Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science in Social Work


Social Work

Major Professor

Cindy Davis

Committee Members

Samuel MacMasters, Sherry Cummings


Empathy has been recognized as an important element in the helping profession, specifically within the field of social work. It has been acknowledged as an important component for promoting, restoring, maintaining, and enhancing clients’ well-being. Evaluation of empathy research has demonstrated contradictory conclusions about the impact of graduate education on students’ levels of empathy. While the social work curriculum assumes reciprocal empathic communication is an attained skill developed throughout the MSSW curriculum, little research has been conducted on the extent of empathic communication obtained through the social work curriculum. This study assessed the impact of graduate social work education on students’ skill in communicating empathy. The major hypothesis of this study was that students’ level of empathy would increase after completing their first semester of foundation courses at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work (UTCSW). The empathic ability of 99 incoming first year, full-time MSSW students was measured and compared using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) (Davis, 1983a, b). This sample represented 93% of all first year, full-time students enrolled in the MSSW program at the UTCSW. Findings revealed no significant differences in students’ ability to communicate empathically after completing their first semester of core foundation courses. Thus, the major hypothesis of this study was not supported. Students scored highest on the empathic concern subscale (m=22.35, sd=2.97 on pre-test; m=22.16, sd=3.51 on post-test), but significantly lower on the personal distress subscale (m=10.51, sd=4.27 on pre-test; m=10.00, sd=4.01 on post-test). Low personal distress skills will more likely prevent and hinder social workers from successfully complying with the values in the social work code of ethics. The identification of low personal distress among this sample is evidence for the need to incorporate empathy training models within the social work curriculum. Including empathy training models within the social work curriculum may decrease feelings of fear, discomfort, and apprehension in dealing with the difficult situations faced by social workers.

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