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A COLLABORATION between the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE) and the Association for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups (AASWG) began in 1994, in recognition of the need to learn more about the state of group work education in social work and to find ways to strengthen this curriculum component.

In a letter to deans and directors of social work education programs announcing the project, the CSWE President Michael Frumkin wrote:
 The board of directors of both CSWE and AASWG are committed to assisting
 programs to produce graduates who are competent in offering a range of
 services to clients, depending on client needs. Although group work is a
 modality of practice widely used in the field, especially with many of the
 oppressed and vulnerable populations who are a priority for our profession,
 the teaching of group work is not a strong part of the curriculum in most
 programs. This collaborative project seeks to address that problem by
 strengthening group work teaching in both baccalaureate and master's degree
 programs (April 26, 1994).

The joint project focused on education for foundation practice, since this is the curriculum area designed to expose all students to group work content. CSWE curriculum standards require that all programs "prepare students to apply a generalist perspective to social work practice with systems of all sizes" (CSWE, 1992, M6.11). The aim is to encourage a generalist brand of practice with new configurations of methods and to discover those procedures and skills common across them (Siporin, 1975).

How has this curriculum objective affected education for social work with groups? What basic group work concepts are integrated into the foundation curriculum? Do students receive the knowledge required for beginning group work practice? Are faculty who teach foundation practice competent to teach about group work? What type of educational materials would assist the teaching of foundation group work practice? The purpose of this study is to seek answers to these largely unexplored questions.

Review of Literature

A review of the social work education literature on foundation curricula revealed no studies on the subject of multimethod teaching in foundation courses. Two articles on group work literature (Gitterman, 1981; Knight, 1998) discuss group work content and teaching strategies for the foundation generalist curriculum. From an MSW perspective, Gitterman discusses how group work content can be organized around the approach's historical context and the phases of the helping process. Knight focuses on undergraduate education, describing the critical content on group work for inclusion in the social work practice curriculum. She describes teaching strategies that include ways to use the class as a group, writing assignments, and the integration of field work experiences into the classroom.

The movement towards a generalist foundation curriculum at the MSW level in 1969 may have resulted in fewer opportunities for in-depth study of group work practice. In 1963, 76% of graduate schools offered a group work method concentration (Rubin, 1982). Today, less than 5% do. The number of courses devoted entirely to group work declined, as well. In 1994 Birnbaum and Auerbach reported the results of a 1991 survey of graduate schools. The survey showed that only 19% of graduate schools required a course in group work for all students. The greater number of schools (47%) offered group work courses only as electives. However, in most schools, only 10-15% of students took a group work elective and graduated with specialized group work knowledge (Birnbaum & Auerbach, 1994).

Perhaps group work content is integrated more in today's generalist curriculum. A four-year study at one school compared student learning about group work before and after the shift from a specific method to a generalist curriculum (Goldberg & Lamont, 1988). The study found some aspects of group work taught to a greater percentage of students after the shift, but for students with an interest in practice with groups there have been fewer opportunities for in-depth group work study. LeCroy and Goodwin (1988) analyzed the content of graduate-level integrative foundation method course outlines from 65% of all U.S. graduate social work programs. They found no significant inclusion of group work content. Moreover, Bakalinsky's (1982) study of practice faculty found that 86% specified casework as the area in which they were most adequately prepared, as compared to 10% reporting they were most prepared in group work.

Group work education has suffered in the field, as well. Studies reveal that field instructors usually lack formal training in the group work method and are unable to provide a conceptual framework to help students form groups and understand group processes (Birnbaum, Loeb-Richter, & Siegel 1995; Cohen, 1998; Glassman & Kates, 1988; Wayne & Garland, 1990). Field instructors tend to concentrate on the individual behavior of group members, ignoring the group as a whole, as well as the impact of members' interactions on each other (Kurland & Salmon, 1992; Middleman & Goldberg, 1990).


This study is based on data obtained from a questionnaire sent to the deans and directors of all BSW and MSW programs by the president of CSWE, April 26, 1994. The deans and directors were asked to distribute the questionnaire to a member of the practice faculty who could provide information about the program's foundation practice and group work content. Faculty were not asked to identify themselves and were informed that information on the questionnaire would remain confidential, with results reported in an aggregate manner. Of the 16 questions asked, 14 were close ended and 2 open ended.


