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 Department of Social Work MSW Field Program

Integrating Theory and Practice

Learning Objectives

  • To understand the importance of integrating theory and practice in field education
  • To review essential knowledge, skills, and values in social work practice
  • To understand the process of integration in student learning

In field education, the focus changes from acquiring knowledge to the application of knowledge in practice. By the end of the field placement, students should be able to understand how to effectively interact with clients using social work skills and draw upon theory to inform their actions. Integrating theory and practice refers to the process whereby connections are made between the social work knowledge, values, and skills learned in the classroom and the practice experience individuals are facing in field. Students must be given the opportunity to understand what skills were needed during the interaction, the knowledge that informed the action, and the social work values that influenced the interaction. Often times, students do not critically analyze their actions; field instructors must provide this learning opportunity. Students must be encouraged to make these connections.(Dettlaff, 2003).

We do not expect that you will be an expert on all theories and models of social work practice. We do expect you to challenge your students to bring practice models they are learning in the classroom into their weekly supervision with you and to try and apply these to their fieldwork experience. We have included a bibliography with this on-line training course which you might want to refer to. The faculty liaison and field coordinator can also provide you with resources pertaining to integrating theory and practice.

We are providing links below to any syllabi for our practice courses that are available on-line. You should also feel free to ask your student for a copy of their syllabi, especially from their advanced practice courses. Courses that should directly apply to field include Individual, Family and Group Practice I and II, Organizational and Community Practice I and II; (especially for Field I students)Advanced Practice in Administration and Community Development, Advanced Practice with Families, Advanced Practice in Child Welfare, Advanced Practice in Mental Health.(especially for Field II students)

The first step in facilitating these connections is to create a learning opportunity for the student. The goal is for students to recognize what social work knowledge, values and skills are used in every day work in the agency. Field instructors must work to identify these concepts in order to promote integration. Dettlaff (2003), developed a list of social work knowledge, values, and skills, as shown below:

Social Work Knowledge

  1. Diversity
  2. Populations-at-risk
  3. Social and economic justice
  4. Human behavior and the social environment
  5. Social welfare and policy
  6. Social work practice and interventions
  7. Research

Social Work Values

  1. Service
  2. Social justice
  3. Dignity and worth of a person
  4. Importance of human relationships
  5. Integrity
  6. Competence

Social Work Skills

  1. Attending skills
  2. Building rapport
  3. Clarifying
  4. Paraphrasing
  5. Reflecting feelings
  6. Summarizing
  7. Probing
  8. Partializing
  9. Focusing
  10. Verbal following
  11. Confrontation
  12. Contracting
  13. Educating
  14. Reframing
  15. Reviewing and Evaluation
  16. Terminating

Bogo and Vayda (1989), developed a four-step Integration of Theory and Practice (ITP) Loop, that is useful in facilitating this process. The steps include:

  1. Obtain information regarding the practice situation
  2. Reflect on retrieved information and examine your personal associations and feelings regarding the information presented to you by the client system, which then leads to an objective and sensitive assessment.
  3. Identify and utilize your knowledge to explain both the retrieved information and your reflection on the information.
  4. Analyze the information to formulate a professional response from which a plan is developed.

    Below are four scenarios to trigger your thoughts about integrating theory and practice:

    Samantha is working with a 14-year-old female taken into protective custody for running away with her 22-year-old boyfriend. The teen's behavior toward Samantha is belligerent. The client has no support system. Samantha believes that the cognitive-behavorial theory has merit in this case. What strategies can Samantha employ to integrate this theory?

    Laura is working with a 30-year-old woman, who is the mother of three. She recently checked back into the battered women's shelter, and she states that she is not certain that she wants to leave the abusive relationship because she feels the children will be hurt. Laura chooses the problem-solving approach to guide her intervention. How can Laura implement this?

    Charles is working with a family of four. The 25-year-old mother, who was recently diagnosed as HIV-positive appears depressed and withdrawn. Her boyfriend's involvement with the family has decreased dramatically since she received this news. The 8-year-old boy is getting into fights in school, and has been kicked off the bus. The 12-year-old daughter is sexually active and feared to be involved in prostitution. The family is on the verge of separation. Charles wishes to incorporate a systems theory approach. What strategies should he consider?

    If you are interested in more information regarding the application of social work theory to practice, the following article may be of assistance to you. If you are not able to locate the article, please contact Kathy Heltzer.

    Coggins, K. & Hatchett, B.F. (2002). The application of theory to practice. Field practicum: Skill building from a multicultural perspective (69-108). Peosta, IA: Eddie Bowers Publishing Co, Inc.

    Syllabi from Practice Courses

    SW 8111: Generalist Practice: Micro(Fall, 2003)

    SW 8112: Generalist Practice: Mezzo and Macro(Spring 2005)

    SW 8661: Advanced Practice: Rural and Urban Community Organizing(Spring 2005)


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