Service-Learning & Graduate Students

Allyson P. Brantley

As an undergraduate, service-learning changed my life. I know, it sounds exaggerated and cheesy, but a summer-long immersion service experience in Tijuana, Mexico confirmed my interest in the study of the history of the United States-Mexico borderlands. My experiences as a volunteer in a migrant shelter continue to shape my academic and political interests and commitments. And now, as a graduate student and teacher, I strive to integrate service and community-based learning into my own classroom. As I’ve researched and thought about this, I’ve found vibrant conversations on the role of service-learning in higher education, as well as administrators and educators deeply committed to advancing community engagement in colleges and universities across the nation. One question remains, though: where do graduate students fit into this vision? I have struggled to integrate service-learning into discussion sections for lack of time and autonomy but, as researchers and teachers have shown, there are ways in which graduate students can include service-learning projects into sections, tutorials, and mentoring activities.

But before I try to answer that question, some background on recent discussions on service-learning:

Scholarship and interest in service-learning has boomed over the past twenty years – ranging from on-campus centers dedicated to service and community-based learning to the peer-reviewed Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (founded in 1994). Most recently, in 2012, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement published A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, a report and “call to action about how institutions of higher learning can embrace and act on their long-standing mission to educate students for informed, engaged citizenship.”[i] The report highlights research on the importance of civic, experiential, and service-learning in influencing college students’ and graduates’ commitments to diversity and civic involvement. Experiential and active learning, the Task Force argues, make better citizens. The report makes a clear and forceful case for across-the-board investment in new centers and initiatives for civic and service-learning. It also offers an alternative to online learning, advocating instead for hands-on, real-world problem solving and learning.

So what are we talking about when we talk about service-learning? And who can do it?

Service-learning integrates carefully organized service activities into academic curriculum, offering students leadership roles, hands-on experience in their communities, and intentional conversations and reflections about service experiences and social justice. Service-learning – as a form of “civic learning” – prepares students to be, well, better citizens in a democratic society.

This kind of learning can take many forms and can occur in any field. Colleges and universities across the country are integrating service-learning into course offerings and community engagement into campus life. For example, in May 2014, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education (BHE) adopted the United States’ first “civic learning policy” and the number of administrators or administrative staff focused on community engagement at universities has ballooned in the past decade.[ii]

And data shows that students are eager to engage in community service and community-based learning. Just this semester at Yale, sixty percent of 852 respondents to a survey of incoming freshmen indicated that they hoped to become involved in community service.[iii] But as A Crucible Moment warns, students drift away from community service during their college years. A 2009 survey of data from 24,000 students found that “the longer students stay in college, the wider the gap between their endorsement of social responsibility as a goal of college and their assessment of whether the institution provides opportunities for growth in this area.”[iv] The Task Force’s call to action thus centers on institutional support for service as means through which faculty might better promote service-learning and students can build connections with the communities around them.

Most discussions of service-learning and civic engagement in the classroom focus on the roles and responsibilities of administrators and faculty. So where do graduate students fit in? As teaching assistants and first-time course instructors, graduate students have unique opportunities to respond to student needs and integrate new approaches into their classrooms. Service-learning, as researchers Jonathan D. Garrison and Audrey J. Jaeger have found, enters graduate students’ pedagogies by “serendipity” – often because faculty first ask or require graduate students to integrate service activities into their discussion sections. For example, in the case of a public history course, graduate students might be responsible for chaperoning students to a local library or research facility to assist with cataloguing, as well as leading discussions that tie the service activity to learning goals and offer space for reflections.[v] Or in the case of an introductory biology course, graduate teaching assistants might help students design and teach “hands-on biology activities” for youth in local after-school programs.[vi] As Garrison and Jaeger argue, once graduate students have experience with service-learning, they are likely to intentionally integrate it into subsequent courses for professional and pedagogical reasons, seeing service-learning as important in shaping students’ motivations to learn and bringing real-life experiences to classroom discussions.[vii]

Using the resources of faculty as well as teaching and service centers like Yale’s CTL and Dwight Hall, graduate students should not shy away from integrating service-learning or community-based projects into their courses or discussion sections. Key questions to consider, however, might be: What am I hoping my students will learn? How will service-learning fit into the broader aims and learning objectives of my course? How feasible is such a project? And what impact will service-learning have on community partners and organizations? Graduate students might consider incorporating short service-learning projects into multiple section meetings, such as the creation of a database of local history resources. Longer-term projects, if so allowed by the course and instructor, could include preparing students to teach their subjects to community members and youth. I’ve included more examples and links below.

