Social Work Students and the Research Process:
Exploring the Thinking, Feeling, and Doing of Research
Tina Maschi, Carolyn Bradley, Robert Youdin, Mary Lou Killian,
Carol Cleaveland, and Rosemary A. Barbera
The purpose of this pilot study was to explore how social work students enrolled in a
research course report their thoughts, feelings, and satisfaction with the research
process. A pretest and posttest, self-report measures, the State-Trait Anxiety Scale
(Y1), and subscales of the Research Process Survey were used to track the thoughts,
feelings, and actions of 111 social work research students during a ﬁfteen-week
semester. Results of paired sample t-tests revealed that although social work students
experienced a decrease in negative thoughts and feelings (e.g., anxiety) about the
research process, they were not satisﬁed with it. These ﬁndings have important im-
plications for social work education. Helping students increase not only their positive
thoughts and feelings about research but also their satisfaction level can assist with
the long-term educational goal to educate social work professionals who can provide
high-quality services, evaluate practice, and improve practice, policy, and social
Keywords: CSWE accreditation standards, social work education, research,
teaching, student writing, student satisfaction, library research
Research coursework is an inevitable part of every social work student’s edu-
cational experience and a formative step that shapes how he or she will inte-
grate research knowledge and skills into professional practice. The Council of
Social Work Education (2002) Educational Policy and Accreditation Stan-
dards mandates that social work education programs provide “qualitative and
The Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2007)
© 2007 by the Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors. All rights reserved.
Tina Maschi, Ph.D., LCSW, ACSW, is assistant professor in the Fordham University Graduate School
of Social Service, New York City. Carolyn Bradley, Ph.D., LCSW, LCADC, is assistant professor in the
Monmouth University Department of Social Work in West Long Branch, New Jersey. Robert Youdin,
Ph.D., is lecturer and Mary Lou Killian, Ph.D., is specialist professor in the Monmouth University De-
partment of Social Work, West Long Branch, New Jersey. Carol Cleaveland, Ph.D., LSW, is assistant
professor, George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Rosemary A. Barbera, Ph.D., MSS, MA, is
assistant professor in the Monmouth University Department of Social Work.
quantitative research content” with the explicit purpose that social work stu-
dents learn to “develop, use, and effectively communicate empirically based
knowledge and evidence-based interventions” (p. 12). A common method used
to evaluate social work students’ attainment of research knowledge and skills
is to require students to write a research proposal or report, a task to which so-
cial work research texts often dedicate at least a chapter (e.g., Engel & Schutt,
2005; Friedman, 2006; Kreuger & Neuman, 2005). Conducting research and
writing a research report are often carried out over the course of one or two se-
mesters and require social work students to identify a topic, conduct a library lit-
erature search, organize and synthesize the literature, craft research questions
and/or hypotheses, develop a research design, propose and/or carry out the
study, and write the ﬁnal report.
As systematic as this type of research assignment sounds, more than two
decades of literature suggests that social work students often experience nega-
tive emotional, cognitive, or behavioral responses to research coursework, par-
ticularly during the initial learning stages (Adam, Zosky, & Unrau, 2004; Briar,
Weissman, & Rubin, 1981; Secret, Ford, & Rompf, 2003; Taylor, 1990). These
common negative feelings, thoughts, and behaviors include anxiety and fear,
self-doubt and confusion, and procrastination and task aversion (Davis, 2003;
Forte, 1995; Royce & Rompf, 1992; Wilson & Rosenthal, 1993). Research also
suggests that prolonged engagement in research often increases students’ sense
of self-efficacy and conﬁdence about research (Holden, Anastas, & Meenaghan,
2003; Holden, Meenaghan, Anastas, & Metrey, 2002). Although we have a
general understanding of students’ affective or cognitive processes of research,
we have yet to fully explore how the interaction of thoughts, feelings, and ac-
tions affects social work students’ comprehension and overall satisfaction with
the research process. Gaining a better understanding of this process can help
educators to identify what emotional, cognitive, and behavioral factors affect
social work students’ integration of research knowledge and skills into practice.
