University Relations

Frequently Asked Questions
about Service-Learning

For StudentsFor FacultyFor Community Partners

FAQ for Students:
Why am I required to volunteer as part of a class?
The service-learning component of your class gives you the opportunity to learn by doing. Think of the community you're working with as a "lived text" for the class. Like your textbooks, lectures, and discussions, the community is a source of information about the concepts and issues covered in class. Though the time you spend volunteering is part of your homework for this course, service-learning is more than homework. It's a way to get hands-on experience through your academic studies.

How many hours per week will I do class-related volunteer work?
Generally you'll do 2 to 3 hours per week.

How can my instructor grade my volunteer work?
Think of your volunteer work as a "lived text" for your class, similar to the written text you're required to read for class. Your instructor doesn't grade you for the act of reading. Instead, you're graded on how much you learn from those readings, and how well you demonstrate that in papers and exams. You will be graded in a similar way for your community work. Class assignments may require you to articulate what you've learned volunteering, and how that connects the subject of the class. Your service-learning class may also require you to complete a specific number of hours doing volunteer work. For that you may be graded in the same way you'd be graded for class attendance or class participation.

For most service-learning classes, you are required to do reflection about your community work. Your reflection will help you connect that volunteer work to your studies and your life. Because of reflection activities, volunteer work done for a service-learning class is different from other types of volunteer work.

Why am I required to volunteer for a specific number of hours?
The point of required hours is to be sure you have enough time to fulfill the learning objectives related to your volunteer work. This also helps your community organization plan for your time there and set their own expectations. In order to partner with the U of M's service-learning program, community organizations must fulfill certain requirements themselves. These organizations have limited resources, so it's equally important for them to know that the time and effort they dedicate to hosting service-learning students will benefit their goals too.

How do I access the secure site where I can log my volunteer hours?
If you are you a current service-learning student, you can log in to the secure site here. This site allows you to log your hours, complete a referral request, and more. If you have questions about using it, contact your designated service-learning coordinator.

What if I just don't have time for service-learning?
Many students juggle classes, part-time or full-time work, family obligations, and other activities. We understand it can be difficult to find time for the volunteer work required for a service-learning class. That's why most service-learning classes require just 2 to 3 hours per week, and instructors decrease the course load (readings and other assignments) somewhat. Often you can choose to volunteer somewhere that will accommodate a schedule or location that's convenient for you. If you need help matching a volunteer opportunity to your needs, talk to your service-learning coordinator in the Center for Community-Engaged Learning. Be sure to do this at the beginning of the semester.

What if I'm trying to contact my community organization, but they're not responding?
If you have trouble connecting with your organization, contact your service-learning coordinator as soon as possible so they can intervene. A semester goes by quickly, and it's easy to fall behind on your service-learning requirements. We can help if you let us know what's happening.

When you do contact your community organization, be sure your e-mails and phone calls are always clear and professional. This will help you get a timely response. Be sure you provide your name, tell them you're from such-and-such service-learning class at the University of Minnesota, and tell them the best way to reach you. When communicating by e-mail, use a descriptive subject line for your message, like "Getting Started with My Service-Learning," to help the recipient realize that you're working on an academic timetable.

What if I'm being asked to do work that wasn't in the position description I signed up for? What if the organization doesn't have enough work for me to do?
Step 1: Have a conversation with your supervisor at the organization. Start with a positive approach. You might want to mention that you chose this organization because you feel you can learn a lot from the experience there, and/or you feel you can make a strong contribution to its work because of your skills and interests. Ask your supervisor if you can revisit your position description together.
Step 2: If you aren't able to resolve your concerns after talking with your supervisor, contact your service-learning coordinator at the Center for Community-Engaged Learning. If your service-learning coordinator can't find a resolution that works for everybody, she will help you find another option for fulfilling your service-learning requirement for your course.

What if I feel like I'm being asked to do meaningless busy work?
It's important to realize that your time commitment to an organization is small (2 to 3 hours per week). Most organizations have limited resources, and they will need to balance the time and effort they put into training and supervising you. Nonetheless, one of the key goals of service-learning is to allow students to provide relevant and meaningful service in the community. Your service-learning coordinators work with community partners to be sure you have that opportunity.

