Accommodating Student Time for Service-Learning

Students working on a project

Students working on a service-learning group project (Photo by T. Smith, 2009, with student consent and release)

The time students spend inside and outside of class on service-learning preparation and service is an important issue in Community Service-Learning course design.

UPDATE:  Here is the Power Point (PPT) file of the Helping Students Find Time for Service-Learning presentation for the talk given on this topic at the 2009 EngageNOW conference in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Why does it matter?

Structuring time and credit for service-learning is increasingly an issue for administrators and teachers, students and community partners :

  1. The desire of administrators to make service-learning more accessible to more students due to the community service question (and related questions) on the NSSE survey .  (The NSSE is increasingly used in public ratings of universities and internal measures of effective programming, as in the Canadian magazine Maclean’s, as seen in this 2009 Maclean’s article with a chart of university rankings.  Service-learning is categorized as a type of “Enriching educational experience”)
  2. The desire of students to integrate community-based learning and community problem-solving with academic credit-based learning,  especially when co-op and co-curricular service-learning are not convenient time commitments for most students.  Also, the simultaneous involvement of peers’ and instructors’ time makes service-learning more effective and satisfying.  Quality mutual engagement in a partnership requires the alignment of everyone’s schedules.
  3. Students’ complicated schedules and lifestyles, especially students who commute to campus and employment. This affects how many service projects they can take on, how many courses they can enroll in, time to graduation, full/part time student registration, and student anxiety/stress
  4. The necessity of making community service-learning truly beneficial to the community. It is difficult enough for community partners to schedule their staff members’ time to plan and guide service-learning. If the service project is too small and insignificant, the effort of hosting and orienting students will be too great for a busy partner.  If a project is performed very poorly because students can’t devote enough time, it will lead to disappointment for the community partner and less interest in hosting a student service project in the future.

How much time should a course take?

Working diligently

The traditional formula I find now and then online (i.e. Monash University,  and distance learning policy in South Dakota ) is that a full time course load is 40h/week distributed among 5 courses per 4 month semester, or alternatively calculated, 1 to 1.5 hours out of class for every hour in class. That means about 6-8 hours of time per course, on average, for a course with 3h/week of class time (presuming that the student has the prerequisite knowledge and skills).

Academics are naturally reluctant to reduce course workload expectations from what they were in the 1980s just because students’ lifestyles demand it today.   Teachers expect students to reduce their course load to fit post-secondary learning within a busy schedule.  This average expectation of a course’s time frame, therefore, is not likely to change.


PPT Slide background image:
•Juganue. (2009). Clock texture. [Background image] deviantART. Retrieved September 27, 2009 from

How many hours of “service”?

Most discussions of service learning best practice involve estimates of how much time it should take students to engage in service projects and/or perform the associated academic assignments (i.e. reflection papers, progress reports, research reports).  Some say 40 hours per course per term, some say 12 per course per term.  In reality the # of hours should depend on the type of service-learning (some types can’t easily be downsized), the nature of course(s) into which service-learning is integrated, and the time requirements for the project.

Overview: 4 solutions

  1. Embed CSL within a “normal” course’s time budget
  2. Partial integration: CSL in and beyond the course (for extra credit)
  3. Directed study courses for CSL (usually with the same teacher; the directed study may be concurrent or subsequent to the “normal” course)
  4. Learning Communities (students co-enroll in 2 or more courses, one of which is a CSL course)

Solution #1. Keeping time expectations within the “norm”

It is not “fair” to a student for a teacher to “expect” the average student to spend 2x as much time in a course than another course they are taking, if they are equal in “credit hours.”