This information can also be used to develop and improve teaching strategies for
students to effectively navigate the thinking, feeling, and doing of research, es-
pecially among BSW students, who are often new to research coursework.
The library science profession offers a potential explanation for students’ ex-
periences conducting library research for research papers ( Jiao & Onwuegbuzie,
1999; Kracker, 2002). In particular, Carol Kuhlthau (2005) proposed the
Information Search Process model, which is a six-stage process and outcome
model that describes the dynamic process of students’ emotions, cognitions,
and behaviors from the start of the library information search process to the
conclusion of the ﬁnal paper. A progression of thoughts, feelings, and actions
are commonly associated with the six steps in the process model, which consists
of task initiation, topic selection, prefocus exploration, focus formation, infor-
mation collection, and search closure.
More than two decades of empirical research on Kuhlthau’s Information
Search Process model suggests that students’ initial feelings of confusion and
2 Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work
anxiety at the start of the research assignment (i.e., task initiation and topic
selection) commonly transform to conﬁdence, competence, and satisfaction at
project completion and search closure (Kuhlthau, 2005; Kuhlthau & Tama,
2001). Similarly, initial vague thoughts about what and how to research of-
ten become focused as the project progresses and certain action strategies are
used (Kuhlthau, 1993). Despite the longitudinal validation of the Information
Search Process model with a wide array of groups such as high school and col-
lege students, legal professionals, and public library users (Kuhlthau, 1988,
1993; Kuhlthau & Tama, 2001; Kuhlthau, Turock, George, & Belvin, 1990),
the interaction of thoughts and feelings and satisfaction with the research pro-
cess has not yet been fully explored with social work students.
Therefore, the purpose of this outcome study is to build upon the extant lit-
erature by exploring the affective (feelings) and cognitive (thoughts) dimen-
sions among social work students enrolled in a research course that required a
ﬁnal research paper. A pre- and posttest design and a purposive sample using
the standardized State-Trait Anxiety Scale (Spielberger, 1983) and the Re-
search Process Survey (Kracker, 2002) were used to examine the thoughts, feel-
ings, and actions of 111 northeastern United States social work students en-
rolled in a research course. The research question that guided the investigation
was, How do social work students enrolled in a research course describe their
thoughts, feelings, and satisfaction with the research process at the beginning
and completion of a research course that required students to conduct research
and write a ﬁnal report?
Based on a review of the literature, the following hypotheses were tested: So-
cial work students enrolled in a research course will report signiﬁcantly higher
levels of anxiety about the research process at pretest levels than at posttest lev-
els. Social work students enrolled in a research course will report signiﬁcantly
lower levels of positive thoughts, feelings, and satisfaction about the research
process at pretest than at posttest levels.
Results of a series of paired t-tests revealed a statistically signiﬁcant decrease
in anxiety and an increase in overall thoughts and feelings about the research
process. However, students also reported a decrease in overall satisfaction.
These ﬁndings suggest that students’ thoughts and feelings at the beginning
and end of a research course can signiﬁcantly change for better or worse. As
these ﬁndings demonstrated, although social work students experienced a de-
crease in negative thoughts and feelings (e.g., anxiety) about the research pro-
cess, this did not also mean they were satisﬁed with it.
Research on social work students’ experiences of learning research has im-
portant implications for social work practice, education, and research. And in-
creased understanding of the co-occurring thoughts, feelings, and actions of
social work research students can assist educators and students to normalize
common thoughts and feelings about the research process. Strategies also can
be developed or improved to enhance their conﬁdence and competence with the
process. This increased conﬁdence and competence may in turn translate into
Exploring the Thinking, Feeling, and Doing of Research 3
their professional lives with the explicit goal of using their research knowledge
and skills to “provide high-quality services; to initiate change; to improve prac-
tice, policy, and social service delivery; and to evaluate their own practice”
(Council on Social Work Education, 2002, p. 12).
An investigation of social work students’ experiences of the research process
was conducted in 2005 during the ﬁfteen-week fall semester. The setting was a
private midsized liberal arts university in the northeastern United States. The
BSW students (2 percent; n = 120) and MSW students (3 percent; n = 210)
represented 5 percent of the approximate total student population of 6,100.
