Service-Learning in English Studies and Writing Studies

Andrea Malouf


For many students, active citizenship is not always a given in terms of knowledge or attitude. Citizenship is a set of skills that need to be learned, and yet that is not always easily done within just academic settings or from textbooks. Learned skills of citizenship are experiential by nature—learning by doing, learning through problem-solving—but not all experiential learning has full frameworks in which to reflect on the full student experience.

Service-learning in college courses provides opportunities to develop responsible citizenship skills by addressing problems and needs beyond the classroom and in communities. Students are asked to not just identify the needs of the communities they serve, but to recognize assets and contributions of those communities. Students are entering into complex and dynamic spaces with collaboration as a goal. Service-learning asks students to not only take part in a community-based or civic experience, but to reflect on that experience, which requires critical thinking and hands-on approaches. It connects their course curriculum and skills of analysis and problem-solving to their community-based experience, as well as their personal lived experiences.

Service-learning is based on reciprocity, so that not just the students benefit from the experience but communities benefit as well and have an equal say in designing the experience. It is also a democratic process, in that it requires students to work together with their teachers and community partners in planning educational strategies for their own learning and for the benefit of the communities they work with—all activities that build citizenship skills.

More than anything, service-learning experiences are about challenging, shaping, and reshaping narratives, whether it is recognizing and challenging our own biased narratives, or learning about new narratives and synthesizing our own stories as they intersect with others in the community.

As such, the pedagogies of service-learning, English, and composition studies overlap in many ways. Both writing and community-engaged practices are deeply context-dependent activities. “Literacy learning happens both inside and outside schools, and … literacy learning is a social and ideological process rather than simply a textual translation” (Deans, Roswell, et al., 2010). Writing and literary studies comprise many transferable skills that align with practices of context-based engagement. In this chapter, we’ll explore service-learning from core foundational principles and definitions to specific English Studies approaches and course-design concepts.



Many research studies have proven the efficacy of service-learning as a high-impact practice. And yet, the term service-learning often means something different for each person. It is important that if you are teaching effective service-learning practices as an instructor that you work with students to construct working definitions of service-learning throughout the course and as it aligns with the discipline. Also be sure to provide students with the combined learning outcomes to be achieved with the practice of service-learning and the discipline. One way to do that is to offer a sampling of service-learning definitions, including the following:

“As a pedagogy, service learning is education that is grounded in experience as a basis for learning and on the centrality of critical reflection intentionally designed to enable learning to occur” (Jacoby & Howard, 2015).

“Service-learning combines community service with classroom instruction, focusing on critical, reflective thinking and civic responsibility to engage students. Service-learning programs involve students in activities that address local needs while developing their academic skills and commitment to their community” (Blinn College).

“Service-learning is a teaching method that enriches learning by engaging students in meaningful service to their schools and communities. Young people apply academic skills to solving real-world issues, linking established learning objectives with genuine needs. They lead the process, with adults as partners, applying critical thinking and problem-solving skills to concerns such as hunger, pollution and diversity” (National Youth Leadership Council).

What service-learning is NOT:

While we can help students construct various definitions of service-learning throughout the course, we should help them to also understand the various ways attitudes and practices can actually cause unintentional harm without the proper framework, cultural competencies and student interest. Service-learning is NOT

    • taking pity on others
    • an internship to boost a resume
    • simply volunteering
    • an opportunity to show others the “right” way to do things
    • proselytizing

(Courtney, 2009)

If service in the community focuses solely on student-learning rather than community benefits, then students tend to operate in a traditional learning environment where experimentation and failure are encouraged. But communities are not traditional spaces of learning. Students are entering into dynamic and intact worlds within community settings, where experimentation and failure are not encouraged unless already a member of that community. For example, if students enter into communities with a charity mindset, they tend to see communities as needy and spaces of deficit, rather than communities with many positive assets but suffering from unjust systems without ways to fully address those injustices.

I’ve experienced the difference of community contexts as an instructor when I have created condensed-weekend, direct-service projects with the Homeless Youth Resource Center (YRC) in Salt Lake City. These condensed weekends not only help students schedule their service-learning hours into two weekends but also provide a more immersive experience. Students help out in the center doing various projects one weekend, and then the following weekend they cook and serve a meal to the youth and eat together in a communal space, as well as help with a donation fund-drive.

