Bronwyn Cross-Denny on Reducing Research Anxiety for Students

By Carrie Montoya, Senior Editorial Assistant, SAGE

This post originally appeared on the SAGE Connection blog as part of its Connecting with the Community series and is reposted with permission.

Bronwyn Cross-Denny, Ph.D.,  LCSW is one of two recipients of the SAGE/CSWE 2015 Award for Innovative Teaching in Social Work Education. Understanding that some social work students may be unsure —or have anxiety— about conducting research, she developed a course that covers every step of the research process through reading, lecture, and experimental activities.

Presented by SAGE in in collaboration with the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the purpose of the SAGE/CSWE 2015 Award for Innovative Teaching in Social Work Education is to promote innovative teaching in social work by highlighting it as it emerges and to recognize the individuals or teams who have played significant roles in bringing it about. As part of her award, Bronwyn Cross-Denny had an opportunity to hold a workshop, titled “Making Research Accessible: Reducing Research Anxiety While Developing Competence,” at the 2015 CSWE annual program meeting.

(The other winner of the award, Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, was interviewed earlier by SAGE Connection.)

Read our interview with Bronwyn below.

Q: You say that many of your students are scared of the social work research process and that your goal is to help them embrace research. Was there a specific instance or turning point at which you decided to focus on this goal?

Actually, I think it started when I first began teaching research.  The students all looked anxious and paralyzed.  I started to do “debriefings” at the start of each class to gauge how they were feeling, their concerns, and to help reduce their anxiety.  I thought to myself, “This isn’t rocket science.  It shouldn’t be so hard…”  I truly believe that anxiety can interfere with the learning process and I think students become so anxious that they block their ability to learn.

Q: In your opinion, what makes research scary to first-time researchers?

I think part of what feeds their fears is what they hear from other students.  Just the term “research” indicates something beyond what brings them to social work.  “It is statistics and math,” they think.  But that’s only a small part.  If you talk with them about evaluating a program or their practice, it is much more real and accessible to them.  I tell them that often students who do not do well in “math” generally do fine with statistics or statistical concepts, perhaps because it is applicable and practical; it makes sense to them.

Q: You’ve developed a methodical, step-by-step process to teach social work research to your students. Can you provide us with an overview of this process? What step(s) do you think is the most challenging for students? How do they overcome it?

I take each step in the research proposal process and break it down for students:  from deciding on the topic to developing a data analysis plan.  I cover the material in class, and then I have the students DO IT using worksheets I have developed.  I give class time for this and come around and help them.  I tell them sometimes it helps to just talk it through.  They submit the worksheets which are graded “Full Credit,” “Partial Credit,” or “No Credit” based upon the effort they show, not if they get it wrong or right.  I give comments and suggestions as feedback for their final proposal.

I believe that the research designs are most daunting for students.  I spend a lot of time on this content and try to simplify it as much as possible.  I also conduct a “mock” study where they are participants.  The kinesthetic nature of this type of activity clarifies the concepts for the students.  I also give lots of handouts!

I must also credit Dr. Janna Heyman from Fordham University.  She was my research instructor in the MSW program and she would conduct quizzes or bonus exercises that really helped break down the concepts for students and to help them focus their studying.

Q: What are some of the more fun in-class activities you use in order to teach concepts of the research process?

The in-class mock research study as I mention above; a sampling exercise of celestial bodies to illustrate sampling and representativeness; and “One of these things is not like the other” to help students understand what is or is not a peer-reviewed publication.  I also do the “Jumping Frog” that I learned at a workshop at BPD 2011 given by Michelle Scott from Monmouth University (NJ).  This helps illustrate observations for data collection, data coding, data analysis and understanding statistics.

Q: Both new and experienced researchers make errors in the research process.  When a student makes an error, how do you prevent discouragement and motivate them to learn from the experience and press on?

On the first day of class, I put a math problem on the board and ask them to solve it.  I tell them that this is the hardest math problem they will have to do, and that SPSS will do the math for us.  I do the problem, too, and I usually get it wrong (and not intentionally!).  If I don’t get it wrong, I tell them that I have in the past.  I model for them that we all make mistakes and that is OK.  It’s part of being human and part of research (since humans do research!).  We just need to note our errors when they are made.  I also grade the worksheets and other homework based on their effort (as noted above), not based on errors.

Q: How has your work with students influenced your own research projects and interests?

As a social worker, I want to help people, and this includes my students.  I do not want them to be afraid which is why I started developing a step-by-step method for the research proposal process.  In our program, students do not conduct the study, but I had some students who were interested in doing so.  I developed a supervised research practicum which allowed students to carry out their study or to assist me with my research.  I get very excited about research and I want to share that with the students.  I think sometimes my enthusiasm rubs off on them.

Q: What advice would you give to other professors who are struggling with helping their students feel comfortable with research in practice?

It’s similar to one step at a time or one day at a time time (like in AA, which many students are familiar with). Focus on what task you are doing right now.  We’ll think about how all the pieces fit together later, and I assure them that it will.  And, at the end of the semester, they tell me that it does!

Probably, the number one recommendation I would make is to offer activities to help students understand, especially in relation to the importance of research in practice, how it benefits our clients, and as Rubin and Babbie say, “It’s a compassionate endeavor.”


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