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5 Tips for Teaching Social Work Online

Posted on: July 21, 2021

Written by Melinda Lewis, series editor of New Directions in Social Work: A Routledge Series  and co-author of Social Policy for Effective Practice: A Strengths Approach .

Like all social work faculty, the editors and authors of the texts in the New Directions in Social Work series have been searching for the best approaches for facilitating learning in online and hybrid formats. When an approach proves particularly successful, we’re eager to share the promising ideas. This year we’ve relied strongly on engaging online resources, many of which were made to accompany the series but are not limited to our textbooks alone. These are ideas that should work for all faculty teaching in today’s altered instructional context. Here, we share some of the ways these materials are enhancing our teaching—and catalyzing our students’ growth—online. 

1. Incorporating simulated case work complements class learning—especially for students whose field experiences have been curtailed.

While field offices around the country have done heroic work maintaining existing placements and identifying new opportunities, many students’ field interactions have been impaired in the pandemic. Hungry for connections with clients and for chances to apply their classroom knowledge and developing skills to real-life practice, our students have embraced the incorporation of interactive cases that are focused on individual and family-based settings. These cases allow us to see students demonstrate skills in engagement and assessment and provide rich context for considering the design and delivery of interventions, as well. While we’ll all rejoice when agencies are able to again open their doors wide to social work students, this form of interactive and hands-on work has helped this cohort prepare for practice, within the existing constraints.

2. Macro casework help students connect to the organizational and community contexts that may be more closed to them this year.

Even students whose client contacts have been largely uninterrupted by the pandemic nonetheless often feel less connected to the larger organization than they would otherwise. Board and all-staff meetings are often out of sight and off-limits to social work practicum students, and it can be intimidating for students to ask for access to governance and finance documents without the foundation of a working relationship. We’ve tapped into and contributed to students’ knowledge of social systems and their awareness of organizational contexts by incorporating relevant casework into our macro practice courses, including those at the generalist level. Students report that the cases provide a glimpse ‘behind-the-scenes’ of social service organizations and community institutions, and that the conversations and investigations prompted in class equip them to explore their own practice settings, too.

New Directions in Social Work Tip: For those familiar with the New Directions in Social Work series, we’ve used cases to examine organizational development and explore community resources and dynamics .

3. Prompts related to interactive casework jumpstart class discussions—particularly with the addition of opportunities beyond verbal response.

Anyone who has been teaching over the past 12 months knows well the feeling of looking at a screen of 20 students (or multiple screens with 20 grids each!) and hoping someone—someone—will respond to the question posed. And students are all too familiar with the awkward silences as instructors wait for such responses and students try to gauge whether anyone else is going to say anything. To improve the quality of online class discussions and make the online learning environment more equitable, we’ve used interactive cases and the questions at the end of book chapters to seed questions in advance of synchronous sessions—so there are no surprises—and, in many cases, used Google docs, Zoom chats, or other supplemental tools to encourage students to share their questions and responses in multiple formats. When we set students up for successful interaction, discussions are more vibrant and substantive. These are practices we’ll carry with us, even when we can be back in physical classrooms together more regularly.

4. Assignments to complete end-of-chapter questions encourage reading engagement as part of students’ overall learning.

One of the crucial lessons of pandemic teaching and learning is that what happens within the walls of a classroom is not the only—and, often, not even the most important—element of a student’s overall progress toward competency. In recognition of the reality of online fatigue and the considerable emotional load associated with coping with a pandemic, many of us have revised our thinking about the role synchronous class sessions play in a course, and about how we can complement those real-time, instructor-student encounters with learning realized through deep engagement with course materials, including texts. To help students see their learning through a similarly broad lens, we make completion of select end-of-chapter exercises an assignment. This also provides an avenue for offering feedback on students’ interpretation of the concepts in the text and building on their emerging understanding. While each text will have a variety of end-of-chapter exercises, those that center on connections to real-life practice are particularly valuable—and popular with students!

5. Wikis, Discussion Boards, or other online venues allow students to connect with each other.

Many of us can’t imagine teaching online without Discussion Boards or other tools for facilitating students’ connections with each other, as well as the content. To foster the sense of collaboration students crave, without the logical complications of group projects in an era of social distancing, we’ve had students create wikis or other online repositories of applied knowledge, centered on the interactive cases. In a shared forum, students can see what their classmates have contributed and layer their own insights onto the growing body of knowledge. Then, in many cases, instructors can disaggregate the contributions to ensure students are properly credited for their work. In this way, students are contributing to a shared product, but without needing to work at the same time or in the same physical space.

New Directions in Social Work Tip: Online cases made to support the New Directions in Social Work series been a particularly effective complement to this technique. Each case provides fodder for students’ to collectively learn about the material. Students in a practice class can contribute to a wiki about resources in their community that might be valuable for a particular family . Different students studying policy can debate the respective merits of different approaches for Social Security reform, from the perspective of an older adult .



We’d love to hear how you’re keeping your students engaged during this difficult time, and how you’re using the New Directions in Social Work series in your teaching, too. This past year has been a learning experience for us and faculty all over, and we are thankful for the times we’ve been able to lean on the strong support of our social work community.