Because issues of homelessness—especially with youth—are very complex, we spend weeks in class before the service understanding connections between homelessness and the foster care system, of which many of the YRC clients have merely aged out of. Many of the youth may also identify as LGBTQ or have been abused at or excused from their family homes, all of which suggest localized and national social issues beyond the scope of just youth experiencing homelessness. Juvenile detention centers also come into play, as being a homeless youth is illegal, and many have citations for loitering and trespassing, which they often cannot pay, and they end up in juvenile court or even in juvenile detention centers with a permanent record.

In light of the hardships youth experiencing homelessness face, SLCC students also explore the ways in which these youth are resourceful and motivated. Many of the YRC clients are still in high school and work to navigate a complicated system into stability of education and work despite their current, and hopefully temporary, circumstances. Many are finding ways into the workforce with mentors at the Youth Resource Center, as there were not many mentors in their domestic lives. By the time my SLCC students enter the YRC, they have a sense of understanding and empathy for the clients. They have challenged many of their own stereotypes about people experiencing homelessness and often understand it from their own experiences as young adults.

As an instructor, I also work beside them for a full day to provide the meal and facilitate interaction with the youth during the meal. This side-by-side instructor–student interaction creates a great sense of camaraderie with the students, as well as a space to model respect and to address any questions during and after the shared experience.

On one occasion, however, a student from another course joined us in our weekends of service. He did not have the previous, context-based understanding my students had, and quickly started to judge the clients of the YRC as lazy drug addicts. He complained to the volunteer coordinator that the YRC needed job training (which is already offered at the YRC). This student did not come with a basis of understanding or any efforts at research or prior reflection as my students had, and his negative experience, without context, only solidified his stereotypes of people experiencing homelessness instead of creating spaces of inquiry in which to address the issue in a broader perspective. This situation also challenged our relationship with the community partner, as this student was not as prepared for the community he was entering, and offended community partners who were used to my own students’ knowledge and understanding prior to the service.



Regardless of the terms or working definitions you will create with your students, it is important that students have a choice between the kinds of service they can do. Many instructors choose to make service-learning voluntary or as an option to another assignment. Others offer a variety of service options for students who may not be ready to work directly with communities. Forcing students to work in the community could have unintended consequences for those students who may not be prepared or willing to work in the community. Indirect or engaged research projects might help students engage in community-based projects at their own pace and comfort level before entering into direct service later on.

One way to engage students in service-learning is to offer more than just direct service, especially if the student is not prepared to enter into dynamic and spaces very different from one’s own. There are various forms of community service and community-based learning, such as the following:

Direct Service: Working directly with the clients and/or a target population served by a community organization. For example, delivering hot meals to home-bound seniors is a direct service. Mentoring programs or facilitated community writing groups would also be direct service.

Indirect Service: Not directly serving clients or working with the target population served by a community organization but assisting the organization to fulfill their mission in other ways. For instance, building a website or planning the logistics of a charity walk is an indirect service.

Advocacy Work: Active support of an idea or cause, especially the act of pleading or arguing for something typically performed in a political or social justice context. An example might be coordinating a letter-writing campaign to educate the Salt Lake Valley about domestic violence and creating resources for survivors.

Research & Consultation: Using an academic skill set to investigate an issue impacting a community organization and presenting this knowledge in a way that benefits the work of that organization. For example, gathering statistics about Salt Lake children in foster care and presenting research and recommendations to the Salt Lake County Division of Youth Services or engaging in survey data compilation for the ACLU are projects students can do that perform a service. Or perhaps doing research and creating resource guides, such as an annotated scholarship list for specifically identified populations, such as undocumented or refugee students.



Theoretical foundations of service-learning are rooted in scholarship dating as far back as John Dewey (Democracy and Education, 1916). Over the decades, scholars have created practical guides to service-learning pedagogy and practices. Jean Piage, Kurt Lewin, and David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model provides a clear model based on four elements: 1) concrete experience, 2) observation of and reflection on that experience, 3) formation and synthesis of abstract concepts based upon the reflection, and 4) active experimentation that tests the concepts in new situations (Jacoby & Howard, 2015):

The model helps students not only learn to identify and engage in issues, but to gain a deeper understanding of root causes of need and potential actions toward problem solving.

