Teaching with service learning: A collaboration between social work and public relations faculty

Elissa Thomann Mitchell, Assistant Professor of Social Work, University of Southern Indiana, Dr. Erin Gilles, Assistant Professor, USI, Dr. Veronica Huggins, Assistant Professor, USI

This presentation will focus on an interprofessional collaboration between two Social Work faculty members who teach a social work macro practice course and a Communication faculty member who teaches a public relations course. We paired public relations students with social work students to create and implement self-selected service learning projects in local agencies. Each faculty member provided the structure to develop a project, a space to reflect on their work and learning, and a forum for presenting their projects at the end of the semester.

We will focus on the benefits of service-learning in higher education, our collaboration that brought two disparate disciplines together, and how we structured our courses around student-led service-learning projects. Attendees will be able to discuss the benefits of service-learning, to describe our collaboration and approach to letting students create their own projects, and hopefully consider implementing service learning in their own teaching.

In light of the theme, we would like to envision that we all came together for the common good of our students and the social service agencies in our community to implement a self-selected service-learning project in our courses. As professors, we believe in the importance of community engagement and service-learning and wanted to find a way for our students to work collaboratively in the community while applying course concepts. Consistent with Mitchell’s (2008) approach noted in the call for proposals, good service-learning examines issues of inequality or power and focuses on the relationship between students, faculty, and community members. Our unique approach to service-learning involves letting students create their own community partners and projects. Instead of leading from the top, our approach is to lay out the expectations and guide students to make their own choices, giving them the power and freedom to select a project and agency that interests them and appeals to their own concept of social justice. By providing choice, but also a structured course to support and guide the students, we are maximizing their learning opportunities and letting them have the power to set their own path. Some of our students have continued working with the agency they selected after the service-learning project ended, returned to the agency for their social work field placement, and one student was even offered a full-time job after completing the project! Our presentation will highlight some of these successes, as well as examples of student projects, and feedback on the assignment itself.

The purpose of our presentation is to provide information about service learning in higher education, our collaboration that brought two disparate disciplines together, and how we structured our courses around student-led service-learning projects.

  • Attendees will be able to discuss the benefits of service-learning in higher education.
  • Attendees will be able to describe the collaboration between Social Work and Communications faculty to develop and implement a joint service-learning project.
  • Attendees will consider implementing service learning across disciplines in their own teaching.

We plan to focus on the interdisciplinary collaboration of our project and how we brought the disciplines of social work and public relations together. We will present our collaboration, with the social work and communications faculty briefly presenting their perspectives, and then share examples of student projects and the structure we placed around the assignment in each of our courses. This Showcase Session will be interactive, allowing time for questions and answers and discussion around the topic.

While many courses include types of active learning, service learning is pedagogically distinct. According to the oft-cited definition from Bringle and Hatcher (1996), service-learning can be defined as a credit-bearing educational experience in which students participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility (p. 222). Thus, a unique characteristic of service-learning, as compared to traditional pedagogical approaches, is the student engagement with the community. Immersing students in the community to enact positive change through service-learning benefits, not just the community, but the students as well (Remley, 2012). In providing service, students also learn from their experiences through deliberate planning and reflection on the connections between the work and their course learning objectives and materials (Jacoby, 1996).

Service-learning has particular value for social work programs, in part due to the focus on social justice (Lemieux & Allen, 2007). Service-learning can also help to transition students from classroom experience to the field by providing valuable practice in real community settings (Kropf & Tracey, 2002). Social work faculty reported that the top three benefits of using service learning in courses were (1) student personal development, (2) the application of classroom skills to field sites, and (3) the development of student interpersonal skills. In redesigning a macro social work course, the presenters integrated service learning in an effort to achieve these benefits. Macro practice is often unknown or confusing to students; what better way to introduce them to the field than by direct service and engagement? The goal of the assignment was to help them identify macro social work roles and the processes and details involved in working within a community and/or agency at the macro level.  In planning discussions, the faculty recognized the macro practitioners do not work in a vacuum and rarely work alone; thus, we integrated public relations student partnerships into the project to expose students to a new field of study and ways to collaborate across disciplines. The public relations students also benefitted from this project, giving them an identified “client” to work with and practice their collaboration and communication skills.

Unlike more traditional service-learning projects, in these courses, students were provided with a framework for the assignment and asked to find their own project to focus on for the semester. Faculty worked closely together and with their students to form groups and select projects based on interest in a particular population or topic. Students were provided with learning objectives for the course and macro social work skills to focus on in their projects. Once social workgroups and projects were established, public relations student partners were assigned to each group. The role of the public relations student was that of a consultant, providing the macro team with assistance with various project tasks, including event planning, developing organizational goals, and assisting with strategic messaging (e.g., social media or creating brochures). Teams were required to work collaboratively to determine roles in the project. In addition to completing the project and presenting the final result to the class, social work students were required to submit 2 journal entries during the semester, as well as a final reflection paper on the project as a whole. Public relations students were also required to reflect on the process and submit documentation of their contributions and the final project outcome. Preliminary data from student projects and feedback on the assignment will be presented.

This presentation will outline the benefits of service-learning in social work education, describe and discuss the implementation of the interprofessional collaboration for this specific service-learning project, and provide resources (e.g., assignment guidelines) for others to consider a similar project in their own work.

  1. All three faculty members involved in this project are full-time faculty with doctoral degrees and have taught at the university level for several years. All have used service learning in other courses in addition to this project, which has been conducted in three different semesters.
  2. As noted in our response to item 3, we will engage with the audience to present and discuss our project in this showcase session. We believe this model (of self-selected service learning and collaboration across disciplines represents an opportunity for students and faculty in higher education.

6a.     We have presented together before and work well together. We will share in our presentation of the project, each focusing on our own perspective (social work vs. communication) and experiences. Only 1-2 presenters are indicated for a Showcase Session, so if accepted, we will all collaboratively create the presentation and be available, but only 1-2 will present.

  1. This presentation would be best for higher education faculty, specifically those who are considering using service learning in their teaching. It would also be helpful for those who wish to collaborate with peers in another discipline.
  2. This session would be appropriate for all higher education faculty but may be particularly helpful for those that have never tried service learning or are new to community engaged teaching.


Bringle, R. G., & Hatcher, J. A. (1996). Implementing service learning in higher education. The Journal of Higher Education, 67(2), 221-239.

Hatcher, J. A., & Studer, M. L. (2015). Service-learning and philanthropy: Implications for course design. Theory Into Practice, 54(1), 11-19. doi:10.1080/00405841.2015.977656

Jacoby, B. (1996). Service-learning in higher education: Concepts and practices. Jossey-Bass.

Kropf, N. P., & Tracey, M. (2002). Service-learning as a transition into foundation field. Advances in Social Work, 3(1), 60-71.

Lemieux, C. M., & Allen, P. D. (2007). Service-learning in social work education: The state of knowledge, pedagogical practicalities, and practice conundrums. Journal of Social Work Education, 43(2), 309-326.

Remley, D. (2012). Re-considering the range of reciprocity in community-based research and service-learning: You don’t have to be an activist to give back. Community Literacy Journal, 6(2), 115-132.”