Social Work Education: Research
Abstract and Keywords
Research education at the bachelor’s and master’s levels has attempted to address concerns related to students’ purported lack of interest in research courses and graduates’ failure to conduct research as practitioners. Research education at the doctoral level has benefitted from a significant increase in the number of faculty members with federally funded research grants, although the quality of doctoral research training across programs is uneven. A continuum of specific objectives for research curricula at the baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral levels is needed to lead to clearer specifications of research knowledge and skills that should be taught in all schools of social work.
The role of research in social-work education can only be understood in the context of the role of research in social work. The function and importance of empirical research in social work have been a source of contention and debate in the profession for a considerable period of time, with concerns expressed about the gap between research and practice and the degree to which science has been integrated into the social-work profession (Fong, 2012; Kirk, 1999; Kirk & Reid, 2001). Issues have been raised historically about the complexity of issues affecting the relationship between research and practice, the value and usefulness of social-work research to practitioners, and gaps in practitioners’ ability to conduct research or to assess research studies (Jensen, 2005; Lindsey & Kirk, 1992; Reinherz, Regan, & Anastas, 1983). As Dunlap (1993) notes, the role of the research curriculum in bachelor’s- and master’s-level social-work education has waxed and waned over the years in terms of expectations of graduates, perhaps paralleling, to a degree, the role of research in the social-work profession. Unlike sister professions, such as psychology, the empirical basis of social work has not been a prominent fixture of the profession, and prior to the 1990s, for example, relatively few social workers engaged in empirical research studies funded through federal research grants.
The 1991 report of the Task Force on Social Work Research, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, identified a crisis in the current development of research resources in social work. The report criticized research education at the bachelor’s and master’s levels for the lack of connection between the teaching of research methods and practice methods and also identified as a problem the lack of opportunities for students to participate in practice-related research. Research training at the doctoral level in social work was criticized for the unevenness in training among programs and for the lack of opportunities for students to participate in research activities prior to their dissertation research (Task Force on Social Work Research, 1991). The growth of interest in evidence-based practice in social work has led to recent calls by some for significant changes in the research curricula at all levels of social-work education (Howard & Allen-Meares, 2006; Thyer, 2001).
Research Education at the Bachelor’s and Master’s Levels
The latest Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards of the Council on Social Work Education (2010) states that 1 of the 10 core competencies students should acquire through social-work education is the ability to “engage in research-informed practice and practice-informed research.” This competency (Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards 2.1.6) is specifically described as follows:
As with other areas of curriculum focus, it is left to individual schools to determine advanced content in the research curriculum area. In addition, individual schools are also free to determine how to integrate research content with practice courses and field settings. It is not surprising, therefore, to find considerable variations in research curricula across schools (Fraser & Lewis, 1993; Howard & Allen-Meares, 2006). To the degree that research and practice integration is not widely implemented in schools of social work, problems concerning the relationship between research and practice and value of research to practitioners will continue to be major concerns.
Social workers use practice experience to inform research, employ evidence-based interventions, evaluate their own practice, and use research findings to improve practice, policy, and social service delivery. Social workers comprehend quantitative and qualitative research and understand scientific and ethical approaches to building knowledge. Social workers use practice experience to inform scientific inquiry and use research evidence to inform practice.
The role of research in social-work education at the bachelor’s and master’s levels has been influenced by concerns pertaining to students’ purported lack of interest in research courses, graduates’ failure to conduct research as practitioners, the relationship between research courses and the rest of the curriculum, and a gap between empirically based knowledge and the use of such knowledge in practice (Austin, 1986, 2003; Cournoyer & Powers, 2002; Davis et al., 2013; Kirk & Reid, 2001; Task Force on Social Work Research, 1991).
It is generally believed by faculty, with some empirical support, that bachelor’s and master’s students in social work approach research courses with high levels of anxiety, low levels of confidence, and a lack of interest, and they often have difficulty seeing the relevance of research to social-work practice (Adam, Zosky, & Unrau, 2004; Epstein, 1987; Green, Bretzin, Leininger, & Stauffer, 2001). As a result, since the 1980s there have been a number of strategies suggested for reducing student anxiety and increasing student interest and confidence in research courses. These suggestions have included creating a supportive class climate, using fun activities and skill-building exercises, linking research courses and assignments to field placement responsibilities, creating ties between research and practice courses, utilizing web-assisted instruction and online statistics labs, and providing students with opportunities to engage in the research process through service learning approaches involving them as active participants in community-based research projects (Elliott, Choi, & Friedline, 2013; Faul, Frey, & Barber, 2004; Grossman, 1980; Kapp, 2006; Lowe & Clark, 2009; Maschi, Wells, Yoder Slater, MacMillan, & Ristow, 2013; Rubin, 1981; Wells, 2006).
