Service learning in social work education: the state of knowledge, pedagogical practicalities, and practice conundrums.
This article reviews research-based knowledge about service learning in social work education. Student learning outcomes common to both service learning and social work education are examined, and the research-based literature on service learning in social work is analyzed. Service-learning practice issues in social work education are described: creating learning activities distinct from those required in field practica, managing conflicts of interest among students employed in the field, minimizing professional ethics violations, and assisting students who observe unprofessional practice behaviors. Recommendations for planning, implementing, and evaluating service-learning projects in social work education are provided to strengthen scholarship in this area.

Social work education (Analysis)
Student service (Analysis)
Education (Methods)
Education (Analysis)
Lemieux, Catherine M.
Allen, Priscilla D.
Pub Date:
Name: Journal of Social Work Education Publisher: Council On Social Work Education Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2007 Council On Social Work Education ISSN: 1043-7797
Date: Spring-Summer, 2007 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 2
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number:
Full Text:
ACADEMIC SERVICE LEARNING is a pedagogical approach that integrates community service with academic study to promote student reflection, critical thinking, and creative problem solving. The increased popularity of service learning over the past 15 years is associated with a resurgence of interest in reestablishing higher education's commitment to solving social problems in the communities in which such institutions reside. According to Harkavy (2004), academic service learning places equal emphasis on three outcomes: student learning, service to the community, and the development of collaborative and mutually respectful relationships between students and the community members with whom they are engaged. Social work, with its emphasis on social justice and the amelioration of social problems, is a natural host to curricular innovations that embrace student reflection, community service, and empowerment-oriented mutual collaboration with community residents.

Academic service learning has caught the intellectual interest of a number of social work educators (e.g., Ishisaka, Sohng, Farwell, & Uehara, 2004; Jarman-Rohde & Tropman, 1993; King, 2003; Lowe & Reisch, 1998; Lucas, 2000; Rocha & Johnson, 1997) who have acknowledged the historical presence of community-based learning as a hallmark of social work education. However, the evidence used to substantiate conclusions reported in the extant literature has not yet been systematically assessed. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to review what is known about service learning in social work education. This article analyzes and critiques service-learning practice evaluation methodology in social work scholarship, thus providing a clearer picture of the current state of knowledge. Recommendations for planning, implementing, and evaluating service-learning projects in social work education conclude this article.

Service Learning: A Brief Overview of Important Concepts

Contemporary definitions of service learning across disciplines similarly emphasize student learning, community service, and reciprocal engagement as the service-learning educational triumvirate. Bringle and Hatcher (1996) offered one of the most comprehensive and frequently cited definitions of service learning:

Community service emphasizes students' contributions to the community and the development of students' civic responsibilities. Service learning, as a "first cousin of community service" (Howard, 1993, p. 3), deliberately uses pedagogical strategies that implement community service as an academic learning resource. Goals are established to connect student service to learning, discussions, presentations, written paper assignments, and journal exercises to promote students' critical thinking about the service experience (Howard).

Service learning is a form of community engagement that has become increasingly rooted in institutions of higher learning. The National and Community Service Act (NCSA) of 1990 and President William Clinton's NCSA of 1993, as cited in Lucas (2000), provided impetus for dialogue about youth civic responsibility and community service in education and encouraged universities to offer students academic credit for participating in community service and problem solving. This and other state-level legislation, along with financial support from sources such as the Corporation for National Service, have enabled service learning to flourish in both K-12 and higher education settings. In 2001, for example, Eyler, Giles, Stenson, and Gray published an annotated bibliography on service-learning research, which included a summary of student-, faculty-, institution-, and community-level correlates and outcomes. The Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, the first peer-reviewed journal in the field, recently celebrated its 12th year of publication, and the annual International Conference on Service-Learning Research, now in its 8th year, provides a forum for researchers and practitioners from around the world to share and critique developing knowledge about the effectiveness of service-learning pedagogy. Pollack (2000) cited a growing body of research on evidence-based practices in service learning. According to Stanton (2000), this growth in service-learning scholarship has fueled widespread visibility of service learning in the curricula of diverse educational institutions around the world.

