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Prep Social Work Students for Research with a Proposal-Writing Project

Christopher Shar, PhD, MSW, immerses students of social work in a research skills class that helps them become smarter consumers of research.

Educator

Christopher Shar, PhD, MSW

Assistant Professor of Social Work, Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas

PhD in Clinical Social Work, MSW in Social Work, MA in Mass Communications, BA in Mass Communications

For students of social work, there are few things more exciting than diving in and helping people find the resources and services they need to improve their quality of life. To be effective at this, social work professionals must draw upon the body of academic research that catalogs the scope of human challenges and treatments. They also may, one day, become contributors to that continuously growing and evolving catalog of work.

For Christopher Shar, PhD, MSW, an assistant professor of social work at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, all of this highlights the importance of introducing students to the fundamentals of effective research.

What does that mean? To approach complex social-work problems responsibly after graduation, students must learn how to think critically about human-service issues, design finely honed research proposals, and communicate the importance of those proposals to colleagues and potential sources of funding. Since few of Shar’s students have experience in any of these areas, Shar designed a semester-long project that fills in the gaps.

Challenge

Students lack the skills to evaluate research

Because students typically do not have experience in establishing guidelines for effective research, they also lack the skills necessary to identify and evaluate effective research. As Shar explains, even students with the best of intentions often forget that academic, step-by-step methods are key to assessing clients’ problems and developing strategies to assist them.

Innovation

Build research skills with a semester-long proposal project

To help students understand how a real-life research study might take shape, Shar has developed a semester-long project for his Social Work Research class that requires students to develop and present an original research proposal—and to evaluate the potential biases in data-gathering.

“I really encourage them to ask, ‘If you want a particular piece of data, how are you going to find it? How are you going to gather it? And who are you going to gather it from?’” says Shar.

Context

“When you see a study that says, ‘Eat egg yolks because they’re good for this or that,’ well, who did the study? Was it the ‘National Egg Foundation’?”

— Christopher Shar, PhD, MSW

Course: SWK 3355-010 Social Work Research I

Course description: This course will present an introduction to research methods used in generalist social work practice and social work research. This course consists of classroom lectures, discussions, and requires the creation of a program evaluation proposal. Students will learn to apply social work ethics to the research enterprise, and will learn the relationship that research has with generalist social work practice that is evidence-based. Lastly, but not least in importance for this course, students begin to develop skills necessary to find, read, evaluate, and apply social work research in a systematic and critical manner. The importance of research guided social work practice and practice guided social work research holds primacy status in this course.

See resources shared by Christopher Shar, MS, MSW

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Lesson: 5 steps to a better research proposal

Shar helps his students develop meaningful research proposals by first breaking his class into groups of five students each—a strategy that helps duplicate the often-collaborative nature of social-work professions. He then employs the following strategies to help each group make positive progress.

1. Make excitement a requirement

Shar encourages students to avoid selecting an obvious or “boring” topic for their research proposal, as that will lead to a less than dynamic experience.

“I usually say you can come up with whatever you want, because I’m trying to appeal to whatever career directions they have within social work,” says Shar.

“But I tell them to stay away from something that’s just boring—like ‘stress levels of students around finals time,’” he says. “What I’ll collectively say is to stay away from what you would usually expect.”

An example of a hypothesis that he did find interesting was, “College students’ levels of cocurricular/extracurricular activity will decrease as their level of social media use increases.” The students measured the amount of extracurricular or cocurricular activities in which respondents were involved, as well as the number of minutes per day they spent on social media. “Their hypothesis was grounded in the research that is being done on increased physical isolation from others despite being ‘connected’ to others via social media apps,” Shar explains.

He found this project intriguing not only because it linked to existing research but also because the students themselves were interested and invested in the particular issue. Their work showed that they were able to use their interest to learn how to operationalize concepts, measure data, and select statistical analyses based on their data collection.

2. Let the hypothesis be malleable

Every study needs a central hypothesis, but Shar knows that identifying a winning hypothesis can take time. He devotes several class sessions to allowing the groups to workshop this foundational idea.

“During lecture and discussion times, we have the opportunity to see the difference in working with a research question versus a research problem and how a hypothesis differs from those,” says Shar. “They might come up with a hypothesis in the third week of the semester, and they might need to change it down the line. And that’s fine,” he says. “They’re not locked in. They’re kind of fumbling their way in a sort of baptism by fire for how [research is] conducted.”

3. Use existing literature as a model

Once hypotheses have been established for each group, Shar has the entire class read a simple journal article of his choosing so students will understand how a finished research study looks and reads.

“I break it down step-by-step: This is the title, for example, and sometimes titles are good, and sometimes titles won’t tell us anything,” he says. “Then we go to the abstract, and I tell them that an abstract usually has so many words, and then we go to the introduction, and so on.”

Since the students will not be carrying out actual research studies themselves, Shar avoids getting bogged down in particular methodologies and other details of the journal articles. “A lot of times in this course they’re scared of statistics,” he says. “So I try to defuse that tension and say that’s not so important right now.”

4. Build speaking skills with a presentation

To hone his students’ critical thinking skills even further, Shar then has each group deliver a 20- to 30-minute presentation about its research proposal. The presentation must describe the research’s purpose, scope, and possible importance or relevance to their field. He encourages groups to divvy up the work, deciding which member might best present each section of the proposal. “That way they get used to public speaking, and they understand what it is like to present at a conference,” says Shar.

Here, too, Shar provides detailed guidance. “I talk them through a number of questions, such as ‘How are you going to put that presentation together so it flows? If you were at a conference and you had five authors on this, the audience is going to be expecting something professional. So how is it going to fit all together?’”

5. Teach them the ABCs of APA format

All human-service proposals use a common language: APA format, which is the official style of the American Psychological Association. To make sure his students have a firm grasp of economy of language, organizational requirements, and APA format, Shar assigns each group a 10- to 15-page paper, due by semester’s end.

As with the oral presentations, the group may divide the paper’s sections into areas that favor each group member’s writing ability, interests, and acumen.

Student feedback

Shar’s approach has earned him accolades from his students.

“The majority of students in every class, even if they have a tough time, will say that it made the research process more meaningful and more understandable,” he explains. “They may not enjoy the thought of it going in, but once they’ve gotten through it, they feel like they [really understand] and have had a worthwhile experience—instead of just doing textbook exercises and falling asleep!”

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