Research and the Social Work Exam

Many students dread studying research content on the social work exam either because they hated stats in undergrad, just “don’t do math”, or feel like it’s antithetical to the values of the profession attracting more intuitive types (looking at you, INFPs).

The truth is that research is as much at the heart of social work practice as good clinical intuition because it establishes part of its legitimacy as a profession, protects clients (especially against unethical therapy like conversion therapy), and helps us integrate knowledge from several disciplines. While it’s true that evidence-based practice isn’t just data alone (EBP should involve research data, clinical wisdom/experience, and client values/preferencnes as I teach my students taking Clinical Practice), research is an important part of it.

You don’t have to be a statistician to prepare for the research content on the exam, but you do have to know the importance of research (evidence-based practice), the scientific method as it relates to social work practice, and knowing the robustness of research methodologies.

Let’s take this practice question for instance:

A social worker is conducting research to attempt to measure the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy versus mindfulness for reduction of mild anxiety symptoms. The sample size that consented to the study will randomly be assigned to a therapist trained in one of the two approaches. What role BEST describes the role of the intervention in this research set up?

A. The dependent variable
B. The independent variable
C. A confounding variable
D. The control group

This is a fairly straightforward recall question regarding basic research terms. The correct answer is (B)—the intervention condition each client receives will be the independent variable. It’s the condition/intervention that is being “introduced” to each client since she is hypothesizing that the choice of intervention will have a significant impact on the clients’ symptoms (the symptoms being the dependent variable). While correlation does not equal causation, a significant relationship will hopefully move closer to supporting evidence for positively-impacting treatment.

A confounding variable (C) would be a variable that might not be accounted for and could influence the results. For example, if the clients in both groups experience improvement, maybe the true variable that helped them feel better could have been time or other support factors like personal support, and not necessarily the intervention.

Another important note here is that this is an experimental design. Within an experimental design, your sample size is randomly assigned to each condition, which is why it’s considered the most robust of the research designs (versus single-subject design only involving one person). If she had assigned clients the intervention that they chose (non-random), it would have been more difficult to significantly determine if there was a relationship between her interventions and the impact on their symptoms.

Research also ties into ethics here since in addition to informed consent, there was a relatively lower clinical risk in conducting this study. In this instance, clients with mild anxiety were chosen for this study, therefore reducing the risk of denying anyone in crisis the most effective treatment needed (which for some may need a medication course).

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