Service Learning in Higher Education

Service learning intentionally integrates curriculum and community service components. Students engaged in direct service learning have face-to-face contact with the clients or service recipients of a particular program or agency, whereas students engaged in indirect service learning attempt to influence the institutional or community environments in which service recipients are situated. Examples of indirect projects in service learning include program evaluation efforts, lobbying and legislative advocacy, policy development, and needs assessments.

Service-learning programs are most likely to partner with community-based social service agencies (Siscoe, 1997). Students who participate in service-learning activities in these settings have direct contact with client groups who are considered vulnerable populations in social work: that is, persons who have multiple service needs and whose health and welfare are greatly jeopardized if access to services is limited or if services are inadequate (Rothman, 1994). A perusal of the empirical service-learning literature yielded numerous descriptions of projects in which the following vulnerable populations were directly served by students who were not enrolled in social work or other human service programs: persons with mental retardation (Curran, 1999), children with disabilities (Mayhew, 2000), children in confinement, persons who are older, recipients of public health services (Rockquemore & Schaffer, 2000), persons who are homeless (Nnakwe, 1999), and recipients of disaster relief (Rhodes, 1999).

According to Eyler et al.'s (2001) review, an accumulated body of research since the early 1990s has shown that participation in service learning is associated with positive changes in students' critical thinking, problem analysis, academic learning, personal and moral development, interpersonal and leadership skills, social responsibility and citizenship skills, racial and cultural understanding, commitment to service, and satisfaction with college. There is a consensus among leading scholars in the field (viz., Billig & Furco, 2002; Eyler, 2002; Howard, 2003), however, that a more systematic and thorough knowledge base about the effectiveness of service-learning pedagogy is needed to guide practice. To that end, Roldan, Strage, and David (2004) analyzed existing evidence and developed and tested an empirically-based, multivariate framework for assessing academic service-learning outcomes across disciplines, which took into account the relative contributions of diverse service-learning configurations and experiences. Community, student, institutional, and faculty characteristics constituted the four categories of independent variables associated with the context of the service-learning experience, whereas course variables (e.g., discipline, format, type) and service-learning activities (e.g., hours, placement type, extent of supervision) constituted the two categories associated with the service-learning approach being tested (Roldan et al., 2004). The framework specified short- and long-term effects on students (academic, civic engagement, and personal growth) and on the larger community, the host agency, the institution, and the faculty (Roldan et al.). The benefit of this framework lies in its potential to guide how service learning is implemented across disciplines, to strengthen the knowledge base about the effectiveness of service learning, and to build theory from the design and conduct of service-learning activities that produce meaningful outcomes at all levels.

Service Learning, Field Practica, and Voluntary Community Service

Although all service learning occurs in a community context, not all community-based learning is service learning. Service learning, by definition, is a collaborative relationship between the community and the classroom that equally prioritizes student learning and community service. Service learning is to be distinguished from required field practica. With field practica, the emphasis is on developing student knowledge and skills. This is an important distinction. With service learning, the student's role is determined by the needs of the community they are serving, not by the learning goals of the student or institution (Williams, King, & Koob, 2002). Conversely, the field practicum experience emphasizes student learning over the benefits of any community service undertaken by students (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996). Voluntary service also is distinguished from curriculum-based service learning in that the former emphasizes service over learning. In summary, students enrolled in field practica or who volunteer in the community may be harvesting learning from the community, but they would not be engaged in academic service learning because of the different emphases placed on learning and service. The distinctions among service learning, volunteerism, and field education are important because these definitions frame how student and community-oriented outcomes are conceptualized and operationalized. This is a methodological problem that persistently emerges in the scholarship on service learning in social work. The lines among field education, voluntary service, and service learning historically have been blurred: There are numerous examples of published scholarly work where these service and learning activities are not clearly differentiated (see, e.g., Dreuth & Dreuth-Fewell, 2002; Forte, 1997; Johnson, 1998; Poulin, Silver, & Kauffman, 2006; Raber & Richter, 1999; Rocha, 2000; Ruffolo & Miller, 1994). Although there is some relatively recent scholarly publications about service-learning projects that are rooted in well-established, service-learning theory and pedagogical principles (viz., Sanders, McFarland, & Bartolli, 2003; Williams et al., 2002; Williams & Reeves; 2004), a lack of conceptual clarity and consistency impedes rigorous evaluation and knowledge development.

