Undergraduate Research Courses: A Closer Look Reveals Complex Social Work Student Attitudes

By Secret, Mary; Ford, Janet et al. | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Undergraduate Research Courses: A Closer Look Reveals Complex Social Work Student Attitudes


Secret, Mary, Ford, Janet, Rompf, Elizabeth Lewis, Journal of Social Work Education


This study of 285 BSW students over a 4-year period examines the students' initial attitudes toward learning research and identifies associated characteristics. In contrast to social work students' reputation of being "research reluctant," findings reveal considerable variation, with a large portion of students reporting overall positive attitudes. Ordinary least squares regressions revealed that women and students with less statistical knowledge are more fearful of research courses, while older students and those with greater levels of social work empowerment find research courses to be more appealing. The study findings suggest 3 pedagogical principles upon which various teaching strategies may be based.

THE CHARACTERIZATION of social work students as "research reluctant" permeates the social work literature and informs research teaching strategies at both undergraduate and graduate levels (Epstein, 1987; Forte, 1995; Green, Bretzin, Leininger, & Stauffer, 2001; Montcalm, 1999; Wainstock, 1994). This stereotype is based on the perceptions of social work faculty (Bogal & Singer, 1981; Lawson & Berleman, 1982; Ramachandran & De Sousa, 1985) and on studies that compare social work students with peers in other majors (Green et al., 2001; Royse & Rompf, 1992). However, students' expressed attitudes about research tell a different story. For example, Lazar (1991) found that social work students reported positive attitudes about studying research and suggested that many students do not fit the profile of the research-reluctant learner. In an attempt to clarify this discrepancy and to provide insight for social work educators as they prepare their courses, this descriptive study examines undergraduate social work students' attitudes toward learning research at the beginning of their first research course and identifies some of the student-based characteristics associated with these attitudes. In addition, the study explores whether students' sense of empowerment might distinguish reluctant individuals from those who engage more readily in the research process. Understanding students' initial attitudes toward research should help social work educators discover and make use of effective teaching strategies for entry-level research courses.

Literature Review

Social work students' negative attitudes toward research have long been assumed to be major barriers to their learning. Epstein's (1987) observation that "no other part of the social work curriculum has been so consistently received by students with as much groaning, moaning, eye-rolling, hyperventilation, and waiver strategizing as the research course" (p. 71) has been cited repeatedly in describing student attitudes about research (Dunlap, 1993; Green et al., 2001; Montcalm, 1999; Royse & Rompf, 1992; Royse, 1995). Social work faculty's impression that students enter research courses apprehensively and with negative views has been documented in studies (Bogal & Singer, 1981; Lawson & Berleman, 1982; Poulin, 1989) and discussed in social work research texts (Royse, 1995; Rubin & Babbie, 1997). Consequently, social work educators continue to search for and implement teaching interventions to counteract of neutralize these negative attitudes (Epstein, 1987; Ramachandran & De Sousa, 1985; Royse & Rompf, 1992. Wainstock, 1994).

However, self-reports about social work students' attitudes toward research suggest that faculty's estimates of these negative attitudes may be inflated. As early as 1973, Seidl reported that the attitudes of graduate social work students were generally positive toward research and noted that this finding was contrary to the widely held belief that social work students disliked the research sequence (p. 75). Subsequent studies suggested that students at all levels were interested in (Lazar, 1991), of at least neutral about (Nelson, 1983), learning research. A particularly striking finding comes from Lazar's (1991) study, which revealed that faculty and practitioner perceptions of students' opinions on research courses were significantly less favorable than what the students themselves reported.

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