To Solve Social Challenges, Students Learn to Avoid Reinventing the Wheel

MSW@Denver students are required to take “Evidence for Practice” led by Associate Professor Jennifer Bellamy. A mental health clinician and crisis counselor, Bellamy’s research focuses on child welfare and engaging fathers from low-income families in the parenting process. For Bellamy, the positive culture of the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work offers an exciting environment to teach and learn. We sat down with Bellamy to chat about the key take aways in her course and how students apply those lessons in social work practice. 

Tell us about the “Evidence for Practice” course.

“Evidence for Practice” is a foundational research course. It teaches students how to be critical consumers of research evidence. This class is different than other institutions because it’s not number crunching 101.

Instead we use the evidence-based practice process. Students focus on a particular intervention question that interests them. Some students are interested in specific clinical interventions. Other students might be interested in institutional policies like changing a school’s approach to bullying. The class is built around learning the evidence-based practice process by exploring the research related to that question.

Why is evidence-based practice important in the social work field?

Evidence-based practice is a dominant narrative in our field. We use existing research on social work practices to see what’s already been done and what we already know about the most successful approaches in that area of intervention.

Students start with a question that may already have an answer via an effective approach. It’s critical that they don’t start reinventing the wheel, but they build upon the good knowledge that’s out there.

Students also need to be critical thinkers. For example, when a consultant comes in and says “I have this evidence-based intervention for you and I want you to pay me $50,000 to implement this,” I want them to say, “Can you show me the research-based evidence that supports the effectiveness of the approach?” and to feel confident enough to push back.

What do students find most rewarding and most challenging about this course?

Students like choosing something they are passionate or curious about. They also love that there are practical tools that will be helpful to them in other courses where they need to write 30-page research papers.

On the flip side, students find the material challenging. We don’t do statistics, but we do read statistics. That can be super intimidating. But I try to demystify things for them by describing the statistics in very practical and applied terms.

What’s the benefit for students learning in an online environment?

Most of my online students are often older, more diverse — many are parents, and have different life experiences. That adds richness to our conversation and it gives students a varied perspective.

I also love thinking about how different places do things differently. Being a social worker in New York was different than being one in Austin, which was different than here in Colorado. I think a lot about how the culture of a place has changed the way I work to engage people from locale to locale, which is perhaps the most important fundamental skill of social work. Everything from how you greet people, how long you wait to let them answer a question, how much you smile and eye contact varies depending on geographic location. Then of course there are the local policies and distinct challenges. For example in my work on child maltreatment prevention in Colorado, the challenges and strengths of a community are location dependent. In rural Colorado, parents are talking about the lack of resources, but also the generosity of neighbors. In the urban areas, parents are highlighting distrust due to problems like drugs and crime, but glowing about the amazing resources provided by their schools and libraries.

This diversity encourages flexible thinking which is an important part of critical analysis. You can think to yourself, “this intervention may be proven to work well in rural Minnesota, but will it work in urban Denver?”

Citation for this content: MSW@Denver, the Online Master of Social Work from the University of Denver.