Service Learning in Social Work: Review of the Literature

Service learning is presumed to occupy a compatible niche with social work. This makes intuitive sense, given that social work curricula are rooted in the parlance of client empowerment, which espouses principles such as capacity building, social support, strengths perspective, self-help, and anti-oppressive practice. From a conceptual standpoint, experiential, community-based learning is consistent with social work education approaches that model and teach empowerment-oriented practice, such as student-centered instruction (see, e.g., Congress, 1993; Huff & Johnson, 1998; Lemieux, 2001) and feminist-based learning (see, e.g., Davis, 1993; Dore, 1994; Tice, 1990). Some social work scholars believe that social work education offers a prototype for service learning, and a number of these authors have made claims without accompanying credible evidence. For example, Lowe and Reisch (1998) reported that social work has successfully integrated classroom with community-based learning for nearly a century. Knee (2002) stated, "Experiential and community-based models of teaching and learning have had a consistent presence in social work education" (p. 214). Last, in their chapter on field education and service learning (which, incidentally, provides an illustrative example of how the lines between field education and service learning have been undifferentiated), Jarman-Rohde and Tropman (1993) went so far as to say that "all of social work education is service-learning" (p. 180). Our study, therefore, systematically examined whether the apparent good fit between service learning and social work is, in fact, substantiated by published research evidence.

Method and Results of Search

An a priori decision was made to restrict the current review to scholarly publications that specifically described and evaluated academic coursework undertaken by a group or class of social work students that integrated a community-based service component distinct from both voluntary service and field instruction. These criteria are consistent with Bringle and Hatcher's (1996) widely accepted definition of service learning. Electronic databases relevant to the topical area were searched to locate research for this study. These included the abstracts of the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), PsycINFO, and Social Services Abstracts. The Web of Knowledge search engine, which includes abstracts archived in the Social Work Abstracts database, also was used. Our search included material from 1990, when federal legislation (i.e., NCSA) promoting civic education was first enacted, to the present. Search parameters were broad. The terms used were service-learning & social work and experiential learning & community. This yielded approximately 250 records, most of which were articles on experiential learning about community practice, in general (e.g., Johnson, 1994, 1998); community-based field placements (e.g., Poulin et al., 2006); and program descriptions that combined coursework with specialized field practica (e.g., Lowe & Reisch, 1998; Wasow, 1999). A manual search of the three most widely circulated journals on social work education was conducted. Using the Internet, the Tables of Contents of the Journal of Social Work Education, Social Work Education, and Journal of Teaching in Social Work were examined from 2004 to November 2006 to locate articles rendered unavailable because of electronic resource embargos.

After reviewing the reference lists of articles satisfying the a priori criteria, eight scholarly publications were deemed appropriate for our review. Rocha's (2000) article describes the distal outcomes of a graduate-level child and family policy-practice project. Powell and Causby (1994) also described a child and family policy-advocacy project undertaken by graduate students. Butler and Coleman (1997) reported on the Advocacy Project, which targeted macropractice proficiencies among graduate and undergraduate students enrolled in a generalist practice class. Undergraduate students in Knee's (2002) research class conducted a needs assessment to identify housing needs among low-income residents. Forte (1997) assessed a service-learning project that served the homeless, for which undergraduate social work students fulfilled program planning functions and administrative and supervisory roles. Sanders et al. (2003) implemented a cross-cultural, service-learning project with undergraduates to assess students' perceptions about race, culture, and social and economic justice. Williams et al.'s (2002) week-long summer course at a camp for children with burn injuries examined MSW students' perceived self-efficacy. Using qualitative data from the latter-mentioned service-learning project, Williams and Reeves (2004) described students' social work value orientations.

