Judith Ravenhorst-Meerman, PhD, LMSW

Evaluating cultural competence in MSW students

The social work profession’s understanding of cultural diversity as race and ethnicity is broadening to include socio-cultural experiences of people of different genders, social classes, religious and spiritual beliefs, sexual orientations, ages, and physical and mental abilities. Cultural competence standards adopted by the National Association of Social Workers in 2001 provided a definition and formal, measurable standards along with the recognition that despite adoption of standards, the profession lacks research about cultural competence knowledge, attitudes, and skills among students and professionals.

This study described cultural competence levels reported by students entering an MSW program and explored change in reported level of cultural competence after one semester of classroom and field education. The study also explored whether traditional demographic characteristics related to higher self-reported cultural competence. Sixty-five incoming students completed pre- and post-tests and provided their definition of culture. Students reported statistically significant increases in their cultural competence between orientation and the end of first semester. Students entering the graduate program with a BSW degree and undergraduate field education reported significantly higher levels of cultural competence than students who entered graduate study with other undergraduate degrees. Focus groups also were held with 21 students to identify where growth occurred in their cultural competence during first semester. Students reported learning cultural competence from faculty, class discussions and conversations with their peers. These results have implications for social work education, social work practice, CSWE, and NASW.