Staying Current in a Changing Profession: Evaluating Perceived Change Resulting from Continuing Professional Education

By Smith, Charles A.; Cohen-Callow, Amy et al. | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Staying Current in a Changing Profession: Evaluating Perceived Change Resulting from Continuing Professional Education


Smith, Charles A., Cohen-Callow, Amy, Dia, David A., Bliss, Donna Leigh, Gantt, Ann, Cornelius, Llewellyn J., Harrington, Donna, Journal of Social Work Education


THE SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP between social work practice and education is likely to play an important role in responding to the increasing public demand for accountability, efficiency, and effectiveness as manifest in the outcomes measurement movement (Postle, Edwards, Moon, Rumsey, & Thomas, 2002). Social work education directed at post-degree practitioners, in the form of continuing professional education (CPE), has grown in importance as a mechanism to ensure that practitioners stay current with emerging knowledge (Davenport & Wodarski, 1989). As of 2004, CPE was mandated in 47 states along with the District of Columbia (Association of Social Work Boards, 2004). Clarke (2001) identifies continuing education as a "key mechanism through which employee performance may be either regulated or improved" (p. 757). However, there is a dearth of evidence that supports the case that social workers' participation in CPE activities does, in fact, enhance practice (Clarke, 2002; Daley, 2001; Edwards & Green, 1983). Even though there is little indication about the most effective types of CPE activities, licensing boards still sanction specific CPE activities over others (e.g., Maryland Board of Social Work Examiners, 2004).

Continuing Professional Education

CPE is intended to maintain and enhance professional skills and knowledge used in practice (Association of Social Work Boards, 2004). CPE is conceptualized as working on both individual and professional levels (Grol, 2002). On the individual level, CPE enables practitioners to maintain and improve their knowledge and competence and to adapt to changing roles and environments (Furze & Pearcey, 1999). On the professional level, CPE allows for the dissemination of current best practices and legitimizes the profession's status and image in the public domain (Livneh & Livneh, 1999; McMichael, 2000). Salas and Cannon-Bowers (2001) stipulate that CPE is effective to the extent that knowledge, skills, and ability resulting from training is applied, generalized, and maintained subsequent to the conclusion of such activities.

Mandatory CPE is regulated in the majority of states as a means of obtaining continuing education unit (CEU) credits for maintaining licensure (Barton, Dietz, & Holloway, 2001). However, merely fulfilling CEU requirements is not a satisfactory outcome in itself if the goal is to improve practice (Daley, 2001). Researchers have commented that while CPE may result in learning (Davenport & Wodarski, 1989; Waddell, 1991) it does not necessarily mean that new knowledge is integrated into practice behavior (e.g., Clarke, 2001; Furze & Pearcey, 1999; Gregoire, Propp, & Poertner, 1998; Ottoson, 1997).

Furthermore, the predominantly formal learning activities that state licensing boards sanction for CEU's (e.g., workshops, in-service trainings, conferences) are not always those which social workers cite as sources for practice behaviors (Howard, McMillen, & Pollio, 2003; Rosen, Proctor, Morrow-Howell, & Staudt, 1995). Similarly, physicians report informal sources of learning as having a more pronounced impact on change in practice behavior (Jette et al., 2003).

Cervero (2003), in a review of hundreds of continuing medical education studies, concludes that changes in practice behavior occur under some, but not all conditions. Personal factors, such as motivation, age, and years of work experience, have been identified as influencing the likelihood of change as a result of CPE. Furthermore, prior research indicates that those who are motivated to learn and grow professionally are more likely to change their practice behavior (e.g., Axtell & Maitlis, 1997; Barriball & While, 1996; Mathieu, Tannenbaum, & Salas, 1992).

While research from other fields provides a starting point and some insight into the CPE experience, motivations differ across disciplines for participation and the way in which professionals make knowledge meaningful (Daley, 2001; Gordon, Olson, & Hamsher, 1993). …

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