Yes, I Know What Service Learning Is. Wait, Do I?

One element of the volunteer experience transforms it into service learning.

It’s like sustainable eating. When you know everything about the food you’re eating – where it came from and who farmed it – you are more likely to remember the meal. You’re invested in your meal. You’re a foodie!

When you know everything about your volunteer experience – who you’re helping, why the organization needs your help – you have a more fulfilling experience. Understanding the impact you are making, the skills you are learning and the knowledge you are gaining transform volunteering into service learning.

Who is responsible for facilitating the service learning reflection?

I suppose it depends on who you ask. The reality is some people are intrinsically motivated to reflect on their own experiences – volunteering or otherwise. These people will naturally have a fulfilling experience because they take the time to research the organizations they volunteer for. Research may involve internet searches or casual conversations with the staff or volunteer coordinator. In either case, they are learning about the impact they are making.

On the other hand, many volunteer coordinators take the time to educate their volunteers before, during or after a volunteer shift. Education may involve a showing a short intro video, facilitating a conversation with the organization’s clients, sharing the financial impact, or conducting formal skill training. In this later instance, volunteers are learning or fine tuning a specific skill – how to use a jig saw, how to plan a social media schedule, how to ask for donations.

Reflection is the catalyst.

Regardless of who initiates the service learning component of a volunteer experience, the key is reflection. Reflection comes in many forms. Individual volunteers may share their experience with friends and family or on social media. Volunteer coordinators may ask their volunteers to evaluate their experience through an online survey. They might also have a group discussion at the end of a shift to ask poignant questions that spark reflective conversation. Like these:

  • What is one new thing you learned today?
  • Was this experience what you expected it would be?
  • How do you think the work you completed today affects our organization?
  • If you were to tell a friend about your experience, what would you tell them?

How does Volunteer Houston approach service learning?

As a local service provider (a connector and convener of the nonprofit sector) my goal for Volunteer Houston is to intentionally facilitate a service learning experience for all our volunteer programs. I strongly believe in reinforcing the service learning component of any and all service projects. We do this by facilitating a one-hour debrief and reflection session with all Corporate Volunteer Projects and Volunteer Corps participants. Our goal is to instill a sense of lifelong service among corporate and individual volunteers that extends beyond the project and beyond the workday.

We creatively review the service learning objectives in a manner that creates a fun and safe environment in which we reflect together. Participants are asked to share thoughts on their own experiences and observations during the service project.