Service Learning: Accessible Opportunities for Meeting Student and Community Need
Posted on: 14 September 2020
Student Hubs began delivering Service Learning in 2017, working with our university partner Kingston University to create an in-curricular programme of community-based learning within undergraduate degree programmes which brought together academics, students, and community partners. Service Learning provides a unique opportunity for students to apply their classroom learning into the real-world. This is achieved through students engaging with projects and briefs sourced by Student Hubs and co-designed with local charities and social enterprises, who we call our community partners.
In this blog, we will focus on the response and engagement we have seen from students and community partners in our delivery of Service Learning. If you are interested in an in-depth look at how we scaled this programme originally and how academics have engaged with it, see our first Service Learning blog here.
Service Learning – a student perspective
At Student Hubs, we have thirteen years of experience delivering programmes for students in universities. Prior to Service Learning’s introduction to our offer in 2017, all of our programmes were extracurricular, and we recognised that in order to increase the accessibility of our student social action opportunities, in-curricular initiatives were a proven way to facilitate far wider impact and engagement.
There are many reasons why students do not engage in extracurricular activities, and at Kingston Hub, our focus has always been on reaching access funded students who are likely to have the most barriers in accessing extracurricular programmes. By bringing our community-based projects into the classroom, we would be able to reach students who would never have otherwise engaged with our services. Our students identified this too: in our 2019-20 feedback, 88% of students reported ‘no’ or ‘not sure’ when asked if they would have sought out a similar opportunity if Service Learning was not embedded in their course.
Our former Kingston Hub Programme Manager, Annie Yonkers, also agrees with this. As an undergraduate student in the US, she had the opportunity to engage in community-based learning firsthand, and in her role as a Student Hubs staff member across the 2019-20 academic year delivering Service Learning, she saw the impact the programme had on Kingston University’s students.
In summarising her view of student engagement with the programme, Annie said: “I think the most important element of Service Learning is that students genuinely care about the work they do when they feel [that their] ideas actually matter and might make a positive impact beyond their mark. [This is] especially [true] with students who may come from non-traditional backgrounds or those who haven’t historically excelled in traditional academic environments. This practical application to learning provides a different environment which can enhance inclusion and engagement, while also pushing ‘traditional’ students out of their comfort zones. [Service Learning] creates an environment that empowers a broader range of students, bringing their confidence outside the classroom, which starts to pave the way for much longer term benefits in how they see themselves and their own relationships with learning, working, and civic engagement beyond their time at university.”
There is also the important component of skills which students develop through these assessed and accredited modules. Project and stakeholder management, communication, critical thinking and practical application of theoretical knowledge are explicit benefits of Service Learning and are integral skills for today’s working environment. These skills can be difficult to develop in a traditional classroom environment and community-based learning provides a unique opportunity for employability and skill development in student cohorts.
When we asked students about what they enjoyed in their Service Learning programme, their varied responses shows the diverse impact that an embedded in-curriculum social action programme can have. Students reported various aspects, from real-world learning to community impact: “[Service Learning] allowed me to apply many theories to the real world”; “[I enjoyed] learning about the issues in the community and felt that I was putting my knowledge to use to help the community and future projects,”; and “I learnt some good employability skills that will be useful to me in future. It was fun to be able to apply my knowledge in a business setting.”
In addition, one of our students summarised Service Learning with the following statement: “Overall, I think Service Learning itself was a great experience. I was able to gain presentation skills, [learn] how to professionally interact with an organisation, and how to present psychology research and theory to an audience. I really enjoyed this experience and would very much like to be a part of it again!”
In a time where knowledge exchange is one of the leading ways universities can re-engage and support communities rebuilding from the impact of Covid-19, in-curricular delivery provides an innovative approach to universities being civic institutions. It does this by providing real-world examples of academic practice, developing students’ employability skills, and building their confidence and connections to the local community.
Service Learning – a community perspective
When we focus on the civic aspect of Service Learning, there are also large benefits for the community and how they engage with their local universities.
At Student Hubs, our theory of change means that all of our programmes are developed with a double benefit model at their core. In order to be launched, all programmes we deliver have to benefit both students and the community. Through Service Learning, our focus on community-based learning serves as the vehicle through which we can engage students, academics and locally impactful organisations.
At Kingston Hub, we work and collaborate with many small to medium-sized community partners, such as charities and social enterprises, that tackle a range of different social issues. Many of our partners have limited capacity and funding, which means they greatly benefit from our volunteering projects and being able to engage with students that have the time, energy, and skills to make a positive impact. Service Learning allows the community partner to access free solutions and capacity to current challenges from students who have different perspectives and subject knowledge to offer.
For example in 2019-20, Kingston Hub worked with Psychology to support a community partner who was interested in gaining psychological understanding and expertise to evidence the necessity of their interventions. The students involved were able to see how their discipline can be applied to a real-world scenario and the community partner benefited from gaining subject specific knowledge which added capacity to their team and provided them with data and academic theories that they could use in funding bids and reports.
When asked about the impact she had seen in our Service Learning community partners, our former Programmes Manager, Clara Johnston, commented: “In my experience, one of the greatest benefits of Service Learning for the community partner is that they gain different perspectives and insights from students from a range of backgrounds and who have different life experiences and expertise. On many occasions through[out] this programme students have suggested ideas which organisations may have not originally considered without their input. It allows for ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking and enables the partner to gain an outside perspective in order to properly understand their influence and impact. As a staff member helping to facilitate this programme, it has been extremely rewarding to see first hand the impact the students’ work has had on the growth and development of organisations.”
One of our five organisational values is to be ‘long-term’, and Service Learning helps Student Hubs and Kingston University to achieve this value in the community too. Particularly in these uncertain and difficult times, we have seen how the students’ contributions can support the community.
Most recently, one of our design projects through Service Learning was developed into a community-based programme to support young people and families through art activities during the Covid-19 lockdown. Seeing projects develop from an in-curriculum idea to a real working project highlights the long-term impact these projects can have, and provides opportunities for students’ work to be featured on local organisations’ websites, funding bids and newsletters. This is a hugely impactful opportunity both for universities to meet their civic agenda and support the local community, and for students to see the impact of their work and get recognition locally for their contribution.
At Student Hubs, we strongly believe that there is going to be an increased need for programmes such as Service Learning which serves the interests of students, universities as civic institutions, and supports local communities. In a world where the working environment and expectations of employees is changing before our eyes, universities need to understand, anticipate, and adapt to prepare their students to be agile and resilient in as many ways possible, in addition to developing the core academic skills needed to enter graduate roles.
Looking beyond the classroom and seeing how students can make a positive impact on their communities whilst simultaneously furthering their academic progression isn’t just in the best interest of the students: it’s what our communities need to adapt, innovate, and thrive in the face of change. Furthermore, if we are going to support our communities in this difficult time, students need to be active parts of the solution.
From a community perspective and speaking as a charity, we know how greatly the charity sector and social enterprises have been affected by Covid-19. These fantastic local organisations are going to be in need of more support and extra capacity to continue their work, and students provide the means, energy and ability to make this happen. But this can only happen if universities are able to provide in-curricular and extracurricular opportunities for students to engage in this work.