Learning Solution-Focused Interviewing Skills: BSW Student Voices

PETER DE JONG Department of Sociology and Social Work, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

ALAINA CRONKRIGHT Hopeworks ‘N Camden, Camden, New Jersey, USA

This article describes the 15-year evolution of a course devoted to teaching solution-focused interviewing skills to BSW students and the role these students played in the course’s design. We drew inspiration from the strengths perspective that implies that just as practitioners can learn much about how to practice from clients, social work educators can learn much about how to teach from students. We describe the course, the student input influencing its design, and student response, including a qualitative data set that indicates what students believe contributes most to their learning. The emerging picture of the teaching and learning of interviewing skills is viewed against the backdrop of related research and theory, and the implications for social work education are addressed.

KEYWORDS interviewing skills, solution focused, lab learning, students’ views

Although social work involves a great deal more than interviewing, social workers spend more time in interviewing than in any other single activity. It is the most important and most frequently used social work skill.

—Alfred Kadushin (1997, p. 3)

Address correspondence to Peter De Jong, Professor Emeritus, Department of Sociology and Social Work, Calvin College, 3201 Burton SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49546. E-mail: djon@ calvin.edu


22 P. De Jong and A. Cronkright

Although some social work educators and practitioners might take issue with the categorical nature of Kadushin’s statement, all likely agree that the way in which practitioners interview clients is critical to effective practice. Those who write practice texts claim that this is so because practitioners’ inter- viewing skills greatly influence the character of working relationships that are established between practitioners and clients and the eventual outcomes of services (Compton, Galaway, & Cournoyer, 2005; Hepworth, Rooney, Dewberry-Rooney, Strom-Gottfried, & Larsen, 2010; Kadushin, 1997; Miley, O’Melia, & DuBois, 2009; Sheafor & Horejsi, 2006). These texts, therefore, devote substantial space to discussing interviewing principles and skills.

There are different approaches to interviewing and to teaching asso- ciated skills (Benjamin, 1987; De Jong & Berg, 2008; Egan, 2002; Ivey & Ivey, 2007; Kadushin, 1997; Miller & Rollnick, 2002). This article describes the 15-year evolution of a course devoted to teaching solution-focused inter- viewing skills to bachelor of social work (BSW) students and the role these students played in the course’s design. After providing an overview of the solution-focused approach, we summarize the students’ contributions to course pedagogy, their evaluative responses and insights about the course. We also address the emerging picture of the teaching and learning of these skills viewed in light of relevant research and the implications for social work education.

We believe this article is a contribution for three reasons: (a) the Council on Social Work Education Commission on Accreditation’s (2008) standards encourage student involvement in curriculum development and revision, (b) the existing literature about how to teach interviewing skills is modest, and (c) this paper offers an example of how the assumptions and skills of an interviewing approach can inform the pedagogy for its teaching.


This approach to interviewing clients was developed over the past 30 years largely though the work of Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg, and their col- leagues at the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Berg, 1994; Berg & Kelly, 2000; Berg & Miller, 1992; de Shazer, 1984, 1985, 1988, 1991, 1994). It was developed inductively through the use of a one-way mir- ror and via process research by first observing which clients make progress according to their own estimates, and second, what practitioners might be doing that is useful in promoting client progress. Several discoveries were made at the Brief Family Therapy Center: (a) clients who are able to define what they want to be different in their lives make more progress than those who cannot; (b) clients make greater progress (and do so more quickly) when practitioners spend more time questioning them about what they want to be different than about the details of their problems; (c) clients make more

Learning Solution-Focused Interviewing Skills 23

progress, build solutions, and show less resistance when practitioners ask them about exceptions (i.e., their past successes) related to what they want to be different than when practitioners offer advice or confront resistance; and (d) clients make more progress when held accountable for solutions instead of problems. Although originally developed in micropractice with individuals and couples, solution-focused interviewing is now also used in work with treatment groups, task groups, organizations, and communities (De Jong & Berg, 2008).