Research Design and Method

As seen in Table 1, two of the eight studies we reviewed were qualitative and used a focus group methodology (Sanders et al., 2003; Williams & Reeves, 2004). Among the six studies that primarily used quantitative methodologies, Forte (1997) and Williams et al. (2004) used a pretest-posttest group design, with the remaining four studies using a posttest-only group research design to evaluate the service-learning project. Forte (1997) and Rocha (2000) included a comparison group to assess project outcomes (see Table 1).

Service-Learning Project Outcomes

Although Forte (1997) was one of the few authors to specify the benefits to the broader community of his project to serve the homeless, he did not examine social work students' academic learning outcomes (see Table 1). Butler and Coleman (1997), Knee (2002), and Rocha (2000) also did not measure academic outcomes or community-service benefits. Students' perceived self-efficacy was the outcome targeted by Williams et al. (2002), and these authors found significant increases for the overall measure and for the subscales measuring self-efficacy at the mezzo- and macropractice levels. Using triangulation and constant comparison, Sanders et al. (2003) identified a series of themes that demonstrated changes in students' attitudes, over the course of the service-learning project, toward people of lower socioeconomic status. Williams and Reeves's (2004) qualitative data analyses yielded broad themes about students' personal and professional learning and growth after working with burn survivors. Forte (1997) and Powell and Causby (1994) described how the service-learning project made an impact on the academic institution in which it was taught and the faculty member(s) who facilitated it.

State of the Knowledge of Service Learning in Social Work

All but three (Sanders et al., 2003; Williams et al., 2002; Williams & Reeves, 2004) of the eight reviewed studies described service-learning projects that incorporated either macropractice or applied research proficiencies. The bulk of the research showed that instead of learning through direct contact with clients, students fulfilled advocacy, researcher, and administrative roles in their respective service-learning projects. The available, published literature revealed an ironic state of affairs. Social work students, with few exceptions, are not engaged in service-learning activities that bring them into direct contact with clients.

This current analysis of the research evaluating service learning in social work shows that the state of the knowledge is rudimentary, at best. Generalizable knowledge about the impact of service learning on students' academic outcomes, civic engagement, and personal growth is hampered by numerous limitations in research design and methodology. The scant published research on service learning in social work has not kept pace with the idealism that permeates much of the scholarly literature on social work community practice, as well as the advances in knowledge development in the broader service-learning field. It should be noted that all but three of the reviewed studies were published prior to 2002 when strategic directions for service-learning research were articulated and disseminated by leading scholars in the field (viz., Billig & Furco, 2002; Eyler, 2002; Howard, 2003). Nevertheless, knowledge about both service-learning best practices in social work and the impact of this pedagogy on a range of important micro- and macrolevel outcomes is underdeveloped. Studies that incorporate multivariate approaches can best account for the relative impact of course-related and service-learning activity variables on student, community, institutional, and faculty outcomes (Roldan et al., 2004). Whenever feasible and practical, evaluation research should use more rigorous designs to advance the development of usable research-based knowledge for practice.

Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating Service-Learning Projects in Social Work: Recommendations for Practice

Our recent service-learning experiences in a graduate social work program in a large, public, southern university raised a number of previously unexamined service-learning practice issues that are relevant to the planning, implementation, and evaluation of service-learning projects undertaken with students who are concurrently enrolled in field practica. These issues--creating learning experiences that are distinct from field practica and minimizing professional ethics violations, managing conflicts of interest for students working in the field, and assisting students who observe unprofessional behavior in the field--are addressed in the subsections on planning and implementing service-learning projects. A brief description of our service-learning projects precedes recommendations for planning, implementing, and evaluating service-learning projects.