Of course, a service-learning project will always require something new, or more, of students and instructors by moving instruction and learning out of the classroom and into the community. But the benefits are many. Studies have shown that service-learning has a positive impact on learning outcomes, helping shape students’ analytical and interpersonal skills as well as their personal values and priorities. Graduate students can play an important role and, in so doing, will shape the future of service-learning.

Some Resources & Sample Projects:

Gail S. Begley, “Making Connections: Service-Learning in Introductory Cell and Molecular Biology,” Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education 14, no. 2 (2013): 213-220. (

Campus Compact (A coalition of over 1,000 colleges and universities committed community-based learning and engagement):

The Democracy Commitment (An initiative of community colleges nationwide):

Dwight Hall at Yale:

Emily E. Straus and Dawn M. Eckenrode, “Engaging Past and Present: Service-Learning in the College History Classroom,” The History Teacher 47, no. 2 (February 24): 253-266. (

The Generator School Network (A wealth of resources for service-learning, with a focus on K-12 education):

Indiana University Bloomington’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning: Service-Learning Program (Examples of service-learning courses and syllabi):

Miami University’s Office of Community Engagement and Service: “Faculty Resource Guide for Service-Learning”:

Michael P. Orleski, “Service Learning in Introductory Astronomy and Physics”:

The Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning:

The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2012), v. (


[i] The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2012), v. (

[ii] Innovations in Civic Partnership Blog, “Massachusetts Adopts Nation’s First Statewide Civic Learning Policy,” May 8, 2014 (; and Lina D. Dostilio, “New Focus on the Community Engagement Professional,” Campus Compact Blog, August 26, 2015 (

[iii] “2019 by the Numbers: First Impressions,” The Yale Daily News, August 28, 2015.

[iv] A Crucible Moment, 5.

[v] Emily E. Straus and Dawn M. Eckenrode, “Engaging Past and Present: Service-Learning in the College History Classroom,” The History Teacher 47, no. 2 (February 24): 253-266. (

[vi] Gail S. Begley, “Making Connections: Service-Learning in Introductory Cell and Molecular Biology,” Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education 14, no. 2 (2013): 213-220. (

[vii] Jonathan D. Garrison and Audrey J. Jaeger, “From Serendipity to Resolve: Graduate Student Motivations to Teach Using Service-Learning,” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (Spring 2014): 41-52.

Preparing Graduate Students to Teach: Another Yale Legacy 50+ Years Strong

In his 2013 inaugural speech, President Peter Salovey emphasized that Yale’s educational mission exists “in the midst of a teaching and learning revolution.” As the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning leads this revolution both outside of Yale and within its walls, it is appropriate to reflect on how we have trained graduate students in the past.

In 1964, the late Dr. John Perry Miller, former Yale economics professor and Dean of the Graduate School, described the challenge of graduate teaching training while writing for the Magazine of the Yale Graduate School.* Dean Miller criticized both himself and the school’s administration in their usage of graduate students as teaching assistants:

…policy concerning the use of teaching assistants is dominated, not by philosophy of education, but by considerations extraneous to educational objectives. Specifically, there seems to be a tacit conspiracy between the Graduate Dean and the central administrative officers at the expense of the true interests of the students, both undergraduate and graduate. Graduate Deans and Graduate Faculties are, too often, more concerned with recruiting and supporting graduate students than with training them in the art of teaching… Likewise, the central administrative offices, who are often trying to do more than they can do well with the available resources, are more than occasionally attracted by the budgetary advantages of using teaching assistants to staff some of the larger courses.

Currently graduate students may face a plight similar to what their predecessors faced 50 years ago; your department and/or your supervisor do not train you how to teach, but you are certainly expected to do so. However, the graduate students of today now have a proverbial “ace up their sleeve”- the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL).