While this provides a clear and simple model, service-learning pedagogy is more complex in terms of helping students understand important concepts, such as reciprocity, implicit bias, and equity-minded practices. A college course that is successful in combining service and learning includes the following activities:

  1. Engages people in responsible and challenging actions for the common good.
  2. Provides structured opportunities for people to reflect critically on their service experience.
  3. Articulates clear service and learning goals for everyone involved.
  4. Allows for those in need to define those needs.
  5. Clarifies the responsibilities of each person and organization involved.
  6. Matches service providers and service needs.
  7. Expects genuine, active, and sustained organizational commitment.
  8. Includes training, supervision, monitoring, support, recognition, and evaluation to meet service and learning goals.
  9. Ensures that the time commitment for service and learning is flexible, appropriate, and in the best interest of all involved.
  10. Is committed to program participation by and with diverse populations.

(Porter-Honnet & Poulson, 1990)

Notice that this list emphasizes that the work combines service and learning, meaning the service cannot be stand-alone, but connected to the course content and the learning outcomes. This combination is the reason many service-learning practitioners choose to use a hyphen to connect the two. For some, service-learning may not be a broad enough term, and so some instructors use terms such as community-based learning and community-engaged learning as a way to reflect the centrality of community partners to the practice and heighten the sense of reciprocity.

The term service for some may also have negative connotations, such as implying inequality amongst participants, or for some in the African American community who identify the term “service” with involuntary servitude. Providing students choices in how they interact with the community provides new ways of understanding service that is connected to their learning.



In the mid to late 1990s in the U.S., service-learning—as both pedagogy and research—became popular in composition and rhetoric studies, because of its beneficial focus on literacy, academic discourse, public writing and social justice issues. This particular focus of service-learning in composition and rhetoric studies is based on Thomas Deans’ model for connecting writing to service-learning, which focuses on three ways of literacy engagement: writing for, about and with community. “If the general inclination of members of the discipline is to theorize about writing as a social act, then service-learning is one means by which to underscore and extend this commitment” (Deans, 2000).

For Deans, service-learning affirms many of the theoretical stances in composition, including writing beyond the classroom, situating writing in both discipline and wider non-academic communities, crossing cultural and class boundaries through collaboration, and connecting writing with pragmatic civic action.

Three models of writing about, for, or with community take on different scaffolding approaches. Students writing about community serve in the community and make the subject of assigned essays about that lived experience. Here the student work focuses on addressing an issue in writing, and particularly in their own reflective writings. The experience becomes the content, but the writing is embedded in the course.

Writing for the community asks students to collaborate with non-profits to provide writing for a given agency, whether it be newsletters, grant research, or writing for “real-world” situations. The students have to negotiate the needs of the audience and work within the expectations of the non-profit organization. The experience and the writing are based within the community, with both the community partner and instructor engaging in feedback for the writer.

Whereas, writing with the community adopts more of a grassroots sensibility, according to Deans. Instead of prescribed forms of writing or working directly with a nonprofit, writing with the community is about broader collaborations with the faculty, students and community members to address local problems. This work values many different literacies and often hybrid literacies and tends to focus on collaborative problem-solving. This might include mentoring a writing group at a senior center or tutoring writing at an after-school program. The student might help organize a Writers’ Resist event and participate in that event, as some of my students have done. The point is, the student is also a writer and is contributing writing with those in the community, as well as facilitating spaces for that writing to happen together.

Regardless of the approach students choose, it’s important as instructors that we make sure that if students’ writing is to be part of the public sphere and/or a community organization, that those students feel comfortable enough with their writing skills first as to avoid the pressure public writing can have on a new writer. If they are not confident enough to contribute and they receive negative feedback or lack of circulation with their writing in the community, they may struggle with self-esteem with any new writing project. Otherwise, offer choices for indirect service or research, in which the writing stays within the classroom.



