Students’ Perceptions of Service-Learning in an Advanced Research Course

Keywords: Service-learning, engaged teaching, social work, research competency, metacognition


Social work students are often anxious, apathetic, or resistant to learning research knowledge and skills. They may view research courses as irrelevant and disconnected from social work practice. Studies suggest that service-learning improves learning outcomes in social work research courses, but less is known about the processes through which these outcomes are achieved. This study explored the perceptions of 70 Masters-level social work students enrolled in an advanced research course that included a pro bono program evaluation of a shelter serving homeless men. Content analysis of students’ narratives revealed three main themes. First, students perceived that they had changed their thinking about homelessness in positive ways. Second, students made connections between their research experience and the social work curriculum. Finally, an unanticipated theme of curriculum integration emerged. Critical reflection about a meaningful experience—an integral aspect of service-learning—supported students in developing metacognitive insight. This helped students to develop and apply social work research skills. The service-learning project supported students’ mastery of other social work competencies and improved their integrated practice abilities. Because this approach is effective in helping students to embrace research and integrate it with social work practice, application and evaluation of service-learning are recommended for social work education.

Author Biographies

Stacy M. Deck, Spalding University
Associate Professor, School of Social Work
Laneshia Conner, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Assistant Professor, School of Social Work
Shannon Cambron, Spalding University
Assistant Professor, School of Social Work


