Challenges of Service-Learning

Initial Publication Date: November 30, 2010

While service-learning provides many benefits to the instructor, student, and community partner, developing a service-learning course also poses a number challenges. Awareness of the challenges associated with service-learning projects and the ways in which to overcome those challenges will ensure an effective service-learning experience for all participants.

Challenges for the instructor

Ziegert and McGoldrick (2008) identify four common areas of concern among faculty developing service-learning projects and strategies that can be used to overcome these challenges.

  • Integration with course content. Faculty are concerned that incorporating service-learning into the curriculum will diminish the academic content covered in the course
  • Control over learning. A service-learning experience takes the student outside the classroom and away from the instructor. The service-learning experience is also less predictable. As a result, instructors are often concerned that they do not have as much control over learning that takes place outside the classroom
  • Preparation time. As research, teaching, and service demands and expectations continue to grow at many universities and colleges, faculty are concerned about the time commitment involved in developing a service-learning course. For example, matching students with community organizations can be time consuming
  • Assessment. Faculty are concerned about assessing student learning when much of the learning takes place outside the classroom and without the supervision of the instructor

However, there are several strategies that can be implemented to overcome these challenges.

  • Careful planning and preparation. This includes clearly outlining project goals and outcomes
  • Creating a service contract that all participants agree to. The service contract will ensure that all parties have mutually agreeable expectations and are clear on the goals of the project
  • To reduce prep time, have students identify potential community partners or implement the project over time in various stages
  • Use unexpected experiences as teachable moments
  • Use service-learning to enhance course content rather than to replace course content

Challenges for the student

Students may also encounter challenges associated with service-learning. Some of the challenges and ways to address the challenges can be found below.

  • Time constraints. Similar to faculty, students are also spread thin with commitments to school, work, and home. Many students may find that they don't have time to participate in a service-learning project
  • Dissatisfaction with the work. The community partner may need students to perform tasks that are not in line with the service-learning experience (Palmer and Savoie, 2002). This may result in students taking on the role of interns as opposed to active participants

Ways to overcome these challenges include:

  • Check in with students on a regular basis to ensure that all participants are adhering to the service contract. If the service-learning project spans across the semester, try using a midsemester evaluation
  • Stay connected with the community partner
  • Provide flexibility for students by providing several community partners from which they can choose to work with
  • Encourage students to travel to the site together