Running head: TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 1
Teaching about Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Social Work Education:
A Systematic Review
Katarzyna Olcoń, University of Wollongong
Dorie J. Gilbert, Norfolk State University
Rose M. Pulliam, Texas State University
Corresponding author: Katarzyna Olcoń, PhD, Social Work Lecturer, School of Health and
Society, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Wollongong, South Western Sydney Campus,
33 Moore St, Liverpool, NSW 2170 Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 2
Little of social work literature provides evidence of best teaching practices for preparing social
work students to work with clients from historically excluded racial and ethnic groups. A
systematic literature review was conducted to assess studies published in the United States
during the ten-year period (2007-2016) that examined: (1) social work educators’ pedagogical
interventions for teaching about racial and ethnic diversity, (2) components of those
interventions, (3) methodological designs to evaluate the interventions, and (4) the students’
learning outcomes associated with those teaching interventions. Following the systematic review
protocol, the authors identified and assessed twenty-five studies (qualitative, quantitative, and
mixed-methods). The studies reflected a variety of teaching interventions, such as diversity
courses and projects, instructional technology, and cultural immersion programs. While many
reported positive student learning outcomes, as a whole, the studies lacked methodological rigor
and sound theoretical grounding. Although social work education attempts to prepare students
for multicultural practice, the field lacks an intentional and systematic approach to teaching
about racial and ethnic diversity and evaluating learning outcomes in social work students. There
is an urgency to expand the empirical evidence on social work diversity education, particularly
concerning teaching about race, racism, and Whiteness.
Keywords: social work education, social work students, multicultural education, diversity, race,
ethnicity, racism, White privilege, Whiteness
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 3
Teaching about Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Social Work Education: A Systematic Review
Social work programs and educators play a crucial role in setting the tone and direction for the
profession’s discourse and practice with diverse communities; thus, effective diversity education,
one that would prepare students to be competent practitioners, in social work education is
critical. The importance of attending to racial and ethnic diversity in social work services has
been widely discussed in the social work literature and incorporated in the Educational Policy
and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) of the Council on Social Work Education ([CSWE], 2015).
Upon graduation, social work students should be able to demonstrate the competency to “engage
diversity and difference in practice,” which means having the ability to “understand how
diversity and difference characterize and shape the human experience and are critical to the
formation of identity” (CSWE, 2015, p. 7). While the concept of diversity is extensive and
includes many factors that shape an individual’s identity, such as age, class, race, culture, and
religion (CSWE, 2015), the focus of this article is on social work education specifically related
to racial and ethnic diversity and its implications for social work practice.
There is a significant gap in understanding what constitutes a comprehensive and
effective approach to teaching about racial and ethnic diversity. Because students are future
service providers, this gap may have critical consequences. Clients from historically excluded
racial and ethnic groups are disproportionally affected by negative life experiences, yet they are
more likely to underuse or terminate social services, which, among other reasons, has been
attributed to cultural insensitivity, marginalization and discrimination by service providers (e.g.,
Ahn, Miller, Wang, & Laszloffy, 2014; Black, 2012; Jones, Hopson, Warner, Hardiman, &
James, 2015). These findings are further concerning when considered in light of the “discrepancy
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 4
between the composition of the social work labor force and the demographic profile of many
client groups” (NASW, 2011, p. 2). In fact, 69% of active social workers in the United States are
non-Hispanic Whites (Salsberg et al., 2017), and most will work in some capacity with clients
from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. The racial/ethnic imbalance between
professional social workers and their clients, which is central to this discussion, is, in part, an
artifact of the racial disparities in higher education. Although more students from historically
underrepresented racial and ethnic groups are enrolling in social work programs, they currently
represent only 35% of BSW graduates and 31% of MSW graduates (CSWE 2016).
Given the segregated nature of the U.S. society, White individuals, including White
social work students, who are not generally encountering those racially and ethnically different
from themselves may have a limited understanding of racism and sensitivity to the complexities
of cross-racial and cross-cultural relationships (Rodenborg & Boisen, 2013). Thus, this paper
examines social work education strategies for teaching about racial and ethnic diversity, with a
specific focus on interventions and outcomes related to learning about racism and Whiteness.
While social work aims to prepare students to work with diverse clients, the topics of
racial and ethnic diversity and oppression remain on the periphery of social work education.
