Using Service Learning in the Public Speaking Class

by Diane Ryan and D. Kirkland

from Inquiry, Volume 2, Number 1, Spring 1998, 42-46

Copyright 1998 Virginia Community College System

Return to Volume 2, Number 1


Two public speaking instructors highlight their goals, assignments, and results of service learning in their classes.

In the face of a renewed trend in community colleges toward service learning (Robinson) and the agenda for national volunteerism in the community goals set at the President’s Summit for America’s Future (President’s Summit), it was both timely and appropriate to experiment with teaching public speaking classes from a service learning perspective at Tidewater Community College during the summer of 1997. We used the theme of volunteerism to pilot this new approach in our classes.

Speech Assignments

Our lesson plans were flexible as we learned to apply service learning in the classroom. To achieve the goals of service learning and community involvement, D. Kirkland maintained an individual speech approach, while Diane Ryan designed her assignments using a group speech approach.

The design for Kirkland’s public speaking class required four graded speeches: 1) a speech of self-introduction which revealed interests and volunteerism biases; 2) an informative speech on some aspect of volunteerism in general, a specifically applied demonstration of how to do a volunteer activity, or a strictly informative aspect of a topic related to the students’ volunteer group of choice; 3) a persuasive speech advocating/representing a volunteer group of their choice; and 4) a special occasion speech which introduced a speaker, presented or accepted an award, or entertained in some way. The service learning connection was mostly linked to the gathering of information, but students were encouraged to take advantage of volunteer opportunities in order to speak from a first-hand perspective.

Ryan’s design also followed a pattern of four graded speeches. Two were individual presentations and two were group presentations. To set the tone for community involvement, the first speech was an individual informative speech on student services offered at the college. Students were able to get a sense of community by first looking at the college environment. A second individual speech was a commemorative speech. Topics for Ryan’s informative and persuasive group speeches were required to fit under the umbrella of a volunteer organization. Students were placed into the groups based on their scores from a communication apprehension survey, the PRCA-20 (McCroskey). The scores indicated levels of oral communication apprehension in group settings. Students with high levels of apprehension were teamed with students with lower levels in order to develop a sense of team confidence. Group sizes were generally four to five students.

Introducing Service Learning

The first community contact with the main regional clearinghouse for volunteers, VOLUNTEER Hampton Roads, was a crucial one for topic backgrounds and eventually for student connections. The nonprofit organization publishes annual and quarterly directories of volunteer opportunities and also posts them on its website: The public relations manager for the organization, Cherylann Dorsey, spoke to Kirkland’s classes about the history and trends of volunteerism as well as some of the opportunities in the Hampton Roads area. Because she gave a well-structured and excellently delivered speech, she served as a great role model for Kirkland’s students.

Equipped with a general background from Dorsey’s presentation and specific directions investigated on the Internet, Kirkland’s students also made their individual choices for speech topics under the volunteerism umbrella. Using a different approach, Ryan required her students to find all of their background material on their own. Some did access VOLUNTEER Hampton Roads, but others went straight to community sources. After some training in information interviewing, both Kirkland’s and Ryan’s students went into the community to interview experts in their organizations of choice and to gather published material to support their findings. Students selected organizations from some of the following:


The dual objectives of public speaking training and community involvement were truly accomplished. We were able to maintain our roles as communication educators while we allowed our students to become the community involvement educators for the classroom. Students’ informative speeches were enlightening and their persuasive speeches were compelling.

Both recruitment and recognition of volunteers took place during the semester. Several students mentioned that they felt inspired by fellow students to get more involved in their communities. Some recognized their lack of involvement, while others were affirmed for their continued efforts. A couple of students even committed to join the VOLUNTEER Hampton Roads Speakers’ Bureau based on the persuasive speech of one of Kirkland’s students. Students persuaded instructor D. Kirkland to sign up for the Alzheimer’s Memory walk. Students in Ryan’s groups committed to actual volunteer activities as they gathered information. For example, a group of five students whose topic was Habitat for Humanity spent eight hours on a Saturday morning helping to build a local house; the American Cancer Society speech group volunteered as helpers at a local hospital during a skin cancer screening day. Just being exposed to the agencies and organizations in the area was a learning experience for both the student and the individuals with whom they came in contact.

