Service teaching

Administrative issues   What is service teaching?      Students' learning community
    Learning & teaching issues    
    Clarifying your topic's relevance    
    Contextualising your topic     

The ideas presented in this section are designed for:

  • service teachers who may coordinate a unit of study (UoS)
  • unit of study coordinators with service-taught components incorporated into their unit
  • course directors and first year advisors.


We wish to acknowledge the following resource which helped us when compiling this page: “Service Teaching: Student experiences, issues and future directions at RMIT”, Associate Professor Karen Nankervis (Acting Dean, Academic Development, DSC Portfolio), Ed, the RMIT Teaching and Learning Journal, Vol 3, Issue 1, 2008.

What is service teaching or cross-disciplinary teaching?

Service teaching usually involves a lecturer with specific expertise teaching students undertaking a degree program in a different department, discipline or faculty. The topic that is service-taught may be adapted to the course requirements of a specific discipline, or students from several disciplines may come together to study the same subject area.

Therefore a service-taught component is either:

  • a core unit of study (in which case the service teacher is usually the coordinator), or
  • a component within a unit (in which case the unit is coordinated by someone from the students' home department).

Some advantages of service teaching:

  • It offers students access to teachers who have a high level of expertise in their area, and the most up-to-date resources and knowledge in the field.
  • It helps to develop graduate attributes in students by broadening their experience and skill base.
  • It encourages teaching efficiencies through sharing expertise and facilities.
Service teaching

Administration issues

Service teaching can present its own particular challenges and for this reason it is essential to establish good channels of communication between service teachers and course directors or first year advisors/coordinators in the disciplines for which the component is service-taught.

  • Clarify the service agreement between the service teacher and the student’s home faculty, including shared teaching arrangements and financial or budgetary arrangements.
  • Consult on policy and requirements so that everyone knows if there are differing expectations of students (such as approaches to late work, extensions and attendance). You will then be able to clarify these for the students. This can help prevent students’ confusion over what is required of them.
  • Clarify course objectives, content, learning & teaching arrangements, and assessment requirements for the service-taught component – particularly if these differ from those in the students’ home faculty.
  • Share course evaluation data so that the service-taught component can be considered within the overall curriculum.
  • Identify staff in the student's home department who will liaise with the service teacher and determine the frequency of meetings. This makes it easier to take prompt action if any issues and problems arise.
  • Establish good working relationships between the service teacher and those teaching other components of the program. The liaison person may be better positioned than the service teacher to keep the lines of communication open between teachers across the disciplines.
  • Be aware that timetabling and assessment deadlines may be particularly challenging for students in service-taught classes, and be prepared to develop ways to deal with issues that can arise in these situations.
  • Share information about the students’ progress and results, which may include samples of feedback to individual students, general feedback, or joint moderation of assessment, so that course directors are aware of students who may be having difficulties completing the requirements of the course.

Learning and teaching issues

The quality of learning and teaching in a service-taught component impacts on the overall program quality and the student learning experience. For these reasons, members of the home department and the service teacher have to work together to effectively manage the quality of the service teaching component, while also taking into consideration the whole course or program.

It is essential to consider how the service component relates to the overall learning goals for the program, how it can be made maximally relevant to the students’ home discipline (eg engineering, pharmacy) and how the learning outcomes integrate with those of other core units in the program.

Clarifying the relevance of the topic to students

Some students cannot see the relevance of studying a subject or topic that seems outside their discipline area. To help them see the value of the component, you can emphasise the positive outcomes which include:

  • an opportunity to gain broader knowledge, which will help to build their expertise and allow them more diverse career opportunities.
  • a chance to enhance their undergraduate experience and to share knowledge and learning experiences through mixing with students from other disciplines.
  • an opportunity to experience the multidisciplinary nature of their own area of study and its overlap with other research disciplines and professional pathways.

Ways of contextualising the topic or unit of study

As a ‘core’ topic, the service-taught component requires the same amount of attention and recognition as other teaching within the discipline. For this reason both the discipline’s program coordinator and the service teacher have to work together to contextualise the content of the core course, so that students understand its relevance to their area. Below are some suggestions on ways to do this.

  • Provide the students with clear course organisation.
    When the program director presents an overview of the course this can help students to understand the context of the service-taught component.
  • Discuss how the service-taught component fits with the students' broader curriculum.
    Service teachers can consult with the home department about the broader curriculum and the role of service taught component in it, so they can clarify this for their students. See UoS alignment.
  • Develop strategies for engaging diverse student groups.
    Units of study that bring together students from a range of disciplines are likely to involve highly diverse cohorts. Find out where students are coming from – their background and prior learning – and how curriculum issues may vary across their home faculties and departments. See Diversity in learning and teaching.
  • Use examples from the different discipline areas for discussion.
    In this way students can understand that your component, even though outside their discipline, is interconnected with other learning. In Science, for example, this could extend to contextualizing some or all of the laboratory work. You may have to consult with other UoS coordinators in their program to find good examples. This helps to not only make your topic relevant to students but to other coordinators as well.
  • Integrate team teaching in the course, and encourage active teaching collaboration between the disciplines.
    This maximizes the likelihood that students will see the content as relevant to their needs. See Team teaching.
  • Include discipline specific tutorials and/or lab work in service-taught units.
    This helps to demonstrate the relevance of the service-taught topic to the student’s main area of study.
  • Situate the service-taught component as a cross-disciplinary collaboration within the students’ course.
    This helps to clarify for students the important role your teaching plays in the overall learning outcomes.

Service teaching and the students’ learning community

If there are a large number of service-taught components in first year courses, new students may feel a sense of fragmentation, or lack a sense of belonging within a learning community.

In this situation the course director or first year coordinator/advisor may need to make an extra effort to ensure that students feel part of a learning community. Some techniques for doing this are discussed in our section on Learning community.