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Faculty FAQ

Getting Started: An Introduction to Community Engagement and Service Learning at CSULA

"Institutions of higher education should help students to recognize themselves as members of a larger social fabric, to consider social problems to be at least partly their own, to see the civic dimensions of issues, to make and justify informed civic judgments, and to take action when appropriate."

(Thomas Ehrlich, "Civic Engagement," Measuring Up 2000: A State-By-State Report Card for Higher Education

The Office of Community Engagement also maintains an overview of risk management issues related to community engagement and service-learning. Click here to view the overview and FAQs about risk management.



What is community engagement? What is service learning?

How does community engagement support the mission of Cal State L.A.?

Why might I want to incorporate community engagement and service learning into my teaching and research?

I would like to teach a service learning course. What should I do?

How will students know that my course includes service learning?

How should I choose a community partner?

How many agencies should I send my students to?

How does service learning differ from intern and volunteer experiences?

How do I grade my students on the service learning experience?



What is community engagement? What is service learning? (return to questions)

Community Engagement "describes the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity." Service learning is a pedagogy that supports the broader goals of community engagement. Cal State L.A.’s faculty handbook defines service learning as "a pedagogical model that links course content with a community service component that is designed to address the needs identified by the community whether local or global" (The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching), (

How does community engagement support the mission of Cal State L.A.? (return to questions)

Cal State L.A. supports community engagement in several areas. It has a distinguished record of community service, a historic student volunteer program, and a wide range of service learning courses. These accomplishments affirm Cal State L.A.’s mission as a university that serves as “a gateway” for “the greater Los Angeles community and the world community for shared educational and cultural life” and prepares “students to appreciate, engage, enhance and transform the social, cultural, civic, and workplace structures of American and global societies.”

Why might I want to incorporate community engagement and service learning into my teaching and research? (return to questions)

Community engagement and service learning foster deeper levels of student engagement. When faculty involve students in community engagement and service learning, students have an opportunity to contextualize what they are learning in class and to think about its relevance in the context of the community. Community engagement also benefits faculty and affects the way they approach their professional development and research. Ellen Cushman has argued that when faculty become involved in community-based learning, they make valuable contributions as public intellectuals. “When public intellectuals reach outside the university, but actually interact with the public beyond its walls, they overcome the ivory tower isolation that marks so much current intellectual work. They create knowledge with those whom the knowledge serves. Dovetailing the traditionally separate duties of research, teaching, and service, public intellectuals can . . .forward the goals of both students and local community members. In so doing, they extend access to the university to a wider community.” (Ellen Cushman, “Service-Learning, the Public Intellectual, and Activist Research,” College English 61.3 (1999) 328-66)

I would like to teach a service learning course. What should I do? (return to questions)

Review the list of currently approved service learning courses and speak with your department chair about teaching one of these courses the next time it is offered. If you would like to include a service learning option in a course that is not currently an approved service learning course, consult with our office to make sure that it meets the service learning criteria and follows the established risk management guidelines.

How will students know that my course includes service learning? (return to questions)

Service learning sections are noted in two places in the Schedule of Classes. Service learning has its own page listing quarterly offerings. Additionally, departmental listings include notations alongside designated service learning courses. As soon as faculty know they are interested in teaching a service learning course, they should notify our office and their department chair. We will see that the section is appropriately designated in the Schedule of Classes.

How should I choose a community partner? (return to questions)

Partnerships are the key to successful service learning, community-based participatory research, and other forms of community-based pedagogy and research. It’s always a good idea to consider working with agencies you already know and whose mission you respect. If you have identified an agency, contact our office to see if they have signed a service learning agreement with Cal State L.A.; if not, we can negotiate with them to create one. If you don’t have any particular agency in mind, we can help you identify appropriate placements for your discipline. After you and our office have identified a few potential agencies, we recommend you meet with them, discuss your syllabus, expectations, and learning outcomes with them, and work with them to design an appropriate project or activity. Stay in touch with the community partner and save time at the end of the quarter to reflect on and assess the service learning experience from each of your perspectives.

How many agencies should I send my students to? (return to questions)

We recommend faculty send students to a small and select group of agencies they know well. It is helpful to think of the service learning placement as a course text. Most instructors would find it challenging to teach a class in which each student purchased and read a different textbook. It is similarly difficult to orchestrate a valuable learning experience when students are sent to a wide range of agencies with which faculty are not familiar. Those kinds of service experience tend to devolve into volunteerism. Successful integration of the course content and the service experience is most likely to occur when there is a common project and shared context. Research and experienced practitioners concur that meaningful partnerships are a key component of high quality service learning. Barbara Holland has identified some of the “Characteristics of Effective Partnerships”:

  • Joint exploration of goals and interests
  • Creation of a mutually rewarding agenda
  • Emphasis on positive consequences for each partner
  • Focus on knowledge exchange, shared learning
  • Attention to communication and cultivation of trust
  • Commitment to continuous assessment of the partnership itself, as well as outcomes (Barbara Holland, “Understanding and Strengthening the Community
  • Role in Service-Learning Partnerships,” Community Partners as Educational Collaborators, CSU Resource Center (

For the above reasons, it is also not a good idea to allow students to select a placement the instructor has not recommended.

How does service learning differ from intern and volunteer experiences? (return to questions)

Service learning, volunteerism, and interning have much in common. In all three cases, students are contributing their time and expertise to an organization or community. The purpose and context of each differs. For volunteers, the primary beneficiary of the activity is the agency or individuals served by the agency. For interns, the experience is valuable primarily because it provides on-the-job training for the student. When students participate in service learning, they have an opportunity to put their academic learning into action by performing service for agencies and individuals. Service learning also includes reflection exercises that allow them to make connections between course content and the community-based experience. At its best, service learning transforms the learning environment and builds bridges between the classroom and local and global communities.

How do I grade my students on the service learning experience? (return to questions)

Since students in service learning courses generally spend a significant amount of time and energy on their service, the service learning assignment should count towards a significant percentage of the final course grade. However, students should not be graded solely on their service hours or efforts. Rather, in service learning courses, students are required to reflect on their volunteer experience and demonstrate they have made meaningful connections between that experience and course content. Reflection assignments generally constitute a significant percentage of the grade for the service learning assignment.