The same  benefits of service-learning for students in composition and composition studies also apply to students in English Studies. The realms of literary studies and creative writing have often fewer service-learning courses in higher education, which can be historically traced back to the distancing of literary/creative studies with service-learning. Theorists have traced this disconnect back to a traditional disconnect with composition and literary studies. “This reluctance to embrace service learning has its earliest roots in traditional academic debates about the uses of literature” (Grobman & Rosenberg, 2015). This section provides insight in how literary and creative writing studies can also be conduits for engaged community-based inquiry and service.

Service-learning in literary studies:

Threshold concepts of literary studies are often similar to but can be different from composition/rhetoric studies. While both look at how and why certain writing makes impacts with audience identification, purpose, and style, literary studies also looks at the broader ramifications of literature’s impact on society and the individual, including literature as a record of the human condition over time.

This type of study is less about the skill of writing and more about critical thinking of not only narrative theory but also critical theory in how literature shapes, as well as offers, voice to cultures and individuals. Literature similarly considers issues and the discourse of ideas, such as how literature can “produce critically, civically, and globally minded college graduates who possess problem-solving and leadership abilities for more socially equitable and sustainable communities as part of healthy, functioning democratic societies” (Cress & Donahue, 2011).

As mentioned, literature has a humanizing impact in that it is often a record of the human condition or mindset of a given time. It is the difference between learning about the history of WWII and then reading Anne Frank’s diary or the poetry of Sidney Keys about WWII from an experiential, emotional, and reflective framework. Literature as a discourse addresses critical and often civic awareness. It can often be a transactional discourse used to propel action.

Best Practices for combining service-learning and literary studies include the following:

    • Expose students to service-learning scholarship, including the importance of public engagement, citizenship, and social justice.
    • Provide students with an awareness of current social problems and systemic injustice as well as the confidence to address these situations through community activism.
    • Expose students to critical multiculturalism and the concepts that emanate from it: mainstream and its margins, the importance of listening as well as speaking, respect for difference and diversity.
    • Integrate the literary and theoretical content of the course with service-learning placements and activities by providing significant time in class to make connections between their reading and civic-engagement experiences. Group discussion and dialogue through classroom conversation, journal writing, and online discussion boards are vital components of the learning experience.
    • Encourage to ‘read’ both literary and life experiences as part of their textual study and course work, analyzing the ways in which literature does and does not reflect their actual experiences, including the ability of literature to imagine possibilities for bettering human lives.
    • Require reflective writing and other critical-thinking assignments that articulate both connections and dissonances between the reading of literature and service-learning experiences.
    • Allow for interdisciplinary research that helps students clarify and make sense of their experiences as literary readers and civic participants.
    • Assign course projects or papers that benefit community partners and may include the production of, for example, public writing, research and oral presentations, performances, oral histories, fundraising letters, research grants, Web sites, blogs, and social media productions.

(Grobman & Rosenberg, 2015)

 Service-learning and creative nonfiction:

Memoirists and other nonfiction writers almost always face the humble acknowledgement of their limits with point of view and the complexity of truth in autobiographical writing. But within this dynamic is also the complexity of a self-reflexive narrative as intergenerational or intersectional—something that provides the lens of the human experience with the actual experience. This might include students working with after-school programs to assist children in learning to write journals, or working with hospice memoir programs, or even writing bios for various nonprofit agencies. Students’ understanding of personal narrative as action offers a critical approach to the ways stories circulate and make change.

A few ways to scaffold service-learning activities in a creative nonfiction course:

    • Design brief autobiographical contexts and texts for students to respond to the service and to prompts. (How does their experience intersect with the community-based experience and their own lives?)
    • Create a digital story that relates their intersectional/interconnected experiences to a social justice issue and then made public to address an issue or problem.
    • Work with archivists to interview and create archived stories of personal experiences, often within social identities and constructs for the public (e.g., connecting experiences of veterans, refugees, hospice patients, to the issue and their roles in community).
    • Work with the Humane Society to create brief personality bios of pets up for adoption.

One of my most fulfilling community-based nonfiction projects included my service-learning students in partnership with the Community Writing Center (CWC), the Salt Lake City Public Library, and the Sorenson Community Youth Center. The director of the Sorenson Center wanted to help bring voices together within and about the Glendale community in an online project titled One-City that would be featured in the Salt Lake Public Library publications and archives.

