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Three Formats of Service Learning

Three Formats of Service Learning Used by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, North Dakota State University: A Case Study

by Gary A. Goreham, Christina D. Weber, and Patricia Corwin

The Department of Sociology and Anthropology at North Dakota State University (NDSU) provides several formats of service learning opportunities for its students. The department is committed to service learning by supporting faculty member’s efforts. Following is a description of the diversity of formats that have been developed, including projects in local rural communities, international villages, and social service agencies.

Projects in Local Rural Communities.

Undergraduate and graduate students in the Community Assessment (SOC 404/605) class participate each Fall semester in a project to inventory the assets of a community that offer development potential. The project has been conducted with scores of rural communities in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota and proceeds through the following steps. Over the past two years, we’ve worked with Enderlin, North Dakota and Casselton, North Dakota. We are currently halfway through Fall semester and conducting our project with Pelican Rapids, Minnesota.

First, a rural community is selected by the instructor several months before the class begins. Three criteria are used to make the selection. The community’s population must be between 1,000 and 2,500. Although smaller communities have been used, the value of the project to the students is limited because there are fewer institutions and organizations available. The community must be within a one-hour driving distance from NDSU for logistic and travel purposes. And there must be potential for a community advisory committee to be formed.

Second, the instructor makes several trips to the community to establish contacts for the project. The trips involve visits with governmental and development officials, business leaders, and social service agency, educational, health care and religious organization officials. These individuals are invited to serve as a four-to-six member community advisory committee. The committee is cautioned that the project will result in a college student study, not a professional consultant report. Nevertheless, the project will be factually checked and may be used with that caveat.

Third, students are introduced to the project during the first day of class. The “community capitals framework” is used for the community assessment report chapter format. The chapters include: Introduction and Methods; Built Capital; Cultural Capital; Financial Capital; Human Capital; Natural Capital; Political Capital; Social Capital; City Government; and Local Development Organizations. Groups of students sign up to collect data and write each of the chapters.

Fourth, students are introduced to the “mixed methods approach” to conducting research. They are instructed in direct observation (“windshield reconnaissance”), interviews, documentary data, secondary data, and participant observation. The students determine their data needs and the methods they will employ to collect data for each chapter. They coordinate data collection strategies among themselves to maximize efficiency and share the workload. They write interview questions and determine who shall conduct the various interviews to reduce redundancy in interviews and avoid multiple interviews with the same person.

Fifth, the students receive training on community research ethics. Each student is required to complete the university’s Institutional Review Board training for the protection of human subjects. They may complete either the Collaborative Institutional training Initiative online program or the National Institutes of Health online program and present a certificate of completion to the instructor. Students are not allowed to conduct interviews until they have completed one of these programs.

Sixth, the students and the instructor meet monthly with the community advisory committee. The committee serves as a sounding board for the students, provide feedback on the project, recommend other sources of information, and serve as the group to receive and disseminate the final report. The meetings typically are held at a local restaurant in the community.

Seventh, the student groups write and circulate their chapters among themselves. Their fellow students edit the work, recommend additional material, and make suggestions to enhance the chapters. Each chapter concludes with an extensive list of the capital assets noted in the chapter. At the end of the semester, the chapters are compiled and front (cover, acknowledgements, and tables of contents) and end materials (appendices) are added.
Finally, the report is submitted to the community advisory committee and a public presentation is made. Printed copies of the report are made available to community organizations upon request (e.g., libraries, schools, community development corporations, diversity councils, social service agencies, the media, and churches).

The service learning project has several benefits for the community. First, a community assessment report is completed and made available to leaders of organizations and agencies in the community. The reports have been used for community organizing, drafting strategic plans, writing grants, and making Renaissance Zone grant applications.

Students provide an average of over 400 hours of work on the project. If the project was conducted by a consulting firm, the value to the community could be worth as much as $10,000 (assuming $25/hour).

The project also has several benefits for the students. They submitted a weekly report of their project activities, hours worked, learnings, and learning evaluations. There was a direct correlation between the number of hours worked and their learning evaluations (on a scale where 1= “didn’t learn very much” to 10 = “learned an incredible amount”). The students reported that they benefited by learning the following: (1) mixed research methods to collect a wide array of community data; (2) dynamics of small, rural communities and the role of civil society in an inclusive, healthy, vibrant community; (3) the Community Capitals Framework and the systemic relationships among community sectors (e.g., businesses, schools, housing) and among capitals (e.g., social, built, natural, human); (4) problems faced by rural communities and how governments, organizations, agencies, and individuals seek solutions; (5) community diversity; (6) community research and development ethics; (7) how regional, national, and international mega issues affect the community; (8) coordinating and writing a large group applied research project; and (9) the role of community leadership.

Two areas of improvement are recommended for this service learning project. First, a method needs to be devised to better quantify the impact of the project on the communities served. Second, a better approach needs to be found to report the students’ project findings to the entire community.

