Thursday, June 25, 2015

Reflection Prompts to Guide Your Community Service Learning Course Design

by Ann Abbott

During the 2014-15 academic year I traveled to many universities and met many creative people doing very meaningful work with their language students.

I also took a very careful look at many course syllabi. They all were interesting and reflected the instructors' deep subject knowledge and intellectual curiosity to take a journey with their students. That is the kind of course we would all like to create!

There were also red flags for potential issues in community service learning (CSL) courses. I don't have all the answers, of course, and my course design can look very different from someone else's and yet both be very successful. Still, in the spirit of critical reflection that is the backbone of a good CSL learning experience, I offer a few key questions that you can ask yourself about your CSL course design.

What is the organizational capacity of your community partner(s)?

You need a true partner, so ask yourself these questions. Does this organization truly have the existing capacity to support and supervise your students? Do they have a dedicated volunteer coordinator? Do they regularly receive volunteers? If not, do you or your university have the resources to help with this? Do they have the space in their offices for your students? Can they track your students' time and work? 

What is the time-frame of your students' work?

Some Spanish CSL courses are designed for students to do ongoing work all semester long, and some have a reduced start and finish timeline. Furthermore, your community partners' work that students collaborate on might be ongoing, daily tasks for the organization, an ongoing specific project, a short-term specific project or even a one-day event. All of these time frames are valid, as long as they meet the learning objectives you have set forth for your students and meet your community partners' needs. My Spanish CSL students have worked in all these formats--and they all offer good, unique learning experiences. I undestand that there is legitimate concern about universities that live by the semester and communities that don't. It's a true concern. But good planning and communication with your community partner can emiliorate this temporal mismatch.

Will you eliminate any course content?

I sometimes see wonderful course syllabi and calendars that are unfortunately too jam-packed. Often this happens when you take the syllabus for an existing course and then layer CSL on top of it. Take a deep breath and cut. I know it hurts. I know it's all important. But there is a limit to how much content and course components we can pile into a course--and cram into students' brains. Give your content some breathing room. And don't forget, you can save some of the things you cut and assign them as reflection prompts, individual research projects, etc. In other words, if you simply cannot bring yourself to eliminate content, think about redistributing and reformatting it.

How will you handle students' critical reflection?

You know that critical, structured reflection is an essential component of any CSL course. But have you thought about how you will lead students to this? Let me just suggest that students benefit from well thought-out prompts that guide students through these three steps: What? So what? Now what? (I'll share my prompts in a future post.) And here's another idea: take the paper assignment(s) that you currently use in your course and edit the instructions so that they cover the three steps. In other words, don't drop what's already working well for you or add CSL assignments to an already full course: weave CSL into it.

What terms will you use to describe students' work?

Look through all your course materials, and if you find the word "volunteer," replace it with "CSL work." This is a subtle, but important change. Some students (and some faculty) object to "forced volunteerism." But they aren't volunteering; they are doing a learning assignment. Think about it like this: we call it "undergraduate research," "volunteering in a physics lab." Keep the focus on the learning. That's what we're all here for.

What system will you use to track students' CSL work?

One concern I hear a lot is: how will I know if my students are truly doing their work in the community? There are many answers to that question, but the most important is that your community partner needs to be your partner on this and have their own system for volunteer tracking. I add two other layers to this:
1. Students must update their worklog on our wiki weekly, simply stating the time they worked and a short sentence about the work they did.
2. Students must complete a community participation rubric and turn it in along with their midterm and final exams. 

We carefully design reflective activities for our students. Hopefully these questions will help you reflect on your own course design. Remember, CSL courses are always a work in progress because we deal with real people in real time in complex situations. If you need a hand or someone to simply bounce ideas off of, email me at I always say that I don't have all the answers, but I do have a lot of experience that can be useful. I hope you'll reach out!

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