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To research or not to research? Promoting research minded social workers

To research or not to research? Promoting research minded social workers

Dr Helen Gleeson, Research Assistant & Alfonso Pezzella, Associate Lecturer in Mental Health, Middlesex University London.

The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) states that one of the expected standards of proficiency for social workers in England is: “to be able to gather, analyse, critically evaluate and use information and knowledge to make recommendations or modify their practice” (14.1), to “be aware of a range of research methodologies” (14.5), to “recognise the value of research and analysis and be able to evaluate such evidence to inform their own practice” (14.6) and to “be able to use research, reasoning and problem solving skills to determine appropriate actions” (14.7).


As teachers of research methods to social work students and supervisors of masters level students, we have noted particular challenges at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Often this appears to be due to students’ anxiety about research methods and especially around statistics and quantitative research (Onwuegbuzie & Wilson). Students come to the research methods module feeling that they should already know and understand the basics of research without having been taught these until this module – a feature that seems to be unique to this module.

There’s a certain look that social work students have on their first day of the research methods module, a combination of terror, confusion and boredom. Many students are unsure why they are required to learn about research, if they are at university to train to become social workers, surely there’s no need to train as researchers too?

Overcoming reluctance and anxiety quickly becomes the first, and really the most important, issue to tackle, which we have tried to do by showing how students already use research principles in their everyday lives, for example, how did they choose this course at this university? The second issue is to show how research and an understanding of research methods are relevant to their future careers as social workers, for example, with reference to the HCPC framework. Both social work managers and international social work bodies see the importance in having research literate social workers who will be able to critically assess and use research findings that can assist in their duties and have the confidence to test out and evaluate ethical and appropriate new approaches to practice.

Historically, social workers and social work education has embedded a critical and often political pedagogy in educating social work students, which makes research methods and associated critical thinking skills, vitally important in training social workers of the future.

In light of our discussions about the challenges identified above and as we are both active researchers, we wanted to investigate further both the attitudes of social work students to research and find ways to make the module more engaging, relevant to their overall programme and their future careers.

We conducted a small exploratory study to assess students’ attitudes towards research at the start and end of the module and held a focus group with 10 students in the final weeks of teaching. While we are still in the process of analysing this data, some key issues struck us as both surprising and novel. In particular, a number of students appear to hold the perception that more experienced social workers, who did not have a research methods requirement in their education, are still highly competent and this made our students question the need for them to learn about research.

This is leading us to think that students don’t realise the importance of research and how it influences practice or that they are not recognising when their practice educators are using research skills in their day-to-day job. Perhaps this is partly because it is not being articulated explicitly to students, or it may be that social workers who didn’t receive the same ‘formal’ education in research methods still have remnants of research anxiety as expressed by our students over the past number of years (Bell & Clancy, 2013). Over the coming months, we will be delving deeper in our study data to see what other factors are affecting students’ views on research and how we can ensure they go into practice with a comprehensive understanding of how to analyse, critique and evaluate research.

The above project has naturally led us to wanting to know more about how research is seen in practice by social workers, what their attitudes are, and how they articulate the need for research to students. For the next stage of our research, in fact, we would like to engage with practitioners and explore their views on research in practice.

Research exists in our everyday lives, from the moment we wake up till the moment we go back to sleep; we are constantly processing information, evaluating and making choices based on “our findings”. Research is not always articulated and the thought of research can become a daunting experience for students, or practitioners, however, they are constantly researching without necessary calling it research. It is very important to articulate the need for evidence based practice and education, and that our students and service users’ experience can only be enhanced through researching.


Bell, L and Clancy, C (2013) Postgraduate students learning about research: Exploring the attitudes of social work and mental health students in an English university setting. Social Work and Social Sciences Review, 16 (2): 37–50
Health and Care Professions Council (2017). Standards of proficiency: Social workers in England. Available at: http://www.hpc-uk.org/registrants/standards/download/index.asp?id=569 [accessed 21st April, 2018]
Onwuegbuzie, A.J. & Wilson, V.A. (2003). Statistics anxiety: Nature, etiology, antecedents, effects and treatments: A comprehensive review of the literature. Teaching in Higher Education, 8, 195-209.

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Dr Helen Gleeson @HELGleeson

Alfonso Pezzella @AlfPezzella

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