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Risk of Domestic Violence

After Natural Disaster:

Teaching Research and Statistics
Through the Use of a Participatory
Action Research Model
Donna J. Reese

ABSTRACT. This paper describes the use of a participatory action re-

search model to teach undergraduate social work research and statistics.
Strategies of the model include (1) integration with social work educa-
tion, (2) policy analysis, (3) literature review, (4) collaboration with
practitioners, (5) collaboration with the target population through quali-
tative research, (6) quantitative study, (7) ongoing social action efforts,
and (8) evaluation. An example is used of a project addressing a commu-
nity problem with increased domestic violence during recovery from
natural disaster. [Article copies available for a fee from The Haworth Docu-
ment Delivery Service: 1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address: <docdelivery@
haworthpress.com> Website: <http://www.HaworthPress.com> © 2004 by The
Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.]

KEYWORDS. Domestic violence, participatory action research, under-

graduate social work education, research curriculum, statistics curricu-

Dona J. Reese, PhD, MSW, is Assistant Professor, University of Arkansas School

of Social Work, 10 ASUP, Fayettville, AR 72701 (E-mail: reese@uark.edu)
Journal of Teaching in Social Work, Vol. 24(3/4) 2004
© 2004 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.
Digital Object Identifier: 10.1300/J067v24n03_06 79

Interest in the use of research as social action has increased recently in

the field of social work (Hick, 1997). This research approach has
generally not been included in the U.S. social work cirricula, however
(Longes & Scanlon, 2001; McNicoll, 1999), and little has been written re-
garding the use of a participatory action research (PAR) model to teach
social work research. This paper describes a specific PAR model devel-
oped by the author and its use in an undergraduate research statistics
PAR is consistent with a strengths perspective and social work values
about integrating social action efforts into practice. Models of PAR
vary, but hallmarks are the transfer of power to the research subjects
(Sarri & Sarri, 1992), engaging the participation of the community in re-
search activities (Hick, 1997), producing knowledge that is useful to ser-
vice providers and clients (Penuel & Freemen, 1997) and using this
knowledge for social change (Malekoff, 1994) or change in service ap-
proaches (Martinez-Brawley, 1993; Rapp, Shera, & Kisthardt, 1993).
The author has developed a PAR model consisting of eight strategies:
(1) integration with social work education, (2) policy analysis, (3) liter-
ature review, (4) collaboration with practitioners, (5) collaboration with
the target population through qualitative research, (6) quantitative study,
(7) ongoing social action efforts, and (8) evaluation. These strategies are
implemented consecutively and then continuously throughout the project.
The model may be initiated by any of the collaborators–students, profes-
sors, practitioners, or members of the target population.


Despite arguments and evidence about the benefits of using PAR to

teach social work research, Longres and Scanlon (2001) found that in
general concepts of PAR were not taught in social work research courses
in one school of social work. Participants did not believe that PAR was
more relevant to social justice than other methods. Most of the partici-
pants agreed that participatory research methods were useful but difficult
to implement. Moreover, eight out of 10 research texts reviewed by
Longres and Scanlon (2001) were positivist in orientation and tended to
argue that ideology should not drive the selection of methodology be-
cause of a danger of using inappropriate methods or making biased
interpretations of findings (Rubin & Babbie, 1997; Tutty, Grinnel, & Wil-
liams, 1997). Longres and Scanlon concluded that research instructors are
Donna J. Reese 81

not likely to encourage students to promote social justice through their own
research. Arguments for the use of PAR in social work education are out-
lined below.

Problem-Based vs. Passive Learning

Many educators have argued that lecturing encourages passivity and

does not teach students the skills required for professional practice (Aldred,
Aldred, Walsh, & Dick, 1997). Teaching research through a participatory
action research model uses a problem-based approach to learning. In this
approach, a problem is used to drive the learning (Woods) rather than lec-
tures on specific subject matter (Margetson, 1994). Links are provided with
experience, which is thought to help in future recall (Woods, 1994). This
approach is thought to promote deep rather than surface learning and fur-
ther skills and inspire motivation necessary for lifelong learning (Glen
1995; Woods, 1994). In an age of information explosion, this is thought to
be more important than the acquisition of certain content (Glen, 1995).