As we investigated sources and standards for service learning, we found five standards for quality community service (Campus Outreach Opportunity League). We feel that even this pilot experience was a success based on these criteria:

Public speaking classes are an ideal course in which to teach the principles of soliciting and representing community voice. Our assignments for "information interviewing of experts" at least partially fulfilled that goal. Additional elements of interpersonal interviewing could be used to help reach the beneficiaries of community service in order to more fully illuminate their needs from their own perspectives. Students who visited volunteer sites were more likely to gather this type of information

The suggestions for orientation and training became mostly student responsibilities. While Kirkland provided initial direction with some Internet guidelines and a guest speaker, the rest was up to the individual student. Some of the individual speech topics were even geared toward training aspects, such as how to recruit volunteers, how to choose a volunteer opportunity, and how to plan a volunteer recognition banquet. Perhaps a greater emphasis on informing about community issues might be called for to enhance the learning experience.

The element of meaningful action was dependent on the students’ choices with regard to their topic. Since they were not required to actually do the community service, there was not a consistent need for this level of personal evaluation. Students could, however, be encouraged to solicit this information from actual volunteers. This type of information would be especially valuable for proof in persuasive speeches. For instance, the students who participated in the Habitat for Humanity project reported high levels of satisfaction and the desire to volunteer again.

Whether or not students actually participated in volunteer activities during the semester, they were still involved in reflection projects. Several class and small group discussions were used for reflection opportunities. Ryan required a journal to address group process issues rather than reflections about experiences with the volunteer organization. While Kirkland did not require journal reflections, she did assign reflections as part of specific worksheet reports and oral responses in class. The use of reflection journals may be worthwhile to develop critical thinking and self-evaluation skills necessary for public speech development

With a fully developed service learning component, the element of evaluation is a must. Since this was a pilot experience, there were no official evaluation forms given to students or volunteer agencies. A number of colleges and universities have organized departments for service learning with manuals for students, faculty, and agencies which include commitment forms, guidelines, periodic reports, and evaluation forms.

The Campus Outreach Opportunity League (COOL), creators of the above guidelines, also stressed this point:

Quality community service should challenge students to educate themselves about the issues surrounding their involvement, so they might better understand and work with communities. Each effort must be designed with the intent of creating long term solutions, while ensuring independence, mutual education, dignity, and respect for all.

We did not find service learning to be an interruption to our teaching styles at all. To the contrary, we found that the chance for real communication beyond the classroom enhanced our own planned activities. Including service learning enlarged our classrooms and created a wealth of communication examples and opportunities. We both felt that the experience was worth pursuing again the next semester. Incorporating service learning activities in the public speaking classroom requires a commitment to both communication and to long term community transformation, a satisfying combination.

Works Cited

Campus Outreach Opportunity League. "What is COOL? Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) What is Quality Community Service?" It’s COOL to serve . . . your campus, your community, your world! (19 Sept. 1997).

McCroskey, James. "Measures of Communication-Bound Anxiety." Speech Monographs 37 (1970): 269-77.

-- "Validity of the PRCA as an Index of Oral Communication Apprehension." Communication Monographs 45 (1978): 192-203.

President’s Summit for America’s Future. "Community Goals." (19 Sept. 1997).

Robinson, Gail. "Service Learning: Linking Campus and Community." Tidewater Community College Faculty Orientation. Chesapeake, VA, 18 Aug. 1997.

Volunteer Hampton Roads. "VOLUNTEER Hampton Roads Newsletter." (11 May 1997).

D. Kirkland is an Associate Professor of Speech at Tidewater Community College, Norfolk. She is ABD in her Ph.D. in Communication Studies from Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA. She also does freelance communication consulting and training in institutional evaluation, customer service, and community building.

Diane Ryan is an Adjunct Instructor of Speech at Tidewater Community College, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. She has an MA in Speech Communication from Western Illinois University in Macomb, IL. With business experience in marketing and sales, she continues as a freelance trainer in corporate presentation and listening skills.