In an interview with Dr. Ann Golub-Victor, we learn more about the role of service-learning in her course, Psychosocial Aspects of Healthcare Seminar, the intersection of public health and medical care, the importance of strong interpersonal skills between patients and providers, and the benefits of thoughtful reflection.
By Iris Zeng
Tell me about your course in general.
Psychosocial Aspects of Healthcare Seminar is a one semester hour course that is taken alongside the three semester hour lecture course, and in that course, the overall purpose is to have an opportunity for physical therapy students to explore the aspects of professionalism, communication, motivation, cultural competency, ethics, working with people with disabilities, and how we as physical therapists need to consider all of these factors as it relates to our relationship with patients.
Wow, that’s awesome! I didn’t realize we offered a course like that.
Yeah, it’s kind of one of those courses that a lot of people talk about in terms of teaching the “soft” skills. One can learn about gross anatomy, movement analysis, and what exercises can help with what, but unless you are an active listener and can perceive the unique issues of each individual patient, you’re not going to be as effective with them. It’s a critical part of our curriculum.
How does service-learning help you meet your course goals? How is it interwoven into the course material?
It’s interwoven into the course material through facilitated reflection. For the seminar, which I lead, we do online reflections through the discussion board on Blackboard; this happens three or four times a semester and then there’s an on-site reflection session, so we get to see each other face-to-face and have real time discussion. But what also ends up happening is, in the lecture part of the course, our Service-Learning TA joins one of the sections and helps facilitate those connections between service and content which adds to people’s reflections. In the past, it’s been, “what have you learned on co-op” or “what experiences did you have on co-op or other activities,” and here, our Service-Learning TA can remind students that there’s always service, making conversation richer.
So they can probably use the skills they learn through service-learning and apply it to their future co-ops as well?
Oh, absolutely – future co-ops, future clinical associations, future jobs, etc. That’s part of the reflection where we help students see the connection and help them see how it relates. It’s a really nice discussion.
What do your students usually do at their S-L placements?
It varies but in general, they’re leading or assisting with fitness programs. It’s not physical therapy by any stretch of the imagination – they don’t have that training, they don’t have the license. So it’s very much a layperson’s program, and it takes place in the community. We’ve got students leading exercise programs for community-dwelling older adults. We have students helping out with adaptive sports programs for adults and children. We’ve got students leading overall fitness and wellness promotion programs for children in the local community, and those are the ones that we run. But then we also have students placed at, for example, Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures, which has students from many different programs helping out. We also have students serving with Horizons for Homeless Children; it’s a little bit of a different bent but it’s pretty diverse.
How did your relationships with your community partners develop?
We’ve had a long history with some of these programs, well over 15 years. Part of it was initiated through connections. Originally, we started with service-learning as part of a capstone project; it wasn’t embedded within the curriculum 15+ years ago, and it was more of a core group of faculty, including myself, who would lead students in their capstone work on projects related to service. This core faculty looked to develop service projects, and many of the relationships began a while ago. Once we decided to embed service-learning in this course, we took those same relationships and said, hey, we can offer this to you, and they either jumped at the chance or said no thank you. Over the years, we’ve added programs involving assisting folks with disabilities, and that was kind of through my contact. For example, I know the physical therapist who leads an adaptive ice skating program, and she said she could use as many students as possible, so those kinds of things.
How do you think S-L has affected your teaching?
It’s definitely affected my teaching, almost a chicken and egg kind of thing. Again, years ago, it was so clear that physical therapy students really valued any kind of experiential learning opportunities. It really helped them make those connections with what they learn in the classroom and what’s happening in front of them. And it did so in a way that was above and beyond what they got in co-op. Again, that was started through these capstone projects; part of that was my interest in public health, and so I kind of liked that bent, working with the community, being embedded in the community that we are neighbors of, and helping the local community. So part of it was my initiation, and that has fed into my teaching throughout. Service-learning enables me to bring up real life examples to help illustrate clinically important lessons. But likewise, kind of on a personal level, it’s a public health thing that helps me help students understand that, yes, we are very much focused on working with individual patients, but our responsibilities as professionals extends to populations of people, the public at large, and the society at large. That’s been helpful for service-learning and helpful to me, being able to pull in those examples and looking at social issues that trickle down to Mrs. Smith in Room 220A and why it’s important for us to care about that.
Do you think having your students involved in service-learning has influenced your way of thinking about healthcare or physical therapy?
I don’t know if it’s helped me develop new ideas – I think it’s solidified my role as a physical therapist and an educator. I’ve been doing this for a long time and so my early experiences as a physical therapist took place in urban communities with children with profound disabilities. I noticed immediately that you can’t begin to work with that population without encountering families who are struggling to make ends meet, or alternatively, struggling to do the best for their kid under those circumstances. I couldn’t help but become aware of these issues and have them hit me in the face when I’m trying to do things like practicing physical therapy, ordering equipment, and understanding insurance complications. So I think it’s enhanced [my way of thinking] versus learning new things, if you will.
If you were a student in your own course, what would you do to get the most out of that experience?
I think that my #1 piece of advice would be to take advantage of the opportunity that the facilitated reflections offer. I think students are able to get more out of it that way, kind of digging deep in terms of their learning when they take the time and effort to offer those deeper reflections through facilitated discussion. Years ago, students kind of did service-learning with a little reluctance, but more recently, students come in eager to have these experiences, so my advice is no longer “do the service and commit to your service.” They’re already committed to the service which is extraordinary, but it’s the advice around the taking-the-time-to-reflect – we don’t always do that.
Do you have any tips about incorporating and using service-learning in your course that you could give to other faculty members?
I think there are wonderful opportunities for student participation in healthcare-related courses. A prime example is that we just reconnected with the Huntington Avenue YMCA; we’ve had a relationship with them years ago, but given the construction work and changes in staffing, it just didn’t work out in a way that we were able to continue. Based on what they were saying about the services they provide their members, we thought that physical therapy might be able to offer some things, but so would exercise physiology and exercise science, and so I think that there are lots of opportunities for other health-related curricula to take advantage of service-learning. I’m not sure if the graduate programs in public health would logistically be able to do that within their coursework but that could also be pretty interesting. There are avenues for activities that don’t require a professional degree or clinical work.
Do you think service-learning was easy to incorporate into your course because of the nature of the material and your connections?
Putting logistics aside (because doing this for 100 students every year is a little crazy), yeah, it was a no-brainer. Our community partners love our students and our students bring such energy; no matter what else is going on in their semester, every week, they go in and do it, and they love it.
Dr. Ann Golub-Victor is currently a clinical professor for a number of physical therapy courses, including Psychosocial Aspects of Healthcare Seminar. She is also a part of the Service-Learning Advisory Board.