Rural Needs Assessment Project

In Fall 2002, the first author (C. M. Lemieux) included an Indirect service-learning project in two sections of an elective domestic violence course, which was taught via compressed video to 20 advanced-standing students who resided in rural and remote areas of this southern state. This project assessed the extent to which services for victims of domestic violence were available and accessible in the rural areas represented by students' task groups. The community partner was the staff of a statewide coalition of domestic violence providers and organizations. Students conducted needs assessment by gathering facts, interviewing stakeholders, and reviewing domestic violence service utilization data. Each student task group then developed a professional report that was used by the partner agency to inform decisions about its federally funded services to victims of domestic violence in rural areas.

Neighborhood Advocacy Project

In Fall 2004, the second author (P. D. Allen) included an indirect service-learning project in two sections of a required indirect practice course with 54 advanced-year students. The purpose of this project was to resolve an ongoing university-community dispute around the ownership and housing of a collection of 210 oral history tapes. The partner agency was a neighborhood organization adjacent to the university composed primarily of African American residents and businesses and other local leaders who participated in the original oral history project (with another academic unit) that created the collection. Students' networking, relationship-building, and policy-advocacy activities culminated in a Memorandum of Understanding authored by the university chancellor, which empowered the neighborhood organization to determine the repository placement of the collection.

Planning Service-Learning Projects in Social Work

According to Harkavy (2004), academic service learning requires equal priority be given to student learning, service to the community, and collaborative relationship building between students and community members. Although beyond the scope of this article, an impressive body of research-based knowledge is available for teaching service learning, and social work instructors should be well grounded in the relevant literature (e.g., Driscoll & Williams, 1997; Howard, 2001) to guide the planning of their projects. For example, Eyler and Giles (1999) identified a number of empirically-supported principles of sound service-learning pedagogy that should be included in all service-learning ventures. They recommended cultivating a high-quality community placement, creating close and continuous links between academic subject matter and service, creating opportunities for written and oral reflection, enhancing diversity, and facilitating community voice.

A number of common service-learning methodology issues pertaining to workload, time constraints, and relationships with community partners emerged in the reviewed studies. Rocha and Johnson, as cited in Rocha (2000), found that the inclusion of an experiential learning component increased the workload for both instructors and students. Knee (2002) acknowledged that the amount of substantive content typically covered in the course was reduced when the service-learning component was added, because of time spent on planning activities and facilitating group processes. Cultivating a collaborative relationship and maintaining close contact with the host agency, also time-consuming endeavors, were deemed essential to the success of the projects undertaken by Knee and Powell and Causby (1994). It is interesting to note that despite the logistical hurdles and labor intensiveness of implementing a service-learning project, all of the authors of the reviewed articles concluded that the actual and perceived benefits to students, communities, and institutions far outweighed these challenges.

Creating learning experiences that are distinct from field practica activities. Service learning historically has been undifferentiated from field practica in the social work literature. Bringle and Hatcher (1996), however, were clear in their definition of service learning: "Unlike practica and internships, the experiential activity in a service-learning course is not necessarily skill-based within the context of professional education" (p. 222). Because graduate-level students are required to complete at least one field practicum, instructors are challenged to create service-learning projects that do not duplicate the learning experiences encountered in required internships when developing service-learning activities. Similar to the policy-oriented, service-learning projects described in the literature (Butler & Coleman, 1997; Powell & Causby, 1994), the Neighborhood Advocacy Project described above targeted students' advocacy and policy-practice skills. The Rural Needs Assessment Project focused on students' applied research skills, which also was the goal of Knee's (2002) needs assessment project. During the planning phase, instructors also should familiarize themselves with other institutional requirements for community service placed on students. When planning a service-learning project, Knee and Powell and Causby recommended that instructors resolve workload issues and clarify the nature of the relationship with community partners before committing to a particular service-learning project. It may be practical and prudent, therefore, to offer service-learning opportunities to students during an academic intersession or over the summer (Williams et al., 2002; Williams & Reeves, 2004). In a similar vein, Sanders et al. (2003) recommended that service-learning courses be implemented during the early years of study before students begin field instruction. Thus, service learning can be used to meet the learning needs of inexperienced students as well as to prepare students to learn more about the diverse populations with whom they will be working in subsequent placements and in the course of their own social work careers.