Social Work Values in Action

Several authors have called for a PAR approach to social work research
instruction (Longres & Scanlon, 2001; Martin, 1996; McNicoll, 1999;
Meulenberg-Buskens, 1996; Tolley & Bentley, 1996; Uehara, Sohng,
Nagda, Erera, & Yamashiro, 1999, cited by Longres & Scanlon), arguing
that a research project should not be considered complete until it has been
used in the service of social change, and that PAR promotes a just and
nonexploitative relationship between researcher and participants. PAR is
viewed by some as an intervention aimed at raising consciousness and em-
powering clients (Rodwell, 1998), and by some as a feminist research
method which emphasizes full collaboration by the research participants
(Marlow, 1993). Problem-based learning approaches which integrate so-
cial action with academic content have been found to increase understand-
ing of social problems compared to a control group (Batchelder & Root,
1994) and increase future political participation by students (Rocha,

Integration of Curriculum Content

One advantage of using this model for social work education is that it
integrates content from all courses in the core curriculum, illustrating to

students their relevance for each other. Students often view research
class as an onerous requirement that they would never choose if given
an option (Royse, 1999), and the relevance of research for social work
practice is a mystery. Much effort is expended in the attempt to explain
the importance of research to our profession, but evidence exists that
when these students become practitioners, they nevertheless do not con-
duct research in practice (Royse, 1999). This author’s experience also
suggests that social work students may be unclear about the relevance of
theory, policy, and even statistics to research.
The knowledge gained in problem-based learning, however, is em-
bedded in context (Ryan, 1993), illustrating for students the importance
of each curriculum area to the others. The policy analysis helps them to
become aware of failed and successful attempts to resolve the problem,
and of theory about the causes of the problem. Social work values and
ethics are used to define the problem. The relevance of existing research
is reinforced through the literature review. Collaboration with the target
population increases students’ understanding of diversity issues. Study
of practice models used to intervene with the problem ties all these cur-
riculum areas together.

Increased Student Commitment

Another rationale for using this model with students is that they be-
come invested in research when they see its usefulness for social action.
According to Woods (1994) one advantage of this approach is increased
motivation and interest. In this author’s experience, students become
passionate and committed to the project, particularly after contact with
the target population. They are able to see illustrated in real life the im-
portance of their results for practice.

Integration of Research and Community Intervention into Practice

The collaborative nature of this PAR model provides a practical

method for integrating both research and community intervention into
practice after graduation. This author’s observation is that the reality of
social work practice is often a lack of time or resources to engage in re-
search or macro practice. Using this model, a project can be initiated by
a practitioner through establishing a partnership with a local social work
Donna J. Reese 83


Strategy One: Integration of the Project

with Social Work Education

Student involvement in all aspects of a project can be a valuable ex-

perience within the context of an active learning or problem-based ap-
proach to social work education. Some students may be unprepared for
an active learning experience, however, due to passive learning experi-
ences in secondary school (Ryan 1993). Thus, it is helpful to explain
this educational approach, with its pros and cons, and allow students to
choose between a lecture course and a research project. In this author’s
experience, students have invariably chosen the research project.

Strategy Two: Policy Analysis

After selecting a general social problem for attention, the first step in
community intervention is assessment (Kirst-Ashman & Hull, 2001).
Policy analysis serves this purpose (for example, see the framework by
Karger & Stoesz, 1994) by helping to define the problem more specifi-
cally, understanding social work ethical concerns which lead to identi-
fying the situation as a problem, understanding theory regarding the
causes of the problem, and learning about the success of policies which
have been implemented in the past. In addition, part of the policy
analysis involves assessing the political and social context-considering
strengths of the target population, community assets, and supports for
the project, and opposition and barriers to resolving the problem. In this
way, students can begin to understand specifically what needs to change
and to develop more specific goals for their project.