The development of programs for graduate student teaching fellows has taken nearly half a century to culminate as the modernized CTL. Prior to 1964 graduate students in the sciences primarily taught laboratory sections, and it was rare for humanities and social sciences graduate students to teach at all. In 1964, Dean Miller presented a program to expand opportunities for graduate students to teach at Yale:

A new program for teaching interns made possible by a recent grant to Yale by the Danforth Foundation reflects a major reorientation of the University’s policy with respect to the training of college and university teacher the use of graduate teaching assistants. In such a program the Graduate School must reconcile its responsibilities to initiate into the art of teaching those who will constitute college and university faculties in the future with the responsibility of the College to provide excellent undergraduate instruction. A university which would fulfill its mission must assume these twin responsibilities. The new program attests to Yale’s determination to do so. If successful, this experiment may prove to be of wide significance.

Dr. Miller’s approach to improving graduate teaching was innovative both in its admission of a problem with graduate teaching and its painting of a rich picture of the future of education at Yale.

Today, Yale recognizes that professional development in the academy must include teaching and has taken great efforts to improve the quality of teacher training for graduate students. It is now almost universally true that Graduate School of Arts and Sciences students teach at some point in their careers at Yale. Since Dean Miller’s original proposal in 1964, teaching opportunities for graduate students have been expanded in notable ways at Yale. In 1998, the Graduate Teaching Center was founded and now operates part of the CTL. With support from the McDougal family, a dedicated staff of twenty-two trained Graduate Teaching Fellows across Yale disciplines is trained to provide teaching consultations and facilitate workshops for their peers, including Fundamentals of Teaching workshop series and Advanced Teaching Workshops. These workshops and programs provide training on diverse and important topics in higher education, from how to use instructional technology to the role of teaching fellows in the undergraduate experience. Given opportunities like these, many students complete the professional development necessary for the Certificate in College Teaching Preparation (CCTP) program, which is recorded on transcripts. Additionally, in 2009, the Associates in Teaching (AT) Program was developed to provide graduate students opportunities to develop new courses with faculty teaching partners. This program is unique in that graduate students are involved in every aspect of course design, from planning new courses to overhauling old courses. Just last year, Yale revised its teaching fellow policies. The new system accounts for five-types of teaching (grader, tutor, discussion section leader, lab leader and part-time acting instructor) with compensation based on two levels of time commitment. This system provides flexibility for departments to imagine new ways for graduate students and faculty members to teach. Expanded teaching opportunities coupled with CTL training, and the CCTP program now provide the professional development many graduate students need to be competitive in the academic job market.

Yale remains reflective and poised for change. In 2014, with the leadership of Dr. Scott Strobel, The Deputy Provost for Teaching and Learning, various units that support teaching and learning efforts across Yale merged to become the newly branded Center for Teaching and Learning. The CTL unification brought together human resources from all over campus, including instructional technologists, writing and language specialists, tutoring services, and training programs to create a stronger culture of teaching and learning at Yale. In addition to increased support through collaboration, the CTL is expanding in order to better support its faculty and future faculty. Of note, Dr. Nancy Niemi has joined the CTL as Director of Faculty Teaching Initiatives and, for the first time, with support from the Helmsley Charitable Trust, four Teaching Postdoctoral Scholars starting teaching at Yale in the fall of 2015. The teaching postdoc is a new breed of post-graduate training that is expanding nationally.

Yale is a national leader in undergraduate instruction, relying on evidence-based teaching strategies. Initiated in 2004, with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institution, CTL staff offers The National Academies Summer Institutes to train faculty in evidence-based teaching models annually. In 2015 alone, 247 instructors representing 103 colleges, universities and institutions including Yale participated in Summer Institute training. Fifty years ago giving up valuable research time over the summer in lieu of pedagogical training would be unfathomable, perhaps laughable. However, this is the way in which Yale leads the conversation about teaching. It took 50 years to get this far, and the next 50 years hold even greater potential for innovations in higher education and better preparation for future faculty.

Written by Robert Wickham with Kaury Kucera and Elizabeth Morse Luoma

*John Perry Miller, The Teaching Assistantship: Chore or Challenge?, Ventures Magazine of the Yale Graduate School Fall 1964, 1-5.