Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to the AEJMC-PRD Paper Competition by April 1, 2017. Selected as a Top Teaching Paper. Submitted to JPRE on July 21, 2017. Final revisions completed on May 5, 2018. First published online on May 21, 2018.
Christopher J. McCollough, Columbus State University
Scholars in public relations pedagogy have provided a strong body of research on the impact of service learning, community partnerships (Daugherty, 2003), and applied learning on campaigns, writing, and production courses common to the public relations curriculum (Wandel, 2005). Rarely explored, however, is the impact of competition among student groups within a public relations course on the quality of campaigns, student experience, client satisfaction, and achievement of learning outcomes (Rentner, 2012). This study presents a comparative analysis of campaign courses that employed competitive and non-competitive campaign course models to demonstrate the impact of incorporating competition within public relations courses.
Key Words: Competition, Service Learning, Public Relations, Community Outreach, Benefits
Competition and Public Relations Campaigns: Assessing the Impact of Competition on Quality of Projects, Partners, and Students
Contemporary public relations pedagogy consistently employs the use of service learning in the delivery of course content in the upper division and capstone courses pertaining to public relations management and campaigns. Research on the practice demonstrates social, professional, and educational benefits among students (Bourland-Davis & Fall, 1997; Eyler & Giles, 1999; McElhaney, 1997; Melchior & Bailis, 2002). One key reason behind the adoption of service learning relates to the need of students to develop professional practice with clients, as well as the need to cultivate a professional portfolio. Scholars are adapting the practice beyond the capstone course in professional writing courses (Wandel, 2005), introductory public relations courses (Wilson, 2012), and even as a philosophical approach for the entire public relations curriculum at institutions (Enos & Morton, 2003).
More broadly speaking, early scholarship in service learning and its effects on students clearly articulate benefits in a variety of areas (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Kuban, O’Malley, & Florea, 2014). Service learning proponents indicate that service learning is a more effective application of core concepts and principles than if simply provided in a classic lecture model (Gray, 2005), it is an engine for strong professional development and civic development (Lewis, 2002), and it even is a natural extension of the philosophy of John Dewey (1933, 1938). Returning to the subject of public relations education, however, other elements of public relations practice remain largely unexplored. One of these elements, with the exception of one study (Rentner, 2012), is the added element of competition among teams within a public relations campaigns course.
This paper is a comparative analysis of four public relations campaigns courses. The first two course sections (2012 and 2013) made use of a traditional campaigns model, in which teams worked with different community partners, with mixed results. The second two courses (2014 and 2015) adopted a competitive model of service learning, in which student teams engaged in head-to-head bids for a win and the top score. We begin with a brief review of pertinent literature about service learning, public relations pedagogy, and competition.
Stated previously, service learning became a broadly accepted part of public relations education in the 1990s (Bourland-Davis & Fall, 1997; Daugherty, 2003). To set the context for a broader audience, we will begin by defining service learning before addressing some of its benefits to students and discussing the rarely explored concept of incorporating professional forms of competition in the classroom.
Service Learning Definitions, Practices, and Challenges
In its organic development, service learning has acquired several definitions that come back to consistent, essential practices. Bringle and Hatcher (1995) identify service learning as an educational experience involving organized service that meets community needs that includes reflection on the work to gain deeper content knowledge, to increase disciplinary understanding, and to enhance civic responsibility. Kolb’s (1984) core elements of service learning include concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. Gelmon, Holland, Driscoll, Spring, and Kerrigan (2001) explain service learning as an educational methodology that marries community service with academic learning objectives and reflection.
Service learning is a process of development or knowledge creation where students transform the information they receive from their experience and make sense of it within the theoretical framework of their academic course material (Kubin et al., 2014). Acker (2003) emphasizes active, participatory learning and developing students’ critical-thinking, analytical, and problem-solving skills. Service learning maintains a high level of academic integrity, combined with a means of experiencing the material in a way students come to see that the content of classroom lectures holds true problem-solving potential for societal problems (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995; Giroux, 2010; Twenge, 2013). Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) simply identified service learning as a way to help people take control of their own learning.