My service-learning students participated by facilitating interviews with senior citizens paired with high-school students from the community. My students created the prompts and facilitated the one-on-one interactions. As the high school students and seniors interviewed each other, they were prompted to share stories of their communities with each other, which resulted in a rich tapestry of different experiences over time and space, and community adversity, as well as communities of resilience.

My service-learning students, with the help of CWC Writing Assistants, then facilitated a writing workshop to help the seniors and youth members write stories of their communities and what they had learned from each other. The students also contributed their reflections about what they might learn about their own communities through this process. The work was published in an online anthology and shared through the Salt Lake Public Library online connections.

It was an engaging, semester-long project that involved the students’ creative nonfiction writing and mentoring experiences with the community’s personal writing experiences for an online anthology. It also fostered strong relationships with the seniors and the teens in that community that lasted well beyond the project (including weekly Nintendo Wii bowling tournaments with the local teens and seniors).

Service-learning, creative writing, cultural studies, and social justice:

Service-learning in creative writing does not, and maybe should not, always be about the personal. As mentioned in the literary studies section, the power of words is immense, whether they be firsthand or fictional. Some of the best social-justice writers were those of science fiction, imagining utopian or dystopian worlds that remind us of actions on the social fabric of our lives.

While the creation of creative works such as poetry and fiction can come from service experiences, students can also engage others to have such a voice, such as with group community readings, writing groups, or writing-for-change activities to legislatures, etc. This type of service is best done in groups. “Discussions moving between literature and the students’ experiences with community members create an environment of deep reflection, cognitive dissonance, and empathy that can lead to transformation” (Grobman Rosenberg 191).



While service-learning can be an engaging force in creating student empathy and understanding of diverse cultures and life experiences, it also has the limitation of reinforcing privilege if not handled with care. “The meaningful practice of cultural competence must be incorporated at every level of the service-learning course planning and implementation process” (Engaged Faculty Institute, 2015).

As instructors, we need to help students become more culturally competent by the following measures outlined by the Engaged Faculty Institute, which is a service-learning training program developed in collaboration with Community-Campus Partnerships for Health, Campus Compact for the Mountain West, and California Campus Compact.

Students can gain the necessary skills and knowledge to be culturally competent through service-learning experiences via the following activities:

  • learning more about other cultures and understanding their values, beliefs and practices
  • discussing the meaning of cultural competence
  • discussing the roles that poverty and education play in the community and identify creative strategies for reducing poverty and increasing education through community service activities
  • participating in required and extra-curricular courses to learn more about the needs of racially, ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse groups in the community
  • taking a proactive stance to learning more about being a culturally competent professional
  • inviting speakers from different cultures and backgrounds to present to campus student groups focused on issues related to culture, diversity and disparities

(Engaged Faculty Institute, 2015)

Without proper student understanding and preparation for diverse and often very complex experiences, students may unintentionally reinforce biases instead of being open to challenging them. Cultural competency training can help students to identify issues of privilege, difference, and implicit bias.

A recent case study, “Crossing the Color Line into America’s Prisons: Volunteers of Color Reflect on Race and Identity in a College Service-Learning Project” (Tilton 2015), explores a group of primarily white service-learning students who worked within a juvenile incarceration system of  primarily people of color. Without proper frameworks and understanding about equity, diversity and inclusivity concepts, some students easily developed an unintentional framework of privilege and “right” ways based on bias that established for them their service as hierarchical and based in concepts of charity. Other students in the study from non-privileged backgrounds saw themselves alike those incarcerated, and thereby felt inferior or not bonded with the college students of privilege but more with those of minority populations behind bars. “Volunteers in a wide range of community service projects often see these kinds of stark racial and class contrasts, but they struggle to understand how exactly race matters in an ostensibly colorblind era, when racial boundaries are both more porous and flexible than in the Jim Crow era” (Tilton, 2015).

If students understand initial impacts of their service, they can also negotiate how their involvement in communities matters in different ways. As an instructor, I make very clear with my students that their service is not solving issues of juvenile incarceration or homelessness or communities divided, etc. Instead, their service offers a temporary community benefit but also provides them, the students, with a deeper, first-hand understanding of larger issues that involve more complex and analytical involvement and collaborations for their future interactions, inquiries, and social activism.



