Service Learning Demystified

Ann M. Pearson

When I hear the words service learning, I immediately think of filling grocery bags at the food bank. It isn’t that this is an unworthy service learning activity—more of us should do this more often. I just have trouble getting beyond a one-and-done example that occurs outside of the traditional classroom and is typically unconnected to the in-class curriculum, assignments, and lessons.

I shudder when I hear students and critics talk about the need for education to provide real-world experiences as if a college education exists in some fantasy realm. Especially in community colleges, we aren’t elitist scholars pontificating on esoteric, impractical matters. The ivory tower never got funded. We deal in stark reality, admitting only the top 100% of students who come to us asking and expecting us to change their lives, careers, and lifetime earning potential for the better. That’s about as real world as you can get.

So where can service learning fit in? Well, actually the answer is almost everywhere with a little creativity. The definition of service learning is more detailed than you might think. According to the program at San Jacinto College, “Service-learning is a research-based teaching method where guided or classroom learning is applied through action that addresses an authentic community need in a process that allows for student initiative and provides structured time for reflection on the service experience and demonstration of acquired skills and knowledge.” How much more authentic would the study of the political process become if students worked on a local campaign to inform voters of the issues and encourage voter participation? Local campaigns usually struggle to find timely help, so student engagement is a win-win. Students planning a career in early childhood education can get hands-on experience assisting teachers in elementary classrooms and after-school programs. Nonprofit organizations often want help with letter-writing projects, recordkeeping, and accounting. Small businesses with limited marketing budgets need web design services, and students need practice working with exacting clients. That one seems to work out well, too.

We’re always looking for ways to help students as they move through their courses and programs toward completion. Research is beginning to recognize that service learning is one of the best ways for students to increase grades, persistence, retention, critical thinking, writing skills, understanding, and satisfaction. With those results, we need to bottle this stuff. The beauty of service learning is that students reap all these benefits, but so do people, businesses, and communities. One part of our mission at San Jacinto is to “enrich the quality of life in the communities we serve.” And we do that when we identify a need in the community or on our own campus and develop a learning experience to help meet that need.

An excellent example of this needs-based examination happened at San Jacinto College on two campuses when culinary arts students bemoaned the lack of fresh herbs for their cooking. The students requested the appropriate permissions, rallied volunteer workers, developed a viable budget, sought funding, and designed and constructed a functional herb garden. Think of all the lessons these students learned during this process.

With guidance, students likely could generate numerous potential tasks they could perform to test career choices. And faculty can liaison with friends and professional contacts to make introductions and facilitate these opportunities. This is service learning at its best, and we all need to look for ways to connect motivated students with service needs.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on March 2, 2017.