many under-staffed and underfinanced community partner organizations. Students must understand that people are counting on them to meet their scheduled commitments.

Sensitivity – Many community-based projects involve students working with people whose backgrounds and experiences are very different from their own. Participants must be very sensitive to the needs and feelings of their partners in the learning experience. Service-learning is built upon the concept of mutual learning and respect between all participants.

Ethical Conduct – Students are expected to follow the rules and regulations commonly observed at the service-learning site. These include observing the dress code, using good judgment, and so forth.

Confidentiality – Information concerning various aspects of the community partner organization, including clients, patients, or others, are often covered by strict rules of confidentiality. Supervisors will guide students affected by obligations of confidentiality.

Observations of Unethical Behavior – Students observing possible unethical or illegal conduct should not try to address these situations individually. They should immediately consult with their supervisors or instructor.

Stress – Service-learning students often work in settings outside their known environment (e.g. in situations of poverty, illness, and great human need). What they see may be intrinsically sad and depressing. Students should be made to feel that they can discuss feelings with supervisors, professors, or service-learning staff to ensure a healthy balance in their lives.


  • Faculty Guide to Service Learning, Course Construction. Compiled on July 1, 2004 by Saul Magana, Associate Director, and April Lupo, Outreach and Development Coordinator. Florida Campus Compact.
  • Vanderbilt University FAQ
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Last Updated: 2/12/13