Instructors and/or students working early on with community partners in the development phases of the partnerships can help to create an understanding of dynamic communities, which may be a stark contrast from some students’ own lived experiences. For students new to service-learning or volunteering, instructors should be involved in establishing community partnerships and incorporate such into the classroom experience early on before students enter into community settings. This might include classroom visits from community partners to discuss their organization and the service projects. Students experienced in volunteering or service-learning may already have skills to establish a community partnership. Either way, establishing some guiding principles for creating community partnerships can help. As per the national Engaged Faculty Institute (EFI), best practices for developing sustainable community partnerships include the following:

  1. The partnership forms to serve a specific purpose and my take on new goals over time.
  2. The partnership agrees upon mission, values, goals, measurable outcomes and processes for accountability.
  3. The relationship between partners in the partnership is characterized by mutual trust, respect, genuineness, and commitment.
  4. The partnership builds upon identified strengths and assets, but also works to address needs and increase capacity of all partners.
  5. The partnership balances power among partners and enables resources among partners to be shared.
  6. Partners make clear and open communication an ongoing priority in the partnership by striving to understand each other’s needs and self-interests and developing a common language.
  7. Principals and processes for the partnership are established with the input and agreement of all partners, especially for decision-making and conflict resolution.
  8. There is feedback among all stakeholders in the partnership’s accomplishments.
  9. Partners share the benefits of the partnership’s accomplishments.
  10. Partnerships can dissolve, and when they do, need to plan a process for closure.
  11. Partnerships consider the nature of the environment within which they exist as a principle of the design, evaluation, and sustainability.
  12. The partnership values multiple kinds of knowledge and life experiences.

(Engaged Faculty Institute, 2015)

It is important to note that not all community partners have the capacity to be as involved as others. Some community partners may be removed from direct contact with the students and rely on part-time and often rotating volunteer coordinators. In some of those cases, it is important the instructor has an active role if needed. SLCC’s service-learning meet-and-greets, the Engaged Faculty Institute, and activities through the Thayne Center are excellent ways for instructors to meet current SLCC community partners and establish ways to create new partnerships.

Instructor involvement may happen not just in establishing a community partnership, but sometimes as a way to model activity in the community. My involvement with one particular project really helped students to gain confidence to do the project without much of my time needed. The Burrito Project is an SLC community project in collaboration with Rico Brand foods to help feed the hungry and homeless in downtown SLC. The project includes volunteers making burritos in the Rico Goods kitchen and then personally delivering to people experiencing homelessness on the streets or anyone in need of a burrito in downtown routes.

While students needed to do this on a weekly basis to fulfill their 15 hours of service, many were not sure at first if they were prepared to deliver burritos face-to-face in these particular areas. So, I chose to go with students for the first delivery. As I modeled how one might offer burritos to those in our routes, students began to feel more comfortable. They discovered the process was not as scary, and in fact found recipients to be very grateful and kind. In doing so, students were able to challenge and move beyond their initial assumptions and stereotypes. Being able to talk with me, the instructor, as we walked and delivered food, also helped to set students’ minds at ease. Students then continued their service in pairs and with more confidence for the duration of the project. We continued to have conversations from shared experiences in the classroom. That shared context engaged students even more in their class participation and later in their reflections.



Demonstrating evidence of student learning is imperative in all teaching, but it is equally important instructors clearly identify “service” and “learning objectives” first thing in the course. If students see these two as separate, then they don’t have the important and critical skill of connecting critical learning to community and global issues. According to the EFI, “Course objectives should be clearly identified as learning and service objectives and prioritized and selected according to the interests of the partnership rather than the individual parties involved” (Engaged Faculty Institute, 2015).

Key terms for designing objectives and outcomes:

Educational Outcomes: Educational outcomes provide evidence showing the degree to which program purposes and objectives are or are not being attained, including achievement of appropriate skills and competencies by students.

Learning Objectives: The learning objectives describe the outcome competencies learners should acquire or achieve as a result of the course or curriculum. They also help provide a ‘road map’ for planning course instruction and define standards and criteria.

Competencies: Competencies are the set of knowledge, skills, and behaviors that are necessary for effective practice in a particular field or profession.