Although consistent with the principles of the strengths perspective (Saleebey, 2007), solution-focused interviewing is best known and appreci- ated for concrete interviewing skills that are an effective way to bring these principles to life in direct practice with client systems (De Jong & Berg, 2008; De Jong & Miller, 1995). These skills include the miracle question for helping clients build a detailed vision of what they want different; exception ques- tions for exploring related client successes and strengths; complimenting for affirming and admiring client accomplishments, strengths, and motivation; scaling questions for measuring client progress, motivation and confidence; and coping questions for exploring how clients have managed to survive (and even thrive) in the most difficult circumstances. These skills are “not knowing” in the sense that they make clients the experts by consistently putting them in the position of telling their interviewers about themselves and their situations (Goolishian & Anderson, 1991). As not-knowing skills, they also cast interviewers into the role of conversational artists whose expertise “is to be in conversation with the expertise of client” and thus hold clients accountable for building solutions on the basis of what they want, and to develop strategies on the basis of their past successes and strengths, and second, on their emerging definitions of what else they might need to make desired changes occur (Goolishian & Anderson, 1991, p. 7).


When a social work interviewing course was introduced in a baccalaureate program in the 1980s, it was different from its present design. It origi- nally focused on active listening and empathy skills, taught over a 15-week semester, through 90 min of classroom lecture and demonstration, and 90 min of students practicing each week in pairs. Students each made an audio recording around a personal concern (with a student partner) at the middle and at the end of the semester. The instructor generally was not present when students interviewed but reviewed and graded recorded interviews later.

In the late 1980s, the school was in the process of introducing an accredited BSW program. The original interviewing course was included in the curriculum as the first in a sequence of four practice courses. As

24 P. De Jong and A. Cronkright

program faculty and students discussed and refined themes for the program, a commitment to principles inherent in a strengths perspective emerged. Drawing on strengths principles, and the Council on Social Work Education’s commitment to refinement of programs and services on the basis of feed- back from recipients of services, the program began to more intentionally gather students’ impressions about the usefulness of each course in the pro- gram for preparing them for generalist practice. Regarding the interviewing course, graduating seniors said they would have appreciated (a) less lec- ture and explanation, (b) more role-play practice related to the practice situations they would encounter in their practicum—especially role plays involving clients in involuntary and crisis situations, (c) immediate and ongo- ing feedback on their skills from experienced interviewers, and (d) more demonstration of skills applicable to practicum settings. In response, the program refined the course during the 1990s.

Early in the redesign, the course was taught in a weekly format involv- ing one joint class session, wherein all the students watched and discussed a videotaped interview, followed by two 2-hr lab sessions later in the week, in which students practiced interviewing in smaller groups of 4 to 7 stu- dents, with a coach who was a student who had previously taken the course. The skills taught began to change from active listening and empathy to solution-focused skills. Following the suggestions of graduating seniors, more information was gathered about the types of interviewing situations they had encountered in practicum, requesting that they write role-play sce- narios on the basis of these practicum experiences. Appropriate steps were taken to protect client confidentiality and to describe the clients and their circumstances fully enough that students from different backgrounds could realistically act out these client situations. The course soon changed, and a greater variety of client situations were incorporated and discussions of the application of solution-focused skills to practice became richer in the area of client concerns and client diversity. As the course gained more vari- ety in interviewing situations, the discussions in lab became more realistic, complex, and meaningfully connected to other courses in the program. In response, graduating seniors suggested the lab coaches should be persons who had not only previously taken the course, but also had graduated from the program and were currently in social work practice. Such graduates were invited to act as lab coaches for modest remuneration, an invitation many accepted saying the interviewing course had been useful to their pro- fessional development and they wished to give back to the program by participating in its teaching. Two years after piloting this innovation and with four semesters of course and program evaluation data from students in the course indicating lab coaches currently in practice were helpful, the program and school’s administration approved ongoing funding such coaches.

Several other changes were introduced after the students’ suggestions during the 1990s and by 2000, the course reached its current form. The

Learning Solution-Focused Interviewing Skills 25

lab has become a setting for practicing the skills and is conducted using a one-way mirror, with the interviewer and role-play client on one side of the mirror, and coaches and remaining students as observers on the other. Labs involve junior students doing role plays mainly on the basis of scenarios written by past seniors taken from their practicum settings. The role player is briefed about the role by one of the coaches before the interview out of the hearing of the interviewer and observing students. Role plays are video recorded for playback and each student keeps his or her recordings for personal reference.