Several authors have expressed a concern that race, racism, and Whiteness have not been
sufficiently addressed in the social work curriculum (e.g., Abrams & Gibson, 2007; Nylund
2006). Deepak, Rountree, and Scott (2015) conducted focus groups with 19 social work students,
faculty, or staff (58% White) who either taught, had taken, or had an interest in diversity courses
to examine the importance of context and implicit curriculum in delivering diversity education in
social work programs. Inadequate faculty preparation and discomfort with the topic of race
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 5
emerged as significant barriers to successful diversity education (Deepak et al., 2015). In a study
of 15 clinical social work faculty members (80% White) who taught advanced practice courses,
Varghese (2016) found that the “majority of the participants do not think about or teach critically
issues of race and racism, nor are they aware of the many opportunities to incorporate issues of
race and racism into clinical social work practice material” (p. 144). Varghese (2016) elaborated
that the faculty viewed race primarily in individual terms, focusing on the ethnic or cultural
identity associated with it, yet they lacked knowledge about the history and current day social
and economic effect of racism and its links to other forms of oppression. Similarly, based on a
review of MSW course syllabi, Mehrotra, Hudson, and Self (2017) reported that diversity and
social justice courses focused predominantly on individual-level self-awareness, i.e.,
understanding one’s own social identities and developing an awareness of assumptions and
biases as key competencies, as opposed to macro/structural analysis of systems of oppression.
The theoretical frameworks and strategies for teaching practice with diverse communities
currently employed in social work education have increasingly come under criticism for
predominantly focusing on the concept of cultural competence, defined as awareness,
knowledge, and skills needed to work effectively with people across different cultures (Sue &
Sue, 2016) as opposed to anti-racist practice (Dominelli, 2008). Moreover, although the
profession’s mission calls for eliminating racism and oppression, the field has remained mostly
silent on the role that Whiteness and Eurocentrism play in structural injustice. Jeyasingham
(2012) explains that social work education should engage with Whiteness studies because they
allow, among other reasons, “consideration of the invisible and hegemonic ways in which power
generally operates” (p. 682). Rather than studying the cultural characteristics of nondominant
racial and ethnic groups, the profession should require an anti-racist pedagogy and an analysis of
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 6
Whiteness that looks inward at individual and institutional causes of inequalities and dominance
(Abrams & Gibson, 2007; Giroux, 2000). Moreover, social work services have been labeled as
“missing the mark” (Williams, Simon, & Bell, 2015, p. 56) in their approach to serving racial
and ethnic communities, which often requires attention to structural oppression such as racism as
opposed to focusing solely on individual interventions (Padilla, 1990; Viruell-Fuentes, Miranda,
& Abdulrahim 2012).
Consistent with the above concerns, only a tiny subset of the social work education
literature in the United States explicitly addresses race, racism, and Whiteness (Abrams &
Gibson 2007; Dominelli, 2008; Nylund, 2006; Ortiz & Jani, 2010; Pewewardy, 2007). Also,
while much has been written in social work about cultural competence, multicultural practice,
and diversity education, relatively little of this literature has embarked on empirically assessing
the readiness of social work students for practice with clients from historically excluded racial
and ethnic groups.
It is important to provide a few definitions guiding our work. We view race as “an
ideology about human differences” which “became a strategy for dividing, ranking, and
controlling colonized people used by colonial powers everywhere” (American Anthropological
Association, 2016), and racism as “a system of inequality and oppression based on race”
(Varghese, 2016, p. 136). Ethnicity has been generally understood as “collective cultural identity
(…) shared values and beliefs, the self-definition of a group, ‘us’” (Spencer, 2006, p. 45).
Critical Whiteness theory, also broadly referred to as Whiteness studies, analyzes and exposes
the meaning and implications of Whiteness; rather than skin color alone, Whiteness implies a
power structure, an ideology, and an individual identity, which is nevertheless, mostly invisible
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 7
to White people (Jeyasingham, 2012). Whiteness thus serves as “a default standard . . . [f]rom
this color standard, racial/ethnic minorities are evaluated, judged and often found to be lacking,
inferior, deviant or abnormal” (Sue, 2006, p. 15). Finally, multicultural/diversity education is a
pedagogical approach focused on promoting principles of inclusion, pluralism, cultural
relativism, critical thinking, and self-reflection with the goal of addressing racial inequality and
injustice (Bell, 2007). Using a variety of perspectives, it emphasizes the history and experiences
of marginalized groups as counternarratives to the dominant discourse and aims to give students
the knowledge and skills needed to work toward social change (Bell, 2007).
The Present Study
Although the conceptual literature on the topic of multicultural social work practice and
education is abundant, little of this literature provides the evidence of best teaching practices for
preparing social work students to work with clients from historically excluded racial and ethnic
groups. Moreover, no systematic review has been published to date in social work education to
offer a summary of the existing teaching strategies focused on racial and ethnic diversity and
their effectiveness. This systematic review will thus assess empirical studies to determine: (1)
types of pedagogical interventions used to teach about racial and ethnic diversity in social work
programs; (2) the components of those interventions, especially the inclusion of the topics related
to race, racism, and Whiteness; (3) methodological designs to evaluate the interventions; and (4)
reported student learning outcomes.
The purpose of the study was to find and review U.S.-based studies that documented
social work education teaching strategies for preparing students to work with racially and
ethnically diverse clients and reported student outcomes associated with those strategies.