Description of Programs

Two hundred twenty-three practice faculty members responded by mail. Eleven responses were unusable. This left 212 usable questionnaires, representing a return rate of 43% from 495 accredited social work programs. One hundred forty-two (67%) were programs offering only the BSW degree, 35 (17%) were programs offering only the MSW degree, and 35 (17%) were programs offering both degrees. The responses that did not indicate the program level were omitted from findings that sought to determine differences between BSW and MSW education.

Eighty (38%) of the respondents were from schools located in the Midwest, 53 (25%) from the South, 46 (22%) from the East, and 27 (13%) from the West. Six questionnaires (3%) were missing this information. With regard to population density, 86 respondents (41%) were urban, 79 (41%) rural, and 43 (20%) suburban. Three questionnaires (1%) were missing this information.

Educational and Practice Backgrounds of Respondents

Overall, 152 respondents (72%) reported having had one primary concentration, 39 (18%) reported two concentrations, and 21 (10%) reported three concentrations. The respondents with one primary concentration identified the following: casework, n=47, 31%; group work, n=35 23%; micro practice, n=22, 14%; generalist practice, n=19, 13%; community organization, n=10, 7%; administration, n=8, 5%; macro practice, n=6, 4%; other, n=3, 2%; and policy and planning, n=2, 1%.

The respondents have a mean of 11.73 years of social work experience exclusive of full-time teaching. Their experience was distributed as follows: individuals and families, 50%; groups, 25%; community, 8%; and other, 17%.

Level of Knowledge/Competence in Teaching Practice

Table 1 shows how respondents rated their level of knowledge/competence in teaching practice with individuals, families, groups, and communities. A high percentage of respondents (96%) considered themselves either very knowledgeable or knowledgeable about teaching practice with groups. The respondents judged themselves to be less knowledgeable in community practice, relative to the other categories.

Table 1. Self-Rating of Faculty for Various Practice Concentration Areas (N=212)
 Very Knowledgeable Less
 Knowledgeable Knowledgeable

Individual 151 (71%) 54 (25%) 7 (3%)
Family 96 (45%) 100 (47%) 16 (8%)
Group 128 (60%) 76 (36%) 8 (4%)
Communities 54 (25%) 87 (41%) 71 (33%)

Note: Percentages may not equal 100 due to rounding.

Group Concepts Taught in the Foundation of Practice Curriculum

Respondents were asked in an open-ended question which group work concepts, if any, were taught in the foundation practice curriculum. Seventy-nine (37%) of the respondents did not answer, while the remaining 133 (63%) offered responses that ranged from one word such as "dynamics" or "structure" to a listing of several concepts (see Table 2).

Table 2. Group Concepts Taught in Foundation Practice Curricula (N=133)
Group Concepts n %

Group Development Theory 66 50
Leadership Skills and Worker Interventions 57 43
Group Types and Purposes 46 35
Group as a Social System 34 26
Mutual Aid 28 21
Member Roles 25 19
Planning Process for Group Formation 17 13
Decision Making 12 9
Working Agreement/Contracting 11 8
Group Composition/Membership 10 8
Group Conflict 9 7
History of Group Work 5 4
Group Norms 2 2

No significant differences exist in the number of group concepts mentioned when comparing BSW and MSW faculty, group practice experience, or the number of group courses completed. A comparison of respondents whose primary concentration was group work (n=24) with respondents identifying casework as their primary concentration (n=32) shows that the former cohort identified more group concepts in the following areas: group development theory, (67% versus 56%); group decision making, conflict, and contracting (79% versus 63%); and the group as a social system (17% versus 6%).

Group Courses Offered

BSW and MSW programs are almost equally likely to offer no group courses, 20% and 17% respectively. An MSW program is more likely than a BSW program to offer more than one course (51% versus 19%).

Differences exist between BSW and MSW programs in the status of group courses offered. As Table 3 shows, 86% of BSW programs offering a group course require all students to take the course, while only 30% of MSW programs have this requirement. One percent of BSW programs require some students to take a group course versus 11% for MSW programs. Group courses are offered as electives only in 13% of BSW programs and 59% of MSW programs.