Projects in International Villages.

In the International Service Seminar (SOC 379), undergraduate students work on developing their understanding of social inequality in a global and local context over the semester and then work to apply the knowledge they gained by participating in a 10-day service project in Guatemala. Combined, the seminar and service trip are designed to promote social justice, community service, and social activism. In the course, the instructor utilizes a critical pedagogical model that emphasizes the development of critical consciousness through reflection on their own positions of power and privilege.

The required activities for the course included weekly journals, reflection papers, presentations, a final research project, and the 10-day service trip to Guatemala. In-class instruction emphasizes team building, service learning, global social inequality, and the Guatemalan context. In the journals, students respond to specific prompt questions to help them explore the course material on a more personal level. The students are required to keep a journal both during the semester, as well as during the service trip. The reflection papers are required to help students develop their ability to articulate the ideas they learn in the course. The presentations are designed to help the students learn more about the Guatemala’s history, its current political and economic realities, its primary institutions, and its cultural heritage. The final research project enables students to reflect on their overall experiences in the class and on the service trip. The projects vary from formal papers to photograph albums to artwork.

The final requirement of the course is the 10-day service trip to Guatemala. During the 10 days the students engage in three primary activities that support the work of the God’s Child Project, an NGO located in Antigua, Guatemala. The most important component of the service work involves building a house for a family. During the past two years, the class has built seven of these homes. The build lasts only three days, so during the additional days, the students work at different programs sponsored by the God’s Child Project. One of those projects includes working at a homeless shelter. The students serve food to the homeless people at this shelter. The students also work at a clothing drive. Here, they help sort and organize the clothes, as well as help people pick out clothes. The clothing drives are large-scale events that take place in the rural mountain regions outside of Antigua. At the last clothing drive, the program distributed clothes to nearly 500 people who had come from many of the villages in the area.

Throughout all of the service work that students do in Guatemala, they simultaneously reflect on their experiences in their journals and through morning discussions prior to the workday. The journals require students to reflect on their personal challenges in Guatemala as well as on the application of the ideas that they learned in class.

Qualitative assessments have been done on the class using the journals and other reflective material that the students do in class in order to understand how and if students developed a more critical consciousness of social inequality and privilege and their experiences of these phenomena. Thematic analysis of the course materials has been done using Ira Shor’s work with critical consciousness. Overall, the findings suggest that the service trip made privilege and social inequality more real for students, yet it did not necessarily enable them to become more critically conscious as they integrated those experiences into their own lives. In addition, the level of comprehension of concepts of privilege and inequality that students gain before the service trip did not necessarily mean students were better able to integrate that comprehension into the reality they saw and experienced. In addition, students became better able to understand poverty in an area such as Guatemala, but they struggled to translate that understanding to their own local experiences of poverty and class inequality.

Two areas of improvement need to be addressed in this service-learning course. First, what areas of the service project can be expanded to improve students’ development of critical consciousness? Second, what classroom strategies can be developed to help students translate their experiences in Guatemala to their local experiences?

Projects in Social Service Agencies.

Service learning in large and small classes presents many opportunities for experiential learning for students and expanded teaching options for the instructor. In my service learning program the students have the opportunity to earn extra credit points for volunteering their time and energy at fived local social service agencies while interacting with people and situations represented in their text books and class lectures. This program is a win-win program for all involved. The local agencies get needed cost- free help, the students get extra credit points that go toward raising their grades while they are gaining insights and understanding about social theory presented in class, the university benefits from the positive public relations and the instructor gets to use experiential learning as a powerful pedagogical tool.

The students in all my sociology classes earn the majority of their points thru conventional essay and multiple choice exams. I add the extra credit service learning program as an optional incentive to earn one extra point per hour of public service volunteered at one of our local agencies selected for this process. There is a limit of 10 points for 10 hours of service. I chose 10 hours and 10 points because 10 points equals half of the 20 point spread between grades in all of my classes. For example, a total of 180 to 200 points earns an A. This is a powerful incentive because these added points can make a substantial difference in the student’s final grade. Close to half of my students participate in this program in the fall semester and slightly less choose to participate in the spring semester. Many students say they would like to earn extra points but they have little time to do so because of responsibilities and demands of studies, sports, family obligations or employment.

At the beginning of the semester on the second day of class each of the featured agencies, YWCA, Nokomis Day Care Centers, Meals on Wheels, English Language Learners, and The Salvation Army, sends a representative to the class to describe their programs, discuss the types of activities in which the students can participate. Each representative gives a small, and usually passionate, presentation detailing the services provided and the social issues addressed by their agency. The personal stories and local social problems discussed by the presenters generate a lot of student interest and later discussion. To aid students in the decision process I create an information sheet listing location, contact numbers and websites, contact persons, available work hours, student responsibilities and facts about the people served. I require that each student sign a waiver to protect the university, department and instructor. The waiver was designed by the campus legal advisor and is an essential part of the volunteer process. I make sure that the waivers are handed out at the same time as the instruction sheets so that I have the signed waivers in my office before anyone leaves campus to volunteer. This Service Learning Day usually takes one class period and is referenced throughout the course in discussions.