A pretest and posttest design and a Web-based self-report survey were used to
track the thoughts, feelings, and actions of a purposive sample of social work
students enrolled in a social work research coursework.
The target population was 153 social work students enrolled in BSW or
MSW research courses. Invitations were sent to the 153 students, and 111
social work students agreed to participate in the online survey, resulting in a
73 percent response rate. The majority of the 111 participants were female (82
percent; n = 92), between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four (41 percent;
n = 45), and white (79.5 percent; n = 89). Most of them were full-time students
(79 percent; n = 78). About one-quarter of the sample (23.8 percent; n = 25)
were BSW students, and the majority (76 percent; n = 79) were MSW students.
About one of out ﬁve students (n = 23) reported having no prior research
The measures for this investigation were used to chronicle the thoughts and
feelings of social work students at the beginning (time 1) and end (time 2) of a
research assignment. Pretest (baseline) and posttest surveys that included
Spielberger’s standardized State-Trait Anxiety Scale were used to track their
thoughts and feelings, and the subscales of Kracker’s Research Process Survey
were used to track their overall feelings and thoughts and satisfaction with the
research process. The Culturally Competent Socio-Demographic Questionnaire
(Maschi, Youdin, & Bradley, 2005) was used to gather relevant sociodemo-
Anxiety Anxiety was conceptually deﬁned as an “unpleasant emotional state
or condition” (Spielberger, 1983, p. 4) often consisting of subjective feelings of
tension, apprehension, nervousness, and worry. It was operationalized using
the standardized state anxiety form, a self-report survey that consists of twenty
4 Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work
items that use a four-item Likert scale (1 = not at all, 2 = somewhat, 3 = mod-
erately so, and 4 = very much so). Participants who complete the survey are
asked to describe how they generally feel about their most recent research expe-
rience. It includes both negative and positive statements such as “I feel calm,” “I
am tense,” “I feel self-conﬁdent,” “I feel confused,” and “I feel pleased.” Negative
statements were reverse scored prior to the preparation of the summative scale
for data analysis purposes.
Thoughts, feelings, and satisfaction with the research process The research process
was conceptualized as an awareness of the cognitive and affective dimensions
of the research process (Kuhlthau, 2005). It was operationalized by using three
subscales of the eighteen-item Research Process Survey. Developed by Kracker
(2002), the Research Process Survey is a self-report survey used to measure
students’ cognitive and affective awareness and satisfaction with the research
process consistent with Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process Model. Social
work research students were asked to respond to positive and negative state-
ments about the research process by using a ﬁve-point Likert scale (1 = strongly
disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = sometimes, 4 = agree, 5 = strongly agree).
For the purposes of this investigation, three subscales regarding the research
process were used: overall thoughts, overall feelings, and satisfaction. The ﬁrst
additive scale, overall thoughts about the research process, consisted of the fol-
lowing two items: “I don’t understand how to do research” and “When looking
for a research topic, I usually go with the ﬁrst idea that comes to mind.” The sec-
ond additive scale, overall feelings about the research process, was measured us-
ing the following two items: “Overall, I dislike the research process” and “I am
comfortable with research paper assignments.” The third additive scale, satis-
faction with the research process, was composed of the following two items: “I
generally feel satisﬁed with my research” and “I usually feel disappointed with
my research.” Negatively worded items were recoded in the reverse direction
prior to data analysis.
Demographic variables Maschi, Youdin, and Bradley’s Culturally Competent
Socio-Demographic Questionnaire was used to collect demographic informa-
tion during the initial data collection (time 1). For the purposes of this analysis,
the following demographic information was used: student status, age, gender,
and race/ethnicity. Student status was measured as a dichotomous variable. So-
cial work students responded that they were BSW or MSW students (0 = BSW;
1 = MSW). Age was measured as a continuous variable and determined by the
question “What is your age in years?” Gender was measured as either male
or female (male = 0; female = 1). Race/ethnicity was determined by the ques-
tion “What is your race/ethnicity?” in which respondents could choose from
seven categories: white (not of Hispanic origin), African American, Hispanic,
Asian/Paciﬁc Islander, American Indian/Alaskan Native, interracial, and other
race/ethnicities not listed. For the purposes of the analysis, race/ethnicity was
coded as a binary variable (majority or white = 1; minority/nonwhite = 0).
