The Institute for Clinical Social Work

Syllabi Archive

RMDL 541: Research Design

Ph.D. Program - Distance Learning: spring 2012-13

Theresa Vidalon, MSW

Course Description

This course will explore research design in order to provide a deeper understanding of social work research methodologies. A wide range of topics will be discussed, including: experimental designs, single-system designs, qualitative research methods, unobstrusive research methods, participatory action research, and program evaluation. Throughout this course students will engage in the process of developing a research area of interest into a feasible and rigorous dissertation proposal.

Knowledge, Value, and Skill Learning Objectives of the Course

Students will:


  1.  Gain in-depth knowledge of social work research methodology
  2.  Understand research problem formulation and conceptualization, and operationalization of key variables
  3.  Learn about issues related to psychodynamic research


4) Discuss the congruence between engaging in participatory action research and culturally competent research and social work values
5) Recognize the value and importance of empowerment evaluation
6) Explore strengths and weaknesses of research design


7) Construct researchable questions and/or hypotheses
8) Utilize computer database searches to critically review relevant literature
9) Design a feasible and rigorous research study using social work research methodologies

Required Texts and Readings*

1. Rubin, A. & Babbie, E. (2008). Research methods for social work (6th Ed.) Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.

NOTE: Previous or newer editions for the class textbook are acceptable to use as long as students locate the appropriate readings that are identified in the syllabus for each class.
2. American Psychological Association (2001). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association ( 6th Ed.). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.


Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL):
3. Articles can be directly accessed by clicking on their citation in the syllabus. Please notify instructor if the link is broken and the student is unable to access the article.
4. ICSW IRB Manuel:

Readings assigned for each class should be located and read through a critical lens prior to class. Students should immediately contact the instructor if they are unable to locate the class readings.

Respect for Diversity, Confidentiality, and Fellow Students

Discussing research participants, patients, clinical material, and patients’ impact on clinicians can be intense; students are expected to be sensitive to their colleagues’ during class discussions, and to protect confidentiality of clinicians, their patients, and research participants. In addition, students are expected to be respectful of the opinions of others while at the same time striving to support the values of clinical counseling and research ethics.

Students with Special Needs

Students with special needs or difficulties in learning and completing courses assignments are strongly encouraged to notify instructors as soon as possible so that appropriate resources and accommodations can be provided.


Grades will be calculated as a total number of points earned

90-100 points Superior Work evidenced by assignments and class participation that reflect outstanding understanding of class materials, consistent demonstration of critical and analytical skills, and creativity.

80-89 points Satisfactory Work evidenced by assignments and class participation that reflect essential understanding of class materials and frequent demonstration of critical and analytical skills.

70-79 points Marginal Work evidenced by assignments and class participation that reflect some understanding of class materials and occasional demonstration of critical and analytical skills.

< 60 points Failure evidenced by assignments and class participation that reflect insufficient understanding of class materials and limited critical and analytical skills.

Assignment Requirements

ICSW Style Manual & APA All papers submitted for class requirements are to conform to the style guide in the “Institute for Clinical Social Work Style Manual,” which is located on the ICSW website in the academic resources section:

Insofar as is practicable, ICSW style follows the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th edition).
Formatting Papers must include: APA style (6th edition) formatting, headings, a spell-checked narrative, double line spacing, 12- point Times New Roman font, 1” margins, page numbers, cover page, and reference page (if applicable). No contractions, slang or idiomatic expressions, or biased language may be used in assignments.

Students are expected to review the OWL website regarding appropriate language:

Points will be deducted from assignments that are not formatted according to APA citation style and the stated specifications in this syllabus.

Page Limits

Students are responsible for fully discussing the required content for each assignment; however, there are no page number requirements for assignments in this class. The instructor will provide a range of pages that previous students have submitted for each assignment, but this does not mean students must submit their assignment within that range. Rather, students should review the grading criteria and aim to successfully achieve the criteria for the highest grade using their individual writing style (i.e. short and concise, long and multifaceted, etc.).

Quoting and Paraphrasing

Students should have no more than 3 to 5 quotes from other sources in their papers. More quotes tend to diminish the voice of the student in their written work.

Students are expected to review the OWL website regarding quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing:

Submitting Papers

It is recommended students submit assignments electronically over email or through Blackbaud; however, assignments can be submitted in paper form at the beginning of the class held on the due date. Additionally, assignments can be submitted to the instructor up to one week after the due date without penalty. Students must inform the instructor they will be taking this extra week. The specific reason why is not necessary to provide. Late assignments will be dropped one letter grade every subsequent week after the initial grace period.

Academic Dishonesty

Any student who engages in academic dishonesty, which includes giving or receiving unauthorized aid to any assignment, plagiarism or tampering with grades or irregularities shall be subject to disciplinary action. Such action may include a failing grade in the course, suspension, or dismissal from the program.

Plagiarism Policy

When plagiarism is suspected, students may be asked to submit their papers electronically to a third party plagiarism detection service. If a student is asked to submit the paper and refuses to do so, the student must provide proof that all work is correctly sited and/or original.

Resources for Academic Writing

 Students may wish to learn more about how to write academic work. They may review the OWL website regarding this topic:

Assignment Timeline and Details

Class attendance and participation 20 points

  • Chapter 1 20 points Due Class 2
  • Chapter 2 20 points Due Class 4
  • Chapter 3 20 points Due Class 6
  • IRB Application & Materials 20 points Due Class 7

Class attendance and participation is defined by regularly and promptly attending class with a willingness to engage in a thoughtful discussion and ask questions about the assigned readings and class topics. Refraining from actively participating in class will negatively affect this grade. Students must obtain instructor approval prior to missing a class. Missing a class will negatively affect this grade. A missed class cannot be made up. Students will periodically be randomly selected to answer instructor questions about class topics. Participation is considered achieved by the students attempt to answer questions or posing their own questions. Participation will not be graded based on correct answers; rather students should attempt to answer in a thoughtful manner.

Assignment #1: Chapter 1. Chapter 1 is the introduction to the dissertation and lays the framework for the rest of the chapters.

Submit a paper that includes:

  • Title page
  • Introduction
  • Background and rationale (Separate sections with separate headings or one combined section with combined heading)
  • Description of research problem/intellectual puzzle
  • Description of significance of the study to social work practice, policy, and research.
  • Conceptual framework and/or conceptual definitions of major concepts related to the study. If the study is quantitative, this will entail conceptually defining key variables (i.e. independent variables, dependent variables, control variables, mediating variables). Qualitative studies may also use conceptual definitions. Students need to describe the proposed theoretical relationships between the concepts/variables and/or report the relationships explained by existing theory (exempt are studies that utilize grounded theory).
  • Statement and brief description of method that will be used (qualitative, quantitative, mixed methods). If the study is qualitative, include a description of the researcher approach (i.e. grounded theory, ethnography, phenomenology) and any assumptions that underlie this approach. The student must also convey their epistemological and ontological stance. If the study is quantitative, include a brief description of the specific method (e.g. web survey). If the study is mixed methods, include a description of each study component.
  • Research question(s) and/or hypothesis(es). If the study is mixed methods, include the research question(s) and/or hypothesis(es) for each study component.
  • Conclusion
  • Reference page

Assignment #2: Chapter 2. Chapter 2 is the literature review of the dissertation. Students will write a review of the relevant research and theory in order to provide support for the study rationale. This will include describing what is currently known about the research problem and identifying gaps in the literature that their study will fill.

Submit a paper that includes:

  • Title page
  • Introduction
  • Description of search engines used, key search terms, and inclusion/exclusion criteria for selecting articles.
  • Synthesis of the literature. Students will describe broad research areas that are pertinent to their research problem before focusing on the most recent research findings that are central to their area of interest. This process is funnel-shaped, meaning that the literature review becomes narrower in focus as it progresses. This review of the literature is not an annotated bibliography, but rather a critical review of the literature that summarizes main points. Articles should not be reviewed one at a time. Students will synthesize their findings by identifying the main points of selected recent articles, pinpointing alternative points of view, and distinguishing important concepts that are relevant to their study.
  • Conclusion that summarizes the main findings of the literature review and places the study in the context of what is known and what needs further research (meaning the focus of the study).
  • Reference page

Assignment #3: Chapter 3. Chapter 3 is the study methodology of the dissertation.

Submit a paper that includes:

  • Title page
  • Introduction
  • Description of the research design of the proposed study (e.g. experimental design testing an intervention or program evaluation). If students decide to use comparison groups, they will discuss how the groups are defined and how participants will be assigned to each group. Students will also describe what data will be collected at what point in time in their study.
  • Sampling plan. Students will discuss their planned sample size, the rationale for this particular number (called “n”), and their participant recruitment plan. If students plan to use an eligibility form then this will be formatted according to the best survey practices learned in RM 512 and attached in the appendix.
  • Data collection and instruments. The data collection process will be discussed, including who collects the data and how. If other people will also act as data collectors (i.e. observers or multiple interviewers), then their training will be described. They will also explain their rationale for choosing an existing measure or interview guide (or why they are creating their own instrument). If students adapt an existing interview guide, the source and purpose will be described. If the study involves the use of existing data sources (i.e. agency records or national survey data), students will describe what data was collected, who collected the data, why the data was collected, and when the data was collected. Students will also discuss previous studies (and their findings) that have used the existing data they will be using. Instructions for scoring, a full description of the instrument, and the level of measurement for each variable will be included. If the instrument is preexisting, the reliability and validity will be discussed. If the instrument is created, plans for testing the reliability and validity will be included.
  • Operational definitions. If the study is quantitative or mixed methods, students will operationally define the variables in the study.
  • Reliability, Validity, and Trustworthiness, Transferability. Procedures for addressing validity/trustworthiness concerns (i.e. writing memos and member checks) will be explained.
  • Conclusion
  • Reference page
  • Appendix. All data collection instruments should be included in the appendix (e.g. eligibility form, interview guide, survey).

Although included in a dissertation proposal in Chapter 3, a data analysis plan is not required for this assignment.

Assignment #4 is the completion of the IRB application, consent form, & recruitment materials. The IRB application and consent form should be fully completed using the forms available on the ICSW website. It is not necessary to submit a copy of the student’s CV or resume for this assignment. Students can list the instructor as their fictional dissertation chair/research sponsor on the IRB form. Students should also submit any recruitment materials or additional information as listed below.

Submit the following:

  • IRB application
  • Consent form
  • Recruitment materials (e.g., study flyer, phone script, recruitment email)
  • Any additional information (e.g., copy of measure(s) or interview guide)

Topical Outline and Required Readings

Class One: Class Overview and Experimental Design

  • Causality
  • Internal and external validity
  • Pre experimental designs
  • Experimental designs
  • Quasi-experimental designs

Required Readings:

Rubin & Babbie, Chapters 10 (4th edition) or 10 & 11 (6th edition)
Grote, N., Beldsoe, S., Swartz, H., & Frank, E. (2004). Feasibility of providing culturally relevant, brief interpersonal psychotherapy for antenatal depression in an obstetrics clinic: a pilot study. Research on Social Work Practice, 14(6), 397-407.

Morrison, K., Bradley, R., & Western, D. (2003). The external validity of controlled clinical trials of psychotherapy for depression and anxiety: A naturalistic study. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 76, 109-132.

** Chapter 1 is due by Class Two**

Class Two: Single-System Designs

  • Selection of target problems and relevant outcomes
  • Measurement issues
  • Who gathers the data
  • Alternative designs
  • Ethical issues

Required Readings:

Rubin & Babbie, Chapters 11 (4th edition) or 12 (6th edition)

Class Three: Qualitative Research Methods Part One

  • Terminology in qualitative research
  • Issues in intensive interviews and participant observation
  • Focus groups
  • Strengths and weaknesses of field research

Required Readings:

Rubin & Babbie, Chapters 13 (4th edition) or 17 & 18 (6th edition) Gallegos, N. (2005). Client perspectives on what contributes to symptom relief in psychotherapy: A qualitative outcome study. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 45(3), 355-382.

Huband, N., & Tantam, D. (2004). Repeated self-wounding: Women’s recollection of pathways to cutting and of the value of different interventions. Psychology and pathways to cutting and of the value of different interventions. Psychology and
Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 77, 413-428.

** Chapter 2 is due by Class Four**

Class Four: Qualitative Research Methods Part Two

  • Qualitative analysis and basic coding
  • Grounded theory
  • Ethnography
  • Qualitative research issues
  • Audit trails
  • Peer reviewing

Required Readings:

Rubin & Babbie, Chapters 13 (4th edition) or 17 & 18 (6th edition)

Harris, G.E., & Larsen, D. (2007). HIV peer counseling and the development of hope: Perspectives from peer counselors and peer counseling recipients. AIDS Patient Care and STDS, 21(11), 843-859.

Olson, M., & Russell, C. (2004). Understanding change in conjoint psychotherapy: Inviting clients to comment on the validity of standardized change scores. Contemporary Family Therapy, 26(3), 261-278.

Class Five: Unobstrusive Research: Quantitative and Qualitative

  • Content analysis
  • Existing data/secondary analysis
  • Historical/comparative analysis

Required Readings:

Rubin & Babbie, Chapters 14 (4th edition) or 16 & 20 (6th edition)

Hofferth, S.L. (2005). Secondary data analysis in family research. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 891-907.

** Chapter 3 is due by Class Five**

Class Six: Participatory Action Research/Culturally Competent Research

  • Participatory action research
  • Empowerment evaluation
  • Culturally competent research

Required Readings:

Leff, S.S., Costigan, T., & Power, T.J. (2004). Using participatory research to develop a playground-based prevention program. Journal of School Psychology, 42, 3-21.

Secret, M., Jordan, A., & Ford, J. (1999). Empowerment evaluation as a social work strategy. Health & Social Work, 24(2), 120-127.

Sue, S. (2006). Cultural competency: From philosophy to research and practice. Journal of Community Psychology, 34(2), 237-245.

Recommended Readings:

Fetterman, D.M. (1994). Steps of empowerment evaluation: From California to Cape Town. Evaluation and Program Planning, 17(3), 305-313.

Class Seven: Program Evaluation & Issues in Psychodynamic Research

  • Purpose of program evaluation
  • Models of program evaluation
  • Politics of program evaluation
  • Basic logic models

Required Readings:

Rubin & Babbie, Chapters 19 (4th edition) or 13 (6th edition)

Fonargy, P., Roth, A., & Higgitt, A. (2005). Psychodynamic psychotherapies: evidence-based practice and clinical wisdom. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 69(1), 1-58.

** IRB Materials is due by Class Seven**

Please note that links to some course readings have been purged from archived syllabi. Electronic texts on the ICSW website are protected by copyright law. These files are made available strictly for individual, educational use and may not be copied or distributed in any way. Distribution of copyrighted material to non-enrolled individuals or ICSW students will be considered an act of Academic Dishonesty and be dealt with accordingly as indicated in the Student Manual. Federal penalties for copyright infringement may be found at