Strategy Three: Literature Review

This strategy includes review of existing scholarly literature as well

as more informal literature created by the target population and the
practice community. It includes theory of the causes of the problem, and
practice literature about attempts to intervene on a micro or mezzo level.
It includes existing research studies about the problem and its causes,
and evaluation studies of social work intervention with the problem. It
also includes interviews of practitioners and experts regarding the cho-
sen social problem. This information is used to develop hypotheses for

study. It also integrates theory, practice, and policy content into the re-
search curriculum.

Strategy Four: Collaboration with Practitioners

This author’s experience has been that a collaborative relationship

with local practitioners is of great value to a PAR project. Often practi-
tioners have insight into social trends or practice problems but lack the
time and funding for research or social action efforts (Reese, Ahern,
Nair, O’Faire, & Warren, 1999). These constraints may be a source of
frustration when the effects of larger social forces limit the impact of
micro level interventions. They may welcome a partnership with re-
searchers possessing resources to help them address social problems on
the community level (Reese et al., 1999). Including practitioners in the
partnership between the student and faculty researchers and members of
the target population creates new possibilities for community change
through increased knowledge, communication, and investment on the
parts of all participants.

Strategy Five: Collaboration with the Target Population

Through Qualitative Research

A main emphasis of PAR is participation by the target population in

efforts to improve its situation (Hick, 1997; Sarri & Sarri, 1992). The
use of an initial constructivist approach takes into account new informa-
tion not contained in the professional literature, and empowers the tar-
get population by planning the project based on its input and perspec-
tives. Qualitative interviews with members of the target population are
also used during the evaluation of the project. Thus, qualitative method-
ology is an important component of PAR (Aldred, Aldred, Walsh, &
Dick, 1997; Marlow, 1993).

Strategy Six: Quantitative Study

Although many participatory action researchers prefer qualitative

methods (Hick, 1997; Marlow, 1993; Sarri & Sarri, 1992), PAR is also
able to incorporate quantitative methods that may be useful (Hagey,
1997). The major themes resulting from the qualitative analysis are
used for development of theory, hypotheses, as well as quantitative
measures. The quantitative results then serve as triangulation for exam-
ining the credibility of the qualitative conclusions. In addition, the
Donna J. Reese 85

qualitative results may help the researchers develop explanations of

unexpected quantitative results. Finally, quantitative methods, along
with qualitative interviews of the target population, may be useful in
the project evaluation.

Strategy Seven: Ongoing Social Action Efforts

As a major emphasis of PAR methodology (Malekoff, 1994; Marti-

nez-Brawley, 1993; Rapp et al., 1993), social action efforts are ongoing
in this model. The class decides upon a formal social action plan based
on the policy analysis and input of the practitioner and target population
collaborators. Some examples of social action approaches are forging
connections between the target population and service providers, seek-
ing resources for services, conducting a public education campaign, or
presenting research results to the target population and local service
providers. Finally, students may seek wider impact of their work through
national presentation and publication.

Strategy Eight: Evaluation

Evaluation is an important strategy for measuring the success of the

project as a whole (Kirst-Ashman & Hull, 2001). Outcome measures
should be based on achievement of goals identified by the target popula-
tion, practitioners, and researchers, and part of the strategy should be
obtaining feedback from these collaborators. Any partial progress to-
ward goals should be noted as well as work remaining for the future.
Evaluation results should be made available to all collaborators, and to
any neighborhood organizations, community agencies, government of-
ficials, funders, etc., who may be able to cooperate in remaining work
toward achievement of project goals.


Poor student motivation can act as a barrier to implementing this ap-

proach (Berkson, 1993); thus, proactive strategies should be used to
promote commitment. Strategies to enhance student commitment in-
clude student empowerment, emphasis on research ethics, management
of group dynamics, orientation to active learning, and discussion of the
impact of methodology on the credibility of results. The professor
should discuss realistic expectations of the nature of the required work,

and the necessity for high quality work in such a project. Finally, in the
author’s experience, student interaction with practitioners, researchers,
social activists, and especially the target population engenders student
commitment to the project.

Student Empowerment

This author’s experience indicates that student autonomy and author-

ity over the project may increase commitment. Students can brainstorm
and participate in decision making about selection of the topic, design-
ing the methodology, selecting the proper data analysis strategy, etc.
For example, the students’ review of the literature will help them to
choose appropriate research methodology. Their policy analysis will
pave the way for their decision about social action strategies. The pro-
cess of reasoning about decisions helps them understand the importance
of the tasks they are undertaking.

Management of Group Dynamics

As McNicoll (1999) points out, group dynamics within the class-

room play an increased role in this approach to teaching research, as the
impact on the community requires a professional level of excellence.
Helpful strategies in managing group dynamics include explaining the
dependence of each student on the quality of work of the others and so-
liciting anonymous written student feedback on the class dynamics.
Woods (1991) notes that the general culture of the institution may act as
a barrier to problem-based learning; this author’s experience is that
praise and interest from a supportive social work faculty and adminis-
trators can also increase student commitment.


The author conducted a PAR project during 1997/98 in an undergrad-

uate research and statistics class in the department of social work of a
rural northern plains university. The entire class cooperated to complete
one project. Although information is provided here regarding this proj-
ect and its results, the students’ full research report can be found else-
where (Clemens, Hietala, Rytter, Schmidt, & Reese, 1999).
Donna J. Reese 87

The model was used to teach a combined social work research and
statistics course. The course spanned two semesters and included a
number of computer lab sessions. The purpose of the combined course
was to provide an approach to statistics which was more relevant to so-
cial work and to promote student understanding of the relevance of sta-
tistics to research. Presenting the material during two semesters allowed
time for completion of an in-depth project and for integration of statis-
tics concepts when relevant to the research methodology concepts.

Engendering Student Commitment

Providing a choice between a lecture course and an active learning

approach fostered student autonomy; students unanimously chose the
active learning experience. Students also had the authority to choose the
topic. Having just experienced a disastrous flood in their town with a
subsequent 24% increase in the rate of domestic violence incidents
(Community Violence Intervention Center, undated), students voted
to explore the factors contributing to this increase. Students continued
to plan the project through in-class exercises guided by the professor.
Students became excited about research during the course of the
project. The instructor and students kept the class informed about
press releases describing the emotional impact of the flood on the
community residents as they struggled to recover. It was clear to stu-
dents as expressed in their papers, tests, and class discussions that re-
sults of their study would demonstrate the needs of the community and
further the cause of the domestic violence treatment agency. Their re-
sults would most likely help the agency justify the need for future
funding. The immediacies of this real life need in their own commu-
nity helped to create a sincere engagement in the project on the part of
the students.
A comment from a student illustrates this point:

I think a large part of how I feel about situations concerning re-

search have to do with what you taught me, mainly the participa-
tory action research method. That made so much more sense to
me than any other methods I have learned. So I think a big part in
what I look for in social work researchers is the ability to include
populations in the research and truly be an advocate. So thank
you for that! I think that will largely shape my research ideas in
the future.

The support of other faculty and administrators promoted a sense of

pride and accomplishment for students. During the project, other fac-
ulty members often asked students about their progress, the chair pro-
vided funding for data collection and presentation expenses, and fac-
ulty, chair, and dean attended the final presentation and praised the stu-
dents regarding the positive impact of their work on the community.
The students conducting this project described themselves as “fam-
ily,” working cooperatively and maintaining a standard of excellence.
They exhibited self-sufficiency to the point of independently present-
ing results of the study in an extra presentation requested by the com-
munity while the professor was out of town. They were excited about
the impact of the project through publication and presentation: “We
contributed to the field with the results of our study.”

