Building the Service-Learning Pyramid

February 17, 2009

Below are concepts and key strategies to support civic education in post-secondary institutions. The ultimate goal of this effort is to move America closer to a nation of responsible, active citizens who are fully vested in the welfare of the democracy.

The pedagogy of service-learning has spread significantly in recent years. In a 1998 survey of Campus Compact’s members, 99% of respondents reported having at least one service-learning course, up from 66% in 1993. Of the 99%, 19% had 40 or more courses, 48% had between 10 and 39 courses, and just 33% had less than 10 courses.

Although widespread, many campuses are only in the early stages of adopting the service-learning pedagogy and seek much guidance and outside expertise. Others, where service-learning has taken hold, grapple with the difficult issues of institutionalizing the practice on their campuses—issues such as redefining faculty roles and rewards and providing the necessary infrastructure. Finally, there is a small number where service-learning is widespread—campuses whose missions are inextricably bound to their civic responsibilities.

This broad range of representation, from introductory to intermediate through advanced practice, comprises what Campus Compact calls the Service-Learning Pyramid.

Introductory Level

At the base of the pyramid is the Introductory Level. Here, large numbers of campuses are experimenting with service-learning. On some campuses, there are just a few interested faculty. On others, campuses have sophisticated student service opportunities and are beginning to recognize how powerful experiences can deepen the students’ commitment and understanding. On still others, presidents have become intrigued with the pedagogy and are urging faculty to try it.

In Campus Compact’s 1998 member survey, 68% of respondents reported that no more than 10% of their faculty is using this pedagogy. Often these campuses have no designated service-learning contact person or if they do, the person is not well known. The service-learning courses at these schools are of uneven quality and many students do not even know they exist. While courses are ‘allowed to happen,’ no campus policies exist to support faculty teaching them and community involvement is on an ad hoc basis.

Intermediate Level

In the center of the pyramid lies a smaller but growing Intermediate Level. In 1998, 23% of Campus Compact campuses had 11% to 25% of their faculty conducting service-learning courses. Campuses at this level have enough courses in a variety of disciplines to begin to think of service-learning as a mainstream practice.

Here, a support system in the form of a community service center and/or a service-learning center likely exists. Just as likely is an exemplary service-learning course in more than one discipline and ‘advanced’ faculty who are showcased on campus. Usually, there is some networking and communication among practitioners on campus. A network of community members is also likely developed.

These campuses are beginning to think about issues of faculty roles and rewards, starting work with chief academic officers and department chairs, looking at student outcomes, and improving their community connections. Intermediate-level campuses are seeking disciplinary support for their faculty. In addition, these campuses are also beginning to address questions of the quality of their service-learning courses, and sometimes, are measuring community impact.

Advanced Level

At the top are the advanced level campuses. These have significant numbers of service-learning courses, and these courses are often only one of multiple strategies to promote student and campus engagement with their community. These campuses enjoy abundant support from the highest levels on the campus, pay attention to faculty roles and rewards, emphasize quality and use in every discipline, have sophisticated community involvement and defined measurable outcomes.

Campus Compact’s 1998 survey reveals that these campuses—as measured by having 25% or more of their faculty involved in service learning—show a significantly higher percentage of students engaged in service. These campuses are more likely to reward student service involvement through scholarships and loan forgiveness. Service-learning courses are more likely to be incorporated into departments, majors, and core curriculum and graduation requirements.

Building the Pyramid

By 2002, more institutions had transitioned to the intermediate and advanced levels of the Service-Learning Pyramid and more of America’s post-secondary institutions were actively and inextricably bound to their communities and to their civic responsibilities.

Campus Compact realized this vision by:

  1. Broadening and deepening institutional support for service-learning
  2. Supporting faculty practitioners at all levels of the pyramid
  3. Exploring the implication of the advanced practice of civic education, deepening the commitment of higher education, and defining the practices of a truly engaged campus.

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