It's important to know that whatever work you do at a community organization, it may have more impact than you first realize. For example, if you're keeping a child busy while his/her parents are in a parenting class or in a job-skills workshop, you may think you're just babysitting. In reality, you're allowing those parents to improve their family's quality of life, and you're helping the organization provide services to parents who might not be able to take advantage of them otherwise. If you're stuffing envelopes at an organization, those envelopes may carry a fundraising request to hundreds of donors on whom the organization relies to carry out its work. Whatever your position within the organization, we encourage you to learn as much as you can about the organization's work and how your efforts fit into it. Don't be afraid to ask questions that will help you understand your experience and connect it to what you're learning in class.

If you really feel like you're not getting anything meaningful out of your experience with the organization, see Step 1 and Step 2 in the answer above this one.

FAQ for Faculty
Is service-learning appropriate for introductory and lower-level courses?
Yes. Students at any level can have substantive and rewarding service-learning experiences. The key is for students to be placed at organizations where they'll have responsibilities appropriate to their skills levels. The Center for Community-Engaged Learning's service-learning coordinators will help you identify service-learning opportunities that work well for your students.

Service-Learning Support:
See a summary of the services we offer in support of service-learning at the
U of M.
Is service-learning manageable in large courses?
Yes. We have supported service-learning courses with enrollments as high as 250 students and as low as 10 students. In large courses, the key to success is the involvement of teaching assistants. Be sure all your teaching assistants understand the service-learning component and that they're prepared to facilitate students' reflections on their community work in discussion sections. (See "How should I grade students?" answer below for information on reflection activities and grading.) Service-learning logistics are more complicated in larger courses, so it's also important to stay in close contact with our office. We can help facilitate and track student placements, and their logging of community-work hours.

Do students have time to do service-learning?
Many students juggle classes, jobs, family obligations, or other activities. Fitting in the 2 to 3 hours per week for a service-learning requirement can be a challenge, but we've found that most students can fit that in, and they're glad they did. Some students who didn't think they'd have time decide to continue volunteering after the course ends.

We are diligent about offering service-learning opportunities that meet varying schedule and location needs. If a student seems to be having a particularly difficult time meeting the service-learning requirement in your class, we can help you think about alternative assignments for exceptional cases. When you incorporate service-learning into a course, you should adjust the workload of readings and other assignments, in recognition of the time students will also spend working in the community. We are always happy to review your syllabus with you if you have any questions or concerns.

Should I require service-learning in my course, or make it optional?
Either can work well, and there are pros and cons to each approach. (When service-learning is optional, you would allow students to choose a different assignment, such as a research paper.) When service-learning is required in a class, all students will have a shared experience to draw on during class discussions. This will make it easier to facilitate students' service-learning reflection and discussions. The downside to required service-learning is that you may send some students into the community who don't really want to be there.

Our office offers guidance to faculty as you decide whether to require service-learning or not. We can share sample syllabi of both models. If you decide to require service-learning in your course, be sure to mention that in the course description, so students know about it when they register.

How should I grade students on their service-learning? What is reflection?
Think of students' community work as a "lived text" for the course. Their time spent at community organizations is somewhat like required readings. When you assess students' reading assignments, you don't simply assess whether they've done the readings or not—you assess what they learned from the readings, and how well they demonstrate that in exams and papers. The same is true when assessing service-learning.

Your service-learning class should require students to discuss what they're learning from their community work, and how that connects with other course texts, lectures, and discussions. This type of assignment is commonly known as reflection. Reflection sets service-learning apart from other types of volunteer work. See our Reflection page for in-depth information and examples.

Should I require a minimum number of volunteer hours? How many and why?
Most service-learning instructors do require students to complete a minimum number of community-work hours during the semester. This is similar to requiring class attendance or participation. We recommend that students be asked to commit 2 to 3 hours per week to their community organization, for a total of 25 to 30 hours total for a semester. By setting a minimum number of hours, you help assure that students do enough community work to fulfill the course's learning objectives, and that the community organization receives enough benefit for the time and effort they invest in hosting a student.

How do I make sure service-learning is well integrated into my class?
First, be sure service-learning isn't an "add-on" to the course. For it to be as effective as possible, it should be woven into the curriculum throughout the semester. Reflection assignments are the most effective way to integrate service-learning into your course. Reflection helps students connect their community work to the course content.