Service learning is a demanding approach for instructors, as Wandel (2005) offered up several examples commonly discussed as instructors address challenges in delivering the approach in the classroom. She notes a pragmatic challenge of time management on an academic calendar, assisting students in clearly defining a community need with partners, helping the community partner in creating goals that will effectively help meet their need(s), effectively executing work that progresses towards a solution, and allowing for the reflection that students have to embrace to maximize experiential learning. With a sense of the practice, the paper will now discuss the relative value of service learning to all relevant parties.
Practical Value to Faculty, Students, and Community
Faculty members often receive student complaints that course content has little to do with real life and, thus, is devoid of any practical value. Service-learning components, when embedded into curriculum, can add the level of relevance that students perceive as missing from curriculum. Research suggests that incorporating service-learning components into the curriculum increases levels of faculty satisfaction not only with course content but also with student learning outcomes (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995; Kahne, Westheimer, & Rogers, 2000). Through the service-learning experiences, students identify with course concepts, find the course material relevant to real-life situations, and become more familiar with the theoretical course content and more confident in the application of that content in the classroom and beyond. The service-learning model also provides faculty with a means of going beyond the basic instruction that provides a skeleton concept of the work performed with the agency, but it also allows faculty and students the opportunity to engage in deeper learning as they explore alternative applications for applying course content outside of the classroom (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995).
From the student perspective, literature also offers strong examples of how service learning can help in cultivating stronger individuals. Fritz (2002) notes that active-learning strategies can promote metacognitive process in most college subjects and data show increased retention in the course and in college. Conrad and Hedin (1989) saw evidence of improved observation techniques, open-mindedness, and aid with insight and judgment skills (Conrad & Hedin, 1991), as well as improved problem analysis skills and creativity, while being exposed to opportunities to enter the service industry. Huckin (1997) found evidence of improved critical thinking and writing skills in adopting service learning. These findings address the perspective of scholars who identified a clear call from universities to cultivate problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, and effective decision-making in students (Acker, 2003; Bransford et al., 1999; Lynott, 1998; O’Leary, 2002; Page & Mukherjee, 2007).
Adopting a service-learning model can help meet real needs of community agencies that include expanded capacities – both human and resource – of local agencies (Basinger, 2015; Fletcher, Rousell, Worrell, McLean, & Baydala, 2012); mitigate the dearth of resources in rural and otherwise, underserved, populations (Auld, 2004; Basinger, 2015; Hall, Lasby, Ayer, & Gibbons, 2009; Miller, 1991); and build vital sustaining partnerships between faculty, students, university and the community (Fletcher, et al., 2012). Research suggests that reciprocity is one of the strongest predictors of successful partnerships resulting from service learning opportunities, where each stakeholder gains from the experience with an equitable exchange of resources (Cruz & Giles, 2000; Jacoby, 1996). As such, service learning provides community agencies with knowledge, skill, and human resources they need but could not afford. In turn, students view the community agency as experience and professional network providers – both of which can be helpful in the job search. Effective service-learning partnerships encourage mutuality, shared resources and accountabilities, where each service-learning stakeholder contributes resources to help the others (Basinger, 2015; Honadle & Kennealy, 2011). Additional research suggests that service learning helps build levels of confidence in content and practice (Basinger, 2015; Kahne et al., 2000).
When viewed as such, the service-learning experience and learning can be as rewarding for the faculty member as it is for the student. One of the many positive outcomes of service learning is that faculty members can incorporate these opportunities – that often come from their own personal involvement in the community – to help students experience first-hand how vital and relevant course content can be to meeting needs in the community (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995).
