Garnet Apple winner Terry Wolfer is on the case

Ever since grade school, Terry Wolfer knew he wanted to teach. But it wasn’t until he had earned three degrees and started his career as a social work professor at USC that he found a teaching approach that resonated with him and his students.

When he arrived at USC in 1996, Wolfer was a freshly minted Ph.D. graduate with little formal teaching experience. Michael Welsh, a now-retired education professor, introduced Wolfer to the decision case method, which uses real-life narratives to teach textbook concepts.

“Business schools have been using the case method for a hundred years, and in social work education it’s often used to illustrate a point,” Wolfer says. “Mike showed me the decision case, which is different — the story is unresolved; it ends as a cliffhanger. The students have to formulate a preferred intervention by using their analytical and critical thinking skills, their knowledge of social work theory and research, and their common sense and collective wisdom.”

In 1999, Wolfer helped launch a capstone course for M.S.W. students at Carolina that revolves around the decision case. Every week, students in more than a dozen sections of the course discuss a new case in animated conversations, then write a paper outlining how the particular case should be resolved.

“There are wrong answers, but we say there’s not one right answer,” Wolfer says. “We’re looking for reasoning, how students put the facts together, their understanding of human behavioral theory, empirical data, ethics, agency policy and best practices.

“The things that students learn from the capstone course are what they would learn in five years of professional social work practice. It helps them avoid rookie mistakes, and they learn to express themselves, to listen well and to not get too emotionally involved.”

Wolfer has had a hand in producing six case decision textbooks, and is currently writing a set of cases for two more: one focused on human trafficking and the other on Christianity and social work. He’s also planning to teach the capstone course to the college’s MSW students in South Korea this summer and introduce them to the decision case method in the process.

The things that students learn from the capstone course are what they would learn in five years of professional social work practice. It helps them avoid rookie mistakes.

Terry Wolfer

“Because there are no local decision cases for use in that course, I’m currently writing cases reported by Korean and Vietnamese social workers,” he says. “While in Korea, I also plan to conduct workshops on case method teaching and case writing for Korean social work faculty and hope to generate interest in further collaboration.”

He’s also planning to lead a workshop on decision case teaching to educators from across the country this summer.

“We think students are developing critical thinking skills from this approach,” Wolfer says. “They’re learning to think from multiple perspectives, to be aware of client assumptions and be able to provide practical reasons for their decisions in an articulate way.”

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