Open wide, please

Students in Paul Johnson’s research lectures often treat the subject as if they were visiting a dentist. Yet show them that research can be an integral part of their working life and the barriers come down.   

One of the classes I love to teach is research. Yet many, if not all, the social work students who come into the class say they are afraid of research and that they have been “dreading” it. In many ways, they treat research as though they were going to the dentist.

So I attempt to show my students that research can be what they are interested in, or what they are doing in their fieldwork placements or workplace. When they realise this, it’s as if their whole perception about the subject changes. Rather than being based on fear and trepidation, it becomes real, manageable and perhaps even enjoyable.

An approach that is particularly applicable to social work, because it provides the social worker with the knowledge, skills and procedures to evaluate their own practice, is single subject research design (SSRD). In SSRD, the researcher and the social worker are the same person. As a result, the practice problem investigated concerns of the client or consumer and the social worker.

Social workers conducting SSRD are, in fact, studying their own practice. The language of intervention in SSRD is not an abstraction, but a description of specific interventions used by the social worker as they emerge in one’s own practice. And by definition and structure, SSRD is a practice-based evaluation methodology.

Hence, the advantage of this approach is that the problem selected for research is the problem of greatest concern to the social worker. With this heightened sense of interest in the problem, it is likely to result in the social worker and the client working together and therefore enhancing one’s practice effectiveness.

Indeed, this is the same language we use in practice: the need for the social workers to actively listen to their clients, the need for the social worker to empathise with their client, and the need for the social worker to empower and respect their client. By doing all of the above, we believe as a profession that our work is likely to be more meaningful and successful.

The other positive outcome of using SSRD is that social workers can demonstrate the effectiveness of their interventions. In the US, social work as a profession is being asked not only to demonstrate its effectiveness, but also to be much more accountable.

In order to award funding, foundations are asking: “How effective is your programme?” Directors and administrators of social work agencies are asking: “How effective was that intervention, how many clients can we serve, what did you achieve and how can you demonstrate your effectiveness?”

I believe that SSRD is a methodology – and an intervention – that can be easily incorporated into practice. It does not require the learning of new abstract concepts, and it is a great way of showing the effectiveness of one’s work and of monitoring one’s practice.

Paul Johnson is an assistant professor in the school of social work, University of Southern Maine.


In 1988 the Council on Social Work Education in the US made the following accreditation statement:

“The content on research should impart scientific methods of building knowledge for practice and of evaluating service delivery in all areas of practice. The professional foundation content of research should thus provide skills that will take students beyond the role of consumers of research and prepare them to evaluate their own practice systematically.”

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