When we ask students at the end of each semester how service-learning could have been better integrated into their class, a common response is that more time could have been spent in class discussing students' experiences in the community. We strongly encourage you to keep this in mind as you plan the course. Whether you require service-learning or make it optional, think about the ways students can learn from each other through these discussions.

What if something happens to a student, or if their actions cause damages to someone else?
Every service-learning student will need to complete a Participant Agreement, in which they acknowledge "that there are risks involved in doing community work and that the University does not assume any responsibility for injuries or loss to my personal property while I am participating in a community organization." We work to minimize these risks by visiting community organizations to see where and how they operate. To facilitate our support of service-learning classes at the U of M, our office has developed partnerships with more than 300 Twin Cities community organizations.

Note that the University of Minnesota's liability insurance does provide coverage for all academic credit-bearing student activities, including service-learning. If a student reports an incident to you, please let us know as soon as possible. If there's any question about liability, the U's Risk Management staff will work with the community organization and the student to resolve the issue.

What challenges do students encounter when doing service-learning?
During the semester, students will likely share with you the challenges they're experiencing. These could include delays in hearing back from their organization and getting started with their work, difficulty fitting in their required hours, dissatisfaction with the work they're being asked to do, or a lack of clarity about their role in the organization. If students approach you with concerns about their organization, you should work to address the situation as quickly as possible, either by communicating directly with the student's supervisor at the organization, or by contacting us and letting your service-learning coordinator know about the situation so she can follow up. Our service-learning coordinators encourage students to contact them with any concerns, but because students see you more frequently, you will likely be the first to know when these situations arise. Because a semester goes by quickly, it's imperative that any issues be resolved promptly. This will also help students maintain a positive attitude about their service-learning assignment and the course in general.

What are some of the challenges encountered by faculty doing service-learning?
When you first teach with service-learning, you may have questions about how to integrate it into your course. Our office is here to provide guidance in whatever way we can. The following are challenges service-learning faculty sometimes have to manage:
  • how to reduce other parts of the course workload to accommodate service-learning
  • how to create new assignments to facilitate students' reflections on what they learn in the community
  • how to assess students' performance on those assignments
  • how to build flexibility into the curriculum, so students can discuss and explore unexpected experiences in the community
  • how to answer students' service-learning questions when you don't have ready answers
You may also have concerns about the additional time it may take to manage the service-learning component of your course, or whether your efforts will be rewarded within the promotion and tenure process. We can help you think through all aspects of service-learning course planning, manage the logistics of your students' placements, and connect you with campus-wide efforts to support and recognize engaged teaching as an important tool for fulfilling the U's educational mission.

FAQ for Community Partners Are service-learning students different from other volunteers?
Service-learning volunteers are different from other volunteers in various ways. On a basic level, they differ because their work with you is part of a university class. Their time commitment options with you may also be more limited than some volunteers—most service-learning volunteers are expected to work 2 to 3 hours per week during the semester of their service-learning class. Also, because a semester goes by quickly, it's very important that you plug service-learning students into concrete volunteer activities in a timely manner.

The other difference is that there are learning objectives connected to these students' work with you. As a host organization, you are considered a co-educator for these students. (This sets service-learning students apart from other students who may have to complete a certain number of hours to graduate, but whose service is not connected to an academic course.) When you work with service-learning students, we strongly encourage you to learn about what the students are studying in class, and then engage them in reflection activities while they work in your organization.

How do I get connected to service-learning students?
If you haven't discussed this with our staff, that's your first step. Contact us about scheduling a meeting to discuss a service-learning partnership. At that meeting, we'll explain our process to you and provide you with access to the online system we use to place and track service-learning students.

Can I request service-learning students from a specific U of M major?
You can ask, and we can try to accommodate this at times, but we can't guarantee that students from any particular field or major will be available. Our support of service-learning classes comes at the request of individual faculty members, and the service-learning classes offered each semester vary. We do work regularly with faculty and students in 20 or more academic departments, and we strive to make the best possible matches between organizations and students. We will help you as much as we can.

Many U of M classes enroll students from a wide variety of majors. When you do post service-learning positions through us, you can mention that they're ideal for students in specific majors. Also, please let us know if you are interested in working with students from a specific department. We can sometimes recruit new faculty/departments to service-learning, and it helps if we can tell them they'd be responding to a community-identified need.

