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Social Work/Maatskaplike Werk

On-line version ISSN 2312-7198
Print version ISSN 0037-8054

Social work (Stellenbosch. Online) vol.51 n.4 Stellenbosch  2015 



Large classes in social work education: A threat to the professional socialisation of social work students?



Barbara Simpson

Department of Social Work, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.




Improved access to higher education and the increase in student numbers without a simultaneous increase in resources has given rise to numerous challenges. This reflective article considers whether large classes in social work education pose a threat to the professional socialisation of students, which requires that they internalise the values, interests, skills and knowledge of social work. Professional socialisation within social work education, the threat posed by large classes, both in the classroom and field practice education, as well as some possible solutions, are considered in this article.




Since 1994 the enrolment of students at universities in South Africa has more than doubled (Department of Higher Education and Training, 2013). This has been consistent with the country's aim of building a new education and training system to meet the needs of a democratic society by overcoming unfair discrimination, expanding access and improving the quality of education.

Within this context the number of social work students has also increased. Increased access to university and specifically to social work education has been made possible by a scholarship scheme instituted by the Department of Social Development as part of its Recruitment and Retention Strategy (Department of Social Development, 2004). Other factors such as the certainty of a job at the end of one's studies, and the generally lower entrance requirements for social work, have made social work an attractive option for many young people.

No one can deny that social workers are needed in South Africa to help address the enormous burdens of poverty, HIV/AIDS and violence, and thus the increase in numbers of young people wanting to enter the profession is to be welcomed. However, if social workers are to be successful in addressing the many problems facing this country, they need to be well educated and socialised into the profession which is rooted in a specific ideological base that deeply values respect for others and social justice.

This article considers whether the increase in numbers of students without a simultaneous increase in resources for social work education might not be a threat to the professional socialisation of social work students. It begins by providing an overview of social work education globally and in South Africa, and then goes on to discuss what is meant by professional socialisation. The possible threat posed by large classes to professional socialisation is then discussed in relation to both classroom and field practice education.



Formal education for social work began in the United States in the late 1890s with short training courses for social workers and by the beginning of the twentieth century, fulltime year-long training programmes had been introduced (Austen, 1983). The need to be recognised as a profession played an important role in the development of social work and social work education, and in 1915 Flexner's speech, "Is social work a profession?" to the National Conference of Corrections and Charities emphasised the importance of "an orderly and highly specialised educational discipline" (Flexner, 2001:1551) as the means through which members of a profession gain the knowledge required. He was of the opinion that there were six criteria by which to judge whether or not an occupation was a profession. These were that "professions involve essentially intellectual operations with large individual responsibility; they derive their raw material from science and learning; this material they work up to a practical and definite end; they possess an educationally communicable technique; they tend to self- organising; they are becoming increasingly altruistic in motivation" (Flexner, 2001:156).

Greenwood (1957) reiterated these criteria and summarised them as: systematic theory; authority; community sanction; ethical codes and a culture. The need for systematic theory implied that professionals acquire knowledge based on abstract principles, not just operational procedures, and that this knowledge is gained through extensive formal education.

Great strides have been made in terms of developing professional social work education worldwide. In 2001 both the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) and the International Federation of Social Work (IFSW) adopted an international definition of social work, which was revised in 2014. These two bodies also developed and adopted the "Global standards for the education and training of the social work profession" in 2004 (Sewpaul & Jones, 2005). These standards were intended to be aspirational rather than prescriptive. They sought to ensure that social work education supports the core functions and values of social work such as support for human rights, social justice and a commitment to caring for and empowering individuals, groups and communities. They also reflected a "commitment to the professional and personal development of social work students, with particular emphases on the development of the critically self-reflective practitioner and the pace of values and ethics in social work education and training" (Sewpaul & Jones, 2005:226).

Social work education in South Africa has been influenced by these global developments and in 2003 the Bachelor of Social Work degree was registered in the National Qualifications Framework.2 By 2007 all universities offering the social work qualification were required to ensure that students completing the Bachelor of Social Work were able to demonstrate competence in the 27 exit-level outcomes. While the author remains critical of the BSW with its outcomes-based approach (Simpson, 2010), there is no doubt that the institution of the BSW has been a genuine attempt to improve the quality of social work education and ultimately the quality of social work practice in South Africa.