Faculty can draw upon a growing body of quantitative and qualitative research literature indicating increased content knowledge and levels of awareness and engagement result from service-learning components embedded into the course curriculum (Honadle & Kennealy, 2011; Kahne, et al., 2000; Kuban, et al., 2014). Furthermore, research suggests that service-learning experience “enhances the student’s academic development, life skill development and sense of civic responsibility” (Astin & Sax, 1998, p. 262). McEachern (2001) makes the point that service learning helps bridge the gap between theory and practice in matters of civic engagement. Having established a broader sense of the value of service learning to relevant parties, the paper will now focus on the benefit of service learning to public relations education.
Value of Service Learning to Public Relations Pedagogy
Scholarship on service learning integration in the teaching of public relations suggests some tangible benefits to the holistic and professional development of college students. Scholars note that the nature of the ever-changing media environment makes the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information for decision-making essential for new professionals in public relations and journalism (Lloyd, Slater, & Robbs, 2000; Strohm & Baukus, 1995). The aforementioned literature on personal, professional, and civic development of students speaks directly to this.
Other scholars have looked at the benefit of service learning in the public relations context. Strohm and Baukus (1995) identified several benefits in the practice, including (1) flexibility to ambiguity, (2) strengthening professional adaptability, and (3) dealing with delineation using diagnostic thinking and evaluation. Daugherty (2003) explored the value California State University-Long Beach students enjoyed after the public relations program at their institution adopted service learning in not only the campaigns course but also in the internal communication, external communication, and the public relations publications course. She found that throughout the courses, students enjoyed healthy client relationships with community partners. For clients, the working experience with students was productive and beneficial to the organization, leaving them interested in future partnerships.
Bollinger (2004) detailed a small class’ work on cultivating a 5-year strategy on behalf of a local chamber of commerce. While the formal plan’s write-up fell to the instructor, students engaged in the research, data collection, and strategy sessions that generated the final document over the semester-long course. In addition to students expressing a strong sense of value in service learning, Bollinger also noted that students refined group, organizational, and interpersonal communication skills in the process of completing the project, as well as practicing public speaking skills as part of the formal presentation to the client at the end of the term.
Wandel (2005) assessed the value of using service learning in a public relations writing course to determine if the application of additional effort in course design and implementation elicited the kinds of benefits her students appreciated. In her results, she noted that the students expressed concerns over the additional work that come from collaborating with community partners. Traditionally strong performers in the class who assumed leadership roles expressed concerns over having to carry the load for the team, rather than being able to rely on the group. Students, however, found benefit in tangible portfolio materials and inspiration in working with the nonprofit organizations with which they worked. Wandel (2005) noted the one consistent element expressed by students was a desire for a stronger mechanism of individual evaluation in addition to the group project grade.
Wilson (2012) found value in service learning for public relations students’ critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Through pre-test and post-test analysis, she found significant progression across a variety of skills, most significant of which was in identifying new information needed to solve a problem and creative thinking to support problem solving. She notes that while the skills refined in a service-learning course can be beneficial for all college students, the skills highlighted are of particular value to those interested in entering a dynamic, challenging field like public relations. Next, the paper will discuss the added value of competition in public relations courses that incorporate service learning.
The Value of Competition in Public Relations Courses
Recent scholarship on service learning in public relations education puts the focus on the value of other professional pressure, specifically competition. As a concept, competition has gone largely unaddressed in public relations and service-learning literature. Early scholarship on competition in the classroom explored it as a means for motivation (Clifford, 1972) and task accomplishment (Lowell, 1952), with little consensus on findings that demonstrate the value of incorporating competition in the classroom (Dowell, 1975). Rudow and Hautaluoma (1975) noted that competition could be a strong social motivator, with both positive and negative consequences.
Literature within public relations and communication pertaining to the impact of competition remains largely unexplored, with the exception of Rentner’s (2012) examination of campaign competition among classes at different institutions during the period of two semester-long courses working for one client: the Ohio Tobacco Prevention Foundation. Over the course of 2 years, Rentner explored student motivation to succeed, the quality of the work produced, and the pride expressed in a job well done through the critical analysis of student evaluations and service-learning journals produced by students. In terms of motivation to succeed, students all expressed a high motivation to succeed and did so by putting the focus on the client, deadlines, and the work of competition at other institutions, rather than their individual evaluation. Students expressed a high desire to produce quality work in light of the competition taking place with other institutions, routinely citing the products of the competition in contrast to their own when citing concerns over product. Finally, complaints about the time-consuming nature of campaign work were mitigated by acknowledging the pride they took in seeing finished project work and the final event they helped coordinate and run, as well as a sense of pride in their own university.