Table 3. Status of Group Courses Offered
 Required of all Required of some

Baccalaureate (n=94) 86% 1%
Master's (n=94) 30% 11%
Both (n=16) 54% 5%

 Elective for all

Baccalaureate (n=94) 13%
Master's (n=94) 59%
Both (n=16) 40%

Note: Percentages may not equal 100 due to rounding.

Textbooks Used In Group Work Courses

One hundred forty-seven of the respondents (69%) identified at least one group textbook. Ninety-five of the respondents were from BSW programs, 22 from MSW programs, and 30 were from programs offering both degrees. They identified a total of 258 textbooks (M = 1.76). Specifically, BSW programs mentioned 146 titles (M = 1.54), MSW programs mentioned 46 titles (M = 2.09).

The most widely used textbooks for BSW programs included:

* Zastrow (1987), Social Work with Groups--21%.

* Shulman (1992), Skills of Helping Individuals,

* Corey & Corey (1982), Groups: Process and Practice--13%.

* Toseland & Rivas (1995), An Introduction to Group Work Practice--8%.

The most widely used textbooks for MSW programs included:

* Yalom (1975), Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy--17%.

* Toseland & Rivas (1995), An Introduction to Group Work Practice--15%.

* Corey & Corey (1982), Groups: Process and Practice--9%.

Of the texts, four are social group work texts and two are not. Corey and Corey emphasize group dynamics with no relationship to social group work practice, and Yalom focuses on group psychotherapy. BSW programs are more likely to select social group work texts than MSW programs, where the single most widely used text is about group psychotherapy.

Group Work Assignments in the Field

Data from the 190 respondents (90%) indicate that 52% of BSW students were enrolled in the foundation curriculum with group work assignments in the field; 54% of MSW students had group work field assignments; and 59% of programs that did not distinguish between educational level had group work field assignments. This finding is consistent with other studies of group work field education (Lewis, 1988; Wayne & Garland, 1990).

Usefulness of Educational Resources in Group Work

The data show that most respondents regard teaching tools such as case records (62%), videotapes (92%), and a package of readings (62%) to be very useful, while bibliographies and sample syllabi are considered moderately useful (43%). A further comparison reveals marked differences between BSW and MSW faculty in their view of the usefulness of educational resources. In every category, except videotapes, BSW faculty found the resources to be more useful than MSW faculty. Only videotapes were seen as equally effective by both groups.

Ideas for Improvement of Group Work Education

One hundred ten respondents (52%) provided at least one idea in response to this open-ended question. A total of 214 ideas (M = 1.95) were provided. The ideas were organized into the following categories:

* Develop teaching materials.

* Increase group work content in the curriculum.

* Strengthen field education.

* Enhance teaching methodology.

* Establish national standards for group work education.

Development of teaching materials was the most frequently cited recommendation (25%) by both MSW and BSW respondents. Enhancement of teaching methodology was more popular with BSW (23%) than MSW (5%) respondents. Ideas from BSW faculty include: student participation in experiential groups, classroom dynamics as a reference point, and the use of group simulation in the classroom. One fourth of the MSW respondents suggested increasing group work content in the curriculum, emphasizing the need for specialized group work courses for all students. Ideas for the improvement of field education came mainly from MSW respondents (21%) rather than BSW respondents (5%). MSW faculty suggested more group work field assignments, training field instructors in group work practice, and establishing national standards for group work education in the field.

Discussion and Implications

Two issues stand out in the discussion of the data. The first is the self-rating by respondents in teaching social work practice with groups. Almost all rated themselves as being "very knowledgeable" or "knowledgeable." This stands in contrast to their responses concerning concepts being taught in the generalist foundation curriculum that apply specifically to practice with groups. More than one third of respondents did not identify any concepts. Furthermore, concepts essential for informing social work practice with groups were identified by only a small number of respondents. For example, only 21% identified mutual aid, 13% identified the planning process for group formation, and 7% identified group conflict. Other important concepts that few respondents mentioned are communications, roles, norms, and decision making. Respondents offered a small number of concepts that spoke to the use of groups to enhance social development, democratic participation, and social action.

