Practice research for field educators and students

Part Four: Practice Research for Field Educators and Students

In part four, we will discuss practice research and the benefits of integrating practice research into field education.

Practice Research on a Continuum

(Transforming the Field Education Landscape, 2020)

Understanding research on a continuum is beneficial for simplifying the practice research process, allowing both students and field instructors to identify important research questions and the strategies needed for an investigation. We also recognize the importance of integrating practice research activities into field learning agreement contracts and into field integration seminars, assignments, and readings.

The Importance of Practice Research in Field Education

Social workers continuously engage in research and are research-minded in practice, whether consciously or not, as it is an integral part of their work. As discussed in Research As Daily Practice, all practitioners are researchers, drawing from diverse social work research methodologies, as they use methods of inquiry to make informed decisions in their daily practice. Social work practitioners conduct social work research leading investigations that draw from diverse social work research methodologies. Practice research provides a comprehensive approach to building professional knowledge in social work field education by cultivating a curiosity for practice, identifying better ways to help people, challenges issues in social work practice through critical examination, and generating knowledge relevant to social work practice (Austin & Uggerhoj, 2014) . It is concerned with developing theory from practice by combining research methodology with field research and practical experience.

In order to integrate practice research, there needs to be a greater focus on training, educating, and preparing social work students to engage in practice research.

As exemplified below, practice research is especially important in a field education context:

Practice research can help students understand and acknowledge the role of theories, methodologies, and processes in practice. Practice research can provide students with the skills to examine and discover the various theories and methodologies that inform interventions and approaches in diverse practice contexts. Additionally, students can engage in the iterative process of critical examination, reflection, and engagement in collaboration by exploring different perspectives, uses, and outcomes attached to social work theories and methodologies.

Practice research can assist students in reflecting and understanding relationships within different contexts, concepts, and theories in social work practice. The process of practice research combines the experiences and knowledge of service users and social work practitioners. Advancement and growth is only realized through constant re-evaluation and innovation.

Through integrating practice research into field education, students understand the various processes of generating knowledge. Through field education, students can begin to understand what practice research looks like when it is operationalized: practice research on a continuum, Research As Daily Practice, research-mindedness, and evidence-based practice.

In order to address the gap between research and practice, research and theory should be integrated into practice and practical hands-on learning opportunities be provided to actively engage students in practice research (Benson & Blackman, 2003; Freymond et al., 2014; Trevisan, 2002). The TFEL partnership is working to re-envision how to integrate research in social work field education in order to better prepare the next generation of social workers.

Integrating Practice Research

The benefits of integrating practice research into field education include: 

  • Creating and expanding evidence-based approaches in social work practice
  • Establishing new skills and tools to help inform and improve practice strategies
  • Fostering ongoing conversations to improve practice through practice research
  • Facilitating a continuous exchange of information, wherein practice informs research and research informs practice
  • Reducing student and practitioner anxiety towards research through education and training 
  • Increasing collaborative opportunities between education programs, students, agencies, and practitioners
  • Expanding field placement learning opportunities for students as practice research is applicable and useful in almost all areas of social work practice such as clinical social work, mental health, healthcare, administration and management, justice and corrections, aging, disabilities, international social work, and many others

Please double click the screen to watch a video clip with Dr. Sheri M. McConnell who describes the benefits of incorporating research in social work field education.

Then, take a moment to reflect on the ways that research and its activities could benefit you in your setting, as a student or field agency.

Additional benefits of practice research are provided in the next section.

Practitioner Collaboration

Practice research provides an opportunity for researchers, practitioners, and students to build upon existing knowledge, leading to improvements in the field of social work and in service delivery (Crooke & Olswang, 2015). Since practice research is a meeting point between practice and research, there are challenges to be considered for the practitioner and the student such as how to collaborate with partners who may have different goals, understandings, knowledge, and interests (Uggerhoj, 2014). Practice research initiatives are very interconnected, as one must take into consideration multiple questions regarding an issue in a specific context (Uggerhoj, 2014). As a result, unlike a traditional social work placement, students and practitioners will have to navigate how to develop collaborative relationships and establish a process where partners can learn from one another, understand the complex area of social work in research and practice, and being research-minded.

Practitioner Collaboration
Action & Change Oriented

Action & Change Oriented

Practice research allows practitioners to implement interventions previously studied by researchers to fill existing gaps in practice through examining the evidence. Practice research aims to promote social change and reform of social work practice, and uses proactive, collaborative, and democratic strategies to generate knowledge, action, and change (Greenwood & Levin, 2006). 


An important aspect in practice research is reflexivity, which involves a social worker reflecting on their own insights, thoughts, assumptions, actions, and behaviors. Reflexivity is manifested in practice research moreso that other kinds of research and their applications because the main goal of practice research is to advance and improve the quality of social work practice (Pain, 2011). Social work values, political influences, and ethical dimensions of practice and research are integral in practice research (Pain, 2011). Reflexivity in practice research is an important part of the process as the practitioner needs to take into consideration the research question and collaboration with stakeholders in a manner that upholds foundational social work principles (Pain, 2011).

Knowledge Generating

Knowledge Generating

A goal of practice research is to create and share knowledge, and translate findings in social work practice and policy. This process seeks to improve outcomes for individuals, families, groups, communities, and systems. The knowledge creation process in practice research is generated through the co-production of knowledge between stakeholders (Julkunen, 2011).


Along with the benefits, there are also some challenges with practice research in the field of social work.

There is often a lack of recognition and understanding of appropriate research methods and of the complexity of research processes in academic, practice, or community initiatives in social work education and practice (Potter et al., 2006). 

Administrative and organizational frameworks are often operated under boundaries to enforce and establish order, which may conflict with the ability for a practitioner to understand and focus on the issues within practice research initiatives (Uggerhoj, 2011b). As an example, there is often a lack of financial resources for academia and practicing partners, often influenced by institutional or cultural factors, as well as institutional funding protocols and non-standardized policies (Potter et al., 2006). Not only are there influences in the practice research process, the administrative, political, or local organizations overseeing practice research initiatives have the authority to alos influence the interpretation and application of the research, which may vary depending upon politicians, local authorities, and municipalities involved (Uggerhoj, 2011a).