What is Service-Learning?
Service-learning is a credit-bearing academic experience describing a unique and specialized course design strategy that combines (a.) an academic content area, (b.) fulfilling a community identified need through a reciprocal relationship, and (c.) intentional reflection strategies in order to enrich the learning experience, explore civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.
In a service-learning course, students acquire knowledge and develop skills based on academically rigorous content through scholarly literature, faculty lectures, independent research, group activities and a variety of other educative experiences. These knowledge and skill sets are then paired with and applied to what a community partner group (public and nonprofit agencies; civic, charitable, and governmental organizations) has identified as a need for the community it serves. Courses with a service-learning component can be offered in any academic discipline, focus on any applicable academic topic and be facilitated by any faculty regardless of rank, position or years of experience.
Fulfilling a Community Identified Need
In service-learning pedagogy, community partners are central co-instructors in the educative process. Community partners work with institutions and individual faculty members to design and implement service activities that enable students to apply newly developed knowledge and skill sets in a way that provides meaningful outcomes for the community partner and its members. It is not the intention of Iona College that individual faculty members or students design service interventions without the direct involvement and collaboration of community organizations or community members.
Service-learning pedagogy emphasizes that community voice, knowledge, and identity play a formative role in defining what service initiatives are implemented. The key word that describes Iona College’s intention in its relationships with community partners is “reciprocal.” This means that we commit ourselves to never take more from a community partner than is given, or to give more to that community partner than is learned from the experience. In order to do this, we believe that all service-based initiatives must honor the values, perspectives, identities, and knowledge sets of community partners. In part, this means that as an institution our community partners identify the need that our faculty and students will partner in serving. It is not the role of the College to decide in isolation what a community needs or how these needs will be met.
Intentional reflection is a cornerstone of service-learning pedagogy. Scholarship on experiential and service-learning pedagogies consistently asserts that students cannot be expected to perform an action (such as service) and subsequently walk away with significant insights. However, when the activity is paired with reflective components, the potential that students experience significant learning is greatly increased. It is for this reason that every academic service-learning course at Iona College includes a reflection component that seeks to equip learners to move beyond surface level understandings of complex social issues and facilitates deep critical thinking, academic learning, and engaged citizenship. Reflection often manifests itself in written form, but other strategies are encouraged, as they are meaningful to the learners, such as large and small group discussion, artistic expressions like poetry, painting or drawing, as well as multimedia presentations. Regardless of modality, a service-learning experience is not complete without a reflective component.
What Service-Learning is Not
There are innumerable definitions of the term “service-learning,” which emphasize the importance of institutions defining the pedagogical practice in light of specific institutional characteristics. In addition to a common vision for what service-learning is, it is similarly important to identify what service-learning is not. According to the Service-Learning Toolkit created by the Faculty Senate of The State University of New York (2009), service-learning is not:
An episodic volunteer program
An add-on to an existing school or college curriculum
Logging a set number of community service hours in order to graduate
Compensatory service assigned as a form of punishment by the courts or by school administrators
One-sided: benefiting only students or only the community