Systematic review procedures were used for all aspects of the search, retrieval, selection, and
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 8
coding process of published studies meeting study inclusion criteria (see Campbell
Collaborations Review Guidelines at www.campbellcollaboration.org; Littell, Corcoran, &
Pillai, 2008). A ten-year (2007-2016) timeframe was chosen for the review given the various
cultural competence-related developments that have taken place in social work since 2007. These
include the NASW publications - Indicators for the Achievement of the Standards for Cultural
Competence in Social Work Practice (2007; revised in 2015) and Institutional racism & the
social work profession: A call to action (De Silva et al., 2007), as well as the introduction of the
CSWE Educational Policy 2.1.4 - “to engage diversity and difference in practice” (2008; revised
Study Eligibility Criteria
Eligibility criteria for inclusion in the review included the following: (1) study conducted
in the United States; (2) study published between January 1st, 2007 - December 31st, 2016; (3)
study is empirical (quantitative, qualitative, mixed methods); (4) sample must include social
work students (BSW and/or MSW); (5) study names and/or describes a pedagogical intervention
specific to teaching about racial and ethnic diversity; and (6) study must include some evaluation
component of the teaching intervention and report the learning outcomes for the students.
Research citations from January 1st, 2007 to December 31st, 2016 (ten years) were
searched in seven electronic databases by two reviewers: (1) Social Service Abstracts; (2)
PsycINFO; (3) Academic Search Complete; (4) Web of Science; (5) ERIC; (6) PubMed; and (7)
Dissertations and Theses Global. Some of the search terms included: "social work education"
OR "BSW education" OR "MSW education" OR “social work program*” AND divers* OR race
OR ethnic* OR multicultural* OR cultur* OR "White privilege" AND “research study” OR
quantitative OR qualitative OR “mixed methods”. Next, a thorough review was conducted of the
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table of contents of five social work journals that publish articles referring to social work
education and/or diversity in social work: (1) Journal of Social Work Education; (2) Journal of
Teaching in Social Work; (3) Social Work Education, The International Journal; (4) Journal of
Baccalaureate Social Work; and (5) Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work.
Studies identified in the search process were screened independently by two reviewers,
and any disagreements on whether a study should be included in the review were discussed
between the two reviewers. If the reviewers were unable to arrive at an inclusion/ exclusion
decision, a third reviewer was asked to screen the study and assist in making the decision. After
the selection of relevant studies, their references were hand searched by two reviewers to
determine if any other studies fit the inclusion criteria. Finally, the first authors of the selected
articles were contacted via email to inquire about other potential studies on the topic that had not
already been identified.
In the last step, the studies selected for full-text review were coded to collate and analyze
the results. Coding categories included: (1) type of report; (2) theoretical framework; (3) study
design; (4) demographic information; (5) pedagogical intervention descriptors (e.g., type, length,
setting, components, whether racism and Whiteness had been addressed); and (6) intervention
outcomes/significance (e.g., improved scores on cultural competence measures). Additionally,
two types of quality indicators were used depending on the study methodology. CASP
Qualitative Research Checklist (Critical Appraisal Skills Programme, 2017), which includes
questions such as “Is a qualitative methodology appropriate?” (p. 2) and “Was the data analysis
sufficiently rigorous?” (p. 5), was used for qualitative studies and the qualitative component of
mixed methods studies. Quantitative studies and the quantitative component of mixed methods
studies were assessed with the Standard quality assessment criteria for evaluating primary
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 10
research papers from a variety of fields (Kmet, Lee, & Cook, 2004) which includes questions
about the robustness of outcome measure(s), controlling for confounding variables, justification
of analytic method, and whether the estimate of variance was reported, among others. Quality
scores were not used to exclude studies, but to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Two
reviewers coded the studies independently, and any disagreements in coding were reconciled in a
Figure 1 shows the “preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses”
based on the PRISMA model (Moher, Liberati, Tetzlaff, & Altman, 2009). The electronic
databases yielded a total of 2,401 titles and abstracts, and an additional 14 were identified
through journal hand searches. A search of the reference lists of the selected articles yielded 18
additional studies. Email inquiries were sent to 25 authors of the selected articles, and five of
them identified 6 new studies. A total of 2,439 titles and abstracts were thus identified and read
to assess their relevance to the present systematic review. Following this search process, and
after removing duplicates, the full texts of 191 unique reports were retrieved for screening. A
total of 145 studies were excluded at the screener level for not meeting the study criteria (e.g.,
focus on social work providers or faculty as opposed to students, lack of an evaluation
component, focus on countries other than the U.S.). Additional 21 articles were excluded after
the reviewers read the full-text, because, among other reasons, the evaluation component either
lacked an empirical basis or was solely based on anecdotal evidence. Twenty-five (25) studies
went on for coding.
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 11
Insert Figure 1 about here
The majority (76%, n = 19) of the articles were published in social work journals, 16%
appeared in non-social work journals (n = 4), and 8% were dissertations (n = 2). The most
frequent social work journal was Journal of Teaching in Social Work (n = 6), followed by The
Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work (n = 4), and Journal of Social Work Education (n = 3),
and Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work (n = 3). Two were published in Social
Work Education, The International Journal, and one study was published in
Affilia: Journal of
Social Work and Women.