After a role play is completed, the lab group discusses the interview. This begins with the role-play client giving her perceptions to the interviewer about what was done that was useful to the client, and thus worth continuing to do in future interviews, and what else could have been done (or done differently) to make the interview more effective. Especially early in the semester, the recorded interview is played back next with any member of the lab or the coaches free to request pausing the tape and offering additional feedback or raising a question. Often the questions are skill related, but frequently they address the policy or systemic context of the interviewing situation that everyone just witnessed. As the semester progresses, interviews become longer and more complex and students’ powers of observation more keen so that it is no longer necessary to play back interviews in their entirety.


Upon changing the focus of the course from the active listening/empathic model to a strengths-based/solution-focused one, lab discussion occurred about the implications of the interviewing approach being taught for the way the lab was conducted. Participants (coaches and students) agreed that the focus on what the interviewer was doing wrong should shift to observ- ing and emphasizing what the interviewer did that was useful. Once this awareness developed, coaches began intentionally observing for everything the interviewer was already doing that was solution focused and compli- menting the interviewer on that in the feedback period after each interview. It is interesting to note that students, using their language of “keeps” and “work-ons” for the elements of feedback, still insisted on talking about their work-ons. As a result, coaches agreed to discuss work-ons but instituted lab rules such as identifying at least 10 keeps and no more than 2 work- ons in order to keep the feedback strengths focused. In addition, whenever a work-on was discussed, coaches made sure the focus of the discussion was a brainstorm of “concretely what could have been done instead” at that point in the interview. Although some students thought this way of conduct- ing lab was a less effective way to learn interviewing skills than observing for and pointing out “what they did wrong,” so they could “correct it,” the

26 P. De Jong and A. Cronkright

lab coaches and the instructors noticed that students learned the skills more quickly and used them more effectively, with an emphasis on keeps and on complimenting.

In hindsight, it appears coaches were following the same inductive pro- cess (in developing the course and lab pedagogy) that the Brief Family Therapy Center had used 20 years earlier in creating the solution-focused approach. That is, coaches were paying attention to which interviewers were making the most progress in their learning, and reflecting on what they as coaches might be doing to facilitate that progress.


Satisfaction Data

Students have been surveyed regularly for their response to the course over the history of its development. Over the past 10 years, 95% or more con- sistently have stated that the course “contributed greatly” (as opposed to “contributed somewhat” or “not at all”) to their preparation as social work practitioners. Students give this positive evaluation at several points—at the end of the course, on the completion of their field experience, and later when they had been in practice for one or more years.

These evaluations were striking given the ambivalence many students had about a solution-focused approach throughout the first half of the course. Slowly they dropped their reservations in favor of exploring goals, client successes, and progress within clients’ frames of reference. This shift prompted us to wonder how this learning might be occurring, espe- cially from student’s point of view given the program’s commitment to the strengths perspective

Qualitative Data

Once we decided we wanted to delve more deeply into how students might be learning solution-focused interviewing skills, we realized that we were already gathering potentially useful qualitative data on this question through an ongoing course assignment. To foster professional self-development, the course requires each student to write a paper in which he or she must (a) “reflect on the significance of different aspects of the course to [him or her]” and (b) give “a detailed personal account of how [he or she views him- or herself] functioning as a professional interviewer at this time.” In the first part of the assignment, students are free to choose any aspect of the course—a skill from the text, an interview they did in lab, an in-class exercise, a single idea from one of the books, and so forth. They are invited to write on negative and/or positive aspects; the only requirement is that they choose to write about aspects that are significant to them and describe

Learning Solution-Focused Interviewing Skills 27

that significance. Over the years, students have consistently chosen to write about those aspects of the course they believe contributed most to learning solution-focused interviewing skills.


We asked and were granted signed permission (from the 44 students who took the course in 2002–2003) to analyze the content of their papers, with the understanding that the analysis would not begin until after grades for the course were submitted, and that students’ identities would be kept con- fidential by reporting data only in grouped format. Of the 44 students (40 female, 4 male), 40 students were majoring in social work, 2 in psychology, and 2 in recreational therapy.

The content from the papers was entered as a qualitative data file and analyzed for themes using NVivo 2.0 (QSR International, 2002). In keeping with the conviction that it is important to listen to student voices about their own learning, the categories students used to identify the significant aspects of the course were retained in the analysis. Initially, these were called first-order themes. The same procedure was followed in identifying second- and third-order themes. After coding, it was concluded that the data could be meaningfully summarized by presenting first- and second-order themes, given that third-order themes added little additional information. Consequently, the terms themes and subthemes were adopted here for those of the first order and second order, respectively.

To ensure reliability in identifying themes, we independently coded themes. With 44 students each assigned to write about four significant aspects of the course, each coder expected to find a total of 176 themes. Although most students clearly identified four significant aspects, a few stu- dents were less organized and ran one idea into another making it difficult to identify themes and subthemes. After the first coding, there was a 92% con- sistency between coders. Upon review, the inconsistencies mainly involved one person coding as a theme what the other coded as a subtheme of a sim- ilar theme. In addition, there were a few cases that were coded differently wherein a student would combine multiple aspects of the course (textbook + videotape + workbook) as a single theme that other students had dis- cussed as separate themes. For the most part, these inconsistencies were easily understood and resolved.


Table 1 gives the data for the themes and identifies the number and per- centage of students identifying the most commonly appearing themes. Thus,

28 P. De Jong and A. Cronkright

TABLE 1 Number and Percentage of Students Citing Themes (N = 44) Theme n %

Lab experience 37 84 Book on professional self-development 17 39 Book on loss 12 27 Videotape 12 27 Discussions in class 11 25 Miracle question 8 18 Role-playing 8 18 Exercises in class 5 11 Interviewing protocols 5 11 Readings combined 5 11 Textbook 5 9

37 students (84% of the total 44 students) wrote about the lab experience as one of four significant aspects of the course, 17 (39%) identified the book on professional self-development as a significant aspect, and so forth. The table shows the theme of lab experience was dominant with more than double the number of students citing it as a significant aspect than any other aspect of the course.

With lab experience standing out as it does, its subthemes became of significant interest. These data are presented in Table 2. The two most com- monly cited subthemes were (a) the feedback students received from their lab coaches and peers and (b) the usefulness of learning from experience by doing interviews (19 students for each). Regarding feedback, students frequently wrote about the benefits to their learning of receiving feedback from several persons immediately after doing their interviews. One student observed:

Both the instructors and the other students in the lab give lab feedback. This gives the interviewer multiple perspectives, and ideas of what to

TABLE 2 Number of Students Citing Various Subthemes for Lab Experience (N = 37) Subtheme n

Constructive feedback 19 Learning from experience 19 Observing others 15 Preparation as professional 11 Safe environment 10 Practice-rich lab instructors 6 Discussions in lab 5 Role-playing real client situations 5

Learning Solution-Focused Interviewing Skills 29

keep and what to change, because each individual picks up different qualities of the interviewer. The viewers are able to pick up on strengths that the individual may not even be aware of, and other things that may have been useful. These can be very useful when specific examples are given along with the feedback. Lab feedback has been helpful for me. I am often concentrating too hard to pick up on what I am doing subconsciously, or even consciously.

The second subtheme cited by 19 students was learning from experi- ence. Here students emphasized that “knowing is doing.” They cited the lab experience as useful because in lab they had the opportunity to do what was only talked about in other portions of the course:

The video was useful at times, but it was in lab that I was held account- able to put the readings and classroom discussions into practice. I learn by doing, not just talking about terms or concepts and demonstrating, but by actually carrying out the task mentioned in class. For example, learn- ing how to ask the miracle question seemed ridiculous and farfetched at first when reading about it. When practicing it in lab I still felt a bit uncomfortable at first, but now the fact that it helps to get more detail and draw out the client’s strengths cements it into my mind as a useful technique to use for interviewing.

The next most commonly cited subtheme regarding lab experience was the usefulness of observation in this setting (n = 15). The following student’s comment is characteristic:

While taking part in an actual interview is very essential practice for the future, I found that watching others interview is just as valuable, if not even more valuable than actually interviewing. I learned a lot of other skills just by watching other members of my group perform an interview. Sometimes when I interview I become nervous and I lose my focus. But I can focus clearly on the others in my lab group as they interview, and I have been able to learn other skills and other ways of asking clients questions by watching the others in my lab group interview.

Students also emphasized that, as they calmly observe others interview, they are paying attention to how different questions and responses of the inter- viewer strike clients, which helps them make decisions about which parts of what they observe they want to carry into their own interviews.

The fourth subtheme in Table 2 reaffirms that knowing is doing (n = 11). Here, students emphasize lab practice has value for making the transition from the classroom to the professional world:

30 P. De Jong and A. Cronkright

Through the interviewing labs I have gained the confidence to be able to interview in the professional world. I was extremely worried at the beginning of the semester about interviewing in front of 7 other people, but now, at the end of the semester, I feel much more confident about being able to interview someone in front of others, or even on my own.

Although important to students, learning to interview was also threaten- ing. They often mentioned how anxious they became when it was their turn. Yet, at the same time, and as a fifth subtheme (n = 10), students also men- tioned that the lab’s structure and process was helpful to them in creating a sense of safety that contributed to their learning:

I have an excellent lab as well as efficient instructors. I feel that my lab group holds a sense of community. Every member of my lab bonds together in a very respectful way, and I feel that we have been able to learn a lot from each other’s critiques.

I feel that lab created a safe environment where we could talk openly and share ideas about strengths and criticisms.

The sixth subtheme (n = 6) is the usefulness of having a lab instructor who is currently in practice and can draw on professional experience to teach the skills:

. . . our lab instructor was able to share with us experiences she has had in her practice. I found this particularly interesting and helpful. Having her telling us that she uses solution-focused interviewing all the time really encourages me to take it seriously and to do my best.

The seventh subtheme is discussions in lab that went beyond postinter- view feedback (n = 5). One student wrote:

Often in lab we would have “lectures” or discussions about areas of interviewing that confused us. These discussions usually started off with questions of how we ask a question or get to the topic we’re trying to discuss with the client. Usually we’re just trying to get the opinion of our lab instructor and facilitator but the other members of the lab are able to contribute and add. This is sometimes where I’ve learned the most in lab.

The eighth subtheme is role playing (n = 5). Students wrote that role playing helped to open up the client’s point of view to them; one student indicated that “from the client’s viewpoint, I was given a small taste of what

Learning Solution-Focused Interviewing Skills 31

might be going on in a client’s mind when asked certain questions or even when going to see a social worker.”

Table 1 shows that, after the central importance of the lab learning, students are interested in situating their skills learning within the context of professional self-development and theoretical knowledge about the case situations they were encountering in lab. The book on professional self- development (Nouwen, 1975), cited by 17 students, takes a holistic view of persons and addresses how ones beliefs about people and human relation- ships influences how one relates as a professional to clients. One student expressed the significance of these ideas for what she was learning in lab this way:

Nouwen’s idea of moving from loneliness to solitude is also useful to me as an interviewer. As he pointed out, someone who is lonely has many needs that they will try to fulfill through their relationships with oth- ers, whether consciously or subconsciously. That neediness blocks one’s ability to be hospitable and open up free space for the other person. One time in lab, the role player expressed something that had been worrying her, and the interviewer disclosed that she also had the same problem going on in her life. I don’t think that was appropriate for this situation because it took the focus from the interviewee to the interviewer, but that person might not have found peace with that issue yet, and that could be why she brought it up. She needed the other person to hear her also.

Similarly, the book on loss (Guest, 1976), cited by 12 students, was significant to them in that it enriched their understanding of the clients and client situations they encountered in lab interviews. The book is a novel about how an ordinary family responds to the sudden loss of a sibling and son from a tragic boating accident. One characteristic student wrote:

As we deal with real life issues like this in our interviewing labs, it is so important for us to really grasp the depth of the issues that people bring to an interviewing session. This book taught me that even though I may know one thing about a client very well, there is still so much depth to any individual client that I may never know. Each person is painted with so many colors brushed on by events that have occurred in his/her life.

The remaining themes in Table 1 mainly address elements of course pedagogy and lab. Students’ comments here show they think these added instructional tools contribute to their learning so long as they are tailored to the central, holistic experience of lab learning. One student expressed:

The opportunity to read from the text, write in the workbook, listen to lectures, watch the video, watch each other’s interviews, and finally to

32 P. De Jong and A. Cronkright

put all of these things into practice led to a degree of in-depth learning that targeted many different aspects of . . . (interviewing).