The purpose of teaching in professional disciplines differs from pedagogies in other academic disciplines. Not only must the student learn the knowledge required for the profession, but must also learn what it means to be a professional. One does therefore not "learn for the sake of knowledge and understanding alone; one learns in order to engage in practice" (Shulman, 2005:18). Professional practice must also be characterised by integrity and responsible, ethical service, and professional education must socialise the student into what this means. This is also reflected in South African policy documents such as the Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework, which states that professional degrees should emphasise "general principles and theory in conjunction with procedural knowledge in order to provide students with a thorough grounding in the knowledge, theory, principles and skills of the profession .... and the ability to apply these to professional or career contexts" (Council on Higher Education, 2013:32).



Miller (2013) points out that there is long-standing and general agreement about the importance of professional socialisation in social work. It can be described as that process whereby an individual entering a profession adapts both externally to the requirements of the specific career role and internally to their self-conceptualisation of that role (McGowen & Hart, 1992).

Professional socialisation takes place in different ways, which has implications for social work education. Two different views of socialisation have been identified in the literature. The first is the structural-functional perspective (Barretti, 2004; Miller, 2010), which posits that professional socialisation involves the acquisition of the values and attitudes, interests, skills and knowledge directly through didactic teaching and indirectly through interaction with significant members of the group. This can be seen as an "induction" approach through which the student learns the appropriate social roles and behaviours to participate as a member of the profession. The second view of professional socialisation is the symbolic interactionist perspective (Barretti, 2004; Miller, 2010). This focuses on the motivation, identity and commitment of the student and sees socialisation as a process whereby the student learns to adapt to the practice and organisational context.

Both these views of the way that professional socialisation occurs require that students be provided with opportunities to interact meaningfully with members of the profession, both as teachers in the classroom and as mentors and supervisors in the field. Not only do students need knowledge about what the social work profession is, but also the opportunity for self-reflection and the development of self-awareness. It is through the social interaction with significant people that socialisation is said to take place. The importance of relationships thus cannot be under-estimated and this is the aspect that large classes may compromise.

While the focus of this article is on the formal socialisation of students during their social work education, it must be remembered that socialisation is an on-going process which starts long before the student enters the formal social work education programme and continues long after the student leaves and continually adapts to changing employment and practice settings. Prior socialisation (Miller, 2010) forms the building block on which further socialisation takes place and as such has implications for the education process. Prior socialisation refers to those early experiences which influence an individual's development and worldview, and which may impact on the individual's choice of a profession. For example, there is evidence that an idealistic orientation and family background play a role in career choice of social work (Lev-Wiesel, 2003). The literature also suggests that one's personal and social values also play a role in professional socialisation. For example, a student's inherent empathic ability enables him or her to acknowledge and understand the feelings of clients, while a positive sense of self and wellbeing enables them to cope with stress. The ability to differentiate between their own needs and the needs of clients is also essential (Shlomo, Levy & Itzhaky, 2012).

Prior socialisation for many South African students has been problematic and many young people entering higher education in South Africa bring with them a myriad of social, economic and academic challenges that impact on their ability to succeed academically (Cross & Carpenter, 2009) and which in turn may impact on their professional growth. The difficulties facing students has been borne out in a number of South African studies. Earle (2008) found that students at the Universities of Limpopo and Stellenbosch reported a high level of childhood trauma and a study at UNISA (Schenck, 2009) found that students experienced challenging socio-economic circumstances as well as traumatic childhood experiences. In a more recent study van Breda (2010) found a high prevalence of psychosocial vulnerability amongst social work students at the University of Johannesburg. Seventy-seven percent of these students had experienced the loss of a parent or significant other and more than half reported growing up in poverty and as continuing to struggle financially. A third of the students reported experiencing some form of abuse and nearly 14% had terminated a pregnancy. These studies found that, to varying degrees, these life challenges impacted negatively on the students' wellbeing and academic performance. Negative life circumstances are in themselves no reason to exclude students from social work studies and, indeed, overcoming such experiences may help students to develop empathy and a strong sense of service to others. However, some students may bear emotional scars that compromise their professional development (Dykes, 2011) and this has implications for the education and training of social work students.

It thus seems clear that many students entering social work require additional support during the process of professional socialisation. If, as discussed previously, it is the relationship and interaction with significant members of the profession that plays an important role in this process, large classes may be a further impediment to the development of a professional social worker.

In summary then, social work educators need to do more than help students to develop academic knowledge and skills. They also need to model professional behaviour and nurture personal and professional growth. This teaching and learning in social work education takes place in two primary contexts, the classroom and the field. Each of these contexts will now be discussed and the challenges presented by large classes will be examined.



Classroom teaching forms a major part of social work programmes and much important learning takes place in this context. An interesting finding from Miller's study (2013) was that students appear to develop their relationship to social work values in the classroom and those students who reported that values were emphasised in their classroom were more committed to social justice. The importance of what happens in the classroom therefore cannot be under-estimated. In this section I discuss how professional socialisation may be compromised in large classes.

The notion of what constitutes a large class varies; Mulryan-Kyne (2010) pointed out that the nature of the programme, the accommodation and facilities available, and the resources required as well as the background of the students all play a role in determining whether a class size is too large. Cuseo (2007) reported that most of the studies that he reviewed tended to rate class sizes of less than 25 as small and those with more than 50 as large. The Australian Universities Teaching Committee (Moulding, 2010) stated that any class of more than 80 students can be considered to be a large class. In reviewing what he considered to be best practice, Cuseo (2007) suggested that that ideal class size was 15. Social work classes in South Africa are certainly larger than this ideal and the first-year social work student intake for 2014 at the University of KwaZulu-Natal was 250!

One of the problems of large classes is that teaching methods are linked to class size. Cuseo (2007), quoting McKeachie (1986), wrote that they are "inextricably intertwined" and the larger the class, the more reliance on lectures as a teaching method. Lectures are certainly useful for presenting information, for introducing a topic and arousing interest, for providing the structure and context around which students can then read and engage in self-study, and for explaining, developing, summarising and synthesising information introduced in readings or after discussions and self-study (Cooper & Robinson, 2000; Mulryan-Kyne, 2010). However, a number of problems associated with lectures have been identified and it is these problems that impact on the professional socialisation of social work students.

Becoming a professional requires students to reflect on their learning and to be active thinkers. However, the physical context of large classes is not conducive to active learning (Carter, Barrett & Park, 2011). Large lecture theatres are often tiered, have fixed seating and a lectern at the front. This creates what Carter et al. (2011) referred to as a "physical hierarchy" which reinforces the notion of lecturer as conveying the knowledge and students as passive recipients. Large classes thus reduce the level of student involvement (Cuseo, 2007). There is insufficient opportunity for questions and answers and many students may feel intimidated to ask questions or to comment. Problems of acoustics, visibility and attention all contribute to the problem and in the South African context, where for many students the language of instruction is not their mother tongue, this situation is exacerbated. Interaction between students and teachers, and between students themselves, thus decreases. Some research has demonstrated the dangers of this and Long and Coldren (2006), for example, found that positive lecturer-student relationship contributed to positive learning outcomes and that students who were involved with other students rated themselves as performing better.

Lack of involvement in the classroom can also lead to students becoming anonymous and more passive learners. This leads to lessened individual accountability and student engage in behaviours that would not occur in smaller classes. Noise and distraction increase, absenteeism may not even be noticed, late arrival and early leaving become common, and students engage in more off-task behaviour (sending and receiving cell phone messages, catching up on work for other courses) during lectures (Mulryan-Kyne, 2010). In preparing students for professional practice, we aim to inculcate norms of respect and consideration for others, which becomes very difficult in the context of large classes.

Considerable pedagogical barriers also exist in large classes. Because it is difficult to know students, it becomes difficult to meet the individualised needs of students. Lectures then tend to teach to the "average" student, which means that brighter students become bored and weaker students get left behind (Toepell, Cole & Lathrop, 2002). Furthermore, the development of higher-order thinking skills is hampered by large classes and Cuseo (2007) provides a summary of a number of studies that consistently support this assertion. An interesting study reported was that by Fischer and Grant (1983, in Cuseo, 2007), who demonstrated that in small classes of 15, answers to questions were on average analytical in nature, in classes of 16-45 they were characterised by comprehension, and in large classes of 46 or more students the answers reflected factual recall only. Similarly, the Australian Universities Teaching Committee Large Classes Project (Moulding, 2010) found that large classes impacted negatively on the development of higher-order thinking skills. The implications of this are dire. Social workers require more than just factual knowledge. If they are to be able to address the many complex issues facing communities in South Africa, they need to be able to think critically and creatively. Large classes do not facilitate the development of these faculties.

Helping students to internalise social work values and develop a professional identity calls for creative teaching methods. In an effort to address the personal challenges that many social work students bring to university, several universities have experimented with student autobiographies (Dykes, 2011). Students are asked to reflect on their life experiences and to identify what has impacted on their development and identity. These types of exercises are time consuming and require considerable commitment from the lecturer to read carefully and to respond in ways that will be facilitative to the student's growth. In large classes this will simply not be possible and it may even raise ethical concerns if the lecturer is unable to deal with issues that students may raise in their autobiographies.

Large classes also present challenges with assessment. Frequent assessment with feedback to students is linked with good learning outcomes. Assessments provide a structure for learning and the opportunity to improve performance (Cuseo, 2007). The type of assessment is influenced by class size. Large classes often rely on multiple-choice questions or questions requiring short answers. This in turn influences how students prepare for assessments as students preparing for multiple-choice questions are more likely to use surface learning techniques such as memorising (Cuseo, 2007). Large classes are also less likely to promote student writing. Given that writing promotes student learning and depth of learning (Cuseo, 2007), and that professional social workers are required to write reports for a variety of reasons, this is an issue of concern. Providing detailed and consistent feedback, which is so important in promoting student learning, is compromised in large classes.



The second context for teaching social work occurs in the field and this aspect of social work education has been valued since the early days of social work education. In summarising the development of field education, Wayne, Raskin and Bogo (2010) pointed out that it was originally based on the belief that students learn how to practise through apprenticeship types of experience under the guidance and supervision of an expert practitioner. This is an essential aspect of the student's professional socialisation as they "learn to practice social work through delivering social work services in agency and community settings" (Bogo, 2006:164) and it is in the field that they begin to apply in practice the knowledge, skills and values they have been exposed to in the classroom. Many students report that field education is the most crucial component of their social work education (Shlomo et al., 2012). So valued is this aspect of social work education that the Council on Social Work Education in the United States has described field education as the "signature pedagogy of the social work profession" (Wayne et al., 2010:327). Field education is thus designated as the primary method of instruction by which the student learns to perform the role of practitioner. In South Africa the present Bachelor of Social Work is based on an outcomes-based approach to education, which requires that students demonstrate their mastery of the learning objectives or exit-level outcomes. This time and resource-intensive requirement is extremely difficult to meet in the context of large classes.

Several studies have demonstrated that the student-supervisor relationship plays a pivotal role in the development of a professional identity (Barretti, 2004; Shlomo et al., 2012). The supervisor-student relationship provides the context for learning in the field and supervisors play a central role in the professional socialisation of social work students. An obvious corollary to this is that there must be sufficient field placements with suitably qualified, able and willing supervisors for all social work students. Large numbers of students limit placement opportunities and the situation is exacerbated by problems in the field of social work.

Dominelli (2004) points out that neoliberalism, globalisation and corporate managerial strategies which result in decreased funding and demands for increased productivity have serious implications for contemporary social work practice. In South Africa non-governmental organisations have been under pressure to expand their services towards addressing prevention and early intervention (in keeping with a social development paradigm), while continuing to offer statutory services to children in need of care in a context where funding and resource provision remain static (Loffell, 2008). The NGO sector is thus facing many challenges with shortages of funding and experienced staff, while many are reluctant to accept students who are hold Department of Social Development scholarships as these students have a contractual obligation to work for the Department and are unable to are unable to take up employment with the NGO that provides the fieldwork placement. At the same time there is pressure on the Department to provide placements for all its scholarship students. It is our experience that this has resulted in some cases of students being placed in offices where there is overcrowding and generally poor working conditions. In these circumstances professional development is compromised as students, for example, struggle to make sense of how to maintain confidentiality when two clients are being interviewed in the same office and where there is insufficient filing space and files are packed on the floor. Under such circumstances, ensuring that student placements provide adequate learning opportunities and good supervision becomes a luxury and seriously threatens the professional socialisation of students.



