Mixed Methods: A nonequivalent comparison pretest and posttest design was used to assess effects of the expressive and reflective writing on stress, self-efficacy, and approaches to learning. Two sections of the MSW 3-credit required family course were assigned to either the experimental class (n =27) or the comparison class (n = 28). Both classes were asked to participate in pretest and posttest Qualtrics assessing measures such as Cohen, Kamarch, and Mermelstein’s (1983)10-item perceived stress scale, Schwarzer and Jerusalem’s (1995) 10-item general self-efficacy scale, Entwistle and Ramsden’s (1983) 52-item approaches to studying scale, and demographic questions. A total of 15 students (9 in experimental class vs 6 in compassion class) participated.
For qualitative data, the experimental class was asked to complete at least 5 weekly 15-minute online expressive and reflective writings (equal to or less than one single-spaced page) about their stressful experiences and their purposes for academic learning at their preferred places.
Findings: The students in the experimental class reported lower scores in self-reported perceived stress and surface apathetic approach to studying (lack of purpose and fear of failure) and higher scores in deep approach to studying (more intrinsically motivated to seek meaning and interested in ideas) and strategic approach to studying (more organized studying and time management). However, there were no statistically significant interaction effects on all dependent variables, indicating that the students in the experimental class did not significantly improve in any of the dependent variables compared to the students in the comparison class.
A total of 139 expressive and reflective writings were collected and analyzed qualitatively. Five themes emerged from thematic coding processes guided by the grounded theory approach: (1) stress and anxiety triggered by a variety of life experiences; (2) family and social support as coping resources; (3) the importance of self-care for health; (4) gender/racial equity; and (5) self-determination, self-regulation, or self-efficacy.
Conclusion and Implications: When the students who are not well connected to others feel incompetent or lose control or autonomy, they tend to become more stressful, less self-efficacious, less motivated, and more fearful of failure in the academic setting. Students who not only expressed but also deeply reflected on their stressful experiences seemed more insightful and capable of making sense of and transforming their negative experiences into more positive and constructive personal and professional experiences. Also, their learning and growth were better aligned with social work professional mission, values, and principles. Further research is needed to examine effects of expressive and reflective writing with a larger sample of students in an in-class setting.