Relevant Research

There is little quantitative or qualitative research devoted to teaching and learning interviewing skills of any type. Carrillo, Gallant, and Thyer (1993), for example, pointed out that quantitative study about how to instruct social work students in these areas is largely undeveloped. Regarding master of social work (MSW) programs, they stated the following:

While clinical interviewing skills are taught to MSW students using a variety of methods, in actuality we, as a profession, know very little about which pedagogical techniques are best used for this purpose. Barely a half-dozen articles have appeared in the last twenty years in which the efficacy of methods or instruction in interview skills have been tested. (p. 13)

This observation is as true today as when they made it 18 years ago; in addition, it applies equally to the teaching of interviewing skills in BSW and MSW programs. Carrillo et al. (1993) and others (Deal & Brintzenhofeszoc, 2004; Dickson & Bamford, 1995; Kopp, 1990; Sowers-Hoag & Thyer, 1985) have summarized the findings of existing quantitative studies as: (a) students show increases in skills through exposure to teaching techniques such as role play, feedback, and modeling; (b) there is skepticism (and much to learn) about the extent to which students generalize skills from instructional to practice settings; and (c) students report that small group discussion and role play contribute most to their learning. These studies principally use (a) pre- and posttest designs, which are focused on a narrow range of concrete skills; or (b) survey designs, which ask students to rate the usefulness of different instructional techniques.

As limited in number as these quantitative studies are, there have been even fewer qualitative investigations in this area. Although not focused specifically on BSW or MSW students, two such in-depth, qualitative studies are Hansen’s (1994) study of graduate students in psychology and Walsh’s (2002) study of practitioners learning a set of interviewing skills that were new to them. In both studies, through extensive interviews of learners, the authors explore their respondents’ attitudes toward and understanding of their learning. As Hansen (1994) stated, he was interested in exploring what students care most about when faced with learning interviewing skills, that is, what he termed their “skill-related motivations and assumptions” (p. 7). Second, he was interested in exploring the instructional strategies they thought contributed most to their learning. Similarly, with her respondents, Walsh (2002) explored which new interviewing techniques they perceived

Learning Solution-Focused Interviewing Skills 33

themselves carrying into practice, what drove those adoptions, and the insights such data suggest about the process of acquiring and incorporat- ing new skills into ones practice. Both authors have concluded that learning new interviewing skills is a holistic process, taking place over time, in which learners seem to evaluate new skills and associated learning experiences in light of attitudes and motivations developed through past living, learning, and the perceived demands of their professional positions.

This research literature in many ways parallels what the students in our analysis suggested about how best to teach them solution-focused inter- viewing skills: First, role playing, feedback, observing model interviews, and learning in small groups seemed most useful. Second, effectively learning new interviewing skills is experiential involving whole persons, includ- ing their personal beliefs about the nature of people and relationships, relevant past experience, and perceived demands of future professional positions.

Relevant Theory

From the qualitative data analyzed in the present study, the overriding impression is that students believe that important learning occurs in lab. If they are correct, the following theoretical ideas about teaching and learning interviewing skills appear relevant.

First, by the importance they attribute to lab learning, students seem to be making a case for the usefulness of teaching interviewing skills through experiential learning techniques. Experiential learning theory holds that effective learning involves the interplay of concrete experience, reflective observation, conceptualization, and active experimentation (Kolb, 1984). It further holds that learning occurs as a process over time, incorporates multi- ple aspects of the person, and the person’s relation to his or her environment (i.e., is holistic), and involves resolving tensions between new experiences and previous (formal and informal) learning. Schon (1983) similarly argued that effective practice in a profession such as social work cannot be reduced to the application of scientifically derived findings because practitioners so often are faced with “situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and value conflict” (p. 50). Practitioners must develop the capacity to “reflect-in-action” (i.e., in practice; Schon, 1983, pp. 49–69) and develop “theories-in-action” (Schon, 1983, pp. 274–275) that effectively address the texture of practice situations that they inevitably will encounter. He also wrote that professional know-how depends partly on “access to coaches who initiate students into the ‘traditions of the calling’ and help them, by ‘the right kind of telling,’ to see on their own behalf and in their own way what they most need to see” (Schon, 1987, p. 17). Schon (1987) indicated that the “right kind of telling” requires substantial professional experience, a theme that was echoed by the students (p. 17).

