Learn What to Study for the ASWB MSW Examination

The ASWB MSW is a certification exam administered by the ASWB (Association of Social Work Boards). It is used across the United States, in two Canadian provinces (Alberta and British Columbia), and in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The ASWB MSW is one of four licensing exams administered by ASWB; they also administer the Bachelor’s, Advanced Generalist and Clinical exams for social workers. To be eligible to take the ASWB MSW, you must already hold a master’s degree in social work (MSW).

The ASWB MSW is comprised of 170 multiple-choice questions, and each question consists of four options. Questions are designed to test recent MSW graduates’ competency in four key areas of social work practice and knowledge:

• Human Development, Diversity, and Behavior in the Environment (28%)
• Assessment and Intervention Planning (24%)
• Direct and Indirect Practice (21%)
• Professional Relationships, Values and Ethics (27%)

Out of the 170 questions that appear on the exam, only 150 are scored (the other 20 questions are “pretest” questions, which may used on future exams). Since you will have no way of distinguishing the “pretest” questions from the real questions, however, be certain to answer every question as if it counts. Generally, you’ll need to answer 93 to 106 questions correctly in order to receive a passing grade on the ASWB MSW.

The ASWB MSW must be completed at a Pearson VUE testing center. You’ll have 4 hours to complete the exam. You are advised to prepare for the exam well in advance and if possible, to take a timed practice exam online prior to writing the actual exam.

Finally, if you’ve previously taken the ASWB BSW, expect some overlap but also be prepared to go much deeper into the practice and knowledge fields you encountered on the ASWB BSW. In addition, be prepared to respond to questions on a wide range of new topics.


Social Work - Human Development, Diversity, and Behavior in the Environment

Content Area I. Human Development, Diversity, and Behavior in the Environment

The largest and most theoretically focused part of the ASWB MSW is the first content area. You’ll need to be familiar with systems theory, theories with roots in psychology and sociology, theories that seek to understand abuse and trauma, and theories on diversity, resistance movements, power, and oppression. If you’re already familiar with the works of Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud, you’ll have a step up on this part of the exam, but if you haven’t read Marx or Freud, don’t worry! The ASWB MSW is not designed to test your ability to teach graduate-level courses in critical or social theory but rather to apply theoretical perspectives to social work practice, so a general understanding of these theories and their applications is what matters most.

i. Theories and Models

Among others topics, be prepared to respond to questions that address the following:

• Developmental theories
• Systems theories
• Family theories
• Group theories
• Psychodynamic theories
• Behavioral, cognitive, and learning theories
• Community development theories
• Addiction theories and concepts
• Communication theories
• Normal and abnormal behavior
• Impact of stress, trauma, and violence
• Sexual development
• Aging processes
• Family life cycle
• Child development
• Gender roles
• Dynamics of grief and loss
• Impact of economic changes on client systems

ii. Abuse and Neglect

This section of the exam may include questions on the any of the following topics:

• Abuse and neglect concepts
• Indicators and dynamics of sexual abuse
• Indicators and dynamics of psychological abuse and neglect
• Indicators and dynamics of physical abuse and neglect
• Characteristics of abuse perpetrators
• Indicators and dynamics of exploitation

iii. Diversity, Social/Economic Justice, and Oppression

This subfield focuses on diversity, justice, and oppression issues (e.g., the influence of culture, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation on behaviors and attitudes; the impact of cultural heritage on self-image; and systemic or institutionalized discrimination).


Content Area II. Assessment and Intervention Planning

The second content area of the exam tests your knowledge of clinical assessment and interventions. Specifically, be prepare to respond to three categories of questions:

i. Biopsychosocial History and Collateral Data: These questions may focus on topics such as biopsychosocial history, sexual history, family history and indicators of sexual dysfunction, psychosocial stress and traumatic stress and violence.

ii. Use of Assessment Methods and Techniques: In this part of the exam be prepared to respond to questions on topics concerned with assessment methods (e.g., methods used to evaluate collateral information or client’s communication skills) and techniques (e.g., observation). This section will also test your knowledge of the DSM-5 (the 5th Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

iii. Intervention Planning: The final section of the second content area aims to test your knowledge of intervention planning (namely, how to come up with an appropriate set of interventions to support a client in crisis). Specific topics may include planning interventions with groups, planning interventions with organizations and communities, and cultural considerations in the creation of an intervention plan.


Content Area III. Direct and Indirect Practice

The third area of the exam tests your knowledge of direct and indirect practice. In its Guide to Social Work Ethics Course Development, the ASWB defines direct and indirect practice as follows:

“Direct practice can be defined as the range of professional social work activities with or on behalf of clients in which goals are established, worked toward and reached through personal contact and immediate influence with those seeking social services.”

“Indirect practice can be defined as those professional social work activities such as administration, supervision, research, publication, policy development, education (classroom and field instruction) which may not involve immediate or personal contact with clients being served.”

In addition to understanding what direct and indirect practice are and how they overlap in social work practice, you’ll need to have a comprehensive knowledge of the methods employed in both direct and indirect practice.

i. Direct/Micro: On this part of the exam, expect to encounter questions on topics including but not limited to:

• Client advocacy
• Empowerment process
• Methods used in working with involuntary clients
• Psychosocial approach
• Components of the problem-solving process
• Crisis intervention approach
• Short-term interventions
• Use of timing in intervention
• Phases of intervention
• Techniques used to motivate clients
• Techniques used to teach skills to clients
• Use and effects of out-of-home placement
• Methods used to facilitate communication
• Verbal and nonverbal communication techniques
• Techniques that explore underlying meanings of communication
• Evaluation of practice
• Interpreting and applying research findings to practice
• Process used to refer clients for services
• Culturally competent social work practice

ii. Indirect/Macro: On this part of the exam, expect to encounter questions on the following topics:

• Applying concepts of organizational theories
• Impact of social welfare legislation on social work practice
• Methods used to establish service networks or community resources
• Techniques for mobilizing community participation
• Techniques of social planning methods
• Techniques of social policy analysis
• Techniques to influence social policy
• Techniques of working with large groups
• Use of networking
• Approaches to culturally competent practice with organizations and communities
• Advocacy with communities and organizations
• Impact of agency policy and function on service delivery


Social Work - Professional Relationships, Values, and Ethics

Content Area IV. Professional Relationships, Values and Ethics

The final content area of the ASWB MSW focuses on ethical issues, including professional values, confidentiality, and social worker roles and relationships.

i. Professional values and ethical issues: This section may contain questions pertaining to client self-determination; a client’s right to refuse service; bioethical issues; and professional boundaries.

ii. Confidentiality: In this section, be prepared to respond to questions on legal and ethical issues related to confidentiality (e.g., how to manage electronic client records or how and why to obtain informed consent).

ii. Social worker roles and relationships: In this section, you’ll encounter questions on topics such as social worker-client relationship patterns, empathy, and the concepts of transference (e.g., a client redirecting emotions, intended for someone or something else, on to a social worker) and countertransference (e.g., a social worker redirecting emotions, intended for someone or something else, on to a client).


Due to the complexity of the exam, you should plan to study for the ASWB MSW for at least two months. Try out Pocket Prep’s ASWB MSW exam prep app!

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