The non-social work journals included: Journal of Technology in
Human Services (n = 2), Multicultural Perspectives (n = 1), and International Journal of
Humanities and Social Science (n = 1). The principal objectives of the studies can be
summarized as: (1) to evaluate the effectiveness of a diversity-focused pedagogical intervention;
and (2) to explore students’ learning outcomes in response to diversity-focused pedagogical
The study eligibility criteria allowed for all methodologies and designs to be included in
the review, given that a methods section explaining the data collection and analysis was
included. Fifty-two percent (n = 13) of the studies were quantitative, 32% (n = 8) were
qualitative, and 16% (n = 4) were mixed-methods.
The majority (n =11) of quantitative studies and the quantitative components of mixed
methods studies were based on pre- and post-surveys administered only to the students who
received the pedagogical intervention of interest. Six studies (24%) included a comparison
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 12
group; they were either pre- and posttest nonequivalent, quasi-experimental designs or posttest
only designs. A variety of measures were utilized across the studies: the Multicultural
Awareness-Knowledge-and Skills Survey (MAKSS), the Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale
(COBRAS), the California Brief Multicultural Competence Scale (CBMCS), the Social Work
Cultural Competencies Self-Assessment, the Oppression Exists Measure (OEM), the Modern
Racism Scale [MRS], the Multicultural/ Multiracial Experience Inventory (MEI), the
Multiculturally Responsive Index (MRI), and others. Five studies used measures that the authors
specifically designed for the study, and four studies used more than one measure. In addition to
the descriptive analyses, the t-test was the most commonly used data analysis procedure (n = 12).
Other methods included ANOVA (n = 6), regression (n = 2), Chi-square test (n = 2), Wilcoxon
Signed Ranks Test (n = 2), MANOVA (n = 2), and Pearson Correlation (n = 2).
The most common data source in qualitative studies and the qualitative component of
mixed methods studies was written work collected from the students during or after the
intervention: journals/reflection papers (n = 4), classroom papers/assignments (n = 2), online
discussion forums (n = 2), student open-ended written feedback/evaluation after an activity (n =
3), or a combination of these. Only two studies used individual or focus groups interviews, and
two included field observations, e.g., fieldnotes from students’ panel discussions. Content
analysis was the most common qualitative data analysis method (n = 5 studies), and others
included grounded theory (n = 2), thematic analysis (n = 1) and phenomenology (n = 1). Four of
the qualitative and mixed methods studies either used some other form of data analysis approach
or did not specify their data analysis method.
The most frequently utilized theoretical framework to guide the research studies was the
cultural competence model; 32% of studies used some form of this model. Some of the other
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 13
guiding theories included social
theory (8%), the transcultural perspective (8%),
and the transformational learning theory (8%). Several other frameworks were used once,
including the White racial identity development model, critical pedagogy, critical race theory,
intergroup contact theory, cultural humility model, dual perspective, etc. (for brief descriptions
see Table 1). Nearly one-quarter (24%) of the studies did not specify their guiding theoretical or
Insert Table 1 about here
Total sample sizes for all studies ranged from six to 386, with the average size of 98.9
(SD = 95.7). The sample size in quantitative studies ranged from 11 to 386 (M =147, SD =
104.5), in qualitative studies from six to 65 (M = 28, SD = 20), and in mixed methods studies
from 22 to 179 (M = 83.8, SD = 68.9). Eighty-four percent of the studies had samples that were
only social work students; out of this 43% of had only BSW students, 38% of studies were MSW
only, and 19% included both groups. Sixteen percent of the studies included students from other
majors such as sociology, criminology, human development, and family services. In two of these
cross-disciplinary studies, social work students were the minority, representing only 27%
(Colvin-Burque, Zugazaga, & Davis-Maye, 2007) and 23% of the sample (Mapp, 2012).
Concerning race and ethnicity, non-Hispanic Whites were the predominant group; on average
70.6% of the samples were White. African Americans and Latinos represented nine percent each
of the total sample, Asians – four percent, Native Americans – one percent, biracial/multiracial
students – two percent, and others (e.g., African Caribbean and Middle Easterners) two percent.
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 14
The remaining two percent were unknown. Five studies failed to provide some or all of the
demographic information of the sample, and the above averages were calculated excluding those
studies. The samples were predominantly female, with percentages ranging from 60% to 100%
and an average of 82.7%. Finally, because of inconsistent or missing data on age, the average age
was not calculated; however, the age range was from 18 to over 52, and in general, the majority
of the participants were in their 20s and early 30s.
