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Service Learning: Enhancing the UW Student Experience

Photo of a member of Badger Volunteers reviewing a writing exercise with a sixth grader during an after-school tutoring program.

The Wisconsin Idea, the principle that the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state — or, increasingly, the boundaries of the world — means that UW–Madison is committed to improving people’s lives beyond the classroom. This belief spans UW–Madison’s teaching, research, outreach and public service.

Service learning is a key part of what makes a UW–Madison education unique. More than simply volunteering or gaining job experience through an internship, it combines aspects of both while providing opportunities to reflect on what a student learns.

More importantly, service learning unites both those who are serving and those who are served to create opportunities benefiting everyone involved. The end result is larger than the sum of its parts.

“Students are connecting to the community at a time when they’re away from home,” says Nancy Mathews, director of UW–Madison’s Morgridge Center for Public Service. “Engagement with the community in an applied setting resonates; it makes [students] feel valued and needed.”

Service learning, sometimes called community-based learning, is one example of a  “high-impact practice.” These activities help students learn to synthesize information from multiple sources as they bring classroom knowledge into real-world situations — and vice versa.

“From national data, we know that service learning is the activity with the highest impact on student gains in terms of academic performance, student retention and graduation rates,” says Mathews. “When students work in a service learning capacity, they’re learning about civic knowledge, understanding empathy and contributing to the welfare of others. This is hugely important because they’re learning how to be leaders. They see the how democracy works.”

In addition to service learning opportunities in the community, many courses have service learning components built into the curriculum. UW–Madison’s service learning opportunities go above and beyond those offered elsewhere. The definition of a service learning course includes the standard that students are involved in a minimum of 25 hours of direct or project-based service work — an expectation shared by few universities.

“We’re different from a lot of places in that we truly work in a reciprocal manner with community partners; we value and honor their own knowledge in working with our students,” says Mathews.

Because of this, the Morgridge Center has been an active participant in improving the university’s academic quality. More and more, faculty and staff are working to help students recognize and build skills that will transfer to a career. In recent years, that emphasis has shifted to doing so earlier in the college process.

“I think a lot of students don’t get as much job shadowing or interviewing experience as they could,” says Emily Dickmann, assistant director of UW–Madison’s Cross-College Advising Service. “Service learning says, ‘Take what you learn and apply it — and then reflect on it.’ That’s the real learning part: the two sides of the equation.”

Internships and volunteer opportunities aren’t always accessible to all students. Taking time to explore a career or work in a meaningful activity — for no money — can be at odds with financial needs, even forcing students to choose between receiving financial aid and getting valuable experience. Service learning, on the other hand, is structured to provide academic credit. Instead of taking time away from what students learn in the classroom, it enhances it.

“Service learning allows college students to witness firsthand what’s needed in certain fields,” says Dickmann. “It’s a convenient, easy opportunity [for students] to test out different fields and see if something is right for them, all while getting academic credit. If we’re looking at it in fiscal terms, you can really get your money’s worth.”

For students who are thinking of teaching, Dickmann suggests courses such as Biology 375, in which students engage younger children in science by leading after-school science clubs. Or they can tutor children at Madison’s Vera Court Neighborhood Center through an individual-study course in Curriculum and Instruction.

“So many of these education students come right from school themselves, but what’s it like to be teaching and leading others?” asks Dickmann. “It’s not like being a student anymore; you need to see yourself in that facilitating role.”

Jessie Laurenzi, a junior majoring in rehabilitation psychology, had planned to major in kinesiology before she took Rehabilitation Psychology 300: Individuals with Disabilities. The course opened her eyes to pursuing a career in occupational therapy, assisting people in developing or maintaining daily-living skills.

As part of the course, Laurenzi worked in outpatient therapy at Meriter Hospital. Typically, she observed evaluations and played with young children who had been born prematurely or had complications during birth. Over time, she observed how a wide variety of conditions affected children’s abilities: sensory processing disorders, autism, and other physical, learning and behavioral issues.

“It’s really cool to put this to use in actual everyday life, working with people, instead of things you learn in a lab,” she says.

Because of the connections Laurenzi made with staff members, she had access to many more opportunities than she might have in a classroom setting alone. “Everyone was so willing to help out and let me see other patients,” she says, noting that occupational therapists willingly talked to each other to offer Laurenzi as many opportunities as possible.

This fall, UW–Madison offered 43 service learning courses, with 1,459 students — or about 5 percent of undergraduates — taking part. Mathews estimates that they will contribute 72,950 hours of service to the community, valued at $1.6 million.

The Morgridge Center is prioritizing an effort to increase the number of service learning courses, helping more faculty weave service into their teaching. Parents can encourage their students to seek out service learning opportunities, both in and outside of the classroom. The value of these experiences — to students, instructors, and the people they serve — is great.

Mathews, and many others across campus, hope to see the adoption of service learning as a standard in every department. Its value — to students, instructors and the people they serve — is clear.

“Let’s get out there, share what we’re learning — and also study our state and our community,” says Dickmann. “It matters, and it counts.”

—Susannah Brooks