A Community Partner’s Guide to the Learning-Work Process
The learning-work process will not look the same for all community partners, or even for all students at one site, but the general framework described below should help to give structure to this process. One thing informs the entire framework at the beginning, middle and end of the learning process: strong communication between community partner staff and students.
Some agencies will have formal training required before any work with clients begins; others will adopt the principle, “learn to do by doing,” right away. Either way, students new to your agency will be looking for several things: 1) some guidance in their first weeks on how to “find their place at their community site”; 2) a person (or persons) whom they can consistently seek out when they have questions or concerns; 3) and some concrete, preliminary feedback on how they are doing. If you require background checks, but are still able to have students on-site while waiting for them to clear, some kind of semi-formal to formal orientation might be a good option for engaging students early on. For all students, thinking about and completing the Learning-Work Agreement with you should be a central part of their orientation.
The Learning-Work Agreement
The Learning-Work Agreement (LWA) is the document you and the student fill out together in order to establish your expectations for the student and to set learning goals which will serve as the basis for evaluation at the end of the semester. In addition, it describes for students what kind of guidance they can expect from community staff, in terms of supervising and facilitating their learning. It is due on September 23rd—about two weeks after students’ first official week of service work—so, given that most of you will only be seeing students once a week, it is smart to begin working on this together early on. The LWA has three basic parts.
First, there is a section on learning goals. You might consider asking students to brainstorm on, write up, and bring to you several personal learning goals by their first or second visit (most will find this a challenging task and appreciate your assistance in revising these). This will give you a chance to think about their goals and incorporate them into your own expectations before you sit down to discuss the LWA in a subsequent meeting. On the one hand, the LWA asks you to set learning expectations for the tasks students will be doing and for personal development connected with those tasks. On the other hand, it asks for goals related to the bigger picture: these can be connected with learning about various aspects of your agency, or about the larger social context in which your agency works, or both. A LWA with focused goals will help both you and the student down the road. This document will serve as the basis for your final evaluation of the student. Therefore, having clear expectations (and some sense of the difference between meeting those expectations and exceeding them) will make assessing student learning much easier. Also, you might keep in mind that you have the students for the whole year: what do you want them to understand in April (at the end of the spring semester), and what goals would you set for them in December (at the end of the fall semester) in order to move them towards that understanding?
In addition, there is a section that spells out what the students can expect from you. This includes, but is not limited to, supervision. If there are going to be different staff members involved in the learning-work process (and especially evaluation), it is helpful to indicate that here. It is also helpful to indicate when and how you will be available to facilitate and give feedback on their learning. This can happen in many ways. You might do periodic observations of their work, or have monthly informal check-in meetings, or talk with them during staff meals/meetings, or give them feedback on written reflections or field notes they write about their work. The means that you adopt will be the ones most appropriate to your circumstances, but it is important that students have a sense of how they will demonstrate progress towards their learning goals and who will have eyes on that progress before the final evaluation.
Finally, there is a section on scheduling and policies. This section should be self-explanatory, but it is worth emphasizing the importance of a clear attendance policy. Students are expected to come weekly and to keep their weekly schedule. However, things will come up, and you should be clear about what procedures should be followed if students know they will be absent and how flexible you will be about rescheduling or making up missed time. Under normal circumstances, students are expected to make up both excused and unexcused absences.
There is no formal midterm assessment, but a couple of things will likely show up on your radar around the middle of October (or mid-March in the spring). First, someone from the En/Route staff will contact you early in October (or late in February in the spring) to schedule a conversation in person or by phone about how things are going, in general and with specific students. For you, this can be as quick as “thumbs up-thumbs down,” or can be a more extended opportunity to bring up substantive questions or concerns (that said, do not think that you need to wait for this occasion to contact us with anything, small or large, requiring our attention). Second, students have a weekly time sheet which is due around this time. If they are missing your signature on any hours up until midterm, they will be trying to find you to complete this sheet because it is a midterm grade requirement for them.
Students should be able to sit down with you during this last week of each semester to offer their own self-assessment and to hear from you a preliminary or final version of your assessment. So, just as with the process of filling out the Learning Work Agreement (LWA), it is a good idea to start planning for this a couple of weeks before those dates (En/Route staff will send out reminders to both you and the students). You may consider having the students do a written self-assessment before you meet, focusing on areas of growth and areas of challenge. You can ask them to send this to you electronically in advance of their final meeting with you (so that you can compare it with your own impressions), or simply have them bring it to the final meeting.
As noted above, in offering your own assessment, you should use the LWA as the basis for your evaluations. How well has the student done relative to the expectations spelled out in that document? Keep in mind that “meeting all or most expectations” is some version of a “B” for grading purposes (and that a “B” is not a bad grade). Also keep in mind that, as your time and patience permits, the written and oral feedback you give the student is just as valuable as the grade itself. For the students, you are persons of integrity and competence. Your evaluation, accordingly, carries great weight. Ultimately, your grade will be 60% of the total grade for the one-credit “Service/Community-Based Learning” course (the other 40% is for participation in a weekly community experience discussion group). While we completely trust your judgment, if you wish to confer with the faculty or anyone else from the En/Route staff during the evaluation process, do not hesitate to contact us.