There are apparent contradictions in the data. How do we explain them? It may be that the respondents did not take the time to think about group concepts taught in foundation practice courses. Another explanation is that the respondents may actually have overrated their knowledge of group concepts. Perhaps, too, it is difficult for foundation faculty to know which group concepts to teach or how to integrate them into a generalist framework. One respondent from a BSW program underlines this view:
 In the past we taught individual in the first semester, and group and
 community in the second semester. With new guidelines we now teach
 beginnings, assessment, contracting, etc. in the first and work termination
 stages in the second semester. It seems harder to integrate group work
 concepts and practice. I would welcome discussion, workshops, etc., on
 this. It seems so important but hard to make concrete for students.

Another key finding is that approximately half of the students in foundation practice do not have group field assignments. The lack of group practice experience makes it more difficult for students to understand how a generalist perspective actually applies to work with groups. When students do not bring group work field experiences into the classroom, teachers are challenged to find opportunities to make theory-practice connections.

When it comes to specialized group work education, major differences exist between BSW and MSW programs. Most BSW students are required to take a group course, while in master's programs less than a third of the student body are required to do so. Most master's-level group courses are offered as electives.
 An elective status denigrates group work as a method of study. Group
 electives may compete with as many as a dozen other courses. In most
 schools only 10-15% of students take the group elective, leaving the
 majority to graduate without having taken even one group course (Birnbaum &
 Auerbach, 1994, p. 331).

The textbooks used in BSW programs are drawn from the social work literature. In MSW programs, the single most widely used text is on group psychotherapy not on social group work. Strozier's (1997) study of specialized group work education validates this finding. She writes:
 It is interesting that the most frequently used textbook was written by a
 psychiatrist, not a social worker. In addition, this textbook focuses on
 long-term psychotherapy groups rather than short-term task oriented groups
 so often used in social group work. (p. 76)

Such findings point to a narrow conceptualization of group work practice and lend support to the concern that group work is viewed primarily as a vehicle for the therapy of individuals (Falk, 1995; Garland, 1985).

The irony is that in-depth study of group work practice has been practically eliminated from the MSW curriculum at a time when groups have become major sources for service delivery, and group work is experiencing a new wave of popularity (Garland, 1992). In addition, few doctoral programs offer courses on group work, and doctoral dissertations related to group work practice are few (Garvin, 1996). These conditions make it increasingly difficult for schools to recruit faculty with experience in group work. Behroozi (1997, p. 129) identifies the decline in numbers of group work faculty as "perhaps the most significant obstacle" to the coexistence of a generalist and specialized group work curriculum.

The respondents in this study clearly communicated the need to strengthen group work in the curriculum and its instruction. Respondents are asking for an increase of group work content in the curriculum, strengthening of field education, and the establishment of national standards of group work education. They find the development of teaching materials and tools particularly useful.


Implementation of curriculum change requires a comprehensive effort in the following areas: curriculum standards, group work content inclusion in the foundation generalist curriculum, field education, and faculty development.

Curriculum Standards

Standards should exist that identify basic group work knowledge for integration in the foundation generalist curriculum (AASWG, 1999). Accountability will enhance the motivation of schools and practice faculty to include group work content. Without such standards, the expectation that the foundation curriculum prepares students for social work practice with systems of all sizes will remain unrealistic.

Inclusion of Group Work Content

Education for group work practice requires the application of generic concepts and specialized knowledge (Parry, 1995). Generic concepts are those that apply to work with systems of all sizes. These include practice components such as assessment, goal formulation, and contracting. Specialized group work knowledge includes the group as a social system, benefits of group membership, group types, planning process for group formation, use of activity, and stages of group development (Knight, 1998; Strozier, 1997). These concepts are elaborated upon below.

Group as a social system. This concept recognizes the group and its worker(s) as an interrelated whole and that intervention towards a single member affects all members. Understanding the group as a social system distinguishes it from casework with many individuals. It helps students to focus on "the interrelated group processes that influence the members' behavior and the group's operations and development" (Northen, 1988, p. 22).

Benefits of group membership. These are special dynamic forces or curative factors that emerge within a group as members give and receive help from one another (Northen, 1988; Yalom, 1975). These include peer support, universality, altruism, instillation of hope, interpersonal learning, empowerment, and strength in numbers. Appreciation of these benefits is helpful to students as they learn to assess when group work should be the intervention of choice.

Group types. Content on group types includes purposes for which group services are developed (Germain & Gitterman, 1980; Toseland & Rivas, 1995). These include socialization, psycho-education, therapy, support, task work, and social action.

Planning process for group formation. To form a group, one must consider the pre-group planning process. This includes member needs, group purpose, composition, structure, membership recruitment, and agency context (Kurland, 1978).

Use of activity. Social work practice with groups can include the use of activities in addition to dialogue. Activities are used as a means "through which relationships are made and the needs and interests of the group and its members are fulfilled" (Middleman, 1982, p. AM31), and are especially helpful with less verbal populations. Activities can include crafts, poetry, music, and games.

Stages of group development. The group as a whole goes through developmental stages much as an individual goes through the life cycle. The same behavior exhibited at one stage may have an entirely different meaning at another, and may require a different professional response. Knowledge about group development provides guidelines for the worker's role and interventions (Berman-Rossi, 1993; Brown, 1991). Students may become more comfortable with group conflict and testing behavior when these are viewed as natural and potentially constructive components of group life.

Field Education

Group work field education should be strengthened to include more practice and instruction from field instructors with expertise in the group work method. Schools may have to offer training in supervision of group practice to field instructors and help agencies to develop group work assignments in order to improve group work field education (Birnbaum & Auerbach, 1994).

Faculty Development

Faculty would benefit from education on how to teach foundation practice more effectively. Support and advocacy for this rests with the CSWE Commission on Conference and Faculty Development. Within the commission a faculty development subcommittee exists to assist faculty to understand the teaching/learning process and to develop the knowledge and approaches to teaching in the foundation areas. ("Commission Annual Reports," 1996). A long term plan is needed for educating faculty to teach group work practice integratively. This should include intraschool seminars, workshops at annual program meetings, and Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors conferences.

Doctoral education focused on research and study about groups and group work practice would also help to remedy the dearth of social work educators prepared to teach the subject in BSW and MSW programs.

Future Direction

The collaboration between CSWE and AASWG is an important step in strengthening education for practice with groups. As part of this effort, AASWG has established a Commission on Group Work Education. The commission is sponsoring the development of monographs on group work content for the foundation generalist curriculum, and group work education in the field. A monograph for specialized group work courses has already been published (Kurland & Salmon, 1998).


Association for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups. (1999). Akron, OH.

Bakalinsky, R. (1982). Generic practice in graduate social work curriculum: A study of educators' experiences and attitudes. Journal of Education for Social Work, 18(3), 46-54.

Behroozi, C. (1997). Group work education and the CSWE curriculum policy statement: Capitulation or coexistence? In J. Parry (Ed.), From prevention to wellness through group work (pp. 123-130). Binghamton, NY: Haworth.

Berman-Rossi, T. (1993). The tasks and skills of the social worker across stages of group development. Social Work with Groups, 16(1/2), 69-81.

Birnbaum, M. L., & Auerbach, C. (1994). Group work in graduate social work education: The price of neglect. Journal of Social Work Education, 30, 325-335.

Birnbaum, M. L., Loeb-Richter, R., & Siegel, E. (1995, October). Improving group work practice: Linking the classroom with field instruction. Paper presented at the 17th Annual Symposium on Social Work with Groups. San Diego, CA.

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Cohen, M. B., & Garrett, K.J. (1995). Helping field instructors become more effective group work educators. Social Work with Groups, 18(2/ 3), 135-145.

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LeCroy, C. W., & Goodwin, C. (1988). New directions in teaching social work methods: A content analysis of course outlines. Journal of Social Work Education, 24, 43-49.

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Strozier, A. (1997). Group work in social work education: What is being taught? Social Work with Groups, 20(1), 65-77.

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Accepted: 8/99.

Address correspondence to: Martin Birnbaum, Yeshiva University, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Belfer Hall, 2495 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10033-3299; e-mail:

MARTIN L. BIRNBAUM is Henry Voremberg Professor of Social Group Work, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University. JULIANNE WAYNE is associate professor, School of Social Work, University of Connecticut.

The authors wish to acknowledge the helpful comments of Eric Siegel and Myra Weiss. An earlier version of this article was presented at the Annual Program Meeting of the Council on Social Work Education, Orlando, Florida, March 1998.
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Publication:Journal of Social Work Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000

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