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Evidence-based practice (EBP) continues to be debated among social work educators, as well as practitioners, while many funding sources are calling for accountability demonstrated by use of EBP. While social work faculty members and field instructors may agree that EBP should be used, reaching consensus on the definition of EBP and incorporation into teaching and practice is difficult. This study considers social work faculty and field instructors’ attitudes regarding opportunities and barriers to adoption and use of EBP in social work classrooms and field placements. Results showed that field instructors, more than faculty, perceived greater opportunities to use and adopt EBP into practice.

Keywords: Evidence-Based Practice, Field Placement, Social Work Curriculum, Social Work Faculty, Field Instructors

Evidence-based Practice in Social Work Curriculum

Leaders of foundations and other funding sources, educational accrediting bodies, schools of social work programs, and community-based organizations recognize the need to incorporate and utilize evidence-based practice (EBP) in social work education and practice. However, this requirement underscores the importance of social work faculty members and agency-based field instructors, who are responsible for educating and training social work students, to include EBP in their instructional practice. Therefore, it is essential to understand the attitudes of social work faculty members and agency based field instructors regarding the facilitators and barriers of EBP in teaching and application to direct practice.

Many definitions have been developed for EBP, each with a different emphasis.  In this study, the author uses the conceptualization provided by Sackett, Richardson, Rosenberg and Haynes (1997) who defined EBP as the “conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual clients/patients” (p. 71). This definition was included in the survey for participants.

EBP is the framework that is used to promote adoption of best practices informed by research. Proponents of this framework argue that mandating the use of EBP ensures that the best available practices are used. Many faculty and community-based practitioners in higher education feel that it is easier to advocate for EBP rather than to incorporate it into their work (Berger, 2010; Farley et al., 2009). Barriers that have been identified as hindering the use of EBP include: lack of rigorous and relevant studies, difficulty in locating and applying existing research, difficult or complex EBPs, and in some cases a distrust of research findings (Amodeo et al., 2011; Gambrill, 2006, 2010; Thyer, 2004). While most faculty and practitioners agree that using EBP is important (Chwalisz, 2003; Thyer, 2004, 2015), agreement is lacking on the definition of EBP, or more specifically what constitutes evidence. Literature on EBP continues to increase, with a greater number of educational institutions and community-based agencies embracing EBP (Gilgun, 2005; Proctor, 2004, 2007; Springer, 2007).

Leaders in higher education, as well as in community-based agencies, continue to consider what infrastructure is necessary to integrate EBP into the curriculum and professional practice (Gambrill, 2001; Gilgun, 2005; Thyer, 2004). While accrediting bodies or funding sources may mandate the use of EBP, administrative leaders have to consider the levels of change needed to advance EBP within those settings (Glisson, 1992, 2002; Manuel, Mullen, Fang, Bellamy, & Bledsoe, 2009; Thyer, 2004). Access to technology with appropriate databases, quality training to learn the EBP process, and continued support to learn and incorporate EBP are some of the necessary steps to which administrators may attend to adopt EBP successfully. Motivating staff to integrate EBP while also providing support for its use often proves challenging for many administrative leaders.

Literature Review

EBP is offered as an alternative to “authority-based practice,” or practice based solely on the expertise and experience of practitioners (Edmond, Megivern, Williams, Rochman, & Howard, 2006; Gambrill, 1999, 2006; Gibbs & Gambrill, 2002; Upshur & Tracy, 2004). Evolving from evidence-based medicine (Witkin & Harrison, 2001), EBP has been proposed as an improved alternative to authority-based practice as EBP requires empirical research and clinical proficiency, as well as the context of the client’s situation (Gambrill, 1999).

Schools of social work and agency administrators recognize that, to incorporate EBP successfully into the curriculum and practice, teaching faculty and agency supervisors need to understand the purpose and importance of EBP to assure that it will be adopted. This leadership can be expected to drive both the use and acceptance of EBP in teaching and agency work. Manuel et al. (2009) suggested that efforts to implement EBP into practice need to consider agency context and culture. Manuel et al. (2009) asserted that a “multilevel approach – one that targets practitioner attitudes and motivations, agency climate and context, and university-agency partnerships – has the greatest potential to support implementation of EBP in social agencies” (p. 626). In the absence of such a model, one successful approach utilizes student interns who provide access to databases to promote use of EBP by field instructors and other agency staff. While student interns are valued for this resource, they are not in a position to lead the charge for moving EBP within agencies (Stanhope, Tuchman, & Sinclair, 2011).

To incorporate EBP successfully into the curriculum, faculty and agency-based field instructors need to “buy” into this paradigm. They have to participate in education and training to help students integrate content learned in class into their field placement experiences.

In April 2008, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) issued new guidelines for Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS). New CSWE EPAS were unveiled in 2015 maintaining the assessment focus from program outcomes to process assessment concentrating on student achievement of practice competencies. EBP continues to be one of the major concepts identified in the EPAS, though not directly identified. Competency 4 in the 2015 EPAS states, “Engage in practice-informed research and research-informed practice” (Council on Social Work Education [CSWE], 2015, p. 8). Social work programs are required to demonstrate how this concept can be incorporated into the curriculum as well as how students can demonstrate competence using EBP in the classroom and in their fieldwork. While some schools have embraced EBP and have incorporated it into the entire curriculum (e.g., University of Tennessee), others continue to debate its use, struggling with its definition and inclusion in their social work curriculum. Deans and other leaders in social work education are evaluating the best format within their specific schools to infuse this framework as they recognize that the CSWE will incorporate adherence to this standard when programs are evaluated for reaffirmation of accreditation.

Departments of field education within schools of social work are continually cultivating strong field placement sites as they work with students, agency-based field instructors (FI), and other agency personnel to ensure good experiences for all stakeholders. Field instructors play an important role in the placement process and in the preparation of students to be competent social work practitioners. CSWE competency mandates provide an impetus for schools of social work to seek support from agency-based field instructors in helping social work students incorporate EBP into the field placement experience. To assist in this process, educational programs need to:

  1. determine what field instructors know about EBP;
  2. determine if field instructors are using EBP;
  3. determine how the school can help field instructors use EBP; and
  4. provide support in accessing resources to enable utilization of EBP (Grady, 2010; Tuchman & Lalane, 2011).

Field Instructor Motivation

While agencies provide the infrastructure to support EBP, field instructors need to advocate for student assignments that provide opportunities to use EBP. Field instructors play a large role in helping students to build competencies and they are often seen as the “lynchpins to training social workers to deliver EBP” (Tennille, Solomon, Bourjolly, & Doyle, 2014). Agency commitment to education and professional development also has an impact on field instructors’ decisions to work with students.

Carrilio (2007) found in surveying social workers, who also served as field instructors, that they are more likely to use computerized information systems if: they have skill and experience using computers, the system is easy to use, and the information system provides useful data. These results support other research with similar findings (Amodeo et al., 2011; Monnickendam, 2000). As agencies are made to be more accountable by funding sources (Bogo et al., 2006), social workers may be more open and accepting of new technologies regardless of their comfort levels.

Purpose of the Study

            The purpose of this study is to consider social work faculty and field instructors’ attitudes regarding the facilitators and barriers to the adoption and use of EBP in social work classrooms and field placements. The study is intended to answer two questions:

  1. Is there a difference between faculty and field instructors regarding opportunities to use EBP in the classroom/practice?
  2. Is there a difference between faculty and field instructors regarding barriers to the use of EBP in the classroom/practice?



Full-time social work faculty members employed by three large state supported Midwestern public research universities accredited by the CSWE and affiliated agency based field instructors were invited in 2010 to complete a survey electronically. A total of 123 faculty members and 1,027 field instructors were surveyed from the three schools of social work included in this study. Surveys were completed and returned by 56 (45.5%) faculty members and 327 (31.8%) field instructors for an overall response rate of 33.3%. Table 1 shows characteristics of the respondents.

Table 1

Crosstabulations: Personal Characteristics of the Sample by Group Membership

Personal Characteristics Group Total (N = 383)
Faculty (n = 56) Field Instructors (n = 327)
N % N % N %

Under 30

30 to 39

40 to 49

50 to 59

60 and over






















































Educational Level








































Licensed in Michigan



















Member of NASW




















A survey was developed to obtain information about the use of EBP in social work education. The survey items included sections intended to obtain information about the personal and professional characteristics of the sample, as well as perceived facilitators and barriers to the use of EBP. The items in the sections on perceived facilitators and barriers were rated using a dichotomous response format (yes/no). The items used in the survey instrument for this study emerged from various sources including a comprehensive literature search, expert opinions and feedback from social work faculty, staff and current field instructors. In addition, a focus group composed of the Field Education Advisory Committee (FEAC) members (i.e., field instructors from diverse agencies, part-time and full-time faculty members and academic staff) at a large school of social work provided feedback about the survey. Using this information, adjustments, including details on barriers to use of EBP and methods of incorporating EBP into student’s curriculum and field practice, were made to the survey.

Various research articles from well-established and refereed journals supported the use of specific examples of barriers and opportunities for the use of EBP (Aarons, 2004; Nelson, Steele, & Mize, 2006; Shlonsky & Gibbs, 2004; Wampold & Bhati, 2004). Feedback from the FEAC provided information regarding these two constructs and confirmed that the items identified were supported.

The resulting survey was piloted with the full-time faculty members at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio and their affiliated agency based field instructors. Feedback from the pilot group assisted in identifying areas of concern and need for changes within the survey tool.


The majority of the faculty (n = 49, 87.5%) and field instructors (n = 231, 70.6%) indicated they had adopted EBP into their courses/practice. However, most indicated their employers had provided either minimal training (n = 104, 28.3%) or no training (n = 111, 30.2%) for using EBP. In addition, 31 (68.9%) faculty and 206 (65.2%) field instructors had not attended non-work training sessions. Faculty and field instructors agreed that to assure faculty and field instructors adoption of EBP in their courses and field work, the employers have to provide support in regard to availability of technology (n = 284, 86.9%) and staff support (n = 154, 47.1%). See Table 2.

Table 2

Crosstabulations: Evidence-based Practice by Group Membership

Evidence-based Practice Group Total (N = 383)
Faculty (n = 56) Field Instructors (n = 327)
N % N % N %
Adopted EBP into Courses/Practice














Amount of Training in last two years that employer has provided to use EBP
    A lot







































Attendance at non-work training sessions for EBP

























Employer support for use of EBP

Staff support

Computer lab for students

Funds for tools to use EBP

Consultants to support training






































The faculty and field instructors indicated their attitudes regarding the opportunities for using EBP in the classroom. They were given a list of eight items and asked to indicate all that apply. The responses were crosstabulated by a small group of faculty and field instructors with chi-square test for independence used to determine the relationship between group membership and opportunities to use EBP.

The results of the analysis indicated that using EBP will provide more quality and well-trained staff, with 25 (44.6%) faculty and 235 (71.9%) field instructors indicating this was an opportunity to use EBP, χ2 (1) = 14.57, p < .001. A statistically significant relationship was found between faculty (n = 31, 55.4%) and field instructors (n = 234, 71.6%) indicating that EBP will encourage continuous training, supervision, and monitoring of staff, including social workers, χ2 (1) = 4.45, p = .035. Eleven (19.6%) faculty and 153 (46.8%) field instructors indicated that EBP will motivate staff and management in their work with clients, χ2 (1) = 13.30, p < .001. A total of 6 (10.7%) faculty and 81 (24.8%) field instructors thought that using EBP would increase staff retention, χ2 (1) = 4.87, p = .027. The relationships between the type of respondent and the opportunities to use EBP were not statistically significant. See Table 3 for the results of these analyses.

Table 3

Crosstabulations – Opportunities to Use EBP in the Classroom

What do you perceive as opportunities for the use of EBP? Group Total (N = 383)
Faculty (n = 56) Field Instructors (n = 327)
N % N % N %
Will have more quality and well-trained staff

χ2 (1) = 14.57, p < .001

25 44.6 235 71.9 260 67.9
Will encourage continuous training, supervision, and monitoring

χ2 (1) = 4.45, p = .035

31 55.4 234 71.6 265 69.2
Will motivate staff and management

χ2 (1) = 13.30, p < .001

11 19.6 153 46.8 164 42.8
Will increase staff retention

χ2 (1) = 4.87, p = .027

6 10.7 81 24.8 87 22.7
Will have more funding to support the use of EBP

χ2 (1) = .45, p = .504

14 25.0 100 30.6 114 29.8
Will have more protected time to use EBP

χ2 (1) = .64, p =.425

7 12.5 57 17.4 64 16.7
Will engage in innovations and access to research items

χ2 (1) = 3.69, p =.055

30 53.6 225 68.8 255 66.6
Will have technical assistance and access to research items

χ2 (1) = 2.16, p =.142

17 30.4 138 42.2 155 40.5

Using the same eight items, the faculty and field instructors were asked to indicate if these items provided opportunities for adoption of EBP in the classroom (illustrated in Table 4). Their responses were crosstabulated by the same group membership. The relationship between group membership and opportunities for adoption of EBP was tested using chi-square test for independence. Two of the opportunities provided evidence of statistically significant associations. Twenty-five (44.6%) faculty and 214 (65.4%) field instructors indicated their belief that adopting EBP in the classroom will result in more quality and well-trained students and agency staff, χ2 (1) = 7.39, p = .006. The comparison of responses regarding the belief that adoption of EBP can increase agency staff retention was statistically significant, χ2 (1) = 4.43, p = .035. Faculty members (n = 7, 12.5%) were less likely than field instructors (n = 86, 26.3%) to perceive that agency staff retention could be increased by adopting EBP.

Table 4

Crosstabulations – Opportunities for Adoption of EBP in the Classroom

What do you perceive as opportunities for the adoption for EBP Group Total (N = 383)
Faculty (n = 56) Field Instructors (n = 327)
N % N % N %
Will have more quality and well-trained staff

χ2 (1) = 7.39, p = .006

25 44.6 214 65.4 239 62.4
Will encourage continuous training, supervision, and monitoring

χ2 (1) = 2.34, p = .126

30 53.6 217 66.4 247 64.5
Will motivate staff and management

χ2 (1) = 2.91, p = .088

18 32.1 150 45.9 168 43.9
Will increase staff retention

χ2 (1) = 4.43, p = .035

7 12.5 86 26.3 93 24.3
Will have more funding to support the use of EBP

χ2 (1) = .12, p = .730

15 26.8 99 30.3 114 29.8
Will have more protected time to use EBP

χ2 (1) = 1.01, p =.316

8 14.3 68 20.8 76 19.8
Will engage in innovations and access to research items

χ2 (1) = 2.79, p =.095

27 48.2 203 62.1 230 60.1
Will have technical assistance and access to research items

χ2 (1) = .02, p =.893

20 35.7 125 38.2 145 37.9

Nine items on the survey were used to determine attitudes of faculty and field instructors regarding barriers to the use of EBP in the classroom/practice. Of the 383 participants, 6 (4.9%) faculty and 107 (10.4%) field instructors had not adopted EBP in their classrooms/practice. These responses were crosstabulated by group membership. Table 5 presents results of this analysis. The following reports the results of those who did not adopt EBP. Three (50.0%) faculty and 55 (51.4%) field instructors indicated they had not adopted EBP because of a lack of a clear definition for EBP in the social work field. None of these faculty and 29 (27.1%) field instructors indicated that they viewed EBP as being more work. According to 2 (33.3%) faculty and 3 (2.8%) field instructors, EBP was not adopted because they believed research minimized the need for practice wisdom. Forty-nine (45.8%) field instructors indicated that they had not adopted EBP due to a lack of protected time available for the use of EBP. Forty-three (40.2%) field instructors reported that they had not adopted EBP because of the lack of access to online resources to use EBP. Fifty-four (50.5%) field instructors had not adopted EBP due to a lack of funding to support EBP. According to 66 (61.7%) field instructors, EBP was not adopted due to the lack of a consistent and well-trained staff. Four faculty (66.7%) and 34 (31.8%) field instructors indicated they had not adopted EBP because research was too limited and did not fit the client population. These findings, while representing a small portion of the sample, suggest much more support and resources are needed for use and adoption of EBP especially among field instructors.

Table 5

Crosstabulations – Barriers to Use of EBP in the Classroom 

If you have not adopted EBP into your courses/work is it because: Group Total (N = 113)
Faculty (n = 6) Field Instructors (n = 107)
N % N % N %
Of a lack of a clear definition for EBP in the social work field 3 50.0 55 51.4 58 51.3
You view EBP as being more work 0 0.0 29 27.1 29 25.7
You believe research   minimizes the need for practice wisdom 2 33.3 3 2.8 5 4.4
Due to lack of protected time available for the use of EBP 0 0.0 49 45.8 49 43.4
Due to lack of access to online resources to use EBP 0 0.0 43 40.2 43 38.1
Due to a lack of funding to support the use of EBP 0 0.0 54 50.5 54 47.8
Due to a lack of consistent and well-trained staff? 0 0.0 66 61.7 66 58.4
Research is too limited and does not fit the client population 4 66.7 34 31.8 38 33.6


Although the majority of participants (n = 280, 73.1%) indicated they had adopted EBP into their courses and practice (this number included 49 [87.5%] faculty and 231 [70.6%] field instructors), they had either minimal or no training in the use of EBP both in their worksite as well as outside their employment. This lack of training may reflect their responses to the survey items related to their attitudes about opportunities for use of EBP as it was noted continuous training and availability of access to best practices are needed for use/adoption of EBP.  Of the eight items measuring this construct, five had responses totaling less than 50%, indicating participants did not feel that these items would provide opportunities to use EBP in their practice. Without adequate preparation for teaching in the classroom and in field practice experiences, professors and field instructors may not be prepared to adequately incorporate EBP into their practices.

Further, while many participants indicated they had adopted EBP into their teaching and practice, their responses clearly demonstrated a broad range of views on what constitutes evidence. Thus, the current confusion existing in the profession regarding what is required to qualify as EBP may be reflected in the participants’ responses. For example, adoption of EBP for many may have simply meant addressing research as a component of treatment or using a research informed intervention rather than using the multi-step process that accurately defines EBP. Equally and as stated previously, competency 4 in the 2015 EPAS states, “Engage in practice-informed research and research-informed practice.”  While EBP is not mentioned specifically in the competency, faculty and field instructors may not be including EBP in their courses and field placements, but indicate they are using research to support their instruction and practice. This lack of clarity may be responsible for their responses on opportunities to use EBP.

The responses for the eight items measuring opportunities to use EBP were compared between faculty and field instructors. The first four items were related to agency practice and were indicated as opportunities to use EBP by field instructors more than by faculty. These significant results may reflect differences in faculty and field instructors’ use of EBP or the different context affecting their work. For example, faculty teach in a classroom and may not be as influenced as field instructors by items such as having more quality and well-trained staff; encouraging continuous training, supervision, monitoring, motivating staff and management, and increasing staff retention. While these items are important for field instructors, who are employed by agencies and working with clients, and could view these items as important opportunities for using EBP, faculty might not view these as opportunities for incorporating EBP into their courses.

Barriers to Use of EBP

A small percentage of both faculty members and field instructors indicated that they had not adopted EBP into their teaching or practice and many of the group that had not adopted EBP cited lack of clear definition and lack of time and resources as the major reason. As might be anticipated, field instructors were more likely to cite that they had not adopted EBP because of lack of access to online resources to use EBP. In some cases, field instructors collaborated with their student interns to gain access to library databases relevant to EBP.

The majority of these participants indicated that they had not attended any non-work training sessions for the use EPB in practice. This finding may suggest that faculty members and field instructors thought that they did not need additional training, were getting sufficient training through their work, or that this training lacked value for their practice. It may also be that accessible and affordable training may have been lacking. Many field instructors did cite budget concerns, high caseloads, and lack of time as barriers to the use of EBP.

