Comparison of the Use of Service Learning, Volunteer, and Pro Bono Activities in Physical Therapy Curricula

Article excerpt

Background and Purpose. Service to others is considered an important attribute of a professional and is incorporated into the Guide to Physical Therapist Practice and accreditation criteria. However, little is known about the extent of the use of service activities within physical therapist (PT) and physical therapist assistant (PTA) education programs. The purposes of this study were to determine the use of three forms of community-based learning (CBL), service learning (SL), extracurricular volunteer activity (V), and pro bono services (PB) within PT and PTA curricula and to offer a comparison between the two curricula. Methods. Survey questionnaires were sent to the program administrators of all accredited PT programs, requesting information about the use of SL, V, and PB experiences within their curricula. A slightly modified version of this survey instrument was sent to the program administrators of all accredited PTA programs, soliciting similar information. Both survey instruments requested demographic and activity-specific information. Responses were tabulated for each group and then combined to compare between groups. Results. The response rates were 48% and 47% for the PT and PTA programs, respectively. Within the last 7 years, 77% of the PT programs and 61% of the PTA programs had used at least one of the three types of service activities. Of the respondents, 50 PT programs and 38 PTA programs were currently using SL in their curricula. The most frequent goals for incorporating SL were student learning and community benefit for both types of programs. Discussion and Conclusion. Half of those responding to this survey incorporate some form of CBL within their curriculum, and many programs that do not currently include SL are planning to add SL. Service learning and PB services are offered more frequently in PT programs than in PTA programs. This study suggests that physical therapy education is increasingly incorporating service opportunities.

Key Words: Physical therapy education, Pro bono learning, Service learning, Volunteerism.


Service is emphasized in many fields of professional education, including the health care professions. Altruism is considered an extremely important attribute of a physical therapist (PT) and a physical therapist assistant (PTA), as noted in the professional practice guidelines and educational models.1-3 In addition, the accreditation standards for PT and PTA education identify the importance of developing these professional qualities in the educational setting.4 However, the extent of its integration into physical therapy education is not known.5 The purpose of this study was to determine the use of three types of community-based learning (CBL)-service learning (SL), extracurricular volunteer activity (V), and pro bono services (PB)-within curricula throughout the United States and to offer a comparison between the two curricula.

Service learning is a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs, together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development.6 Academic credit is awarded for learning, in contrast to service hours rendered while volunteering. Service learning aims to provide a reciprocal benefit for the student and the community, whereas extracurricular volunteer activity, according to Furco, "is the engagement of individuals in activities where the primary emphasis is in the service [emphasis added] being provided and the primary intended beneficiary is clearly the service recipient."7(p4) Pro bono services, incorporated into some PT and PTA education programs, provide professional services at no fee or at a reduced fee to people of limited financial means.2,7 Pro bono services are not necessarily linked to academic course objectives or structured reflective opportunities, as required in SL.

The following research questions were examined in this study: (1) How many PT and PTA programs are using service activities? …


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