Managing conflicts of interest. It was the first author's (C. M. Lemieux's) experience with the Rural Needs Assessment Project that conflicts of interest can emerge for students concurrently employed in the field of social work. Thus, in addition to the aforementioned planning issues, students should be informed of the names of the project's community partner and staff early on, and students should be told to apprise the instructor if a conflict erupts, so that alternative learning arrangements can be made.

Minimizing professional ethics violations. Enrollment in a professional social work program carries with it an expectation that students learn about and agree to subscribe to an established set of ethical and professional standards. If social work students are expected to participate in service-learning projects that bring them into contact with community members, students should be informed in advance that they will be held accountable to all relevant standards of ethical and professional behavior. Departmental policies requiring consistent expectations for ethical behavior from students engaged in community learning across field practica and service-learning placements should be in place.

Implementing Service-Learning Projects in Social Work

Whereas students in the field typically are separated from one another and closely supervised, in all of the studies described in this article, the service-learning experience afforded students a rare opportunity to collectively solve problems and engage in long-range planning within a learning community. As with all novel and experiential forms of learning, instructors are encouraged to obtain students' consent to participate (Lemieux, 2001). A specialized learning contract that outlines the mutual expectations of the instructor, community partner, and students may be an effective tool for highlighting the issues that are unique to service learning in social work. Such a contract describes the needs of the clients or groups served by the project, incorporates relevant academic policies and expectations, and identifies students' ethical and professional expectations while in the field. A contractual agreement specifying the mutual responsibilities of the community partner, instructor, and students also should be developed. To ensure consistency with best practice in the service-learning field (see, e.g., Eyler & Giles, 1999), the instructor should explicate the links between academic content and students' service experiences as well as create opportunities for written and oral reflection throughout implementation of the project. Such opportunities for discussion provide students with an appropriate venue to address ethical concerns and can offer ongoing support, guidance, and instruction to students.

Managing conflicts of interest. Students who participated in the Rural Needs Assessment Project constituted a group of advanced-standing students, most of whom were employed in the field while pursuing their MSW degree. At approximately midsemester, a conflict of interest emerged for one student employed in a rural agency serving victims of domestic violence. Although the instructor was unaware at the time, the statewide coalition that was the partner agency for the service-learning project provided substantial funding to this rural agency. The executive director of the agency informed the student that her employment would be terminated if she forwarded any type of report to the partner agency in her role as student. This case illustrates how a conflict of interest can erupt when social work students who also are employed in the field are asked to fulfill service commitments that are inconsistent with supervisory expectations or agency policies. In fact, students in rural geographic areas may be more vulnerable to conflicts of interest than their urban counterparts because of the way that social services tend to overlap more in rural than in urban areas. The case described above was resolved by withholding the report from the community partner, although it was still subject to the instructor's evaluation for course credit. Cultivating and maintaining a positive and productive relationship with the partner agency are important to the success of service-learning project. However, some types of service activities can and do create conflicts of interest for social work students employed in the field. Instructors and those in rural areas in particular should be prepared to attend to this important practice consideration while implementing a service-learning project with some student groups.

