When the Community and the Classroom Collide: Service-Learning at NIU

college student reads book to children

This article is guest-authored by Renique Kersh and Michaela Holtz from the Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning, and Destiny McDonald from Student Involvement and Leadership Development. We are grateful that they have shared their expertise on Service Learning for our blog and spring 2016 newsletter!

Service Learning, as a practice, “deliberately integrates community service activities with educational objectives” (Bringle & Hatcher, 1990, p. 180). As a transformative learning pedagogy, service learning, uniquely combines student learning, perspective shifting and meaning making. The process of meaning making, for students, is important as it causes critical shifts in schema. At its root, meaning making assumes that students better understand how they fit into the world around them. Service learning experiences enhance this process and encourage a sense of social and civic responsibility. Student engagement in quality service learning experiences challenges their assumptions, ignites their moral compass and disrupts prior knowledge.

As previously explored in the fall 2015 newsletter from the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, service learning takes many unique forms. Academic Service Learning has been defined as “a specific pedagogy that integrates academic coursework with service which meets a community-identified need.” Important to the integration of Academic Service Learning into courses is the inclusion of critical reflection, which is the venue by which students begin to unpack old knowledge and create new knowledge. This practice results in a deepening of learning. It has been hailed as a practice that promotes an “enlightened understanding” for students and emboldens clarity around social responsibility and the interweaving of the student’s experience and the experiences of those in the world around them (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999, p. 179). Other scholars suggest that critical reflection is a means by which educators can assess student learning and therefore make assumptions about depth and breadth (Molee, Henry, Sessa & McKinney-Prupis, 2010).

Further, the definition of Academic Service Learning includes a reference to meeting a “community-identified” need. This suggests that incorporating these activities into courses cannot be one-sided and must include the thoughtful cooperation of community partners. This highlights the need for university collaborators to be reminded of the importance of the reciprocal relationship and collaborative problem solving (Bringle and Hatcher, 2002). There are a number of other important things to consider when coordinating service learning activities, which may pose challenges for community partners. These challenges include the lack of training for students engaged in these experiences and the impact that this may have on community organization’s ability to meet their identified mission. Other challenges include student’s level of interest, communication and sporadic schedules (Smith-Budhai, 2013).

Another important consideration for faculty interested in utilizing Academic Service Learning is how its use can be influential in the process of tenure and promotion. Institutions like Colorado State University provide faculty with guidelines for how to articulate the curricular impact of Academic Service Learning in the tenure and promotion dossier. The National Review Board for the Scholarship of Engagement confirms the importance of pedagogies like Academic Service Learning noting the importance of strategies that “engage faculty in academically relevant work that simultaneously meets campus mission and goals as well as community needs”.  Although much of the research on service learning focuses on student learning outcomes, faculty-related outcomes and community partner outcomes must be considered as well.

So where do you go from here? The Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning in partnership with the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, invite you to learn more about Academic Service Learning, community partner expectations, the use of critical reflection and considerations for tenure and promotion at the upcoming Service Learning Institute titled “When the Community and the Classroom Collide: Service Learning at NIU” on May 18, 2016, from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. This fully online institute will be easily accessible from any location and will include a keynote from service learning expert, Dr. Patrick Green of Loyola University in Chicago. At the close of the institute, participants will have an opportunity to learn about a new Faculty Fellows program scheduled to launch in the summer of 2016! The Faculty Fellows program creates a learning collaborative in which new and experienced service-learning faculty deepen their knowledge and share best practices. In addition, selected Faculty Fellows will receive a small stipend to support professional development and the integration of service learning pedagogy into new and existing courses.

We look forward to having you join us!



Bringle, R. G., & Hatcher, J. A. (1990). Reflection in Service Learning: Making Meaning or Experience. Educational Horizons, 179.

Bringle, R. G., & Hatcher, J. A. (2002). Campus–community partnerships: The terms of engagement. Journal of Social Issues, 58(3), 503-516.

Gerstenblatt, P.  (2014). Community as agency: Community partner experiences with service learning. Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship, 7(2). Retreived from http://jces.ua.edu/community-as-agency-community-partner-experiences-with-service-learning/

Smith Budhai, S. (2013). Two sides to every story: Exploring community partners’ perspective of their service learning experiences. Journal for Civic Commitment, 20, 1-13.

Mezirow, J. (1990). How critical reflection triggers transformative learning. Fostering critical reflection in adulthood, 1-20.

Molee, L. M., Henry, M. E., Sessa, V. I., & McKinney-Prupis, E. R. (2010). Assessing learning in service-learning courses through critical reflection.Journal of Experiential Education, 33(3), 239-257.

