Have you ever been involved in a service-learning course? According to Cathryn Berger Kaye, service-learning is “a teaching method where guided or classroom learning is deepened through service to others in a process that provides structured time for reflection on the service experience and demonstration of the skills and knowledge acquired.”1
This teaching method helps students develop skills (critical thinking, collaboration, and creative problem-solving, among others)2 that are highly valued by employers. The real-world service experience it provides students can also improve the likelihood that they will stay in school and graduate.3 On top of all of these benefits, there is the positive impact on the people receiving the services provided.
I have seen, firsthand, many of the benefits of service-learning mentioned above. In 2010, I added a service-learning component to an ‘Introduction to Quality Management’ course that I taught at Chattanooga State Community College. At that time, I was also involved in planning a Project Homeless Connect (PHC) event, a one-day event that brings together social service agencies, government, businesses, faith-based organizations, and community volunteers to provide services to members of the community experiencing homelessness.
The timing of the PHC event worked out perfectly for my class. It enabled me to cover topics such as customer satisfaction and process improvement a few weeks before the event was held. I asked my students to attend the event, describe their activities, reflect on their experience, and then apply what we covered in class in order to identify opportunities for improving the event. Essentially, their “service” was to use their quality management knowledge to make recommendations to the PHC planning committee. I also invited the students to attend a debriefing meeting of the committee the week after the event so that they could present and discuss their recommendations.
Having made countless presentations to various groups on the issue of homelessness, and hearing some very negative comments about people experiencing homelessness, I was not sure what to expect from a class of Quality Management students.
The day of the event arrived. Over 500 people (guests) needing help showed up. The students were very engaged in their assignment, quick to offer help, and very interested in talking with volunteers and guests. However, what struck me the most was the dignity and respect with which the students treated, and talked about, the guests. After the event, student comments focused on individuals that they met. The stereotypes and sweeping generalizations about people experiencing homelessness were cast aside in favor of a more informed perspective brought about by face-to-face interaction with the guests. It’s easy to ignore the humanity with a stereotype; it’s much harder when looking someone in the eye.
Back to the academic side: Recommendations made by the students demonstrated that they understood, and could apply, the quality management topics discussed in the lectures. For example, a student recommendation to change the location of the check-in tables was based on process flow issues and meeting identified customer needs.
There is such untapped potential in service-learning. So, whether you are a student who has participated in such a course, an instructor interested in using a service-learning approach, or a member of a business or community organization, I am very interested in hearing your ideas and experiences related to service-learning. Also, NC State’s Center for Student Leadership Ethics and Public Service and the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse are excellent resources for seeing what’s possible.
1. Kaye, C. (2004). The Complete Guide to Service Learning. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing. (p. 7).
2. Honnet, E. P., and Poulsen, S. J. (1989). Principles of good practice for combining service and learning. Wingspread Special Report. Racine, Wisconsin.
3. Gallini, S. M., and Moely, B. E. (2003). Service-learning and engagement, academic challenge, and retention. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, vol. 10, no. 1, Fall 2003.
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John Dorris is an Associate Director of the Industrial Extension Service. John is a Tennessee native who previously served as CEO of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, where he worked with communities and governmental leaders to promote policies that prevent homelessness. He has worked as VP/CFO of Esstee Manufacturing, and served as statistics faculty at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga where he also earned a Doctor of Education degree in Learning and Leadership. Connect with John on LinkedIn.