While Rentner’s (2012) work offers a model for a broader program among institutions that effectively implements service learning to the benefit of students in a public relations curriculum, what is lacking is additional scholarship reviewing the actual products of students and exploring the impact of competition within a public relations classroom in seeking the approval of a client. Moreover, no scholarship on pitching clients exists in the current public relations education literature. This paper answers Rentner’s (2012) call for exploration of the impact of competition on the work produced in a single public relations campaigns class employing a service-learning format.
Based on Rentner’s (2012) intercourse analysis as the model for testing the value of competition within a single public relations classroom, the researchers consider the following research questions:
RQ1: What is the quality of the product delivered to the client?
RQ2: What is the client perception of working with the student group(s) assigned?
In addition to Renter’s original focus, the researcher is also exploring the overall student perception of the class, which prompts the following research question:
RQ3: What are the students’ evaluation of the public relations course with and without the competition element?
The study used a mixed-methods approach to analyze the products, client perceptions, and students’ assessments of the courses. To assess the quality of the products produced, the researcher revisited the campaign books produced in all four classes. There were three in the 2012 course, three in the 2013 course, six in the 2014 course, and six in the 2015 course. The research evaluated the design aesthetic of each project’s mock-ups, the quality of student writing, the public relations logic and application of principles of best practice, and the quality of the research employed.
To evaluate the client perception of working with the student groups, the instructor asked each client to provide frank assessments of each team at four separate points in the semester, as a means of evaluating client relations and meeting needs. The researcher reviewed each comment on this basis to assess the quality of each team’s effort to (1) find common ground with the client, and (2) produce work that meets client needs.
Finally, to evaluate the student perspective on the course, the researcher reviewed the student evaluations provided for each of the four course sections. First, students reviewed the 10 standard questions asked of students at the university regarding all instructors. Faculty evaluations at the institution are on a five-point Likert scale, with 5 being the strongest assessment and 1 being the weakest. Second, since the 10 questions posed in the institution’s final course evaluations lack depth of description and speak very little to the course projects, team dynamics, or the experience of working with a community partner, the instructor asked students in the free response sections to comment on specific elements that they enjoyed and disliked. The instructor reviewed all comments and identified key themes reflecting the strengths and weaknesses of the course design in the non-competitive and competitive models.
With the means of analysis established, the paper will now briefly discuss the design of the four course sections.
The Course Designs
The instructional presentation of content across all four sections of public relations campaigns held true. During the first 8 weeks of the course, students began with some light remediation about the principles of best practice in public relations, including a review of and thorough discussion of the application of RACE (Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 2006), ROPES (Kelly, 2001) and the four models of public relations communication (Grunig & Hunt, 1984). The instructor covered assignment-specific elements in research, campaign planning, campaign execution, evaluation, book production, and client pitching throughout the term as well. The instructor held lectures one day a week, with an in-class work session the second day, in which the instructor visited with each team and discussed the weekly progression of their projects.
The second half of the course moved to a more team-driven form of applied learning. Each team engaged in the campaign process and, rather than hold formal lectures, the professor had one mandatory team meeting each week, and the teams held a mandatory client meeting in lieu of a second lecture session each week.
The fundamental difference in the 2014 and 2015 course sections of public relations campaigns was the migration from a traditional team-client dynamic where the sole focus was production on deadline to a pitch competition. Whereas three student teams of 6-8 in a class size of 18-24 for three local nonprofit organizations was the framework for the 2012 and 2013 sections, the growth in popularity of the class to roughly 28-30 students enabled the instructor to adopt a competitive model of six student teams, consisting of 4-5 members. The instructor then identified three community partners and assigned two student teams to each client based on student team interest in working with each client.
