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Read the thoughts and impressions on a variety of topics written by IDEA staff as well as occasional guest bloggers.

New IDEA Teaching Method Highlights Service Learning
November 30, 2015
By David Pollock  Formal education has long been disparaged as living in an “ivory tower,” unconnected to the real world in any meaningful way. There are many justifiable reasons for abstract theorizing in our institutions of higher learning, of course, but the ultimate goal for students is to acquire knowledge and develop skills that can be used throughout their personal and professional life. It is difficult to achieve that goal with a purely classroom-based (ivory tower-bound) education. At some point, students must move their education into the real world. In the upcoming revision of the Diagnostic Feedback instrument, one of the new teaching methods students are asked if they observed is, “Created opportunities for students to apply course content outside the classroom.” The item covers a range of learning opportunities from simple, one-time assignments to courses where the whole focus is on service learning outside of the classroom. It also includes internships, practicums, field-based projects, “service learning” or “community-based learning,” and any attempt to get students to apply learning to the world outside the classroom. These approaches are certainly not new, but there has been renewed emphasis in recent years on this teaching method as a way to deepen learning, solve community problems, and engage students.

Deepen Learning

Although there are many examples in academia, nursing education offers one of the clearest examples of applying course content outside the classroom. Learning content in the classroom is supplemented with field-based application, in some cases, from the very first courses in a nursing program. Nursing students complete many hours working in hospitals alongside licensed nurses to apply their learning and sharpen their skills. And it doesn’t take a nurse educator to understand that this learning outside the classroom is vital to a nursing student’s education. No one would want to be treated by a nurse that only had classroom experience! But there are ways for students to deepen their understanding by applying content in meaningful ways outside the classroom in other disciplines that do not have direct career paths like nurses, K12 educators, or social workers. Math students can develop questions and solve problems for the community for instance. How many new jobs are needed in a community to maintain current employment levels? How have home values changed in the community over time? The problems and issues that can be addressed are endless in most disciplines. When students apply their understanding of concepts to solve problems and answer questions in the real world, they have new opportunities to construct deeper understandings and even learn new things. In addition, such out-of-the-classroom learning provides opportunities to improve communication skills and teamwork - the “soft skills” that college graduates are frequently cited as lacking.

Solve Community Problems

“Service learning” is a particular form of learning outside the classroom that deliberately attempts to use the learning opportunities as a way to solve community problems. In short, a project, a course, or a series of courses requires students to apply what they are learning in the classroom to solve real community problems. So, for example, marketing students could develop a fundraising campaign for a local non-profit. Math students could collect and analyze pedestrian traffic data for a community to use in developing a new traffic and sidewalk plan. English majors could work with schools or community groups to increase children’s interest in reading. Service learning also addresses concerns about civic engagement and social tolerance. As students learn more about the problems and challenges of their community, and work toward solving them, they learn how the world works and the necessity of civic responsibility. And depending on the projects involved, students may also increase their understanding of groups different from them resulting in not only greater tolerance but a better understanding of how to affect change in the world. Getting students to apply what they are learning to solve community problems does not necessarily mean the faculty member has to devise the plan. A course project could require that students figure out for themselves how they can best apply course content to solving a community problem, and with faculty help, identify a community group with which to partner.

Engage Students

Finally, opportunities for solving problems, or otherwise applying knowledge outside the classroom, is a way to engage many students with learning who might otherwise be lost in a traditional classroom. When students see how course material can be used to explain real-world issues and to solve real-world problems, even the most reluctant students begin to see the relevance of learning. When relevance and motivation are increased, so is learning. Creating opportunities for students to apply learning outside the classroom, then, is also a way to more fully engage some students.

Getting Started

Using service learning in courses can take many different forms from simple, short-term projects by individual students to larger, multiple-term, team-based projects - and everything in between. Creating opportunities for students to apply course content outside the classroom doesn’t necessarily require a complete redesign of a course (though it certainly could). Get started with a small, one-time project in a course, and evaluate its effectiveness. Further your understanding of this teaching method by collaborating with other faculty in and out of your discipline, and take advantage of the many resources available on the topic.

Service Learning Resources

A few resources to help you get started. Campus Compact: a national higher education association dedicated solely to campus-based civic engagement Generator School Network: an online community of members who have discovered how they can change the world through service-learning. Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching has a good summary of service learning practice in higher education:
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