Anderson, S. (2000). Engaging students in community-based research: A model for teaching social work research. Journal of Community-Based Practice, 10(2), 71-87. doi:
Averett, P. E., & Arnd-Caddigan, M. (2014). Preparing BSW students for service-learning: Enhancing epistemological reflection. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 32(3), 316-331. doi:
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.
Bringle, R. G., & Hatcher, J. A. (1995). A service-learning curriculum for faculty. The Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning, 2, 112-122.
Bringle, R. G., & Hatcher, J. A. (2002). Campus-community partnerships: The terms of engagement. Journal of Social Issues, 58(3), 503-516. doi:
Butin, D. W. (2006). The limits of service-learning in higher education. Review of Higher Education, 29(4), 473-498. doi:
Campbell, E. M. (2012). Implementing service learning into a graduate social work course: A step-by-step guide. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 32(3), 300-313. doi:
Colby, I. C. (2013). Rethinking the MSW curriculum. Journal of Social Work Education, 49, 4-15.
Coulshed, V. (1993). Adult learning: Implications for teaching social work education. The British Journal of Social Work, 23(1), 1-13.
Council on Social Work Education [CSWE]. (2008). Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards. Alexandria, VA: Author.
CSWE. (2015). 2015 Educational policy and accreditation standards for baccalaureate and master's social work programs. Alexandria, VA: Author.
Cronley, C., Madden, E., Davis, J., & Preble, K. (2014). Factors influencing service-learning utilization in social work: Results from an online survey of faculty. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 34(2), 147-166. doi:
Daley, B. J. (2001). Learning and professional practice: A study of four professions. Adult Education Quarterly, 52(1), 39-54. doi:
Deck, S. M., Platt, P. A., & McCord, L. (2015). Engaged teaching-learning: Outcome evaluation for social work students in a graduate-level service learning research course. Advances in Social Work, 16(2), 233-248. doi:
Donaldson, L. P., & Daughtery, L. (2011). Introducing asset-based models of social justice into service learning: A social work approach. Journal of Community Practice, 19(1), 80-99. doi:
Edmond, T., Megivern, D., Williams, C., Rochman, E., & Howard, M. (2006). Integrating evidence-based practice and social work field education. Journal of Social Work Education, 42(2), 377-396. doi:
Epstein, I. (1987). Pedagogy of the perturbed: Teaching research to the reluctants. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 1(1), 71-89. doi:
Eyler, J., & Giles, D. E. (1999). Where's the learning in service-learning? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Gambrill, E. (1999). Evidence-based practice: An alternative to authority-based practice. Families in Society, 80, 341-350. doi:
Hardcastle, D. A., & Bisman, C. D. (2003). Innovations in teaching social work research. Social Work Education, 22(1), 31-43. doi:
Harder, J. (2010). Overcoming MSW students' reluctance to engage in research. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 30(2), 195-209. doi:
Holden, G., Barker, K., Rosenberg, G., & Onghena, P. (2007). Assessing progress toward accreditation related objectives: Evidence regarding the use of self-efficacy as an outcome in the advanced concentration research curriculum. Research on Social Work Practice, 17(4), 456-465. doi:
Holden, G., Barker, K., Rosenberg, G., & Onghena, P. (2008). The Evaluation Self-Efficacy Scale for assessing progress toward CSWE accreditation-related objectives: A replication. Research on Social Work Practice, 18(1), 42-26. doi:
Hyde, C. A., & Meyer, M. (2004). A collaborative approach to service, learning, and scholarship: A community-based research course. Journal of Community Practice, 12(1), 71-88. doi:
Jacoby, B. (1996). Service-learning in higher education: Concepts and practices. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Kapp, S. A. (2006). Bringing the agency to the classroom: Using service-learning to teach research to BSW students. Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work, 12(1), 56-70.
Knee, R. T. (2002). Can service learning enhance student understanding of social work research? Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 22(1-2), 213-225.
Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner (6th ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Layne, C. M., Fields, P. J., Moyse-Steinberg, D., Krishna, M., & Dinov, I. (2009, November). Making evidence-based practice user friendly: Integrating clinical proficiency and data-proficiency training across the social work curriculum. In V. S. (Chair), Preparing graduate social work students for evidence-based trauma intervention. Symposium presented at the annual meeting of the Council on Social Work Education, San Antonio, TX.
Lemieux, E. 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), 309-325. doi:
Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
National and Community Service Act of 1990. 42 U.S.C. §12511.
National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of Ethics. Washington, DC: Author.
Otto, H., Polutta, A., & Ziegler, H. (2009). Reflexive professionalism as a second generation of evidence-based practice: Some considerations on the special issue, ‘What works? Modernizing the knowledge-base of social work’. Research on Social Work Practice, 19(4), 472-478. doi:
Phillips, A. (2011). Service-learning and social work competency-based education: A ‘goodness of fit’? Advances in Social Work, 12(1), 1-20.
Rhoads, R. A. (1998). In the service of citizenship: A study of student involvement in community service. The Journal of Higher Education, 69(3), 277-297. doi:
Robinson, M. A., Robinson, M. B., & McCaskill, G. M. (2013). Teaching note--An exploration of team-based learning and social work education: A natural fit. Journal of Social Work Education, 49, 774-781.
Rocha, C. (2000). Evaluating experiential teaching methods in a policy practice course: The case for service-learning to increase political participation. Journal of Social Work Education, 36(1), 53-56.
Shank, G. D. (2002). Qualitative research: A personal skills approach. Columbus, ON: Merrill Prentice Hall.
Shannon, P., Kim, W., & Robinson, A. (2012). Implementing a service learning model for teaching research methods and program evaluation. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 32(3), 229-242. doi:
Steinberg, D. M., & Vinjamuri, M. K. (2014). Activating adult-learning principles through small groups in preparing social work students to achieve CSWE research competencies. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 34(4), 363-383. doi:
Thyer, B. (2004). What is evidence-based practice? Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 4, 167-176.
Wells, M. (2006). Teaching notes: Making statistics "real" for social work students. Journal of Social Work Education, 42(2), 397-404. doi:
Williams, N. R., King, M., & Koob, J. J. (2002). Social work students go to camp. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 22(3-4), 55-70. doi:
Yorio, P. L., & Ye, F. (2012). A meta-analysis on the effects of service-learning on the social, personal, and cognitive outcomes of learning. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 11(1), 9-27. doi: