Ph.D. Students Selected for International Award to Fund Dissertation Research

AUSTIN, Texas – Two students in the School of Social Work Ph.D. Program at The University of Texas at Austin are recipients of the 2012 Social Work Education Research Student Award (SWERSA) sponsored by Social Work Education: The International Journal.

Paula Gerstenblatt and Miki Tesh will each receive £8,000 ($12,800) to support their dissertation research. They are among 11 doctoral students selected by Social Work Education through an international, competitive application process. The University of Texas at Austin is the only Ph.D. program in social work to have two of its students selected for the 2012 SWERSA.

Social Work Education makes a vital contribution to the development of educational theory and practice through publishing and supporting rigorous pedagogic research in the field of social work education (i.e., research which relates to the teaching, learning or assessment of social work students). The journal sponsors SWERSA dissertation awards to support the development of early career researchers through providing doctoral students with substantial funding to complete research specifically related to social work education.

Of all the SWERSA awards given internationally since 2011, only three of those awards have gone to U.S. doctoral students, and Gerstenblatt and Tesh are recipients of two of those three awards.  The remainder of the 2012 SWERSA recipients represent social work programs at the following universities: University of Dundee, Scotland; Loyola University, India; University of Sussex and University of Chester, England; University of Sydney and University of Melbourne, Australia; The Catholic University of America (Washington D.C.), U.S.; University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong; and Otago University, New Zealand.

Both Gerstenblatt and Tesh have devoted their doctoral dissertation work to advancing social work education theory, practice and research. Associate Professor of Social Work and African & African Diaspora Studies Dorie J. Gilbert chairs both students’ dissertations.

The dissertation undertaken by Paula Gerstenblatt is grounded in the analysis of pedagogical methods applied in academic service learning courses and the impact of interdisciplinary community-university partnerships on students and communities. Gerstenblatt is addressing a gap in the service learning research on student growth and transformation, impact of service learning on the community, and the lack of articulated interdisciplinary models of service learning, particularly one that originates in social work. Her goal is to expand the discourse on best practices for forging community-university engagement through social work education. Currently, Gerstenblatt is working with the Volunteer Service Learning Center in the university’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement to develop best practices for community-university partnerships and will transition an annual project to an academic service learning course that she will teach in spring 2013 as a joint venture with the School of Social Work.

Gerstenblatt is the founder and director of the Mart Community Project (MCP), a broad-based community revitalization initiative in rural town of Mart, Texas (www.martcommunityproject.org). Her dissertation presents an analysis of the Global Project Development (GPD) course, an innovative, interdisciplinary service learning course co-developed and taught by Gerstenblatt and Dr. Gilbert. The GPD course was offered by the School of Social Work and brought 20 graduate and undergraduate UT-Austin students to work in partnership with Mart residents and stakeholders during the 2010-2011 academic year. Students implemented community development projects using the three core principals of service learning: study, reciprocity and reflection.

The Mart Community Project is a national model for community-university partnerships and a recipient of two National Endowment of the Arts grants as well as numerous public and foundation grant awards. The MCP is one of several projects undertaken by the Institute for Community Development: U.S. and Abroad, a unit of the school’s Center for Social Work Research. The institute is directed by Gilbert.

“Increasingly, universities are called upon to enhance their civic engagement and community outreach to address societal challenges. Paula’s research aims to develop a best practice pedagogical model for academic service learning courses, specific to social work,” said Gilbert.

“Courses embedded within university-community partnerships, such as the relationship between the GPD course and the Mart Community Project, simultaneously change students and communities, which resonates strongly with today’s millennial generation of young people who want to ‘change the world.’”

Miki Tesh’s dissertation research focuses on building the social work pedagogical discourse by highlighting the relevance of evidence-based teaching (EBT), best practices shown to have the most positive outcomes in how teachers teach and learners learn. The constructs proven by the empirical studies on EBT are aligned with many social work values and practices, such as valuing  self-determination, self-efficacy, relationships, and motivation strategies.

Tesh’s dissertation is a collection of four studies, including one that explores the extent to which social work students report experiencing the methods associated with EBT in their social work classrooms. Her work will also compare social work students to engineering, business and nursing students to explore ways in which social work students are unique in their achievement goal orientation, self-determination in learning, and situational motivation, building on previous research that indicates social work students tend to be more intrinsically as opposed to extrinsically motivated. This study also examines differences in how underrepresented

students are motivated, which is relevant to social work’s focus on diversity. In advancing the overall EBT discourse, Tesh has designed a self-assessment tool that will allow social work professors to increase their awareness, knowledge and skills in practicing EBT, this experimental intervention designed to improve instructors’ metacognition about their own teaching effectiveness is a first in EBT empirical studies.

By focusing on learning outcomes and evidence-based teaching, Tesh brings a new perspective that may help improve overall teaching and learning, and, in return, social work practice. Her goal is to find new ways to improve the quality of social relationships in the classroom and provide a bridge for social work to become fully engaged in accessing and using the EBT literature.

“Miki Tesh’s research is aimed at balancing the profession’s pedagogical focus on evidence-based practice with EBT. Her work is grounded in her belief that “In teaching well, we motivate student to learn. In learning well, students deliver the best social work practice,” said Gilbert. “Her dissertation speaks to helping social work professors be leaders on the campus in terms of teaching efficacy by integrating EBT practices, especially for a new generation of college students who are motivated by learner-centered teaching, whether that involves technology, experiential learning or innovative challenges.”

Tesh has worked very closely with UT-Austin Center for Teaching and Learning staff, Drs. Joanna Gilmore, coordinator for the Graduate Student Instructor Program, and Michael Sweet, director of instructional development, who also serve on her dissertation committee.

“Both Paula Gerstenblatt and Miki Tesh are building new knowledge bases in social work education research and proposing new pedagogical models that will likely turn a new page in the way we educate social work students,” Gilbert said.

The students and Gilbert have been invited to a lunch honoring awardees during the Council on Social Work Education 58th Annual Program Meeting in Washington, D.C., November 9-12.