Other concerns pertaining to foundational social-work research education include a lack of qualitative research–related content in research courses, infrequent implementation of evidence-based practice in social-work field education, field instructors’ insufficient knowledge and skills in evidence-based practice to supervise students, students’ low engagement in evidence-based research, and a lack of institutional reward or support for student research at some schools (Davis et al., 2013; Drisko, 2008; Edmond, Megivern, Williams, Rochman, & Howard, 2006; Rubin, Valutis, & Robinson, 2010; Sar, Yankeelov, Wulff, & Singer, 2003).
Research Education at the Doctoral Level
In the two decades since the publication of the report of the Task Force on Social Work Research, there have been a number of research developments, as follows, that have had a positive impact on the research training of doctoral students: 15 social-work research development centers funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse have provided opportunities for doctoral students in 14 schools of social work to have hands-on, multiyear research training opportunities; there has been a large increase in the number of individual faculty members at schools of social work who have received federal research grants, which can provide research training support for doctoral students; quality guidelines for PhD programs in social work were published by the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in 2013, building upon Group guidelines funded by the National Institute of Mental Health issued in 1992 and revised in 2003; the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research has offered well-attended methodological skills training and dissertation proposal workshops for doctoral students on a regular basis at preconference sessions of the Society for Social Work and Research’s annual meetings; large numbers of doctoral students participate at the annual meetings of the Society for Social Work and Research; there has been an increase in the number of social-work doctoral students who have received federal or national foundation funding for dissertation grants; and doctoral research curricula in many schools now incorporate more sophisticated methodological and statistical training (Austin, 1998; Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work, 2013a; Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research, 2005).
Although the above developments are quite positive, there is tremendous variation in the quality of doctoral education in research among the large and growing numbers of doctoral programs in social work, which have increased in number from 35 in 1977 to 76 by 2013 (Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work, 2013b; Wittman, 1979).
A number of concerns raised since the 1980s about the quality of doctoral programs in social work, such as the need to strengthen the research productivity of graduates, the limited attention to qualitative research methods, insufficient research training in grant writing and advanced statistics, the limited publication records and involvement in funded research by doctoral program faculty at some schools, and the limitations of part-time doctoral education in producing research scholars, are still valid in the early 21st century (Anastas, 2012; Austin, 1999; Briar, 1982; Proctor & Snowden, 1991; Reisch, 2002; Rubin, 2000). In regard to the latter point, data compiled by the Council on Social Work Education indicate that beginning in 1984, a significant percentage of doctoral students were part-time students. This percentage ranged from 42% to 53% of enrolled doctoral students during the 1990s. Data pertaining to students enrolled in 2012, separated by students taking coursework or in the dissertation stage, indicate that 25% of all doctoral students were taking coursework on a part-time basis, whereas 31% of students who had completed coursework were part-time students (Council on Social Work Education, 2013). An important aspect of doctoral education in research is the opportunity for students to gain research experience under faculty mentorship through an applied research experience prior to completion of a doctoral dissertation. Such experience, however, is extremely difficult to integrate into part-time doctoral education.
The Future of Research Education in Social Work
As noted above, a number of problems remain in the teaching of research at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. Since the 1990s there have been calls for the establishment of a continuum of specific objectives for research curricula at the baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral levels that will lead to clearer specifications of research knowledge and skills that should be taught in all schools of social work (Adam et al., 2004; Fraser & Lewis, 2003; Henley & Dunlap, 1995/1996). Recent recommendations for improving the research education in social work have included emphasizing the practicality of social-work research to students, providing encouragement and support for student publications, increasing the integration of evidence-based practice in both the classroom and the field setting, improving master’s-level research preparation for doctoral study via summer research workshops and research fellowships for master’s-level students, utilizing an array of innovative educational techniques such as web-assisted instruction, and strengthening qualitative research content in research courses at all educational levels (Anastas, 2012; Cameron & Este, 2008; Davis et al., 2013; Elliott et al., 2013; Videka, Blackburn, & Moran, 2008).
Regardless of their level, social-work students should be taught about the importance of research in practice and be encouraged to pursue research pertinent to their own interests and practice (Cameron & Este, 2008). At the graduate level in particular, the scientist–practitioner model underlying master’s-level research curricula has been called into question by some as being ineffective because of the few master’s graduates that go on to doctoral education or to conduct research in their professional practices. Recommendations have been made that traditional master’s-level research courses should be replaced by courses that strengthen student competencies as evidence-based practitioners (Howard & Allen-Meares, 2006; Jensen, 2006; Shlonsky & Stern, 2006).
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