What if students contact me individually, not through the online service-learning site?
There are some U of M courses (with a service-learning component) that do not work through us, the Center for Community-Engaged Learning. In most of those classes, faculty place their students at organizations the faculty member is already connected to. But in some instances, a student may call you and say s/he has a service requirement for a class or an instructor you've never heard of. Whether you decide to work with these students or not is entirely up to you. Consider how their needs fit with yours, and ask these students what their class requires in terms of your approving their hours.

We would appreciate hearing if you receive requests like this. One of the benefits of our work coordinating U of M service-learning is that it helps organizations manage the volume and type of student requests they get. When we can encourage additional faculty to work with us, it may lead to better outcomes for everyone involved—students, faculty, and community organizaitons.

How many hours will service-learning students work?
Typically, service-learning students are required to spend 2 to 3 hours per week at their community organization, for a total of 25 to 30 hours during the semester. However, if your program requires a greater commitment from volunteers—in number of hours per week and/or length of service commitment—you don't need to change your expectations to accommodate students. Clearly state your expectations. Students who can meet those requirements can select your organization with the understanding that they will exceed the service-learning requirement for their course.

How many service-learning students will work with us each semester?
When you provide us with information about the service-learning opportunities you have available each semester, tell us how many students you feel you can supervise effectively, and provide a meaningful experience for. That way we won't exceed your capacity. Students usually have multiple service-learning options to choose from. As they decide which to choose, they will consider location, schedule, type of position, the organization's mission, and their own experience or interests.

We can't guarantee that any students in a class you are partnered with will choose to work with your organization, so if you need a certain number of volunteers to keep your programs operating successfully, we strongly encourage you to recruit beyond U of M service-learning classes.

When does each semester start and end?
Typically, fall semester starts the day after Labor Day and runs through mid-December. Spring semester starts the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and runs through early May. We always inform our community partners about the specific start and end dates of each semester. You can also find the U's academic calendar here.

What if service-learning students don't show up, stop coming, or don't complete their hours?
When we're asked this question, we often respond by asking, "What would you do with any other volunteer in this situation?" While a student may have a service-learning requirement for a class, you are not required to work with any particular student. This is one reason we require service-learning students to follow your normal volunteer application and interview process. That way you can make sure you and the student are a good fit for each other.

If problems arise with a student you have accepted as a volunteer, we ask you to try to resolve those problems first through direct communication with the student. If you are unable to reach the student, unable to resolve the difficulty, or if the student continues the problematic behavior, please contact one of our service-learning coordinators right away. We are here to help everyone have a successful service-learning experience. We'll work to resolve these situations however we can. We also want to be sure faculty members know about students who don't follow through on their commitments. You are welcome to communicate with faculty directly, or go through us.

If you decide a student is unreliable or otherwise not working out for your organization, you may ask the student not to return, but we do ask that you notify us, so we can help that student find another way to fulfill his/her requirement.

What if my organization can't do on-site reflection?
We understand there are many, many demands on your and your colleagues' time, but we firmly believe that everyone can do on-site reflection. We view it as an important part of your role as a co-educator for service-learning students. Reflection doesn't have to be a formal process. It can be as simple as a brief conversation about what a service-learning student is feeling, observing, and thinking about while s/he is in your organization. For more information and ideas, visit our Reflection page, and feel free to contact us if you have any questions.

Will service-learning students stay with my organization for more than one semester?
Students' schedules change from semester to semester, and many students juggle classes, part- or full-time work, family obligations, and other activities. So it may be difficult for them to think about extending their commitment to you beyond their service-learning course. If you want to encourage service-learning students to stick around after their service-learning class end, consider using the strategies you'd use to retain any volunteer. Simple steps might make that happens... You can provide a meaningful and rewarding experience. You can make sure the students know their work is valued, appreciated, and an important part of fulfilling your organization's mission. You can remind students about the value of relationships and continuity in your organization's work with clients and community members.

You can also ask students if they know about the Community Engagement Scholars Program, which formally recognizes U of M students who do various types of community involvement work. This can be an incentive for students to continue volunteering. While we don't track how many service-learning students continue at their organizations after their service-learning classes end, about 50% surveyed at the end of each service-learning class say they do plan to continue their volunteer work. So it's definitely worth encouraging them to do so!

Return to main Service-Learning Info page.