Date of Award

Spring 2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


STEM Education & Professional Studies

Committee Director

Jill E. Stefaniak

Committee Member

John Baaki

Committee Member

Tammi Dice


Social workers encounter ethics related challenges on a daily basis. These real-world problems are incredibly complex and can produce intense emotional reactions. The use of ill-structured case examples as an instructional strategy to teach ethical lessons is well-supported in the literature, however, case examples often lack an emotional or affective component. Given the importance of crafting cases for learners, more research is needed to better understand how to construct and present case examples to enhance learning outcomes, specifically related to the influence of emotive content. This study was conducted to assess the effect of emotive content on knowledge acquisition and ethical sense making.

The current study employed a posttest only control group design. Emotive content was defined as information related to the character’s emotional reactions or feelings, background, beliefs, physical appearance, and/or goal focus of the character. The ethical dilemma involved the use of social media between a teenage client and student intern at a family service agency.

Study materials were placed inside plain packets, each having a unique identification number. The first packet contained the case example and open ended question prompts. The second packet contained the knowledge acquisition questions and demographic related questions. Participants were not permitted to access the first packet while completing the second packet. All questions were presented in a fixed order.

Participants were graduate level Master of Social Work students at a university on the coastal U.S. In total, 71 students participated in the study. The emotive group (n = 37) was comprised of 32 women and five men. The non-emotive group (n = 34) was comprised of 30 women and four men. The mean age for student participants was 29.63 (SD = 8.37). There were no statistically significant differences between the two groups. An independent samples t-test indicated that scores were significantly higher for the non-emotive group (M = 4.91, SD = .96) than the emotive group (M = 4.40, SD = .96), t(69), = -2.22, p = .030, d = .53. An independent samples t-test indicated that scores were significantly higher for students in a field placement (M = 4.77), SD = .96) than students not in a field placement (M = 4.23, SD = .97), t(69) = 2.02, p = .047, d = 0.56. No differences were found between the emotive and non-emotive groups in ethical sense making scores or feelings toward the main characters.

Results contribute the growing body of literature regarding the effect of emotion in processing and manipulating complex information. The results suggest that the addition of emotive content to a case example may distract or overwhelm learners. Case examples should be constructed using clear and simple information.


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