First Semester Assignments

During the first semester, the instructor presented research and statis-
tics content as needed to complete each successive step of the project.
Separate research and statistics textbooks were used (Royse, 1999;
Weinbach & Grinnell, 1998), with approximately half of each text as-
signed during each semester. Statistics content for the first semester in-
cluded descriptive statistics, the normal curve, and estimating probab-
ilities. These concepts helped students to understand the rationale be-
hind research methodology and prepared them for data analysis. Indi-
vidual computer lab assignments that addressed descriptive statistics
and the normal curve using unrelated existing data were included in or-
der to orient students to the use of the Statistical Package for the Social
Sciences. At the beginning of the first semester, students volunteered
for group assignments that would accomplish the actual work of the
project. These were supplemented with individual assignments and
in-class exercises.
Policy analysis. Making decisions about social action strategies
based on the policy analysis helped students to realize the relevance of
policy to practice.
Literature review. The literature provided a theory, the Missouri
Model (Lasted, 1995), which explains the process of recovery from nat-
ural disaster. When drawing practice implications at the end of the pro-
ject, students were able to see the relevance of the original theory,
practice, and research literature for social action.
Donna J. Reese 89

Collaboration with practitioners. The professor contacted the local do-

mestic violence treatment and prevention program, and the staff was recep-
tive, having previously formulated a goal of conducting research but
lacking the expertise and time to follow through on this goal. The agency
provided three guest speakers–a graduate of our program who had become
a social activist for them, a researcher who was visiting from another coun-
try to study the effects of natural disaster, and a client willing to participate
in an in-class qualitative interview. The commitment of the practitioners
and researcher and the personal story of the client brought academic con-
cepts to life for students. Interviews with the staff established a collabora-
tive relationship, provided further information about the problem of dom-
estic violence and practice approaches, and served as avenues for practitio-
ner input into the project. One of the staff members contributed a new per-
spective not found in the literature–that values about domestic violence
determine whether an individual will engage in this behavior. Throughout
the year, the instructor kept the class up to date on the fortunes of the local
domestic violence treatment agency. At one point, the program lost its
funding, lost its office, and then regained funding and a new office. The
program had lost its shelter in the flood, and was struggling to reestablish
one. The students became invested in furthering the cause of the agency
through their project.
Collaboration with the target population. Students analyzed the data
from the qualitative client interview as well as a qualitative question on the
community questionnaire and presented results to the class. Major themes
included emotional symptoms, substance abuse, relationship with partner,
and environmental impact. In addition to teaching qualitative methodology
and analysis, this assignment established a collaborative relationship with
the target population and obtained its input for the project. In this project,
we did not conduct the qualitative study before the quantitative study as
recommended above. As a result, some of the major qualitative themes
were not reflected in the quantitative measure and the opportunity was lost
to triangulate the qualitative results with corresponding quantitative results.
Planning for quantitative study. (1) Procedure. Through an in-class ex-
ercise, the students decided to conduct a cross-sectional survey design
with a randomly selected sample of 140 adults living in the local commu-
nity. (2) Measures. Students found most of their measures in the literature
and developed their own measure of values about domestic violence
through another in-class exercise. Students reported increased interest
and comprehension of research and statistics content due to the experi-
ence of designing their own study.

Second Semester Assignments

Statistics content in the second semester corresponded to the second

half of a statistics textbook (Weinbach & Grinnell, 1998), and included
inferential statistics methods. The professor lectured on the appropriate
test to be used with a research hypothesis, then followed up the lecture
with a lab assignment conducting the same test with the project data. If
she wanted to include content regarding a test that was not appropriate
for the data, she used unrelated data. Towards the end of the second se-
mester, all of the research hypotheses had been tested and students were
ready to write the results section of their paper. Lectures focused on
writing this section, including presenting the results in tables. Students
reported that they had better comprehension and interest in statistics as a
result of collecting and analyzing their own data. One student noted,
“Actually doing a research study as a class was extremely helpful in hel-
ping me grasp the material.”
Quantitative study. At the beginning of the second semester, with the
study instrument designed and pretested and IRB approval obtained, stu-
dents were ready to begin quantitative data collection. Residences were se-
lected for the study through a modified combination of cluster sampling,
systematic sampling, and stratified random sampling techniques. Self-ad-
ministered questionnaires were completed at the participants’ residences.
Through the help of every student, data collection was completed after sev-
eral weeks. Students described the data collection as the most meaningful
part of the study for them due to experiencing the feedback of the target
population firsthand.
Students became interested in statistics because of its use in analysis
of their own data. Results of the study indicated that (1) Flood impact
was positively related to domestic violence. The mean domestic vio-
lence score before the flood was significantly higher than the mean
score before the flood (t = ⫺1.88, df = 105, p = .03, one-tailed test). A
correlation test of the relationship of flood impact and post-flood domestic
violence was not significant, however. (2) Flood impact was related to the
symptoms of anxiety, depression, and hostility (r = .41, .36, and .35, re-
spectively, p < .05 for all). (3) Anxiety, depression, and hostility were not
significantly related to domestic violence. (4) Multivariate analysis indi-
cated that the students’ model was significant, explaining 76% of the vari-
ance in domestic violence since the flood (R = .76, F = 15.41, df = 13, Sig.
of F = .000). Age, social support, and pre-flood domestic violence had the
strongest effects and were significantly related to post-flood domestic vio-
lence when controlling for the other variables in the model. Older respon-
Donna J. Reese 91

