Social Work Education and Student Research Projects: A Survey of Program Directors

Article excerpt

SOCIAL WORK HAS RECOGNIZED the importance of research to the profession since the "scientific charity" of the 19th century and the origins of the profession (Fraser & Taylor, 1991; Trattner, 1991). In 1931 Edith Abbott wrote, "The failure in the past to apply scientific method and scientific leadership to the needs of the poor has wasted the taxpayers' money and left behind a trail of good intentions and futile efforts" (as cited in Dunlap, 1993, p. 294). Since these beginnings, social work educators have been committed to ensuring that professionals are prepared for competent, ethical social work practice built on the utilization of research wherever possible.

Practitioners must have the ability, for both ethical and pragmatic reasons, to develop, select, and evaluate research in order to increase the quality of care at all levels of social work practice (Gambrill, 1999, 2003; Proctor, 2002, 2003; Thyer, Isaac, & Larkin, 1997). Pragmatically, practitioners must be able to justify their choice of interventions to consumers, funders, and colleagues both within and outside of the social work profession. Ethically, the ability to use and critically evaluate research findings provides the foundation for selecting the best available interventions for client systems. For all of these reasons, the need for research competence is incorporated into the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics (NASW, 1999) and is a mandated component of social work education (Council on Social Work Education [CSWE], 2008). Calls for evidence-based practice (EBP), which has at its heart the ability to critically evaluate the quality of evidentiary research (Rubin & Parrish, 2007a, 2007b), also underscore what many believe is the necessity of training professionals who understand and value research as a basis for practice (Fraser, Jensen, & Lewis, 1993; Gambrill, 1999; Proctor, 2002; Thyer et al., 1997).

Sufficient concern exists about social work research skills, knowledge, and utilization to merit an examination of this area of social work education. Although social work educators have acknowledged the value of research throughout the profession's history, concerns have also been raised about the level of engagement in hands-on research and the effectiveness of research education. Fraser and Taylor (1991) reviewed 10 social work journals between 1985 and 1989, and found little rigorous, methodologically complex research. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Task Force on Social Work Research (1991) found what they called a crisis in social work research as well as inadequate education in research for social workers at all levels. Gambrill (2003) noted a lack of involvement with research within the profession, and Dietz, Westerfelt, and Barton (2004) noted that problems still exist and concluded that "research has shown that students and practicing social workers do not understand or systematically use practice research ... and do not evaluate their practice efforts" (p. 79).

During the 1980s and early 1990s, multiple reviews and surveys attempted to describe student research in social work curricula (Bogal & Singer, 1981; Dunlap, 1993; Fraser et al., 1993; Lawson & Berelman, 1982; Poulin, 1989). In 1982 Lawson and Berelman noted that "clarification of research competencies is crucial for a logical, sequential educational continuum from baccalaureate through doctorate" (p. 92). Ten years later Fraser and colleagues (1993) found a lack of differentiation in research education and expectations across the BSW/MSW/PhD continuum. In particular they noted repetition of courses, lack of a sequential progression, and little accountability for research standards. These surveys predated the first CSWE (1994) mandate for research competence in social work education. Since that time, with a growing emphasis on evidence-based practice, there has been an influx of articles offering specific models and methods for teaching research and supporting student participation in research (Dietz et al. …