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California State University, San Marcos

Policy: Definition of a Community Service Learning Course

Community Service Learning is a structured learning experience within an academic course. The service work is directed toward the achievement of course learning objectives and also toward making meaningful contributions to the areas of need identified by the community being served.

The service activity is used to clarify, illustrate, challenge, or stimulate additional thought about the topics covered in the classroom. Written and/or oral reflection ties the service experiences to the academic content of the course and also provides students with the opportunity to develop or strengthen their awareness of the relationship between the course material and societal needs, a service ethic, and their role as citizens.

The community service could take on a variety of forms. Examples include the following:

  • Direct service to people in need
  • Policy analysis
  • Community outreach and education
  • Program assessment and improvement of community resources
  • Organization for action on social, health, safety, or environmental issues

The service activity should correspond with and must be appropriate to the student’s level of academic preparation. Activities must take place only at sites approved by the instructor and under contract with the University in accordance with University risk management procedures.

A Community Service Learning course includes:

• Explicit learning objectives and explanation in the syllabus of the role of the service experience in attaining those objectives

• Preparation in class for the service activity to increase the student’s understanding of the community context that the student will be entering, needs and issues they may encounter, standards of conduct expected of them, etc.

• Ongoing, structured, critical reflection with regular instructor feedback that ties the community experience with the academic course content, thus enhancing both

• Evaluation that is based on the quality of the student’s learning, not just the completion of certain hours of service, and a grading weight that is proportionate to the community service learning component of the course

The time allotted to the community service learning portion of the course includes the preparation and analysis time and the time for written and oral reflection as well as the actual time spent in the community. While typically, the largest portion of time in community service learning would be in the service activity, time allotted for ongoing critical reflection should be substantial as well.

The criterion used to determine whether the community service learning makes enough of a contribution to the achievement of course objective for the course to qualify for designation as a Community Service Learning course is that at least 15% of the students’ grades will be based on the community service learning portion of the course. It is suggested that the service consist of at least 20 hours of direct academically relevant community service.

Procedure: Recognition of Existing Courses

If all sections of an existing course will meet the definition given above, then the department chair (or program director, or associate dean) should submit a brief memo to that effect to the Catalog and Curriculum Coordinator in the Office of Academic Programs so that the courses can be so coded at the course level.

If some sections, but not all sections, of a course will meet the definition, then the department chair (or program director, or associate dean) should identify the community service learning section(s) to the Academic Schedule and Space Coordinator in the Office of Academic Programs when the class schedule is under construction.

Recommendation: Creating Companions to Existing Courses

There are situations where it may be desirable to create a community service learning course that would operate in tandem with, and supplement another course (referred to here as the “primary” course) which may or may not itself be a community service learning course. This recommendation suggests how such a companion CSL course might be used to reinforce the academic material and learning objectives in the primary established course. If the primary course did not already have a community service learning component, then the companion CSL course would offer the additional learning strategy of community service learning, and if the primary course did already include community service learning, then the companion course would provide an opportunity to increase the quantity of the community service learning.

The proposal for a CSL companion course should specify that the primary course is a co-requisite. When both the primary and companion courses are offered, students registering for the primary course would have the option of also registering for the CSL companion course, in which they would participate in community service learning (or in additional community service learning) and the reflection activity associated with the service experience or the additional service experience. For instance, there could be a primary course called XYZ 350 carrying 3 units of credit, and a community service learning companion course called XYZ 350C, carrying an additional unit of credit; students could register for either XYZ 350 alone, or the pair: XYZ 350 and XYZ 350C.

Like other service learning courses, the companion CSL course syllabus would explicitly integrate the role of the service activity in attaining the overall primary course objectives. The course would include preparation for entry into the service; ongoing structured critical reflection with instructor feedback to tie the service experience to the academic course content; and evaluation that is based on the quality of the student’s learning and not just the completion of certain hours of service. In the case where there was no community service learning in the primary course, the CSL companion course might include in-class time as well as in-the-community time, in order to include the necessary preparation and reflection. If, however, the established, primary course is also a community service learning course with in-class reflection, it is possible that the companion course might consist primarily of additional service hours with which to deepen the student’s experience. It would be important, however, to ensure sufficient student reflection and feedback and enough contact to support the students with their increased community involvement. A one-unit CSL companion course should include 45 hours of direct academically relevant community service.

Content Contact:
Judy Botelho
(562) 951-4749
Technical Contact:

Last Updated: April 29, 2008