Insert Table 2 about here
The pedagogical interventions aimed to engage students in reflecting on cultural
differences and their implications for social work practice, change students’ racial attitudes, and
increase their cultural competence, among others. The duration of the interventions ranged from
one class period to one semester, with 56% being one semester long. Only two studies provided
information about the characteristics of the class instructors/facilitators of these pedagogical
interventions, with one study being co-taught by two White women and another course was co-
taught by one Native American and two White instructors. The interventions can be grouped into
four categories: (1) diversity/cultural competence courses; (2) diversity/cultural competence
projects, (e.g., intergroup dialogue); (3) instructional technology, (e.g., videos and virtual
communities); and (4) cultural immersion programs such as study abroad programs (See Table 2
Diversity/cultural competency courses. Seven studies (28%) evaluated the
effectiveness of social work diversity/cultural competence courses or equivalent (e.g.,
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 15
Diversity Practice, The Culturally Responsive Social Work, Facing Racism in a Diverse
Nation). Four of the studies detailed the course components, including an ethnographic
family of origin case study, interview with a classmate about racial and ethnic identity
formation, analysis of vignettes with multicultural issues, and self-reflective journaling.
Diversity/cultural competence projects. Eleven studies (44%) described and evaluated
some special projects aiming to teach students about racial and ethnic diversity. Although these
projects were usually incorporated into diversity courses or other parts of the BSW or MSW
curriculum, the study only evaluated the effect of the particular project. Some of these projects
were Ethnic Roots, Self and Other Awareness Project, Intergroup Dialogue, Consciousness-
raising Group, and Cultural Genogram (for a complete list and descriptions, see Table 2). Some
of the activities required of the participants were: interviewing family or friends, writing an essay
about their ethnic/racial background, attending a cultural interaction or event, preparing a family
genogram, attending peer-facilitated intergroup dialogue groups, class discussions about racism,
power, White privilege, and oppression, among others.
Instructional technology. Four studies (16%) evaluated teaching interventions centered
around media and technology. These interventions utilized specifically selected YouTube videos,
movies, avatars and virtual communities, and online diversity forums; and these were usually
incorporated into a diversity course or other social work course. Deepak and Biggs (2011)
detailed the Intimate Technology intervention where the class viewed YouTube videos about
New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and other videos and songs about personal experiences
with racism. Difficult Digital Dialogues incorporated Twitter and Skype to facilitate diversity
learning among social work students from a predominantly White institution and a historically
black college/university (Brady, Sawyer, & Crawford Herrera, 2016). Three courses used online
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 16
forums to facilitate discussions related to race, ethnicity, and social class (Lee, 2014; Lee,
Brown, & Bertera, 2010; Lee & Priester, 2014); and a hybrid/online course used avatars (figures
representing a particular person in computer games), virtual communities, and cocktail party
exercises to teach about diversity (Lee, 2014).
Social work cultural immersions programs. A cultural immersion experience was the
focus of three studies (12%). Two of the studies described and evaluated international cultural
immersions, and one was a domestic immersion based in Louisiana and Appalachia (Quinn-Lee
& Olson-McBride, 2012). Two international immersions took place in Thailand (Mapp 2012;
Schuldberg et al., 2012); the other immersion countries were Ireland, Vietnam, Costa Rica, and
Ecuador (Mapp, 2012). These cultural immersions were short-term, mostly summer study abroad
programs. They included some service learning component, visits to social service agencies, and
excursions to popular religious, historical, cultural sites.
Addressing racism and Whiteness. Sixty-four percent of the interventions (n = 16)
addressed race and racism, and 24% (n = 6) included content on Whiteness, such as White
privilege and related concepts. Some ways the interventions incorporated issues related to race
and racism were: dialogue about Ferguson and Trayvon Martin (Brady et al., 2016), analysis of
local institutional racism (Saleh, Anngela-Cole, & Boateng, 2011), interview with a classmate
about racial and ethnic identity (Hall & Theriot, 2007; 2016); tour of a former plantation’s slave
quarters combined with visit to an African American museum (Quinn-Lee & Olson-McBride,
2012); and questions about race and prejudice on a Cultural Genogram (Warde, 2012). The topic
of White privilege was covered in an intergroup dialogue (Lopez-Humphreys, 2011), a
consciousness-raising group (Giesler, 2013), a classroom discussion (Deepak & Biggs, 2011), by
visiting non-White neighborhoods and a follow-up discussion (Loya & Cuevas, 2010), and a film
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 17
and a community panel (Lee & Priester, 2014). Three interventions were entirely focused on
racism, anti-racism, and White privilege (Deepak & Biggs, 2011; Loya & Cuevas, 2010; Saleh et
Based on the study findings, in 56% of the studies (n = 14), the pedagogical interventions
had a positive effect on student learning about racial and ethnic diversity and cultural
competence or related outcomes. For example, Williams-Grey (2014) found that students
demonstrated enhanced self- and cultural awareness after participating in an Ethnic Sharing
activity where some students shared stories about their family, culture, values, and experiences,
and the rest of the class listened. Similarly, following some of the diversity/cultural competence
courses, there was a significant increase in the students’ scores on diversity awareness
(Anderson, Hayashi, & Frost, 2009), cultural competence (Block, Rossi, Allen, Alschuler, &
Wilson, 2016), multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills (Hall & Theriot, 2016; Melendez,
2007), and positive racial attitudes (Loya & Cuevas, 2010).