In a move meant to minimize disparity in student skills and aptitude, and to enhance the parallel with a “real world” working environment, the instructor moved to assigning the student teams on day one of the course. Students were reminded that when they are hired by a public relations firm, the agency directors assign individuals to specific account teams based on their skills.
To control for concerns about one team member carrying all of the work (Wandel, 2005), individual team members had to provide two metrics of accountability. The first was a bi-weekly peer review of their peers on the team, which the instructor maintained as a weekly assignment and used to frame the team meetings each week. The second was an individual portfolio turned in at the end of the term, which contained a cover letter, resume, and 10 individual project items that were a part of the team project. Peer evaluations and the portfolio comprised 15% of the students’ overall grade. In essence, a good team performance would not be enough for team members who were not active, productive contributors on their teams.
At the end of the 15-week term, students submitted the team campaign books, and performed professional pitches for each of the three clients in head-to-head sessions, akin to standard practice for public relations, advertising, or marketing firms. To assist relatively inexperienced clients with determining the quality and long-term value of the student projects, the instructor invited a team of four local practitioners with experience in healthcare, nonprofit, corporate, and public sector public relations to provide insight on the overall quality of the materials produced and strategies proposed.
At the end of three one-hour sessions, the instructor announced the winners of each competition. The winning teams earned automatic A’s for the project, while the losing teams were subject to the instructor’s evaluation of the project. The projects comprised 55% of the overall student grade, so the competition carried a high incentive value for each student team. With the design of the course laid out, the paper next addresses each of the research questions.
Reviewing Student Products
Overall, the formal review of campaign books in 2012 and 2013 against the 2014 and 2015 campaign books yielded clear overall improvement in organization of the books, attention to detail, and adherence to public relations logic. In the 2012 and 2013 books, it was clear that in the effort to satisfy client needs, students let go of either a RACE or ROPES model of practice in favor of a client-specific text. Also apparent was the relative disorganization of some student team texts, even after careful instruction on campaign book organization. In the effort to do so, however, most of the books still lacked a coherent sense of organization that would enable the reader to review each section and clearly identifying its relationship to the larger book and project. Graphic design, media production, and attention to specific core elements of best practice in public relations were inconsistent among the six books presented. In fact, the two highest scoring teams in the 2012 and 2013 courses were the only teams that attended to these considerations.
There was a clear improvement in the 12 2014 and 2015 campaign books reviewed, at least in terms of design and book organization. Student teams delegated design work and public relations strategy more effectively among team members, which yielded a stronger product for students to submit to the client. Student teams made effective use of integrated media strategies, specifically the strategic application of video production, social and digital media messaging and distribution, and more precise event planning in support of the media production produced on behalf of the client partners. The general organization of the books was also largely much cleaner, with only two of the 12 books earning poor marks on organization.
Some elements did remain problematic, even with the application of competition to the campaigns course model. The quality of student writing was largely inconsistent with the exception of a few strong writers who took the editorial role on the campaign teams. Student research was more effective in employing secondary research sources but suffered when students had to adopt primary research in filling knowledge gaps about the clients and strategic publics or to engage in incremental or summative evaluation of the project work.
One interesting element that was largely inconsistent in both competitive and noncompetitive public relations campaigns models was the application of stewardship (Kelly, 2001) with the client and on behalf of the client with strategic publics essential to the campaign. In two instances, the critical attention to client and publics, specifically in terms of stewardship, made an essential difference in determining the winning bid in the competitive campaigns courses.