It would seem that large classes may indeed threaten the professional socialisation of social work students. However, given that this is the situation that social work educators find themselves in, can anything be done to mitigate the negative effects of large classes, and what new and creative ways can be found to encourage professional socialisation in large classes?

Some efforts have been made to make large classes seem smaller; for example, Yazedjian and Kolkhorst (2007) suggested using small group activities within the large class to promote participation and active learning. Students could be asked to break into small groups in different sections of the lecture room to discuss a particular topic or answer a set of question and then return to their seats. Feedback from students is then requested and this is linked to the course content by the lecturer. Of course, this assumes that the lecture room is big enough and the layout suitable to accommodate this kind of movement of students during a lecture. On a smaller scale, students can be asked to work in groups of two and three with the students seated next to them.

The increased use of technology in providing learning support and blended learning which combines class sessions with specific web-based activities have also been mooted as a solution to some of the problems inherent in large classes (Carter et al., 2011; Cooper & Robinson, 2000). Online learning activities such as tutorials and quizzes could help to reinforce course content and identify where students need additional support. Electronic discussion forums could provide students with opportunities to practise academic writing and to reflect on various aspects of the course content. Regular student postings also provide the lecturer with feedback on how students are interpreting material. While these might be ways of increasing student participation, Bryant (2005) warns that they are not without costs to the lecturer. Clear instructions and guidelines to students are essential and monitoring online discussions is time-consuming.

Efforts have also been made to address the problems of field education by exploring new possibilities for field placements. Some universities have experimented with university-community partnerships (Cook, Bond, Jones & Greif, 2002; Simpson & Sathiparsad, 2010) whereby university staff and students form partnerships with communities in order to offer social work services while at the same time providing student training. The use of non-traditional sites for student field placements has also received attention; for example, Ferguson and Smith (2012) reported on the advantages and disadvantages of placing students in social movement organisations.

These efforts are all admirable in their attempt to provide students with more meaningful learning experiences. They seek to address some of the challenges to learning and professional socialisation that are the result of large classes. However, they still require resources, both in terms of lecturers and materials. The fundamental problem remains, namely that increased student numbers has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in resources. Social work practice takes place in the context of a relationship between a social worker and the client system. The professional socialisation of social work students takes place primarily in the context of a relationship. Without a sufficient number of people to guide, mentor and teach social work students, their development as professional social workers will be compromised.



The Bachelor of Social Work degree is a professional qualification and as such is intended to prepare students to enter the profession of social work. The aim of social work education is to produce graduates who have a strong sense of the mission of social work, who identify with the fundamental values of social work, who are critical thinkers and self-reflective practitioners, and who are skilled at intervening at multiple levels (micro, mezzo and macro) to help people resolve problems and create a better society. This article has considered whether large classes pose a threat to the professional socialisation of social work students. It concludes that large classes do indeed impact negatively on student learning, both in the classroom and in the field. However, it acknowledges that efforts can be made to overcome some of the barriers that large classes present in respect of the professional development and socialisation of students. Despite this, the warning of Chapman and Ludlow (2010:118) should be heeded: "There is a danger that large classes may introduce a burden to learning that is just too difficult for students and lecturers to overcome, despite their best efforts".

If we are serious about protecting the profession of social work and truly contributing to the betterment of society, we need to ensure that we either reduce the number of social work students being accepted at our universities, or that additional and sufficient resources be made available to enable social work students to develop into competent professional practitioners. The challenge to social work educators is how to bring about this change in the context of a very complex higher education terrain.



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1 This is a reprint of the 1915 speech.
2 The BSW is at present under review.

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