34 P. De Jong and A. Cronkright

Second, it seems the students are emphasizing the usefulness of teaching interviewing skills through cooperative learning. In reviewing the qualitative data set discussed earlier, we continue to be struck by the sim- ilarity of the subthemes on the usefulness of lab, and the characteristics of successful cooperative learning strategies identified, for example, by Steiner, Stromwall, Brzuzy, and Gerdes (1999). The students, as did Steiner et al. (1999), emphasized that positive interdependence among partici- pant learners, face-to-face interaction, individual accountability and personal responsibility, social skills, and group evaluation of learning goals all are critical to effective learning. The students also seem to echo Steiner et al.’s (1999) list of skills fostered by collaborative learning. These include relationship building, small-group skills, effective communication among participants, problem solving and creativity, influencing one another, and critical thinking. Indeed, interviewing labs such as those described here seem to offer a rich context in which to do ongoing, detailed study of cooperative learning processes and their consequences.


The Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards that govern social work programs call on educators to prepare students for the critical thinking skills that lead to integrating values, knowledge, and other skills in professional practice (Council on Social Work Education Commission of Accreditation, 2003). Kadushin (1997) indicated that much of such integration must occur in concrete interviewing encounters with clients. According to Schon (1983), such encounters are highly complex and, if they are to be useful to clients, call on considerable intuitive know-how developed through ongoing reflection-in-action that often is difficult to reduce to words.

Student input over the years of the development of the interviewing course described here and their comments in the qualitative data set just described seem to agree closely with Kadushin’s (1997) and Schon’s (1983, 1987) views of practice and the process by which it is learned. Thus, students emphasize that the learning that is really important to them involves gaining an overall sense of how to interview with confidence. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the themes and quotations of the students in the qualitative data set address interviewing more often at a holistic, complex, integrative level than at the level of specific skills—only one specific skill (the miracle question) is mentioned among the themes in Table 1. It is also not surprising, then, that students emphasize that they learn most in a lab setting wherein skills are blended into the doing of interviews, with the added benefit of feedback from peers and experienced coaches. It is as though these students understand they must pay their dues by developing their own theories-of- action before they can possess the level of competence they seek.

Learning Solution-Focused Interviewing Skills 35

We would caution readers at this point that, aside from positive survey results from practicum instructors and employers of the program’s graduates that suggest the program’s students are using these skills in their work with clients, we have no direct outcome data about the transfer of skills from lab into actual practice settings. However, the students’ view that interview skills do improve through course instruction is supported by previous studies (Aspegren, 1999; Koprowska, 2003). In addition, their view on their learning is also supported by Dickson and Bamford’s (1995) review of the modest pool of research about optimum learning contexts that foster the transfer of learning. These features include (a) coaches and peers discussing the rele- vance of role-play learning and skills to the broader field; (b) recreating (as much as possible) the work environment in the learning environment; (c) training loosely by exposing learners to many learning scenarios and explor- ing a variety of strategies for responding to clients in specific situations; (d) promoting the learning of a general, integrative cognitive model of inter- viewing to which specific practice meanings can be attached and decisions made about how to respond in an interview; (e) allowing for continued practice beyond initial skill acquisition; (f) lengthening practice episodes and deepening their complexity over time; and (g) teaching methods of self-assessment and self-instruction for ongoing learning.

In conclusion, a strengths perspective would suggest that, just as prac- titioners can learn much about how to practice effectively from clients (Maluccio, 1979; Saleebey, 2007), educators can learn much about how to teach from students. As educators, we are being challenged to continue to create learning contexts for teaching interviewing skills in which students have the opportunity to reflect-in-action and develop professional know- how as they conduct interviews similar to those they will encounter in the professional world after graduation.


Aspegren, K. (1999). BEME Guide No. 2: Teaching and learning communications skills in medicine—A review with grading of articles. Medical Teacher, 21, 563–569.