Client Reception of the Teams and Products
In reviewing the comments of each client over the four course sections, it is clear that the competitive model encouraged a larger body of student groups to engage in two-way dialog with the clients throughout the campaign process. In the 2012 and 2013 courses, the strongest teams adhered to Kelly’s (2001) argument for the value of stewardship in public relations. Specifically, the most successful teams maintained a minimum of one meeting a week, and often maintained frequent email communication with the client and among team members. That said, it was largely absent from most of the team projects. Of the six student projects reviewed, only two teams really adopted the core principle of stewardship and merited the comments from the client reflecting this. While the majority of community partners expressed a sense of appreciation for the assistance, one 2013 community partner offered this candid perspective on the work of the student team:
I could spend more time reviewing the group and its performance; however, I wanted to tie the final assessment back to the actual written agreement between Client and Consultant. With that said, along with other documentation of events throughout the course of the semester, my overall grade for group as a whole would have to be an F. I truly hate to say that but, that is, in all honesty the grade I have to give them as a team. The final straw with this particular grade is based on the fact that the group did not let me review their campaign book at all before submitting it and I do not feel confident that they were truthful in their report.
This report prompted the instructor to adopt direct competition, and the results in subsequent course sections validated this decision. In contrast, in the effort to win a competitive bid, a wide base of the 2014 and 2015 books adopted stronger stewardship and more consistent client communication throughout the process. One client’s comments offer a clear indication that attention to detail, stewardship, and addressing the needs of the community partner remained top of mind for each of the two teams collaborating with this 2015 partner:
Your students were an absolute pleasure to work with. Their final presentations reflected a great deal of work on their part as well as the excellent educational background received from you. Your guidance and leadership was certainly apparent in their final product. The experience and skills your students gained from this “real life” experience will have a great impact on them as they pursue their careers. The time spent with the staff from the Georgia Department of Economic Development Tourism Product Development Division was certainly a valuable experience as well.
The comments effectively reinforced the value of adopting competition in terms of helping students see the need for effectively addressing the needs of the client, either directly or by demonstrating the value of the strategic publics clients may or may not see. Even more indicative than the praise in the client comments is the fact that many of the 2014 and 2015 project materials are still in use by the client partners today.
An interesting component worth noting in this analysis is that student groups in the competitive model also demonstrated an ad hoc form of incremental self-evaluation and adaptation in strategies and tactics in their interactions with clients. In using the weekly client sessions to account for the client wants and needs, students had to confront the clients’ perceptions of the quality of the students’ work and to make necessary changes to project components that did not meet client expectations. The instructor encountered many more conversations with students who had to part with project elements they designed after a client meeting left them with an understanding that this would not meet needs. While not an intentional motivation for the migration to competitive course design, the instructor acknowledges the professional development value of having to let go of one’s ego when producing materials and strategy for clients who may have different aesthetics or opinions on strategic direction.
Students’ Assessment of the Courses
In reviewing the course evaluations across these four sections, there was slightly harsher criticism for the instructor from students in the 2015 course section, but not a potentially damaging assessment of the instructor in considering teaching effectiveness for factors like annual review and promotion and tenure. There was a slight decline in ratio from the 2012 (4.67) and 2013 (4.69) course evaluations against the 2015 (4.49) course evaluations; however, the first year of competition, 2014, yielded the strongest evaluations (4.92) to date. Even with one competitive course section trending lower in student evaluations, the overall evaluations provide strong evidence of the value of service learning among students as the instructor reviewed open student comments about the project work.
In review of the student comments, we see a strong emphasis on the value of service learning in providing exposure to real clients and acclimating students to client relations. Several students expressed appreciation for the practical experience that working with community partners yields. This perspective is in line with the work of scholars who identified student perceptions of benefit (Daugherty, 2003; Wilson, 2012). Students also expressed a strong affinity for the competition element, as well as the excitement behind developing a strategic pitch.
Negative comments about the course were limited, with only an occasional student over 4 years expressing a desire not to engage in service-learning because of the extra demand and pressure it put on them to effectively complete the task. Specifically, in three instances over four courses, individual students expressed frustration over the time commitment in working with community partners and requested that the instructor consider using hypothetical clients to facilitate more efficient project work. This coincides with Wandel’s (2005) timing challenges, specifically the rhythm of engaging in community outreach within the practical limits of an academic calendar.