The agencies are always happy to work with me on this program. Their staff members work around the students schedules, help place them for appropriate service, train students to work as effective volunteers and keep records of hours worked on the class lists I give them on the day they present the information to the classes. The class lists have the names of the students and a box marked “volunteer hours” plus on the top of the first page they find the date, the name of the university, my class number, the final day to volunteer, my phone number, address and fax number. I collect the class lists that contain recorded volunteer hours two weeks before the start of finals so we have time to work out any recording problems before the semester is over.

The students are responsible for making arrangements with the agencies before they do the volunteer work. They call or email the director’s office and sign up for specific times to work. They are also responsible for making arrangements for transportation to and from the agencies. City bus schedule is made available to students each semester. The students can earn points at one agency or accumulated through any combination of hours worked at the five agencies presented in class. The students design their own volunteer experience and I make it clear that they are responsible for carrying it out. If a student fails to appear at an agency after they have signed up for work I am called by the agency and I find out what happened and then disqualify the student from earning any more extra credit points for that semester.

All students who participate in our service learning program are required to write a reaction paper summarizing their volunteer experiences including a section that discusses three sociological terms or concepts covered in class that he or she recognized or encountered while volunteering. I use these concepts and examples in class to generate discussions and problem solving sessions concerning our local agencies and the problems and issues we face as a community. We use this data for critical thinking exercises that create valuable discussions.

The service learning project has been a part of my sociology classes since 1992. Service learning has been one of the most beneficial pedagogical tools I’ve used in teaching large and small classes. Experiential learning takes the concepts presented in texts and lectures to a whole new level of understanding. The different definitions of ‘”to know” Kenntnis- which means I know because I’ve experienced the event coupled with Wissenschaft which means to know through reading books are both integral parts of education. Service Learning adds the wisdom of Kenntnis to the Wissenschaft knowing presented in texts and class lectures. I’ve been very pleased over the years watching the students’ growth in awareness on many sociological concepts using both types of understanding.

Many students report that they have never or rarely volunteered anywhere because they didn’t know there was a need or how or where to start. After their experiences volunteering through our program they report that they are more aware of their community needs and have a better understanding of the material presented in class. Many of the students thank me for creating the program and for sending them to volunteer. The student volunteer’s age, race, gender or major didn’t generate any significant differences in responses. More than 60% of the students who volunteered expressed appreciation to me for sending them out to volunteer. Close to 30% report that they intend to keep volunteering after the course has ended. About 95% state that they enjoyed the experience. 5% found the experience to be in some way negative. The negative responses were usually centered on the type of work they were asked to do and the perceived lack of appreciation a few of them experienced in rare instances. I address all concerns with the students and the agencies. I try to talk with students about their experiences whenever I can and have enjoyed hearing about their thoughts and ideas about solving some of the social problems they’ve witnessed. Each semester 250-370 students in my classes average about 1,400- 1,700 hours of service.

Community response to this program has been extremely positive. Our students are visible good will ambassadors for our university. Students have been featured in the newspaper and on local radio and television programs. The campus newspaper and local news networks have run feature stories about students and the class project highlighting the benefits to the community. Our class has been nominated many times for local- volunteer group of the year- awards. I have been honored at several lunches and dinners and featured in newsletters that recognize the total number of hours contributed by my students. My students’ exceptional service is honored as well.

Since I developed this program in January of 1992 thousands of students in my classes have performed tens of thousands of volunteer hours in our community. My hope is that students will make volunteering part of their lifelong agenda. Through my program the students gain valuable volunteer work experience, the agencies get much needed help, and the university strengthens its ties with the community. Pedagogically the active learning project enhances students’ understanding of many sociological concepts presented in class. Using the procedures I’ve described, my assistants and I experience few if any problems, even with large number of students participating. There are no costs for the university or our department. Students in my sociology classes have the opportunity to learn about the problems of homeless persons, female victims of domestic violence, senior citizens, immigrants adjusting to a new country and low income single parents.

Adding service learning to my classes has been one of the most rewarding innovations I’ve tried in three decades of teaching. I believe that this program can be adapted easily for use in most classes. This beneficial program serves all who are involved.

Get a docx version of the paper.




RASL Activities

RASL just finished organizing an anthology on rural service learning, currently under review. 

In the past, RASL has organized gatherings of rural service learning practitioners and is hoping to do so again.


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Yorkshire Dales Landscape background photo by Petr Kratochvil.