In 40% of the studies (n = 10), the results were mixed; students showed a positive
learning outcome in some but not all of the constructs of interests. For example, Drabble, Sen,
and Oppenheimer (2012) found that students significantly increased their cultural knowledge,
positioning, and reflexivity, but there was no change in their understanding of power, privilege,
and oppression. A few studies reported a positive change in students’ understanding of diversity
concepts and issues, but not in their comfort level in working with diverse clients (Lee, 2014;
Lee & Priester, 2014). Specifically, Lee (2014) reported that students who participated in a
“cocktail party exercise,” where they interacted with diverse people in a virtual community, had
better outcomes in learning about diversity than students in a traditional diversity course.
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 18
Nevertheless, comfort level in working with diverse populations was higher among the
traditional classroom students.
Finally, in one study, the intervention yielded no major outcomes; the researchers
reported no changes in students’ perspectives about privilege, diversity, or difference (Brady et
al., 2016). Further, another study reported a positive effect on students who participated in
diversity-focused online discussion forums; however, some of the forums proved to have
harmful effects when students engaged in offensive dialogue about race and were not redirected
by the class instructor (Lee et al., 2010). The authors emphasized that careful monitoring is
necessary to ensure a productive learning process about diversity through online methods.
Learning about racism and Whiteness. Forty-eight percent of the studies (n = 12)
reported findings related to race and racism. For example, some of the qualitative studies had
themes specific to race-related learning, such as “understanding racism and anti-racism” (Deepak
& Biggs, 2011, p. 52) and “understanding the role of race in social work process” (Bender, Negi,
& Fowler, 2010, p. 47). Other studies described the changes in students’ awareness of racial
privilege and institutional discrimination as measured by the COBRAS (Colvin-Burque et al.,
2007; Loya & Cuevas, 2010). Finally, Giesler (2013) found that the topic of race and ethnicity,
compared to other social identities, was the most difficult for students to discuss in their
consciousness-raising groups. It is also important to point out, that although 64% of the studies
addressed race and racism in describing their pedagogical intervention, only 48% reported on the
related learning outcomes in the results.
In terms of learning about Whiteness, 20% of the studies (n = 5) reported observations
about this in the results section. Bender et al. (2010), for example, found that White students
were able to reflect on the meaning of Whiteness and the many privileges linked to it, and
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 19
Deepak and Biggs (2011) reported that White students found hope in learning about anti-racism
and becoming an ally, as opposed feeling guilty about being White.
Reflective, experiential, and emotional learning. Given that different teaching
methods, such as the experiential or the affective domain teaching, have been recommended by
scholars to prepare students for culturally competent practice (Cramer, Ryosho, & Nguyen,
2012; Sue & Sue, 2016; Weaver, 1998), the studies were also coded for the inclusion of
reflective, experiential, and emotional teaching. Eighty percent of the interventions included at
least one of those teaching methods, 56% included at least two, and 16% included all three types.
Reflective learning, which included activities such as writing self-reflective journals, was
used in 76% of the interventions. For example, following the Cultural Genogram project which
required a reflection on their family history, Warde (2012) found a higher level of cultural
awareness and sensitivity in the students. Sixty-eight percent of the interventions used some
experiential learning strategy, such as cultural immersion experiences, volunteering, and
interviewing classmates. Loya and Cuevas (2010) found that following a variety of experiential
learning activities about racism and inequality, there was a significant change in student cultural
awareness and racial attitudes. Results also showed that immersion in a different culture helped
students became more comfortable with and appreciative of differences (Quinn-Lee & Olson-
McBride, 2012), increased cross-cultural adaptability (Mapp, 2012) and developed the awareness
of ethnocentrism (Schuldberg et al., 2012). Finally, emotional learning, which focuses on
people’s ability to empathize with the feelings and experiences of others (Fox, 1983), was
incorporated in 24% of the studies. For example, students who learned about other peoples’
experiences with racism through images, music, and personal stories, experienced deep
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 20
emotional responses such as anger and sadness. This in turn helped them to be more engaged in
the learning process and understand racism in more depth (Deepak & Biggs, 2011).
Differences among student groups. Another indicative finding in the studies was related
to the demographic differences among students in learning about diversity. Thirty-two percent of
the studies (n = 8) reported some differences in student outcomes based on student
demographics. Students from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups were found
to have a significantly higher level of awareness about diversity (Anderson et al., 2009) and
White privilege (Colvin-Burque et al., 2007), and reported greater comfort in venturing outside
their own social and cultural groups (Saleh et al., 2011) compared to White students. However,
Melendez (2007) found that the increase in cultural awareness following the diversity course was
significantly higher in White students, given it was often the first time they were exposed to the
topic of diversity. Similarly, Lopez-Humphreys (2011) reported that White students gained
substantially more from the intergroup dialogue activity than non-White students. Finally,
students majoring in social work were found to have significantly more awareness of
institutional discrimination, racial issues, and color-blind attitudes (Colvin-Burque et al., 2007),
and more knowledge and positive attitudes toward diversity (Saleh et al., 2011) as compared to
non-social work students.