Another area of student frustration in three instances was the instructor’s decision in 2015 to use assigned teams rather than to permit students to form their own student teams. The student comments suggested frustration over having to work with classmates whom they disliked. Other comments cited frustration with classmates’ relative unreliability, forcing one or two team members to carry the majority of the work. This prompted the instructor to revisit instruction on team dynamics and professional responsibility in task delegation, both from a manager’s and technician’s standpoint.
DISCUSSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
In reviewing the three research questions, the instructor found support for the application of competition in service-learning courses, specifically within the public relations curriculum. In response to the first research question, a review of the students’ campaign books demonstrated a general improvement in design, organization, and adherence to best practices in public relations when dealing with the competitive pressures in a service-learning course like campaigns. One point of interest was the relative struggles of students with industry standards of effective writing, reinforcing previous findings that indicated young practitioner struggles with writing proficiency in the contemporary workplace (Todd, 2014). Another was the disconnect between the value in primary and secondary research, regardless of the application of competition in the course. Both have prompted the instructor to invest time and energy in reviewing the connection between the writing and research curriculum and the senior-level public relations campaigns course. Overall, however, this is general support for an improvement in the quality of the product produced by the students.
The second research question called upon the clients to reflect on their experiences in assessing the quality of student work in the campaigns course. In general, the clients who encountered students in competition enjoyed a more attentive group of student teams who adopted the principles of stewardship (Kelly, 2001) and benefited from consistent dialog with the team on the overall quality of the product. Student teams had the added benefit of being able to better adapt the project and materials to the needs of the client and to help the clients better understand strategic publics that they may not have previously considered prior to the partnership. That said, further examination of specific teams’ failings in stewardship is a noteworthy area of inquiry for self-reflection and improvement of the class model.
With regard to the third research question, the instructor enjoyed generally strong student evaluations in all four course sections, but did see an increase in criticism in the final year of evaluation (2015), while enjoying the strongest evaluations in the first year of adopting competitive learning models (2014). Each of the 4 years of instruction demonstrated positive student feedback for service learning and for the adoption of competitive modeling.
The refined emphasis on strict scrutiny in the second year of using competitive learning models may have prompted a more critical response from student learners. Another possibility is that in adopting the approach in the first year, perhaps the instructor was more attentive to being specific and thorough in providing initial and subsequent reminders on course instruction that helped students with clarity of content and approaching deadlines. Nevertheless, even in adopting the competitive learning models, the instructor enjoyed a strong reception from students and was able to blend service with teaching. Further review of course articulation and evaluation will permit the instructor to refine the course model.
The instructor acknowledges that the data pool here is limited to one instructor’s course load over four semesters, and that the practice needs exploration across a larger sample, over time. This merits a broader analysis among instructors who have adopted a competitive model to determine student and client satisfaction. It is also of note to consider how differences among clients may also impact differences in the service-learning experience, which will have merit for future adoption of service learning in the realm of working collaboratively with partners before, during, and after the semester-long project (Wandel, 2005).
Acknowledging the merits demonstrated among institutions in Rentner’s (2012) study and what the instructor sees in his own courses, further examination of the value of the practice and the balance of competition’s impact on perception of the course and instructor is important in considering the holistic development of aspiring public relations practitioners (Page & Mukherjee, 2007; Wilson, 2012). More instructors adopting competitive-learning models should engage in scholarship on the subject to enable greater refinement in the discipline.
Those interested in adopting this approach should be mindful of a few elements. First, in the instructor’s experience, an emphasis on cultivating community partnerships and maintaining an instructor-level line of communication with each partner before, during, and after the process proved beneficial. The literature on service learning notes the time intensive necessity for partner cultivation (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Wandel, 2005), so prospective adopters must account for this in course planning. It not only enables a more fluid classroom application, but it facilitates future partnerships, as well.
Instructors should also be prepared to provide consultation with individual students on a wide variety of topics. A common topic for this instructor has been conflict resolution with team members and clients. Another commitment comes in remediation of core concepts with individual students who may have struggled in the introductory public relations, media production, design, or research courses that provide the intellectual foundation for a strong performance in public relations campaigns.
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