Teaching and learning communication skills in social work education

Practice example 2: Service-user assessment of students, University of Nottingham

This is a module called 'Users’ and carers’ perspectives in community care’. It is aimed at 2nd year students on the MA route as part of the 'Adults’ pathway.

What is distinctive about this module is that it is planned, delivered and assessed by users and carers, who are paid for their services. The module thereby operates in partnership with a local organisation 'Advocacy in Action’, who have a long and trusted relationship with the university.

The course is delivered in six workshops, each lasting for one day. The last two are assessment days.

Students give a presentation of their life history, bearing in mind the communication skills they use. Some assessors will have cognitive impairment or be non-readers. Students must take account of these issues in their presentations.

The grading is a percentage mark, based on the service users’ judgement on how well the students have been able to engage in the themes of the module through their presentations. There is also a proportion of the mark awarded in recognition of the overall contributions of students to the module, judged by service users over the entire module. In 2001 and 2002, the final mark awarded was moderated by the coordinating tutor. For 2003, this tutor has been a part of the teaching team and will therefore be part of the assessment process itself, with no consequent need for moderation of the marks.

Students report that they enjoy this module, and do well on it. It consciously aims to raise the power dynamics of communication with service users, hence the importance of them directing the assessments. The course material is enhanced by sharing the experiences of the service users, 8 or 9 people for each module, and has included rough sleepers, asylum seekers, prostitutes, people with learning disabilities, people with mental health problems, ex-offenders, older people, carers, and so on.

User participation in planning, delivery and evaluation

The module has been entirely planned and delivered by a service user-led group, with the active involvement of a member of university staff ensuring that practical and financial issues are addressed. Evaluation is carried out separately by the user group and within the university; the outcomes of these evaluations form the next stage of planning.

Learning aims and outcomes

The module learning aims are as follows: "The aim of this module is that students will be able to grasp the significance of the perspectives of service users and carers within community care. It is argued that social workers have historically not understood that users and carers are first and foremost people, with unique experiences and narratives. Through a process of experiential learning, the module will demonstrate that an understanding of these users and carers as people is an essential prerequisite for successful social work practice. The common theme of the module will be the shared humanity of social workers, service users and carers”.

The learning outcomes are as follows:

"By the conclusion of this module, students should be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between past and current life experiences for service users.
  2. Demonstrate acceptance and humility in respect of services users’ anger and pride, and commitment to the positive action and change that enhances and promotes service users’ ability to reclaim and take charge of their own lives.
  3. Present an aspect of their life story to a mixed group of service users, carers and students.
  4. Communicate in ways which are meaningful and respectful for people with a wide range of communication requirements, including both people with learning disabilities and with language disadvantages.”

Assessment of learning

As noted above, the module is assessed by the service users. The grading is a percentage mark, based on the service users’ judgement on how well the students have been able to engage in the themes of the module through their presentations. There is also a proportion of the mark awarded in recognition of the overall contributions of students to the module, judged by service users over the entire module. In 2001 and 2002, the final mark awarded was moderated by the coordinating tutor. For 2003, this tutor has been a part of the teaching team and will therefore be part of the assessment process itself, with no consequent need for moderation of the marks.

Integration between university and practice curricula

The module is part of the formal university academic curriculum. As yet, this has not been mapped against the Department of Health Requirements, The national occupational standards for social work, or the Subject benchmarks for social work.

Feedback/evaluation

The results of the university feedback process for the past two years are included below. Students have an evaluation form to complete, which contains a number of questions that ask for narrative comments, alongside a section that invites them to evaluate their overall experience. This includes four possible outcomes.

2002: Excellent 7 Good 6 Satisfactory 0 Poor 0

2001: Excellent 5.5 Good 4.5 Satisfactory 1 Poor 0

This is among the most positive feedback given to any academic module, an impression reinforced by comments in the narrative section attesting to the power of the experience for students. Feedback and evaluation from Advocacy in Action has been similar in nature. This is particularly gratifying as this is far from being a standard academic module, in delivery or assessment.

Further information available from Mark Lymbery (Mark.lymbery@nottingham.ac.uk, www.nottingham.ac.uk).