Exploring the Thinking, Feeling, and Doing of Research 5
Data Collection Procedures
Data were collected from BSW and MSW students enrolled in research
courses at the beginning (pretest) and end (posttest) of the research course.
During the fall 2005 term, twelve social work research course sections were
offered, of which three were BSW courses (i.e., two foundation social work re-
search courses and one data analysis course). Of the nine MSW courses, one
section was a foundation research course and the other eight sections were ad-
vanced research methods (i.e., three practice evaluation course, one program
evaluation course, and four courses on the implications and applications of so-
cial justice and human rights).
Social work students enrolled in at least one of these research courses were
invited to participate in the study via an e-mail invitation. This e-mail invitation
provided a link to the secure online survey, which generated a unique token
number or study identiﬁcation number. Two e-mail reminders were sent to stu-
dents who did not complete the survey within three days of the initial invitation,
and then within seven days. Students who did not respond to the initial e-mail
invitation and two e-mail reminders were then dropped from the participant
pool. The anonymous token number provided in the e-mail was used to match
students’ pretest and posttest measures.
The study was approved by the university internal review board, and stu-
dents had to provide voluntary informed consent via the Web-based link in or-
der to complete the survey. The students took the survey at the beginning (week
1 pretest survey) and end (week 15 posttest) of the semester; it took about ﬁfteen
to twenty minutes to complete. The online survey results were automatically
uploaded to an Excel spreadsheet that was transferred to Statistical Software for
the Social Sciences for the purposes of data analysis.
Statistical Software for the Social Sciences 14.0 was used to analyze the hy-
potheses about social work students and the research process. A series of analy-
ses was conducted, including descriptive statistics and paired t-tests of time 1
and time 2 anxiety and affective and cognitive processes about the research pro-
cess. Cases with missing data were dropped from the analyses for the anxiety,
overall thoughts, and feelings scales, resulting in eighty-seven cases. Cases with
missing data were dropped from the analysis of the satisfaction scale, resulting
in eighty-two cases. Since the overall sample was largely homogeneous, no sig-
niﬁcant differences were noted between the sample retained and the full sample.
In order to test the study hypotheses, a series of dependent paired t-tests was
conducted. The dependent or paired samples t-test was used for the single
sample of social work research students in order to compare their pre- and post-
6 Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work
test mean scores on the variables of central interest: anxiety, overall thoughts,
overall feelings, and satisfaction with the research process.
The results of the dependent paired t-test for anxiety show a signiﬁcant dif-
ference between pretest and posttest anxiety scores. As shown in table 1, the
mean score of the pretest levels of anxiety (t1 anxiety) is 68.09, compared to
63.47 at posttest (t2 anxiety), a decrease of 4.62. The 4.62 point difference is
statistically signiﬁcant at the .01 level, with 86 degrees of freedom. As shown in
table 2, pre- and posttest anxiety scores show a signiﬁcant decrease in levels
of anxiety among social work students enrolled in research courses (t
(df = 86)
2.08; p = .02).
Results of the dependent paired t-test for the overall thoughts scale revealed
a pretest mean score (t1 thoughts) of 6.56, whereas the posttest mean score (t2
thoughts) was 6.89 (see table 1). The difference between time 1 and time 2
thoughts was 0.32. As shown in table 2, the 0.32 point difference is statistically
signiﬁcant (p = .034), with 86 degrees of freedom. The pre- and posttest scores
show a signiﬁcant change in social work research students’ overall positive
thoughts about the research process (t
(df = 86)
= –1.85; p = .034).
The mean scores of overall feelings about the research process were exam-
ined next. As shown in table 1, the pretest mean score (t1 feelings) was 4.64,
and the posttest mean score was 6.40. The difference was 1.76. As shown in
table 2, the 1.76 point increase is statistically signiﬁcant at the .01 level with 86
degrees of freedom, which suggests a signiﬁcant change in social work students’
overall positive feelings about the research process (t
(df = 86)
= –7.87; p = .001).