Using the Kmet et al. (2004) scale, the quality of the quantitative studies and the
quantitative component of mixed methods studies ranged from 9/22 to 20/22, with the average
scores equaling to 15.7/22. Overall, quantitative and the quantitative components of mixed
methods studies scored better on questions about research objectives and justification of their
methods. However, they performed less well in terms of defining outcomes measures and
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 21
controlling for confounding variables. The qualitative studies and the qualitative component of
mixed methods studies were evaluated with the CASP Qualitative Research Checklist. Although
no precise scoring system exists for the checklist (CASP, 2017), several patterns were observed.
The checklist includes 10 questions that can be answered as either "yes," "no" or "can't tell.” On
average, only 5.5 questions were answered as “yes”, indicating rather low quality of the studies.
The qualitative studies generally explained the aims of the research and recruitment strategy
well, but the methods and data analysis were often not sufficiently rigorous.
The purpose of this systematic review was to examine empirical studies that assessed
how social work educators and programs teach students about racial and ethnic diversity.
Twenty-five studies were identified and they described and evaluated a variety of pedagogical
interventions including: diversity courses, special projects, instructional technology, and cultural
immersion programs. In most of the included studies, the pedagogical intervention had a positive
effect on students’ development of cultural competence or a related construct. For example, after
participating in growth groups, groups aiming to help student gain self-awareness and discuss
and reduce prejudice, students showed a significant change in awareness of personal prejudice,
comfort level in interacting with and confronting others around prejudices and developing a
strategy to reduce personal prejudices (Phillips et al., 2011). Similarly, students were found to
develop awareness of personal biases and how these might affect social work practice with
diverse clients as a result of the Proverbs Across the Globe project, where students analyzed
proverbs and interviewed someone from a different culture (Rahill et al., 2016).
Although indicative, the findings should be interpreted cautiously due to methodological
and theoretical weaknesses in the design of many of the reviewed studies. Some of the major
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 22
problems seen in many studies included: a)
lack of comparison group; b) the use of
unstandardized measures with unclear validity and reliability in quantitative studies and the
quantitative components of mixed methods studies; c) lack of clarity about data analysis
process in qualitative studies; d) incomplete
description of findings or conclusions not fully
supported by the results; e) relying on self-report measures, journals, and class assignments, all
of which are prone to social desirability bias, particularly as related to cultural competence
(Larson & Bradshaw, 2017); and f)
lack of longitudinal design to assess whether the outcomes
of the teaching interventions are then translated into practice.
In conclusion, the
study revealed that social work education lacks an intentional and
systematic approach to teaching about racial and ethnic diversity and to evaluating student
learning outcomes related to these concepts. Despite the abundance of conceptual literature on
the topic and the EPAS standards (CSWE, 2015), there is a relatively small number of studies
reporting on racial and ethnic diversity-related pedagogical interventions. It is important to note
here that nine additional articles had to be excluded from the review because they lacked a
methods section. Although they looked promising at first, the evaluation component of the
intervention was often anecdotal, or the steps involved in data collection and analysis were
obscure, and therefore they could not be coded. Among the coded studies, there was a wide
range of approaches taken to teach this topic, varying all the way from working with street
children in another country to participating in virtual communities and using avatars. None of the
reviewed studies was a replication of an intervention tested by another author, except for Hall
and Theriot (2007, 2016). Only a few of the studies, however, described their interventions in
sufficient detail that would allow for replication.
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 23
Additionally, the studies also differed in how they evaluated the teaching outcomes.
Across the quantitative and mixed methods studies, for example, multiple scales were used, and
they often measured related but not the same constructs (e.g., the Multicultural Awareness-
Knowledge-and Skills Survey versus the Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale). Moreover, there
were a few limitations related to placing the studies within some theoretical framework. Many
studies made no mention of theory; others introduced a theory but failed to follow through on
how the theory related to the teaching intervention or methodology. Moreover, the most
frequently used guiding framework, the cultural competence model, has itself been criticized for
lacking theoretical grounding (e.g., Wear, 2003).
Finally, it is important to note that in many of the studies, the samples were
predominantly White females, and it is likely that the described interventions may not apply to
more diverse student populations. Additionally, except for providing the region of the country,
the studies frequently lacked detailed information on the context, notably whether the university
was a predominantly White institution, public or private, or rural or urban campus.
Before discussing the potential implications of this systemic review, we would like to
point out some limitations of the current study. First, studies were included in the review
independently of their methodological rigor. Restricting the review to only highly rigorous
studies would not allow the review to take place, given the state of the existing empirical
knowledge base. Second, we included studies independently of the methodology and design,
which was intentional to show the full picture of social work education focused on racial and
ethnic diversity; however, this made the synthesizing of the results and establishing trends in the
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 24
studies more difficult. We also acknowledge that other researchers would potentially code for
different pieces of information and analyze the studies from a different perspective.
