Implementing Co-Curricular Community Service Experiences: More than Just Checking a Box

By: Lindsey Lee, Student Pharmacist; David Matthews, PharmD, BCACP

As a student pharmacist volunteering at the local free clinic, I (Lindsey) was asked to see patients who needed refills on their maintenance medications and to assess medication-related problems. My first patient of the night was there for a seemingly straightforward visit to check his blood pressure, but he was more concerned with his recent breathing problems and inability to afford the inhaler prescribed by the emergency department. After presenting the patient to a pharmacist and physician in the clinic, we found a local resource that helps patients get their inhalers filled for free. I counseled the patient on the proper use of his new inhaler, and he was finally on his way to getting his much-needed medication.

Community service experiences like the one described above can be a part of the “co-curriculum” that allows students to see connections between material learned in the classroom and its impact on patients during professional practice. When ACPE released Standards 2016, much attention was given to how this co-curriculum could be implemented into pharmacy programs. Community service activities are a natural fit into the co-curriculum, as they extend the knowledge and skills students gained in the classroom into practice while simultaneously benefiting the community.

The benefits of community service have been confirmed by a survey of student pharmacists working in a student-run free clinic. The survey found that students perceived a benefit from applying knowledge to real patients, collaborating with other healthcare professionals, and improving their confidence and cultural competence.1 While it may seem sufficient to mandate a set number of hours that students need to volunteer outside of the classroom, our experience tells us that not all community service opportunities are created equal. How can we ensure that all students are able to take part in meaningful community service experiences that contribute to their professional development?

Recently, there has been a shift away from classroom lectures to active learning methods that promote student engagement. We believe that a similar approach should be used when designing best practices for co-curricular activities to elicit professional engagement (defined as a state of mind where “involvement with a sense of significance, enthusiasm, inspiration, pride, and being happily engrossed in one’s profession” are present).2 If engagement is so critical to successful learning within the classroom, shouldn’t the same be true in the co-curricular setting?

We have observed that some student pharmacists are very engaged during community service, but others sign up simply to fulfil programmatic requirements and appear to be “going through the motions.” This observation is supported by one study that sought to identify engaging and disengaging characteristics and activities among student pharmacists. While 47% of responding students characterized service learning as an engaging activity, a nearly equal percentage (38%) of respondents characterized it as disengaging.3 Is this finding simply attributable to differences in individual student preferences, or can community service experiences be designed in a way that maximizes engagement?

In the study above, there was consensus among student pharmacists that engaging experiences involved the feelings of growth in knowledge and skills, building relationships, presence of a role model displaying model behavior, representing and advancing the profession, and helping others. Similarly, a small non-pharmacy study that assessed volunteer retention found that volunteers were more satisfied when the activity met their basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.4 Several clear parallels exist between these three basic needs and the qualities identified in the previous study by student pharmacists during engaging activities.

So, what should we do?

Applying the results of the literature, we propose that colleges of pharmacy should promote community service experiences involving the following in order to maximize student engagement:

  • Autonomy: students taking on an active role
    • This should not be a shadowing experience. While a preceptor must be available for questions and to review student work, students must be an active contributor to the team and able to perform basic professional duties.
  • Competence: clear connections to didactic coursework
    • The duties performed by student pharmacists should align with their didactic coursework so that they can experience growth in knowledge.
  • Relatedness: presence of a strong preceptor
    • Although autonomy benefits engagement, learners need a preceptor mentor to help connect the dots and to act as a role model. In addition to building relationships with students, preceptors should offer feedback on performance, encourage reflection, and elucidate the connections to the classroom.

Measuring effectiveness of these experiences through reflections and surveys will allow us to find what does and doesn’t work. Instead of simply “checking the box,” let’s commit to creating engaging co-curricular experiences that will create more well-rounded and competent pharmacists who can draw upon these experiences throughout their careers.


  1. Mohammed D, Turner K, Funk K. Pharmacy student involvement in student-run free clinics in the United States. Curr Pharm Teach Learn. 2018;10(1):41-46.
  2. Aronson BD, Janke KK. Measuring a state of mind indicative of thriving using the Student Pharmacist Inventory of Professional Engagement (S-PIPE). Res Social Adm Pharm. 2018;14(7):678-685.
  3. Aronson BD, Janke KK, Traynor AP. Investigating Student Pharmacist Perceptions of Professional Engagement Using a Modified Delphi Process. Am J Pharm Educ. 2012;76(7):125.
  4. Jones M, Forner V, D. Parrish D, et al. Improving the retention of volunteers through the satisfaction of basic psychological needs. Presented at the 2015 International Business Conference, New York City, USA, August 2-6.  Accessed October 18, 2019.

Lindsey Lee is a fourth-year student pharmacist at The Ohio State University College of Pharmacy. Educational scholarship interests include ambulatory care and geriatrics. In her free time, Lindsey enjoys going to musicals in Columbus and spending time with her family and dogs.

David Matthews, PharmD, BCACP, is an Assistant Professor at The Ohio State University College of Pharmacy. Educational scholarship interests include simulations and other skills-based pedagogy. In his free time, Dave enjoys exploring local coffee shops and playing card games.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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