(Engaged Faculty Institute, 2015)

In beginning the process of designing your course with solid learning objectives, review competencies from your discipline and then engage community partners on their ideas for student learning with their organization, so the two align. Establish learning and service objectives for the course. And most importantly, identify the competencies your students will need to demonstrate following the course. Will the students be expected to develop skills for interdisciplinary collaboration or focus on community-based research? The tasks the students are expected to perform should be appropriate, given the community setting and the expectations of members of the community.

Furthermore, both sets of objectives should progress from actions that are clearly measurable and demonstrable. A learning objective would be for students to be able to describe aspects of rhetorical situations including purpose, audience, and context. A service objective would be for students to be able to develop a brochure for a community partner in the language of the target community.



As instructors, our focus is almost always on the immediate impact of our teaching on students. Service-learning is different, in that there has to be a mutual benefit and reciprocity of engagement to avoid the “charity” and “privilege-helping” attitudes that often come with the “savior-model” of service. Point is, this work must be within a framework of collaboration and reciprocity.

One way to ensure key activities and interests is to provide a syllabus with an opportunity of expectations that also clarify the role that service-learning can play in the overall educational process. It should also be understood that the course is part of a complex and multi-faceted goal system (engaged scholars or other social justice programs) that sets them apart from traditional courses. With such mentioned, these courses should be designated as “SL-Service-Learning courses” so students understand the expectations.



Critical reflection activities are most affective when they are connected to learning outcomes and objectives. This may sound easier than it seems and requires critical reflection of the instructor to make sure learning outcomes connecting service-learning course content are thoroughly connected to the course content. Early in the course, concepts of critical reflection need to be introduced and practiced in the classroom. Instructors should make sure to also design a reflection strategy that is integrated throughout the course and service experiences to achieve the learning outcomes. These critical actions early in the design of the course will ensure more opportunities for student success.

How do we help students engage in this type of experiential learning, while also engaging in processes of analysis? Critical reflection becomes the bridge that engages course content and learning objectives with the community-based experience and the students’ own lived experiences outside of school. It is the “critical” element of service-learning.

Critical reflection, then, is a sort of reverse-design perspective, meaning the goal is for students to have knowledge at all steps, and not just at the end. Four general categories of reflection formats or mediums:

  1. Speaking, or oral reflection;
  2. Writing, or writing that takes form as journals, problem-analysis case studies, essays, theory-to-practice papers,  press-releases, drafting legislation, and letters to elected officials, editors, or reflection in both curricular and co-curricular experiences;
  3. Activities, which include anything from classroom role play to teamwork activities exploring experience with the issues at hand; and
  4. Artistic creation, which could include media design, collective collages, art, poetry or any creative medium in which a student can express themselves about what they’ve learned, and often to either broad or specific audiences beyond the instructor.

(Jacoby & Howard, 2015)

Considerations for designing a reflection survey:

  1. What learning outcomes do you want to achieve through reflection?
  2. When and how often will refection occur? Will it be at regular intervals, for example, weekly or biweekly?
  3. Will students reflect iteratively so that reflection becomes a habit and builds upon itself over the course of the semester?
  4. Where will reflection occur? Inside or outside the classroom? At a service-site? …
  5. Who will facilitate the reflection? Will the faculty member join in? Community organization staff or clients? All?
  6. Through what medium or mediums will reflection occur? Speaking, writing, activities, media?
  7. Will students reflect individually, in small groups, as a group of the whole, through a combination of these?
  8. What prompts will guide reflection?
  9. How will you know whether students achieve your desired learning outcomes?

(Jacoby & Howard, 2015)



Assessment, or the tools and/or methods that educators use to evaluate learning, can occur in multiple ways and at multiples levels of learning, especially in terms of service-learning.

Assessment of service-learning enables its practitioners, participants, supporters, advocates, and funders to gain an understanding of its value to students, faculty, community leaders and members, the institution, and to higher education and society. (Jacoby & Howard, 2015)

Terms included in many types of assessments involve “counting” (numbers of participants, organizations and programs); “evaluation” (measures of effectiveness);  “benchmarking” (comparisons with other programs or other institutions) and “outcomes assessment” (measures of desired outcomes).