Despite these limitations, the review provided several insights on the current state of the
empirical literature and the directions for future research. First, the review revealed the urgency
to expand the empirical evidence regarding effective strategies for teaching about racial and
ethnic diversity in social work programs. Social work researchers and educators need to build a
body of knowledge that delineates best teaching practices, assignments, and content material that
will prepare students for working effectively and respectfully across racial, ethnic, and cultural
differences. The promising pedagogical interventions should be tested and replicated to create a
database and a toolkit for social work educators on how to best teach diversity-related topics.
This is particularly crucial for pedagogy on racial and ethnic diversity, as these topics have been
found the most difficult to discuss in a classroom (Giesler, 2013), and can result in discomfort,
tension, and resentment, particularly in White students (Abrams, & Gibson, 2007; Gair, 2016).
To be able to build this empirical knowledge base, however, social work education needs
a unified conceptualization of what constitutes social work diversity education: its purpose,
essential components, and desired outcomes. As the study by Jani, Osteen, and Shipe (2016)
shows, there are many ways of defining what constitutes the ability to work effectively with
people from different backgrounds, and “cultural competence itself is a flawed concept” (p. 316).
For example, social work educators rarely incorporate an analysis of Whiteness, including White
culture, White privilege, and White racism into their classrooms, which, in turn, inherently
perpetuates the oppressive racial social structures that social work hopes to resolve (Abrams &
Gibson, 2007). As Williams (2006) reminds: “The lack of a coherent theory base for cultural
competence makes it difficult to evaluate its effectiveness in practice” (p. 210). To effectively
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 25
prepare social work students for practice with historically excluded racial and ethnic groups, we
need a sound theoretical foundation of what is it that we are trying to teach and how we will
know if the students are on the right path to developing the needed knowledge and skills. Critical
race theory, critical Whiteness theory, and anti-racist pedagogy offer viable options for use in
diversity education (Abrams & Moio, 2009; Nylund, 2006; Ortiz & Jani, 2010; Pulliam, 2017).
From a methodological perspective, there is a need for more rigorous research methods
and increased transparency about the data analysis procedures. It seems crucial that future social
work education research includes comparison groups and longitudinal components to assess the
effectiveness of teaching interventions over time. Large-scale, multisite, and diverse-sample
studies are needed to compare the learning outcomes and experiences of students from a variety
of backgrounds and in different educational and geographical contexts. There is also ample room
for future researchers to design theoretically grounded, valid, and reliable outcome measures,
which could be used consistently for social work education and research purposes, allowing for
comparison of student learning outcomes across different teaching interventions.
The systematic review’s findings also seem to imply that graduating social work students
may not be adequately prepared to practice competently across racial and ethnic differences.
Evidence-based teaching interventions and tools to assess student’s readiness to practice with
historically excluded racial and ethnic groups are urgently needed in social work education. This
in turn has implications for social work educators. Given that racial diversity-related topics are
highly politically, ideologically, and emotionally charged and provoke many pedagogical
tensions and struggles (Daniel, 2011), instructors may require additional preparation to teach and
facilitate dialogues about race, racism, and Whiteness. Mediation and group work skills may be
needed in order to create an honest, safe, and welcoming classroom environment where students
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 26
of different racial backgrounds can engage in a difficult dialogue. Students from historically
underrepresented racial and ethnic groups should not feel tokenized and asked to speak on behalf
of their entire racial or ethnic group. White students, on the other hand, should not be blamed for
the historical roots of racial and ethnic oppression but rather challenged to engage in a critical
reflection and anti-racism actions. Workshops and trainings such as The National Intergroup
Dialogue Institute (University of Michigan, 2018), and Undoing Racism (The People’s Institute
for Survival and Beyond, 2018) can assist the faculty in enhancing their skills in these areas.
Teaching partnerships between instructors from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic
groups and White instructors (Fox, 1983; Gollan & O'Leary, 2009) may address issues of White
students challenging or ignoring non-White instructors and White instructors being perceived as
lacking credibility to teach about race and racism.
The work of the authors cited in Table 2 is an essential start to the urgently needed line
of research that would help ensure that social work programs adequately prepare students to
engage in practice with diverse populations (CSWE, 2015). Currently, many questions remain
unanswered regarding the purpose, components, and expected outcomes of pedagogical
interventions focused on racial and ethnic diversity. The same emphasis that the social work field
has placed on evidence-based practice is needed in social work classrooms – we need evidence-
based diversity education. Social work students are the future service providers who will serve
diverse clients and in a variety of work contexts. Their level of understanding of diversity and
their preparedness to work with historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups will
inevitably influence the quality of their services. An authentic commitment to providing high-
quality services to clients from historically excluded racial and ethnic groups must translate to
TEACHING ABOUT RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY 27
best teaching practices in social work classrooms and a research agenda that provides a sound
foundation for social work education’s anti-racism goals.
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