Implications for Social Work Education and Practice

Proponents of EBP state that its use assures that each client would receive the best available treatment and service possible (Gambrill, 2006; Manuel et al., 2009). Arguments from supporters of EBP abound, stating that EBP assists practitioners in maintaining current knowledge, supplementing clinical judgment, saving time, and saving lives (Gibbs, 2003). Individuals who do not support the adoption of EBP into practice have cited the lack of an agreed upon definition as a reason for not accepting EBP as the norm for practice (Rubin, 2011; Rubin & Parrish, 2007). The results from this study supported the lack of agreement on defining EBP. Some practitioners, for example, indicated that they used EBP when they were actually using empirically-based interventions or a specific evidence based practice such as Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS), Parent Management Training (PMT) or cognitive Problem Solving Skills Training (PSST). These examples were noted by respondents when they indicated that they had adopted EBP.

Literature suggests that practitioners are more positive about and more open to adopting EBP than faculty (Jenson, 2005; Manual et al., 2009). The present research confirmed that field instructors perceive that opportunities to use EBP could result in quality care and a better-trained staff.  Field instructors also were more positive that the use of EBP could increase staff retention. If external forces, such as managed care and funding sources, mandate the use EBP in practice, faculty and field instructors may collaboratively impact social work curriculum and treatment outcomes.

The findings in this research indicated that an association existed between faculty and field instructors on opportunities to use EBP in classroom/practice. The adoption of EBP in teaching and practice may assure that continuous training may be provided as new practices informed by research are always being considered. If a school of social work successfully incorporated EBP into the curriculum, faculty and agency-based field instructors need to “buy” into this paradigm and agree to receive education and training to help students incorporate course content into their field placement experiences. Schools of social work also need to embrace their responsibilities in sharing their expertise with their field education colleagues. Lack of support from either of these groups may result in students experiencing a disconnect between classes and fieldwork.

The field of social work receives criticism as scholars have assumed the practice of social work lacks rigor and technological expertise (Hall, 2008). The use and adoption of EBP may provide opportunities to change these attitudes, as critics may be less likely to challenge the professional status of social workers. The use of EBP allows practitioners to better assess treatment approaches and link practice to research. The public perception of social work may indirectly impact resource support for certain social services, as well as the public’s willingness to seek assistance from social workers.

EBP is not an approach that can be taught once; rather it is an on-going educational process requiring the use of problem solving and critical thinking skills, as well as research capacities. The appropriate use of the EBP process requires an endorsement by social work educators as well as the practice community. Leaders of these groups may need to adopt the model and accept EBP as part of their on-going learning environment. The integration of research, theory, and practice needs to continue to develop and be tested constantly to create effective social work practices.

Limitations of the study

The survey was administered electronically via email to full time social work faculty and agency-based MSW practitioners who volunteer to be field instructors for social work students attending three large public mid-western universities. The response rate may have been impacted by comfort and ease with which participants use technology and email. Because surveys are self-reporting measures, participants may consistently give high or low ratings. These responses may bias results and serve as sources of error and affect variance.

Additionally, this study examined attitudes of faculty and field instructors that may not necessarily translate into behavior. Thus what respondents say they do may not always be consistent with what they actually do in teaching and practice. This concern is compounded by school and agency administrators mandating or strongly encouraging use of EBP. Faculty and field instructors may have responded affirmatively with respect to EBP use because it was expected, rather than demonstrating a true indication of use/adoption. Finally, the wording of items on the survey may have been perceived differently by faculty or field instructors and therefore result in varying responses.

Need for Further Research

A longitudinal research design should be used to follow the implementation of EBP in agency-based social work practice to determine its effectiveness and feasibility by social work professionals. The long-term outcomes cannot be determined without a study that follows its implementation. This study should examine field instructors’ perceptions of EBP, social work professionals’ use of EBP, and client outcomes to assess the effectiveness of this approach to social work practice.


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