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Making Decisions in Ambiguous Cases

When students in USC’s master’s of social work program reach their final semester, they are required to take a course that provides no answers, but rather forces them to make difficult decisions in ambiguous situations—just like the ones they will face in the practice world.

The course was started in 2000 by Terry Wolfer and his College of Social Work colleagues. He had gotten the idea shortly after joining the College as a young professor in 1996. At that time, doctoral students were raving about a class taught by Dr. Mike Welsh, a professor of education who is now retired. Welsh used the case method for a class called “Principles of College Teaching.”

The case method relies on presenting students with written accounts of actual events that portray the kinds of situations students are likely to encounter in their careers. Students are expected to read the cases, judge what problems exist, formulate the challenges or dilemmas, and write a paper summarizing the decisions they would make.
When students return to class, they discuss the case and their responses in depth.

Wolfer was already a faculty member at USC, so he got into one of Welsh’s classes by serving as a teaching assistant. Wolfer was amazed at the intensity of discussions by adult learners arriving after a full day of work as community college teachers.

“We ought to use case method in the College of Social Work,” Wolfer recalled saying to Welsh. “But we don’t have any cases.”

“Go write some,” Welsh responded.

So Welsh helped Wolfer and his colleagues develop the case method class that has been held every spring for the past 14 years. The class is called a “capstone” class because it can only be taken in the final semester of the master’s program and because the work of the course should be the culmination and synthesis of all the student’s work in the program.

Wolfer has since co-authored six books of decision cases. He has presented papers and led workshops on the case method at universities across the nation. His work demonstrating the value of the case method was a major factor in the Council on Social Work Education’s decision to present him its Distinguished Recent Contribution Award in 2009.

Wolfer believes the study and discussion of cases allow students to engage in critical thinking and employ theory in situations that reflect reality.

“These cases are like cadavers,” Wolfer said. “Everyone can cut away, and no one gets hurt.”

Wolfer and his colleagues facilitate the capstone discussions, letting their students wield the scalpels.

“He didn’t give us his opinion; he didn’t tell us if we were right,” said Brenda Ferguson, who took the course last spring before graduating from the master’s program.

Ferguson, a 53-year-old Army retiree, and other students had to come up with a solution, even though they could never know whether it would have solved all or part of the problem. But then, making decisions within uncertainty had been part of her Army training. The Army philosophy, she said, is that “any decision is better than no decision. You can always adjust from a bad decision, but it’s hard to adjust from no decision.”

Ferguson said the class forced her to apply her understanding of the theories she had been studying for the past two years to justify her responses to cases.

“To me, the case studies were challenging because I had to say why I made that decision,” she said.

Noël Busch-Armendariz said Wolfer was already her mentor when she took the capstone course before receiving her doctoral degree from the College of Social Work in 2000. Students sometimes became anxious because they were being forced to think, analyze, and summarize based on evidence from real-life cases.

“This is a new skill and may be difficult to achieve, although once students learn how to learn, the light bulbs shine bright,” said Busch-Armendariz, now a professor of social work at the University of Texas in Austin.

Case method was a common teaching tool in social work education until the mid-20th century when professors turned to more evidence-based approaches. But science has its limits, too, Wolfer said. “There will never be research about everything a social worker will encounter,” Wolfer said. “At the end of the day, a social worker needs good judgment for handling particular situations.”

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