dents (Beta = .24, t = 1.81, p = .04), those with lower social support (Beta =
⫺.13, t = 1.90, p = .03), and those with higher pre-flood domestic violence
scores (Beta = .78, t = 11.53, p = .000) experienced higher post-flood do-
mestic violence. (5) Males had a higher level of domestic violence toward
their partners (t = 1.90, df = 108, p = .03). (6) Individuals with values more
approving of violence and domination in relationships experienced higher
levels of domestic violence (r = .29, p = .001).
Ongoing social action efforts. Students sought an impact on local
policy decisions through presenting their findings to the community.
Students volunteering for the presentation group assignment invited all
agencies addressing domestic violence–including the police depart-
ment, the local emergency room, domestic violence task force mem-
bers, and our local domestic violence treatment program partners. All
social work faculty and students were invited, along with the chair and
dean of our college. Students invited parents and friends, and even in-
vited the mayor and the press. Although the mayor and press did not at-
tend, there was representation by a number of local agencies in the
audience and wide community interest in the project. Several agencies
asked for a copy of the final paper, and there was particular interest in
the surprise finding that our elderly residents were having a particular
problem with domestic violence in conjunction with a relative lack of
social support. The students were invited to make a second presentation
to the local domestic violence task force, and independently managed
this, since the instructor had to be out of town at the time. Finally, a
group of students sought a wider impact on the profession through the
publication of their results (Clemens et al., 1999).
Evaluation. (1) Impact on domestic violence in the community. A full
evaluation of this project was not conducted due to time restraints. It is
our hope that through this project, practitioners were alerted to the risk
factors we demonstrated and developed service approaches to address
them. An evaluation project could assess the development of such ser-
vices, as well as any changes in the rate of domestic violence, through
feedback from the target population and practitioners. (2) Student out-
comes. Several students entered the domestic violence field as a re-
sult of the experience. Students subsequently conducted research
projects in their field placements, and one student did such an ex-
cellent job that she was hired to conduct a second study after gradu-
ation. Student evaluation scores for this course were the highest in
the department, despite the traditional low scores for research and

statistics classes. It would be interesting to explore whether the stu-

dents used the PAR model after entering practice.


Using a PAR model to teach research and statistics can result in better
student understanding of the relevance for each other of research, statis-
tics, theory, social policy, and practice. According to previous studies,
an active, problem-based learning approach to teaching results in better
student retention of information and readiness to apply this knowledge
in practice. The model described herein provides an approach to incor-
porating research and social action efforts into practice, through collab-
oration between practitioners, researchers, and the target population.
The practitioner may initiate the model; thus, this approach to teaching
may subsequently increase practitioner social action and research ef-
forts. Further research is needed to evaluate whether these effects actu-
ally occur.
Often tension exists between practitioners and academicians; the col-
laborative approach of this model offers a way for each to further the
other’s efforts. Practitioners benefit from the opportunity to conduct so-
cial action and gather evidence of the need for their services. Academi-
cians gain access to data and up to date knowledge on current practice
issues in the field. Finally, such a project provides evidence for state
legislators that the school provides important services to the commu-
nity, rather than merely “feeding at the public trough.” Demonstrating
such benefits is increasingly important in the contemporary climate of
limited public funding for higher education.

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