Minimizing professional ethics violations. The increasing popularity of service learning in universities prompted Quinn, Gamble, and Denham (2001) to address a number of ethical issues that can arise for students in clinical, agency, and community-based placements, such as demonstrating appreciation for diversity, enabling freedom of choice, working within areas of competence, and providing proper student supervision. The Neighborhood Advocacy Project described above, for example, required relatively young, middleclass, Caucasian students to approach and work collaboratively with older African American individuals in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood. The instructor actively used modeling, instruction, and reflection to ensure that students engaged in ethical and professional behaviors, such as demonstrating respect for client diversity and for the dignity and worth of the person and community, honoring the client's right to self-determination, and empowering the person and the neighborhood. It was crucial, therefore, for the students and instructor to honor these basic social work values that were at the very core of this advocacy-policy project.

Assisting students who observe unprofessional behavior in the field. Unquestionably, occasions will arise where students are not met with enthusiasm and, in some cases, are met with suspicion and resistance. The Rural Needs Assessment Project described above, for example, required students to gather utilization data and to collect information about domestic violence services from stakeholders and providers. On several different occasions, students reported in class that the providers with whom they spoke were rude and unhelpful. In fact, one student reported that a social worker made derogatory comments about the shelter and advocacy services provided by an agency in an adjacent parish (county). In all cases, the students discussed these interactions and how they handled these situations with the class. Because these students were relatively experienced, they showed a high level of skill responding to unprofessional behaviors exhibited by others in the field. The behaviors exhibited by the different providers in the field, as reported by the students, were unexpected. This issue is similar to students observing agency employees engaging in unprofessional behaviors in their field practica sites. Thus, when a service-learning project requires students to interact with other professionals, instructors should prepare students for the range of possible responses that could occur and then discuss and role play ways to respond appropriately to negative or unprofessional behaviors. Instructors can use such occurrences as opportunities to learn about and process difficult situations that likely will reemerge with colleagues in future practice settings.

Evaluating Service-Learning Projects in Social Work

A specialized field practicum that is developed to meet a community need (see, e.g., Dreuth & Dreuth-Fewell, 2002; Wasow, 1999) is not, by definition, service learning (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996; Harkavy 2004). Social work educators should first and foremost avoid confounding service learning with field practica simply because community-practice skills are being taught and community benefits are being reaped. A conventional definition of service learning should be used in future social work research so that student and community outcomes are properly conceptualized and operationalized.

Roldan et al.'s (2004) multivariate perspective for assessing academic service learning across disciplines is a useful template for designing research on service learning in social work education. According to Roldan et al., the following variations in student characteristics constitute the independent variables: demographics, amount of time spent on nonacademic activities, typical level of volunteerism, and grade point average. Service-learning experience variables include data about the service-learning academic course (i.e., whether course is required, whether the service-learning component is required, the format of course, the extent to which service learning is integrated into course objectives) and information about the service-learning activities (number of hours, direct vs. indirect contact with clients, criteria used to select partner agencies, methods used to orient and supervise students, activities used to promote reflection [Roldan et al., 2004]).

Research on service learning is much better developed than research on social work service learning in particular. Although most of the research on the effects of service learning, in general, has focused on students' outcomes (Eyler & Giles, 1999), service learning has been shown to have a positive impact on communities (Nigro & Wortham, 1998), faculty (Gelmon, Holland, & Shinnamon, 1998), and institutions (Holland, 2000). Roldan et al. (2004) summarized the outcome research in higher education settings and recommended targeting student academic performance, civic engagement, and personal growth (e.g., empowerment, self-efficacy, leadership abilities, career orientation) as outcome variables.

The literature analyzed in this article has shown that the research lags far behind practice ideals and claims made that social work education epitomizes service learning (see, e.g., Jarman-Rohde & Tropman, 1993). Service learning in social work education is a pedagogical approach in need of more rigorous evaluation research to advance knowledge and to inform practice in the field.

