APR Update: Service Learning: A Worthy Consideration When Engaging in Curriculum Development

by Deborah Gentry, Ed.D., CFLE, NCFR Academic Program Liaison
CFLE Network

I have been thinking about famous pairings: green eggs and ham; macaroni and cheese; Tom and Jerry; Batman and Robin; stars and stripes; yin and yang; hugs and kisses; ebony and ivory; thunder and lightning and so on. As I searched online for other examples, the terms "curriculum" and "instruction" never appeared as a noteworthy duo. However, to me, in the context of an academic program or a course, curriculum development cannot be undertaken without also considering instructional design. Curriculum entails the "what" to learn and "why" to learn it, while instruction entails the "how" to learn the specified content. They are not mutually exclusive enterprises.

As APR Liaison, my work focuses on post-secondary programs of study and the adult learners for whom these programs are designed and delivered. I assume most readers of this column are faculty members and administrators associated with college and university programs of study that emphasize families, family life, family dynamics, family well-being, etc. To optimally carrying out our curriculum and instruction related tasks (design and development; implementation; review, assessment and evaluation; and revision), an understanding and appreciation of adult learning or andragogy (rather than pedagogy) must be uppermost in our thinking and actions.

Being cognizant of space and, thus, length limitations for this column, I am highlighting only Malcolm Knowles' theory of adult learning, more specifically the following four principles. According to Knowles, adults learn best when:

  • they are involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction (i.e., they have and can make choices);
  • their past and current experiences (including mistakes) are valued and utilized;
  • they perceive the content and skills they are learning have immediate relevance and impact to their work and/or personal life; and
  • they are engaged in learning activities that are problem-oriented, rather than just content-oriented.

During the three and a half years I have been in the Liaison role, I estimate I have reviewed 75 CFLE approved academic programs, in part or full. While all the programs feature an internship or its equivalent, many also incorporate service learning or community engagement in at least one additional course. It varies as to which Content Area these courses fall within. In my view, service learning/community engagement approaches COULD BE appropriate for any CFLE Content Area. For readers who wish to know more about this teaching-learning strategy, a quick review of the literature, including online, will reveal considerable consensus regarding definitions, models, and potential benefits for the various parties involved. Service learning/community engagement has the potential to maximize adult learning, but with one caveat. It must be planned and executed well. Without a doubt, this requires time, commitment, and passion.

On my campus, a mini-grant program called Implementing Novel Service Projects in Responsible Engagement (INSPiRE) has been in place five-plus years for purposes of supporting faculty who want to incorporate service learning/community engagement into a course in a significant way. Consistently, time after time, when projects are completed, INSPiRE recipients acknowledge they failed to consider a number of important design elements and, as a result, experienced an assortment of challenges, both large and small. It is with their input that I have refined the following list of best practices for infusing service learning/community engagement into programs and courses.

  1. Purpose, goals, objectives:
    1. Must match with those of institution, department, program, and course.
    2. Must be consistent with needs of community partners/collaborators.
    3. Should not compromise academic rigor.
    4. Must be articulated to and understood by all involved (faculty, students, partners).
    5. Should facilitate a final plan that encourages continued engagement after the course is concluded.
  2. Institutional connections with community partners/collaborators:
    1. Must be positive, strong, and stable.
    2. Should be reciprocal/mutual and respectful.
    3. Must be well planned and coordinated.
    4. Should be conducted with institution's good image in mind, as well as that of the community partner.
  3. Roles, responsibilities, and expectations (faculty, students, community leaders, etc.):
    1. Must be articulated well and mutually agreed upon.
    2. Students should be alerted to experiential component to course before course start-up or soon after.
    3. Allow for an opt-out alternative should a student express a legitimate concern about undertaking such experiential learning.
  4. Incentives, rewards, and recognitions: Credit/non-credit, awards, publicity, etc.:
    1. Academic credit is for the learning, not the "service." (Some paid internships exist, however.)
    2. Promoting intrinsic rewards is a wise approach.
    3. Ways to reward community partners, not just students, should be identified and put into action.
    4. Facilitating high quality, meaningful experiential learning within one's courses should be recognized in promotion and tenure processes and documents.
    5. Securing internal and external grant monies is a helpful incentive.
  5. Number of partners/sites, number of students, and processes for distributing students among the sites/partners:
    1. A ratio that is most conducive to learning and to community partner needs is best.
    2. Carefully weigh the benefits and challenges associated with allowing choice of site vs. site assignment.
    3. A means to opt-out without penalty should be provided.
    4. Avoid overloading certain popular sites.
    5. Creating, maintaining, and using a database with information about community partners and their needs; feedback about quality of experiences students have at various sites; and notations concerning problems and successes that have been experienced is a vital undertaking.
  6. Liability/safety issues and transportation needs:
    1. Must be addressed by all involved (academic institution, faculty, students, partners/sites)
    2. Common forms that should be used and kept on file include liability releases, permission slips, field trip notifications, etc.
  7. Learning activities and assignments (tasks, written work, reflections....):
    1. Must be authentic/meaningful and of manageable number.
    2. Must connect course content to "engagement" experiences.
    3. Must connect course learning outcomes to "engagement" activities.
  8. Training, supervision, monitoring, and support/assistance (for faculty, community partners, and students):
    1. Expectations must be clear and shared.
    2. Ensure adequate resources are available and used well.
    3. Meetings, seminars, and/or workshops should be offered on a regular basis.
  9. Assessment and evaluation (of student performance, faculty performance, & partner performance):
    1. Wise to conduct both formative and summative means of assessment.
    2. Tools and devices should be clear, concise, and understood by all involved.
    3. Criteria for evaluation should be known and discussed in advance.
    4. Significant outcomes should be shared with various publics via presentations, reports, and other publications.


Butin, D.W. (2010). Service-learning in theory and practice: The future of community engagement in higher education. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jacoby, B. (2015). Service-learning essentials: Questions, answers, and lessons learned. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F., & Swanson, R.A. (2012). (7th ed.). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. New York, NY: Routledge.

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