Examples of types of assessments in English and Composition Studies can include achievement testing, content analysis of student work, interviews with not only students but community partners, community focus groups, observation, and case studies. In my courses, assessment takes on a variety of approaches, depending on the course. I almost always ask students keep a service-learning journal that is staged with prompts prior to, during, and after service. This helps them to see how their own perceptions may have changed through various experiences, as well as address cultural competency issues, while also showing progress as to their understanding of being an engaged citizen.

Good assessments involve multiple stakeholders. As an instructor, be  sure to have important early community partner conversations about outcomes each seek, as well as the institution’s learning outcomes. “It is also worthwhile for the partners to discuss what information is easiest to collect that would be useful in assessing the extent to which community outcomes were achieved” (Jacoby & Howard, 2015).  For community partners, I ask the desired change they need within their organization, as well as the community. Perhaps it is a counting assessment based on more community members served because there were more service-learning students. Or maybe it is project-based with the completion of a task or product the student produces. For some community partners, it might be more evaluative of the quality of community member experiences, which is often shared in the form of surveys.

One of the challenges to creating good assessments is designing the accessibility and appropriateness of service-learning for all students, including students of all races, ethnicities, social classes, ability levels, religions, ages, sexual orientations, etc.  As educators, we must respect and support current realities students bring to service-learning. Some students may not be able to let go of long-held or family-based prejudices, which can create a belief in their own superiority over others in community settings. Recognizing that students are able participants in their own development means that we must anticipate a student’s relationships with difference. “This includes facing the fact that some white students have never before been asked to examine their own racial identities and privileges or to confront their stereotypes” (Jacoby & Howard, 2015).  Creating non-threatening reflection assessments related to issues of difference can help students navigate their perceptions in relation to the experiences.



Educating students for social responsibility and ethical citizenry cannot be taught from a textbook. Our local, national and global communities face a growing number of divisive and complex problems. Service-learning can prepare students to be more socially responsible citizens and leaders, and it can also help them to contribute to democratic engagement and intercultural competencies to solve profound problems through critical thinking, effective teamwork, and an understanding of how communities function.

As such, service-learning requires initial and concrete planning that incorporates students’ experiential learning to the discipline-specific learning and even more importantly to a deep analytical and empathetic understanding of the communities in which they serve. For studies in English, Linguistics, Cultural, and Writing Studies, students must be immersed in the studies of what it means to write about, with, and for diverse and dynamic communities, while also replacing deficit-thinking about communities with asset-based understandings.

Service-learning can also be a tool to help students develop a global perspective through local service-learning. Whether it is working with immigrant communities or with a local non-profit working to solve global issues, students can gain a transformative education as to the intersectionality of local, national, and global issues.

Personal transformation through service-learning is a result of more engaged students and instructors. Instead of education as an often passive transactional experience of information, students, community partners, and instructors alike are actively engaged in dynamic ways of approaching problems and diverse community cultures through teamwork, critical thinking and communication. This form of collaboration builds bridges toward empathy and the unique assets of all involved, as well as creates personal bonds for students and makes boundaries between college and communities more permeable.



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Cress, Christine M., and David M. Donohue. Introduction. Democratic Dilemmas of Teaching Service-Learning: Curricular Strategies for Success. VA: Stylus Publishing.

Courtney, Jennifer. 2008. Salt Lake Community College Service-Learning Contract.

Deans, T., Roswell, B.S., & Wurr, A.J. (2010). Writing and Community Engagement: A Critical Sourcebook. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins.

Deans, Thomas (2000). Writing Partnerships: Service-Learning in Composition. Urbana: NCTE

Dewey, John (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: The Free Press

Engaged Faculty Institute. Community Partnerships for Health. (2015). Retrieved March 26, 2020,

Grobman, L. (2015). Service-Learning and Literary Studies in English. New York: Modern Language Assoc. of America.

Jacoby, B., & Howard, J. (2015). Service-Learning Essentials. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Tilton, Jennifer R. (2015). “Crossing the Color Line into America’s Prisons: Volunteers of Color Reflect on Race and Identity in a College Service-Learning Project.” University of Redlands supported by the Will J. Reid Foundation.

Youth Resource Center (2020). Volunteers of America. Accessed April 29, 2020.


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Open English @ SLCC Copyright © 2016 by Andrea Malouf is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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