Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

68P Benefits and Challenges of Service-Learning In Baccalaureate Social Work Education

Friday, January 13, 2012
Independence F - I (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Helen E. Petracchi, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Lisa Schelbe, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Addie Weaver, MSW, MPA, Doctoral Student, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Background and Purpose: Service-learning is a pedagogical approach encouraging student reflection, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving through the integration of community experiences with course learning objectives (Lemieux & Allen, 2007). Service-learning aligns with social work values and offers social work educators another tool to prepare students for practice (Knee, 2002; Rocha, 2002; Sanders, McFarland, & Bartolli, 2003; Williams & Reeves, 2004). No existing published work examines service-learning among accredited social work programs.

This study queried CSWE-accredited baccalaureate social work programs about benefits and challenges of incorporating service-learning. Attention was paid to program location (rural, suburban, urban) as it may impact these perceptions.

Methods: CSWE-accredited baccalaureate programs were contacted via a web-based survey and asked about their service-learning experiences. The 21-item survey contained 16 multiple-choice questions and 5 open-ended questions.

Forty-eight percent (n=202) of all CSWE-accredited baccalaureate programs completed the 21-item survey, almost evenly divided by location: 39.2% urban, 29.6% suburban, and 31.2% rural. Nearly 80% of respondents reported requiring service-learning. This poster presents responses to the open-ended questions about benefits and challenges involved in incorporating service-learning; NVivo8 was utilized for qualitative analysis.

Results: Respondents reported service-learning enhanced students' networking and community connections, and provided an opportunity to apply course content to community experiences. Real world experiences and direct client contact obtained through service-learning socialized students to the profession while allowing them to explore different areas of practice. Service-learning increased students' awareness of macro-practice opportunities, diverse populations, and social problems.

The benefits of incorporating service-learning were not without challenge; respondents shared difficulties experienced while incorporating service-learning. The greatest challenge identified was securing community settings for students. Respondents cited three major reasons for this. Agencies wanted more hours than students could provide, needed a skill-level beyond the scope of undergraduates, lacked appropriate opportunities for students. Several respondents noted competing with field students for placements presented additional challenges. Another challenge cited was “time”, for both students balancing work, family, and coursework (including service-learning requirements); and for faculty organizing service-learning activities. Other logistic challenges included transportation, supervising students, placing non-traditional and international students, and addressing students with special needs.

Analysis revealed different perceptions of challenges by program location. Rural and urban respondents most often cited challenges that differed from those of suburban respondents. While the pattern of responses between the rural and urban schools are similar, the mechanisms creating the challenges may be unique and require different remedies.

Conclusions and Implications: While incorporating service-learning is not without problem, the benefits to students and community appear to outweigh the challenges. Real world experiences, direct client contact, increased awareness of macro practice, exposure to diverse populations and social justice are direct benefits accrued to students who participate in service-learning. Future studies should explore the practical ways programs overcome challenges to incorporating service-learning. Special attention should be paid to the unique challenges experienced by programs in different locations and potential solutions. Additionally, additional research should provide a voice to baccalaureate students themselves about their perceived benefits of and challenges to service-learning.