Service Learning Is a Perfect Fit for Occupational and Physical Therapy Education

Service learning provides invaluable contributions to the education of occupational and physical therapy students by allowing them to contribute to the community while simultaneously optimizing their professional preparation.

This report explores the application of five principles in occupational and physical therapy service-learning experiences: placement quality, application between classroom and community, reflection, diversity, and listening to the community's voice. J Allied Health 2005; 34:47-50.

Service Learning Is a Perfect Fit for Occupational and Physical Therapy EducationSERVICE TO THE COMMUNITY is routinely included in mission statements of most universities, colleges, and allied health departments. At the University of Oklahoma, we work with occupational and physical therapy students to actualize these ideals through course projects at homeless shelters, the Salvation Army, correctional facilities, a children's home, an adult daycare facility, a nonprofit alcohol and drug treatment facility, a residence for individuals with human immunodeficiency virus, a sheltered workshop, a group home, and an after-school program for at-risk youth. By exploring occupational and physical needs and implementing interventions at these facilities and others, we find that we not only contribute to our communities but also simultaneously optimize the professional preparation of our physical and occupational therapy students.

Service learning blends academic learning and service to the community with reflection to yield deep appreciations of one's discipline and civic responsibilities.1,2 This dual focus differentiates service learning from volunteerism and traditional clinical fieldwork. Service learning moves students from the classroom into the community to work with underserved populations, resulting in enhanced critical reasoning, personal and interpersonal development, understanding and application of core knowledge, reflective practice, and citizenship.3 Service learning, we have found, makes invaluable contributions to occupational and physical therapy education.

Service, after all, is the raison d'etre of both professions. Physical therapy provides "services to patients/clients who have impairments, functional limitations, disabilities, or changes in physical function and health status resulting from injury, disease, or other causes."4 Occupational therapy is "the art and science of helping people do the day-to-day activities that are important and meaningful to their health and well-being through engagement in valued occupations."5 Service learning prepares students to deal with these professional challenges in ways that traditional education cannot.

Researchers have identified five fundamental elements in effective service learning: placement quality, application between classroom and community, reflection, diversity, and listening to the community's voice.''6"s This report explores application of these principles in occupational and physical therapy service-learning experiences.

Placement Quality

Two early tasks in creating effective service learning are determining criteria for community partners and building alliances with them. Gugerty and Swezey9 wrote, "How an institution approaches or enters into a community is crucial to the long-term success and sustainability of service-learning programs. Having inclusive representation throughout the process and being clear on goals, responsibilities, and definitions builds trust and encourages lasting relationships."

We have found these criteria for community partners to be productive for our occupational and physical therapy students.

* Services are delivered to diverse populations, enabling students to work with individuals not typically encountered in classrooms, social circles, or traditional, for-profit health care systems.

* Opportunities are available for students to experience leadership roles in program planning and interaction with clients.

* Students can interact with clients with significant issues that challenge problem-solving skills.

Our goal has been to establish durable, win-win relationships with community partners. Organizing and maintaining this type of affiliation requires considerable face-to-face contact and follow-up. Time must be allotted to meet community partners' administrators and clients, to ask questions and gain understanding of missions and methods, and to allow them to ask similar questions of us. Debriefing at the conclusion of service-learning cycles is also important. We ask the following questions: How did our students do? Did their projects meet your needs? Is there anything we can do differently next time? Has working with us been convenient for you?

Careful consideration of criteria, coupled with thoughtful initiation and management of relationships, helps assure the quality of service learning for both students and partners.

Application: What Do Students Learn?

Before service learning can be fully embraced as a core component of professional curricula, proponents must show evidence that it results in actual learning. Eyler and Giles3 described learning as a process that prepares students to understand the environment around them. Information that is grounded in an environmental context forces the learner to synthesize rather than compartmentalize. According to Seifer,10 "Students involved in service learning are expected to not only provide direct community service but also to learn about the context in which the service is provided, the connection between the service and their academic coursework, and their roles as future health care providers."

Traditional classroom education can lead students to expect that even the most difficult problem can be solved once theory and factual knowledge are adequately understood. A subtle disconnect can develop between what students "know" and the reality students "see" around them. Immersion in the community via service learning forces allied health students to grapple with complex questions concerning inequities in the distribution of health care resources or how to best prepare clients to live and function in their desired environments. This encourages them to move beyond goals of "fixing" complex community issues toward understanding that change will be more effective if it comes from within the community. Seifer10 affirmed, "Students are learning about the community's strengths and needs, and they are learning that people in these communities are very well aware of their own needs."

Inclusion of community-based projects in a curriculum is not an automatic guarantee that students will benefit from these experiences. Impassioned participation is essential to transform service learning from merely a required performance to a personal connection between students and community. In their first semester, our entry-level occupational and physical therapy students seek out an individual from the community and spend the semester identifying and then engaging in community-based activities that the partner values and finds meaningful. Feedback from our students engaged in service-learning projects indicates that they are able, and indeed eager, to allow this transformation to occur.

* "[This] has changed my perspective on so many things. I hope to always remember the powerful effect that each one of us can have on another's life simply by being there."

* "Even the smallest act of just listening to someone or doing something to pay attention to their needs can make more of a difference than we may ever know."

* "Our goals must be common for them to [ever] be fully achieved."

These statements provide ample evidence that service-learning projects can teach valuable lessons to our students. These lessons will directly influence how they practice and interact with their community as therapists.