Tag Archives: teaching

“Nobody told me I’m responsible for my own learning”


You think it is self-evident that university students take responsibility for their own learning?

Um. No. It’s not.

Last year I taught third year social work students in their field practicum seminar. One of the important goals of this seminar was to encourage peer learning and peer support. All 20 students were also doing their first field placement.

I spent an enormous amount of class prep time designing creative and participatory activities. Students were participating in their small groups of 2 or 3, but very reluctant to speak in front of the group of 20.

Now these are social work students – they have to be able to speak in front of groups. It’s part of their job.

After 6 or 7 weeks, they were still not participating. I needed to understand why.


Students talk about their lack of participation


One day, right in the middle of an interactive activity, I sit down. I stop everything. I can’t go on this way.

I’m not angry with them. But this is a very painful process.  So I do what I should have done a few weeks earlier. I tell them:

This is a seminar based on group participation. But most of you aren’t participating.

I’m not blaming you. But I honestly want to know: Is it something about my teaching? Are you not following me? Is there a problem with the content? Please talk to me.


More silence.

Finally, a student timidly volunteers,

“We didn’t understand what a seminar was. We thought it was like a regular class. Nobody ever explained that to us.”



Culture of passive learning

Another student adds:

All our lives we have sat in a class while somebody lectures to us. We take notes. We’re supposed to understand and remember what they tell us. We get tested on it. That’s what we think university is about. That’s our experience. Nobody ever told us that we were responsible for our own learning.

Then others say:

It’s a culture shock, being in a seminar and being told we’re responsible for our own learning. We need time to figure out how to do that.


OK, now I’m officially in shock. And my syllabus makes a loud cracking noise and falls in shards around my feet.

But I’m adaptive, if nothing else. I quickly realize that before I can go on with the topic of reflective practice, I have to help them learn how to take responsibility for their own learning. You can’t teach reflective practice very well if nobody is reflecting on their practice!


Shifting students into active learning

During the next month, I took time during each class for activities explicitly dealing with active learning. We talked about fears, barriers, supports to active learning. I also kept making links to practice – a professional needs to be responsible for her own learning.

To my delight, it worked! Ironically, this was their first experience of reflective practice in community.

In the final exam, I asked them to identify what was the most important learning of the year. One student wrote:

The most important thing I learned was that I am responsible for my own learning.


© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008.


Teaching with Youtube


Note: This article is also included in the Teaching Carnival (February 2009 edition).

Last year I discovered that Youtube can be a great teaching tool, especially with smaller classes.

I was teaching a field practicum seminar to social work students. By November, I realized that I had grossly over-estimated their core knowledge about social work. I dramatically cut back on the amount of information I was covering, prioritizing depth (integration of course content ) over breadth ( getting a wider range of information).

Four weeks of the course were devoted to models of community practice. The readings went into excruciating depth on each model – I knew this information would all run together for the students. So I reworked the learning goals, deciding that I wanted them to understand the characteristics of the three models, when to use them, and the basic strategies associated with each. That’s all.

In the overview class, I gave them a summary sheet of the three models. Then I showed one video for each model, with class discussion after each one.

The first video was showed a community development project:

The second video showed a social action initiative:

The third video documented a social planning project:

After each video, we discussed:

  • what model was it?
  • what characteristics of that model did they observe?
  • what strategies were used?

The first class was so successful in terms of student engagement, participation, and learning that I taught the remaining three classes the same way.  It allowed them to see what community practice actually looks like, rather than reading about it in a book. We also drew applications between the classroom material and the work of their field agencies. Students expressed how much they enjoyed this method of learning about community practice.

My selection of videos was based on a few parameters:

  • I tried to use Canadian examples as much as possible,
  • Most videos were 3 to 5 minutes (short)
  • I tried to find projects related to my students’ field settings (e.g., youth projects, food security, housing)
  • A diversity of projects were selected for each model, to avoid duplication of content.

It’s not always easy to get good videos to show in class from traditional sources such as the university library. YouTube provides a new kind of teaching resource that greatly expands our options!

What are some of the ways you have used new media and technologies in your teaching?

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

New technologies for social workers


In my experience, social workers, community activists, and social work academics tend to be late adopters of new technologies.  Nor do social work educators seem to be teaching social work students about this important area of practice knowledge. Last year, I surveyed my class of third year social work students about their knowledge of social media and new technologies. I expected these young people to be quite internet savvy, but they were unable to answer most of the questions. (I concluded that I am a geek among social workers.)

According to new media guru  Seth Godin, online community organizer is one of the fastest growing jobs of the future (see his job board). And David Jones, the President of the International Federation of Social Workers, said:

There is no doubt that social networking websites are changing the way people relate to each. Social workers must keep up with these developments. The relationship between new technologies and social work practice will be one of the themes in the 2010 world conference in Hong Kong.

Why don’t you try taking my online survey to assess your own knowledge and use of new technologies?

Click Here to take survey

I invite you to post your comments below about this issue and the survey.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

What is your social work practice?


I used to think there was a contradiction between “PhD” and “anti-oppressive social worker.” Living in the poorest areas of two major cities, I would open my front door, look down the street, and wonder how I could justify getting my PhD. I had chosen to live in solidarity with those who are poor and oppressed. How did getting an elitist degree fit into this picture?

I’ve come a long way since then. My research and teaching are my anti-oppressive practice.

I’ve had to develop my own model of academic social work practice. Parts of it have been consciously worked out. Other parts are still more intuitive. So I thought I would begin writing about it here. This will be one of the themes of this blog. It’s something I feel very passionate about.

Another aspect I want to explore is how blogging fits into my social work practice.  I know I want my blogging to bring something of value to others. We’ve all just seen how Barack Obama used new technologies to help mobilize an entire nation. So how can they enrich my own practice?

These first few posts are introductory. I’m trying to define my themes, find my own rhythm and voice for this blog. My intention is to craft mini-articles that are useful and stimulate dialogue. If anyone else in social work is doing this, I would love to hear from you.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008