Required vs. Optional Service Learning

Service learning can be required or optional in a class.  If service learning is required, students must satisfactorily complete the service learning component in order to pass the class.  If service learning is optional, students may choose a non-service learning alternative.  The non-service learning alternative is usually another assignment, such as a paper, project, presentation or test.  SL and non-SL options should be approximately equivalent in terms of time and effort.  Professors decide whether service learning will be required or optional in a class. This decision must be made prior to course designation.


Course Design Tips for Professors

Professors should choose the service learning arrangement that works best for each class.  No two classes are alike, but it may help to consider the following:

Pros of REQUIRING service learning:

  • Professors can teach to the service learning more directly and more frequently, incorporating it into lectures, discussions, and writing assignments.
  • Service learning becomes more central to the class.
  • There is no need to create an equivalent non-service learning option.

Cons of REQUIRING service learning:

  • There are always students with special needs, extenuating circumstances, or complicated schedules.  These students may require alternative arrangements anyway.
  • Some students may simply be non-compliant.  The consequences and penalties for not completing a required service learning component need to be clear and communicated in advance. These students also take a toll on community partners.
  • Some students may approach service activities as a reluctant chore, rather than with enthusiasm and motivation.  Students who are resistant may do more harm than good in the community.

Pros of making service learning OPTIONAL:

  • Students with complicated schedules, extenuating circumstances, or special needs can simply choose the non-service learning alternative at the outset, making the class experience smoother for them.
  • Students who resist service learning are not foisted on the community.
  • Students who autonomously choose the service learning option are likelier to make better volunteers, approaching the work with enthusiasm and motivation.

Cons of making service learning OPTIONAL:

  • It decreases a professor's ability to teach to the service learning directly and frequently. When incorporating service learning into lectures, discussions, and writing assignments, students pursuing the non-service learning option may feel lost or left out.
  • Service learning may become peripheral or marginal to the class and students may wonder why it's included.
  • Planning can be more difficult for community partners because of uncertainties about the number of students who will opt into service learning.
  • Professors may end up running two parallel courses, one for service learners and one for non-service learners.
  • Professors must create SL and non-service learning options which are approximately equivalent in terms of time and effort.