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Preparing MSW Students for Real-World Research

Educating for impact: How changes to Berkeley Social Welfare's Masters program curriculum improved research efforts for students in agency setting

In 2013, as Berkeley Social Welfare was undergoing its reaccreditation process, the School faculty and administration identified the MSW program’s Research Methods sequence as an element of the curriculum that needed updating.

As a result, a special committee was formed to rethink the School’s approach to the research methodology coursework and formulate a strategy that would improve the quality of students’ experiences across the board. Students who fared best tended to to have field instructors with strong research backgrounds or placements in agencies with existing data, and more uniformity needed to be established.

Berkeley Social Welfare Assistant Professor Paul Sterzing, who served as chair of the Research Methods committee, notes that the old model had a “junior science-focus.” “It was designed as if the students were going to pursue a PhD in the future, and they were formulating a research question,” he says. “Almost as if they were constructing a grant proposal or an academic article to be submitted for publication — what doctoral students and faculty do.”

That format resulted in an overly stressful situation for a number of MSW students whose path did not lead to further doctoral studies. “The reality is that most of these students are going into the field to be practitioners,” says Dr. Sterzing. “There are types of research that they need to prepare for their work in agencies, like program evaluation, needs assessment and designing measures. We wanted to try to bring that practice relevance to the Research Methods sequence.”

As part of their preparation for the curricular changes, the committee looked at the research coursework for MSW programs at schools and departments of social work across the country. They observed a general shift towards research that was agency-specific, or “something that might actually be done in the field once students started working,” according to Dr. Sterzing.

“Part of the criticism of our School had been that the research hasn’t always been as connected to the communities as it could be,” he explains. “This was an opportunity to address those critiques. It was about trying to create a better synergy between the University, the School and the community as well as developing a better connection between the research we conduct and provide and the research actually being done in the larger community.”

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For the 2014-15 pilot year of the new Research Methods sequence, Dr. Sterzing worked in conjunction with Director of Field Education Greg Merrill to put out a call to agency partners and field instructors. The request for potential research assignments for MSW intern groups resulted in 30 projects. For the current 2016-17 academic year, the project request was extended to doctoral students, faculty and field agencies, with 40 projects submitted and 22 accepted.

Dr. Sterzing explains that the initial year of the new sequence, in particular, involved a learning curve. During the period, a clear picture emerged regarding which types of projects were more likely to be successful — those with developed and articulated research questions, feasible timelines for an academic year and, in some cases, with student interns already in-place — and which projects were likely to struggle, such as those still in the midst of an approval process or awaiting staff hires.

Additionally, feedback from student participants played a strong role in helping shape future iterations of the Research Methods sequence. “At the end of the pilot year there was a series of focus groups facilitated by a doctoral student,” says Dr. Sterzing. “We got feedback on how to improve the process.” 

Among the changes that were implemented in the second year as a result of the focus-group conversations was a prioritization of student project selection. “In the first year, we let the groups form and then they would select a project,” he explains. “But we got a very loud and clear message that individuals were most interested in the project itself. That would become an issue if their group members didn’t agree. We ended up reversing it, where students now first select their project and work with group members with the same preference.”

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Now in its third year, the revamped MSW research sequence functions in the rapid-fire steps of roundtable participation, project rank-ordering, project assignment, informing students of their project and course section and informing agencies about their student groups.

The process begins with the MSW students convening at the beginning of the semester with the Research Methods course faculty. The students then prepare for the roundtable event, which involves the agency field instructors meeting with them to discuss the respective projects, research questions and expected deliverables — a process described by Berkeley Social Welfare Field Instructor at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center and alumna Tracy Schrider (MSW ’89) as “speed dating." (See "Student Research Uncovers Needs of Frequent ER Users.")

The following day, students rank-order their top five projects, with the faculty meeting later in the week to determine the groups, which consist of three to five students each. By the end of the week, students are informed of their project assignments, and, based on that, they officially enroll in the Research Methods section that reflects the direction of their research project. For example, students whose projects focus on secondary data analysis and program evaluation are assigned to Professor Neil Gilbert’s section. Students who selected more qualitative research- oriented projects work under Assistant Professor Anu Manchikanti Gómez, and those looking at survey and measurement design are in Dr. Sterzing’s section.

“This course, with all its moving parts, has required a lot of creative thinking,” says Dr. Sterzing, who, with Berkeley Social Welfare doctoral student Genevieve Graff (PhD ’17), delivered a presentation at the Council on Social Work Education’s Annual Program Meeting on the topic of developing the new Research Methods sequence model. “Every year, we’re

getting better and quicker and finding new ways to incorporate student feedback and to communicate so that first-year MSW students know what to expect.”

“As we continue to do that, our student become more informed and better satisfied with their research experiences, and it will be better for our community partner agencies as well,” he adds.