Therefore, fitting a service-learning project into the normal “frame” of a 3-credit 4-month course usually means

  • Allocating some registrar-scheduled class time for students’ service. This is essential if they are group projects because student schedules make it very difficult for them to find time to meet together.  This may also be accommodated by arranging with the registrar to make the course meet 4 hours / week instead of the standard 3h / week.
  • Downsizing & simplifying the service time expectations to keep it manageable for students.
  • Cutting down traditional academic content of the course to make room for learning through service.  This treats service time as equal in value to reading and studying course concepts.
  • Integrating some academic readings with the service assignment, giving them the knowledge they need to do that specific project or activity (sometimes the students or community partners discover these readings).
  • Adjusting assignments/exams to demonstrate the outcomes of learning obtained through service so that the time spent on assignments is also integrated with service-learning.
  • Telling students in advance that service is part of the course.  (this may be in the course description, but if not, email students).  They may need to plan ahead for their schedule to allow for flexibility.  Or they may want to take the course in a term when their other courses are likely to be less demanding.


Making room both in class & beyond

In what situations could service time go beyond the norm for a course?

  • Maybe the course’s intellectual content and assignments cannot be downsized or adapted because it is a prerequisite or requirement.  For various reasons it may be the case that service-learning is “added” to the course more than it is integrated.
  • Maybe the course is well designed with service within the normal expectations of a course, BUT  student passion and/or the ethic of providing quality community outcomes will cause students to learn, read, and experience more in order to perform better on their assignment. Even if students are not explicitly required/expected to spend X number of hours on service-learning projects and activities, students often become very passionate learners and often feel responsible to do their very best work no matter what the cost to their other commitments.

But isn’t this second type of excess really “volunteerism”??  (I hear someone ask. )


No, “Curricular” Service-learning (within credit courses) is NOT like volunteerism because it is done for academic credit,  is often required within a course, and the course itself may be required within the program.

Volunteering means putting in extra hours (outside of a credit course, outside of paid work) to serve the community, not putting in extra hours to perform one’s service-learning project in a course.  A volunteer can always “drop out” if their life becomes too complicated.  A service-learning student cannot drop out without economic and time costs, which can be quite serious for low-income students.

But isn’t excess time spent learning good for the student anyway? They are getting more learning out of their tuition.


Of course, “excess” learning can be a win-win for the student and others involved.  It is a good thing for the quality and quantity of learning, and for the community organization’s benefit, and good for the reputation and ongoing partnership between university and community.

But excess time, even if it’s partly the student’s choice to work harder and earn an A rather than a C,  takes its toll.  They may spend less time on other courses being taken in the same semester.  They may blame the teacher or institution for unreasonable expectations, projecting their own demands onto them.

At the end of the course, the student sometimes looks back and thinks something like this:

I couldn’t have learned so much and produced such quality work for the community without spending that time. Too bad it was only worth 3 credits. Or too bad I didn’t know in advance and only take 4 courses rather than 5 in that term. I should have been cautioned, or should be given extra credits because I worked and learned as much as I did in two normal courses”

— Such tensions MAY appear in course evaluations, students’ stress and anxiety, and the student’s sense of satisfaction with their degree.

Quantity of work above and beyond is compensated in our world.  In employment situations, when a worker performs “voluntary” overtime, it may be cheap for the employer, but may be costly for the worker’s health.  Voluntary overtime, when it is done secretly, can also make it appear to bosses as if more work can be expected by a normal employee than is really the case, thereby increasing expectations for everyone in that position. Of course, school is different from work, but the comparison helps to illustrate the issue. We compensate expectations of student learning effort with credits, but not necessarily with grades.

We did it!

We did it!

Beyond the internal structuring of a course (as mentioned in #1), there are ways of changing the structure of credits and course scheduling.

Excess/unexpected time spent in service-learning will always be a concern even if service is structured within a course’s expected hours.

Solution #2. Extra credit hours


When integrating with or adding CSL to a normal course, some institutions even offer 1 additional credit hour to account for the extra time and effort needed for rigorous CSL, for example, at Missouri State University and Georgetown University center for social justice, and  Miami University, the latter of which includes policies, procedures and a form to fill out.  (There are also other institutions, not listed here)

The benefits are that

a) this allows students and teachers the flexibility to add an optional CSL project to a course, or to go “slightly” above and beyond, without doubling the workload, and

b) some policies/procedures put the onus on the student to collect verifiable proof that the extra credit is warranted.