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Scheduled NIU Blackboard Outage – May 24-25, 2014

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See What's Better

A significant upgrade is scheduled to be performed to the Blackboard Learn System over Memorial Day Weekend. The upgrade will begin at 5:00 AM on Saturday, May 24, 2014 and will complete by 5:00 AM on Sunday, May 25, 2014. The Blackboard Learn System (http://webcourses.niu.edu) will be UNAVAILABLE during this time.

The latest version of Blackboard Learn, 9.1 Service Pack 14 (SP14), will introduce several new exciting features, including:

  • Quick Links: Improved navigation experience for keyboard-only users.
  • Date Management: Seamlessly “shift” content and dates in a course following a course copy.
  • Achievements: Add excitement and recognition to courses by offering badges and certificates for course progress.
  • Test Exceptions: Use Text Exceptions to define customized delivery settings for specific students or groups, such as number of attempts, timer, auto submit, etc.
  • Group Management – Enhancement: Easily manage multiple groups, create Grade Center Smart Views, and more.
  • Inline Assignment Grading – Enhancement: Grading just got even easier with new full screen mode. Inline grading is now also available for Blogs, Journals, and Discussion Boards..
  • Grade Center – Enhancement: Adjust total points possible for a test, use values greater than 100% for grading schemas, and more.
  • My Grades – Enhancement: New inline feedback and custom re-ordering options for students.
  • Course Message Notification: Course messaging notifications are now integrated into Notification Dashboard and My Blackboard.
  • Blackboard Collaborate – Enhancement: Schedule sessions with simplified settings or use permanent rooms for each course and faculty/instructor

To learn more about the upcoming features, please visit www.niu.edu/blackboard/upgrade

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact the ITS Helpdesk at 815-753-8100 or helpdesk@niu.edu.

Teaching for Student Retention

woman teaching classFinancial needs, family issues, and personal adjustment can impact student retention at universities across the nation. Moreover, academic factors such as curriculum design, teaching methods, and academic advising can have a considerable impact on why a student will or will not stay in a particular course, major, or the university. To help increase student retention, you can implement specific classroom techniques to engage students and intrinsically motivate them to stay in class. You can also design your courses to better help students retain course concepts and perform better on assessment activities. The following are some strategies you can use to address student retention.

Course Preparation
Preparing for a course from the perspective of student retention involves identifying the learning needs of your students. Recognizing students who may be at risk or struggling academically can help you develop strategies to help students succeed.

  • Get to know your students’ needs and potential academic challenges they may have by conducting a brief survey at the beginning of the semester. This survey can be conducted in Blackboard or by using index cards in which you ask students to provide responses to some basic questions: How many credit hours are you enrolled in this semester? Are you a transfer student? Is this your first semester at NIU? Other questions that can help you get a better feel for who your students are include those asking about students’ study habits, how they prefer to learn, their test taking strategies, and commitments such as work, family responsibilities, athletics, or if they commute to campus.
  • Prepare your course content in a variety of ways. Use Blackboard to post lectures, course notes, and study guides. Create or find open education resources to augment difficult course content such as video-taped lectures, simulations, and tutorials students can use to review outside of class.

Course Design Considerations
A number of strategies and models are available to help you design your course. There are certain aspects of course design, however, that require additional consideration from the perspective of teaching for student retention.

  • Design your course syllabus to include welcoming language and statements that motivate and encourage student success rather than focusing only on penalties for absences, late work submission, and plagiarism.
  • Review course pre-requisites, vocabulary, and concepts the first week of the semester to ensure all students begin at the same level. Assign homework on necessary topics to prepare students adequately for the course.
  • Make course assessments authentic. Students are more motivated to learn and do well when presented with course activities that relate to real world experiences. “Valuable” learning experiences are those which students can relate to and use when they enter the work world. Make assessments meaningful so both you and your students know that they have done well and performed like an expert in the field.
  • Ask for formative feedback from your students. Formative feedback helps students know how well they are doing and whether or not they are meeting course goals. Formative feedback can also inform you on your teaching. For example, at the end of a lecture or class period, give students a set of questions that ask them: What was the best part of today’s lecture? What was the muddiest point of today’s class? What could you do differently to help with your own learning in this class? Acting on the feedback you collect from students will tell them that you value their input and are willing to address any suggestions they might share.
  • Use success markers to track at-risk students. Examples of course success markers are class attendance, demonstration of comprehending particular concepts, timely submission of assignments, and performance in key course activities. Using Blackboard’s tracking feature, clickers (personal response systems), or other mechanisms can help simplify the tracking process. Students who are identified as not satisfying established success markers can meet with you during office hours where they can receive necessary advice and or assistance.