The next dependent paired t-test comparing social work students’ pretest
and posttest scores for overall satisfaction showed a pretest mean score of 5.35,
compared to the posttest mean score of 5.05 (see table 1). The difference be-
tween time 1 and time 2 satisfaction scores was 0.31. As displayed in table 2, the
0.31 point decrease is statistically signiﬁcant ( p = .022), with 81 degrees of
(df = 81)
= 2.03; p < .05). This ﬁnding suggests that overall satisfaction
Exploring the Thinking, Feeling, and Doing of Research 7
Table 1 Mean scores of social work students’ anxiety, overall thoughts,
feelings, and satisfaction scores between pretest and posttest
T1 Anxiety 68.09 87 18.48
T2 Anxiety 63.47 87 20.60
T1Overall thoughts 6.56 87 1.80
T2 Overall thoughts 6.89 87 1.88
T1 Overall feelings 4.64 87 1.97
T2 Overall feelings 6.40 87 .80
T1 Satisfaction 5.35 82 1.27
T2 Satisfaction 5.05 82 1.27
decreased at the completion of the research course and research report writing
In conclusion, the results of the dependent paired t-test show that the anxi-
ety levels of social work students enrolled in research courses signiﬁcantly de-
creased, and their overall positive thoughts and feelings about the research
process signiﬁcantly increased. However, their overall satisfaction with the re-
search process signiﬁcantly decreased between pre- and post measures. These
ﬁndings warrant further discussion regarding their consistency with the extant
literature and their implications for social work practice and education. A dis-
cussion of these implications follows.
The purpose of this study was to explore the overall thoughts, feelings, and
satisfaction with the research process of a sample of social work students en-
rolled a research course. The data from this investigation found support for the
ﬁrst hypothesis, which predicted that pretest anxiety levels concerning research
coursework would decrease at the ﬁnal posttest scores. In contrast, the data
only partially support the second hypothesis. As predicted, results of a series of
paired t-tests revealed an increase in overall positive thoughts and feelings
about the research process between pre- and posttest measures. However, stu-
dents were found to experience a decrease in overall satisfaction with the re-
search process from pretest to posttest measurement. This decrease in satis-
faction with the research process was in the inverse direction of what was
These ﬁndings suggest that social work students’ research experiences, espe-
cially when they are conducting research and writing research reports, involve
a complex interplay of thoughts, feelings, and satisfaction concerning research
8 Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work
Table 2 Results of paired samples t-tests among social work research
students between pretest and posttest measures of anxiety, overall
thoughts, feelings, and satisfaction with the research process
95% CI of
Mean dif SD sem Lower Upper tdf(1 tailed)
T1 & T3 anxiety
4.62 20.69 2.08 0.21 9.03 2.08 86 .020
T1 & T2 thoughts
–0.32 1.63 0.17 –0.69 0.02 –1.85 86 .034
T1 & T2 feelings
–1.76 2.09 0.22 –2.20 –1.31 –7.87 86 .001
T1 & T2 satisfaction
0.31 1.36 0.15 0.01 0.60 2.03 81 .022
N = 87
N = 82
that may shift from the start to the ﬁnish of a project. This change in thoughts
and feelings may in turn inﬂuence the level to which these students achieve
mastery of course material, self-conﬁdence and competence, and satisfaction
with their work. Consistent with the outcomes as described by Kuhlthau’s In-
formation Search Process model, this thinking, feeling, and doing of research
appears to be a dynamic process that varies between the beginning and the end
of a student’s research project.
This investigation builds upon the extant literature by providing a portrait of
the co-occurring thoughts, feelings, and satisfaction with the process among
social work students at the beginning and the end of the research coursework.