The challenges are primarily logistical (registrar, etc.) and in obtaining approval for policies via academic governing bodies.


Solution #3. Directed study course

Create a directed study course that houses the service-learning, and run it concurrently with the academic course that supports the service-learning, or in the following semester.

This way you can “add” a service-learning component and make it optional, so that only some students elect to take the service-learning option. You can even require that students apply for the directed study course so that the same teacher teaches both.  The enrollment can be small (1 student) or large (20 students) depending on whether this course is extra to the teacher’s workload, or integrated within it.


A concurrent directed study course works especially well when students and teachers know in advance that a project will require them to do more work than normally fits within a course.

It also works well when part of the service involves taking on a leadership or “community liaison” role for students in the “regular” course to which the independent study is linked.

A subsequent directed study course works well when students would like to continue their service-learning project after the course is over and take it to the next level, ensuring greater learning as well as a more significant outcome for the community partner.  Sometimes the outcomes can be substantial, resulting in public presentations, news articles, funds raised for the organization by the students, or websites created.

The challenges of this model are that

a) directed study courses are usually extra-to-load for teachers, so it needs to fit within their overall professional goals and rewards, and

b) it takes extra planning and preparation to create this second course and fill it with the right students.


Solution # 4. Linked courses or “learning communities”

Another option is to “link” two simultaneous courses together so that there is enough time to integrate academic learning and service-learning. This is often done in “learning communities” where a cohort of students is invited to co-enroll in 2-3 courses together on a certain theme, and a lecture/reading course fits with the themes or setting of projects in a service-learning course.

This is described in this document on Arizona State University’s program, under “Program Mission”:

“The Program is based on the concept of reciprocal learning. Service-learning sections of regular courses are linked to credit-bearing semester-long internships or course-embedded projects where students apply classroom knowledge in the community–and infuse the classroom with their community learning. All students participate twice weekly in computer-mediated, instructor-led discussions that assist them in placing their community experiences into the context of broad community issues.”


For more information about my involvement in Community Service-Learning, see this page in my professional website.


3 thoughts on “Accommodating Student Time for Service-Learning

  1. At the community college where I teach, the faculty teaching in the Human Services program met as a team and decided on 1/2 day per week for Service Learning and built that into the schedule (Weds. mornings). We integrated the learning outcomes (and distributed the marks) from 2-3 courses into the service learning project and reduced the face-to-face classroom time accordingly. It seemed to work for the students. There was enough flexibility to allow students to do their service time whenever it suited them and the organization but the time was allocated in the schedule. The time block also provided faculty with time to spend on assessment, mentoring and developing relationships with partners. This model might not work as well in University unless there is a cohort of students following the same pathway of courses at the same time, but it worked for us. I really enjoyed reading what you have put together thus far and looking forward to more.
    Nancy O’Regan
    Curriculum Consultant for Service Learning
    Nova Scotia Community College

    Seems to work for us.

  2. Thanks very much Nancy~! That certainly does show the power of going toward a large structural solution, my #3 option. It sounds like a wonderful program.

  3. I love working with students, and of course our T.U. students but I do become frustrated when a professor says they need to spend 10 hours in service with us providing some kind of direct care AND the agency must be a 501 C-3- AND they can’t be a part of “fundraising” efforts AND students time is usually limited to the weekends. This makes placement extremely difficult if not impossible considering that many non profit’s are not going to be able to allow a student to provide direct care to anyone without proper training and some level of commitment (beyond 10 hours), most agenices like mine are not open on the weekend,
    so soup kitchens and food pantries are the most likely option- Agencies like mine need students to become aware of our cause and services, but without more freedom on the part of the student, their chances of getting a placement with us are slim. That’s just sad.

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