Benjamin, A. (1987). The helping interview with case illustrations. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Berg, I. K. (1994). Family based services: A solution-focused approach. New York, NY: Norton.

Berg, I. K., & Kelly, S. (2000). Building solutions in child protective services. New York, NY: Norton.

Berg, I. K., & Miller, S. D. (1992). Working with the problem drinker: A solution- focused approach. New York, NY: Norton.

Carrillo, D. F., Gallant, J. P., & Thyer, B. A. (1993). Training MSW students in interviewing skills: An empirical assessment. Arete, 18, 12–19.

36 P. De Jong and A. Cronkright

Compton, B. R., Galaway, B., & Cournoyer, B. (2005). Social work processes (7th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Council on Social Work Education Commission of Accreditation. (2008). Educational policy and accreditation standards. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Deal, K. H., & Brintzenhofeszoc, K. M. (2004). A study of MSW students’ interviewing skills over time. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 24, 181–197.

De Jong, P., & Berg, I. K. (2008). Interviewing for solutions (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.

De Jong, P., & Miller, S. D. (1995). How to interview for client strengths. Social Work, 40, 729–736.

de Shazer, S. (1984). The death of resistance. Family Process, 23, 79–93. de Shazer, S. (1985). Keys to solution in brief therapy. New York, NY: Norton. de Shazer, S. (1988). Clues: Investigating solutions in brief therapy. New York, NY:

Norton. de Shazer, S. (1991). Putting difference to work. New York, NY: Norton. de Shazer, S. (1994). Words were originally magic. New York, NY: Norton. Dickson, D., & Bamford, D. (1995). Improving the interpersonal skills of social work

students: The problem of transfer of training and what to do about it. British Journal of Social Work, 25, 85–105.

Egan, G. (2002). The skilled helper: A problem management approach to helping (7th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Goolishian, H. A., & Anderson, H. (1991). An essay on changing theory and chang- ing ethics: Some historical and post structural views. American Family Therapy Association Newsletter, 46 , 6–10.

Guest, J. (1976). Ordinary people. New York, NY: Penguin. Hansen, E. J. (1994). The role of values in the acquisition of ill-defined professional

skills: A case study of graduate students in school psychology (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Indiana, Bloomington.

Hepworth, D. H., Rooney, R. H., Dewberry-Rooney, G., Strom-Gottfried, K., & Larson, J. A. (2010). Direct social work practice: Theory and skills (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Ivey, A. E., & Ivey, M. B. (2007). Intentional interviewing and counseling: Facilitating client development in a multicultural society (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.

Kadushin, A. (1997). The social work interview (4th ed.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kopp, J. (1990). The transfer of interviewing skills to practicum by students with high and low pre-training skill levels. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 4, 31–52.

Koprowska, J. (2003). The right kind of telling? Locating the teaching of interviewing skills with a systems framework. British Journal of Social Work, 33, 291–308.

Maluccio, A. N. (1979). Learning from clients. New York, NY: The Free Press. Miley, K. K., O’Melia, M., & DuBois, B. (2009). Generalist social work practice: An

empowering approach (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2002). Motivational interviewing (2nd ed.). New York,

NY: Guilford Press.

Learning Solution-Focused Interviewing Skills 37

Nouwen, H. J. (1975). Reaching out: The three movements of the spiritual life. New York, NY: Doubleday.

QSR International. (2002). Using NVivo in qualitative research. Melbourne, Australia: Author.

Saleebey, D. (Ed.). (2007). The strengths perspective in social work practice (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Schon, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Schon, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sheafor, B. W., & Horejsi, C. R. (2006). Techniques and guidelines for social work practice (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Sowers-Hoag, K., & Thyer, B. A. (1985). Teaching social work practice: A review and analysis of empirical research. Journal of Social Work Education, 21, 5–15.

Steiner, S., Stromwall, L. K., Brzuzy, S., & Gerdes, K. (1999). Using cooperative learning strategies in social work education. Journal of Social Work Education, 35, 253–264.

Walsh, P. (2002). The introduction of solution-focused therapy to Irish social workers: A case study of innovation diffusion (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Trinity College, University of Dublin, Dublin, Ireland.

Copyright of Journal of Teaching in Social Work is the property of Taylor & Francis Ltd and its content may

not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder’s express written

permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.