Course Delivery
Effective course delivery is dependent on positive communication, clarity in instructions, and patience in responding to students’ questions. Students may decide within the first few class periods whether or not to stay in a course based on their perceptions of and/or interactions with their instructors.

  • Create a positive learning environment by taking the time to learn students’ names and interact with them before, during, and after class.
  • Provide students the opportunity to interact in the classroom. Encourage students to engage in class discussions by welcoming them to share their ideas and experiences.
  • Convey your expertise and passion for teaching. Students will respond to your excitement and interest in the subject matter.
  • Draw connections between topics and point out the relevance of content to students and the real-world. Students are more likely to come to class and engage with content they fine meaningful, useful, and timely.
  • Deliver course content using a variety of means to accommodate the different learning preferences of your students. For example, use focused lectures to relay detailed course content, class discussion to recall readings and homework assignments, group work to encourage critical thinking and leadership skills, and technology to extend class time for online discussions, promote communication skills, and reviews.

Course Activities
Careful balancing of high-stakes and low-stakes course activities and designing course activities that allow multiple forms of expression can accommodate students with diverse skills and abilities. In-class, out-of-class, and online activities help to develop a sense of community, collaboration, and support among students, all which can enhance student retention.

  • Include class activities to give students the opportunity to apply what they are learning to real-life situations such as case studies, scenarios, and problem-based projects.
  • Be clear and concise when explaining how to complete assignments. If assignment directions are not clear, students may be less successful in completing activities.
  • Offer frequent quizzes and assignments to help students receive regular feedback on their course performance and recognize what to improve before major tests or exams.
  • Be patient when students ask questions about exams and grades. Recognize that students often ask these questions due to anxiety about succeeding in the course and the need to prioritize the time spent on multiple courses as well as outside responsibilities.
  • Encourage students to use support services such as the University Libraries, NIU Writing Center, and department- and college-level tutoring services to complete particular course activities. These facilities will help students receive additional assistance and become familiar with academic support services.

Much of what has been presented in this article is essential for learner-centered teaching. Through thoughtful course preparation, design, delivery, and course activities, you can address the learning needs of all students, which in turn can help to promote student retention.

In addition to the suggestions offered here, there are some features in Blackboard that can impact student success and retention by creating a stronger community in the classroom and identifying potential problems early. Learn more in our upcoming online workshop on September 19 from 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM, CST. NIU Faculty, Instructors, Staff, and Teaching Assistants can register here

Center Staff Member Receives Conference Award

Stephanie Richter delivering presentationStephanie Richter, Assistant Director of the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, recently attended the 2014 International Conference on Educational and Informational Technology where she presented the paper Preparing Faculty for Teaching a MOOC: Recommendations from Research and Experience, which she co-authored with Murali Krishnamurthi, Associate Provost for Academic Technologies and Faculty Development.

Being accepted to present was a significant recognition as only 27% of submissions were accepted. In addition, Richter received the Best Presentation award for delivering an exceptional presentation. Only two presenters at the conference received the Best Presentation award.

The paper will be published in the October 2014 volume of the International Journal of Information and Education Technology.

Center Staff Share Teaching Best Practices with Chinese Faculty Visiting NIU

In a partnership with the Division of International Affairs and the International Training Office, Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center staff offered two hands-on workshops for a delegation of eleven Chinese faculty from Chongqing University of Posts and Telecommunications and Shanxi Agricultural University who visited NIU February 23 – March 8, 2014 as part of the NIU Winter Camp 2014, Understanding American Culture and Higher Education. During their two-week visit, the faculty delegation along with thirty-eight Chinese students from their respective Chinese institutions were immersed in Midwestern culture, engaged with NIU faculty, staff, and administrators, and experienced a taste of higher education in the United States.

Chinese Faculty Delegation Spring 2014

Chinese faculty with Center staff following hands-on training workshop on February 28, 2014

During the hands-on workshops led by Center staff, the Chinese faculty explored teaching best practices using a learning management system as well as learned tips for searching for and incorporating open educational resources in their teaching. Faculty were introduced to free and easy-to-use Web-based tools that they could immediately incorporate into their teaching. Many of the faculty participants expressed their appreciation for the sessions, commenting on how helpful the sessions were in not only better understanding current American teaching practices but also in introducing new pedagogies and technologies that could benefit their students back in China.

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