These ﬁndings are consistent with other research studies that demonstrate a
positive effect of social work students’ sense of self-efficacy and knowledge of
the research process (Holden et al., 2002, 2003; Unrau & Grinnell, 2005). Ad-
ditionally, consistent with the Information Search Process model and social
work education literature, anxiety about research is common among students,
especially during the initial stages of a research project (e.g., Davis, 2003;
Kracker, 2002; Wilson & Rosenthal, 1993). However, the present investigation
builds upon the extant literature by simultaneously examining the overall
thoughts and feelings of social work students and their satisfaction with the re-
search process. It was found that the ﬁnding that students may report a decrease
in anxiety and an increase in positive thoughts and overall feelings about the re-
search process does not mean that students will report satisfaction with the
process. Possible reasons for the discrepancy may be similar to those for nega-
tive outcomes of mandated treatment for clients: successful completion of a
program does not guarantee satisfaction with the process or the results. Quali-
tative results from this study revealed that 98 percent of the students took a re-
search course because it was a program requirement, not because it was a topic
of interest. Perhaps if students’ initial resistance to research is not actively ad-
dressed as part of the process, dissatisfaction will be the result, regardless of
their comprehension of the material.
For social work educators, the ﬁnding regarding student satisfaction with re-
search is of particular concern. While the literature addresses issues such as
fear and anxiety regarding the research process (Gustavsson & MacEachron,
2001; Hyduk & Large, 1999), the area of student satisfaction has been left un-
addressed. Continued failure to investigate how satisfaction affects student in-
terest in research may result in an increased divide between social work re-
searchers and other social work practitioners.
These ﬁndings also have important implications for social work practice and
education. Feelings are an essential part of the research process. If feelings are
an integral part of the human experience and may affect learning, ignoring
them in research courses commonly associated with high anxiety may seri-
ously undermine our profession’s long-term educational objectives for social
work graduates to integrate research into practice. As in social work practice
situations with clients, students’ feelings in the classroom—especially fear and
Exploring the Thinking, Feeling, and Doing of Research 9
anxiety about research—should not go unchecked during the research process.
Ignoring this elephant in the middle of the classroom may greatly inhibit stu-
dents’ abilities to learn and to work logically, systematically, and effectively in
their research coursework and may undermine the long-term educational goal
of integration of research knowledge and skills into practice.
Although these ﬁndings have important implications for social work practice
and education, methodological limitations limit conﬁdence in the results. Limi-
tations of the research design include the use of a small nonrandom sample
from a private university in one geographic location of the United States. There-
fore, these ﬁndings are not representative, nor are they generalizable to the
larger population of social work students. Additionally, the use of unstandard-
ized measures (i.e., the Research Process Survey) makes internal validity and
reliability questionable. Despite these limitations, these results suggest future
directions for research.
Future research should examine both students’ processes and outcomes of
research. In particular, future studies can examine whether completion of a re-
search project may decrease one’s desire to do research and trust of the research
process. Additionally, tracking students across different points in time over the
course of the semester will provide important information about students’ lived
experiences of research courses. These studies should incorporate the use of
longitudinal mixed-methods designs. The use of qualitative data from students
and teachers could provide a thick description of the complex process that is al-
most nonexistent in the social work literature.
As so little is known regarding the area of student satisfaction, it might best
be explored through the use of qualitative methodology. Areas to be explored in
such an inquiry might be formulated through the use of adult learning theories
that address issues such as level of anxiety and need for encouragement
(Knowles, 1990), perception of threat to success (Reynolds, 1985), types of re-
search methodology taught, curriculum design, and instructional strategies.
Quantitative studies that use a nationally representative sample of social
work students and standardized measures could enhance our understanding of
social work students and the research process by providing robust ﬁndings that
are representative and generalizable. A large survey study can also gather im-
portant information about the nuances of learning research in different uni-
versities of different sizes that emphasize teaching versus research missions as
well as in different geographic regions, such as urban, suburban, and rural lo-
cations. Applied research in this area can assist with the development and im-
provement of teaching strategies that help social work students navigate the
thinking, feeling, and doing of research. Assisting students to achieve mastery
and satisfaction with the research process will help bridge research into prac-
tice. This mastery and satisfaction with the research process may greatly en-
hance the probability that they will use their knowledge and skills to provide
high-quality services, evaluate practice, and improve practice, policy, and social
service delivery in their professional lives.
10 Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work
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