This article contributes to the social work education knowledge base in several ways. First, it defines service learning and distinguishes the goals and purposes of service learning from those of field education, thus clearing up an area of confusion in the literature. By systematically analyzing the research that has assessed the effectiveness of this pedagogical approach in social work education, this article identifies the scholarly work needed to develop knowledge for evidence-based practice. This article also brings to the forefront a number of service-learning practice issues that are unique to social work, none of which have been identified previously in the general service-learning literature. Last, this article provides a framework for assessing academic service learning from a multivariate perspective (Roldan et al., 2004), thus allowing social work educators and researchers to build a more coherent body of knowledge for practice. Advances in research will better position the social work profession to inform the practice, in addition to the principles of academic service learning, in the future.

Accepted: 12/06


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Catherine M. Lemieux

Louisiana State University

Priscilla D. Allen

Louisiana State University

Catherine M. Lemieux is associate professor and Priscilla D. Allen is assistant professor, School of Social Work, Louisiana State University.

We thank Jan Shoemaker, director, Louisiana State University's Center for Community Engagement and Leadership, for her tireless support of service-learning practice and scholarship.

We were each awarded a $3,000 incentive grant from the employing educational institution, through the Center for Community Engagement and Leadership, to implement and evaluate the service-learning projects described in this article. We will provide to interested readers the Rural Needs Assessment Project and Neighborhood Advocacy Project descriptions and evaluation reports.

Address correspondence to Catherine M. Lemieux, Louisiana State University, 311 Huey R Long Field House, Baton Rouge, LA 70803; e-mail:
We view service-learning 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 the
   course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an
   enhanced sense of service responsibility. (p. 222)

TABLE 1. Service Learning in Social Work: Key Design Features of
Reviewed Studies

Authors               N        Design             Project Outcomes

Butler & Coleman      48   Posttest only       Macropractice attitudes
  (1997)                                         and activity at 1-
                                                 to 7-years

Forte (1997)          20   Pretest-posttest    Volunteer attitudes
                             with comparison   Community benefits

Knee (2002)           20   Posttest only       Student satisfaction

Powell & Causby       31   Posttest only       Student satisfaction

Rocha (2000)          39   Posttest only with  Policy-practice
                             comparison group    attitudes and
                                                 activities at 1-year

Sanders, McFarland,   94   Qualitative focus   Perceptions of race,
  & Bartolli (2003)          group               culture, and social
                                                 and economic justice

Williams, King, &     24   Pretest-posttest    Perceived self-efficacy
  Koob (2002)

Williams & Reeves     21   Qualitative focus   Learning and development
  (2004)                     group               of social work

Authors                     Measures             Community Partners

Butler & Coleman      Instrument developed     ME legislature
  (1997)                by authors. Course     Youth detention center
                        evaluation data        Homeless shelter
                                               State health care system
                                               Local high school

Forte (1997)          Instrument developed     Virginia Campus Outreach
                        by the author            Opportunity League

Knee (2002)           Instrument developed     Community organization
                        by the author. Course    for low-income women
                        evaluation data

Powell & Causby       Instrument developed     NC legislature
  (1994)                by the authors

Rocha (2000)          Instrument developed     Community and state
                        by the author            legislators
                                               Public housing tenants
                                               Local churches
                                               Transit systems
                                               Parent groups
                                               Higher education

Sanders, McFarland,   Unstructured interview   Center for teenage
  & Bartolli (2003)     guide developed by       mothers
                        authors. Students'     Substance abuse
                        comments in reflec-      rehabilitation centers
                        tion papers            Homeless shelters
                                               Urban school
                                               Cultural center

Williams, King, &     Social Work Self         GA Firefighters
  Koob (2002)           Efficacy Scale         Burn Foundation
                        developed by the

Williams & Reeves                              GA Firefighters
  (2004)              Students' comments in    Burn Foundation
                        focus groups, jour-
                        nals, and course
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