Teaching and learning communication skills in social work education

Practice example 8: Open Learning materials, Anglia Polytechnic University

In company with many universities and colleges, Anglia Polytechnic University (APU) has been delivering its part-time course through supported Open Learning for around five years. The part-time course was originally delivered as a taught course, but it was found that this did not meet the needs of the students on the course, many of whom are in full-time employment and have other commitments in addition to their study. The supported Open Learning mode of delivery was developed in conjunction with the Open Learning Foundation, who also supported a professorship in Open Learning at the university at the time. Open Learning at APU is supported by the development of a range of Open Learning materials, including some focusing on communication skills in social work.

The course materials, which students work through in their own time, consist of:

The thinking behind the development of the Open Learning materials focuses on the following teaching and learning needs:

The course is assessed through a written assignment in two sections. The first section consists of a response to the question 'What are good communication skills and how can they be developed and improved by social workers?’. The second consists of the student’s learning journal, or extracts from it. The word limit for the whole assignment is 4,000 words, with a recommended minimum of 2,000 words devoted to the first section.

The course convenor reports very good feedback from students. Even students who are already working in social care have been surprised at how much there is to communication, and how much there is to learn about something which they had previously approached in an instinctive way.

Teaching and learning of communication skills appears to fit particularly well with Open Learning because communication is something that is going on all the time and can be learnt 'while sitting on a bus’, unlike some other curriculum areas. Many of the exercises and worksheets included in the module materials explicitly involve learning in just such an 'everyday’ and real life context, such as observing body language during conversations and practising different ways of greeting people.

One of the knock-on benefits to arise from the development of materials for this module is that many of the exercises and activities initially intended for the parttime students were then found to be appropriate to use with the full-time students. In having to think creatively and develop activities around communication skills which people could do in their own time, and which drew on their own experiences, the module leaders were able to extend this good teaching and learning practice into the full-time course.

User participation in planning, delivery and evaluation

A user/carer representative has been appointed on each of the APU sites to work one day a week on developing user and carer involvement in all aspects of the curriculum. It is also planned to involve users/carers in evaluating the communication skills of applicants as part of the admissions process.

Other key stakeholder participation in planning, delivery and evaluation

See Integration between university and practice curricula below.

Learning aims and outcomes

  1. Demonstrate an understanding of the range and significance of interpersonal verbal, non-verbal and symbolic communication.
  2. Recognise and anticipate potential barriers to communication in social work, and demonstrate an understanding of the range of creative responses which may redress the power imbalance within a professional social work relationship.
  3. Describe the core interviewing skills required in a range of social work settings.
  4. Identify the skills that promote effective interprofessional communication.
  5. Describe the nature and purpose of social work records and demonstrate an understanding of how accuracy may be maximised in the context of the worker’s own experience, values and prejudices.
  6. Demonstrate an awareness of how effective communication skills within a professional social work relationship should be used to promote people’s strengths and their rights to choice, privacy and confidentiality, while respecting and valuing uniqueness and diversity.

Assessment of learning

The course is assessed through a written assignment in two sections. The first section consists of a response to the question 'What are good communication skills and how can they be developed and improved by social workers?’. The second consists of the student’s learning journal, or extracts from it. The word limit for the whole assignment is 4,000 words, with a recommended minimum of 2,000 words devoted to the first section.

Integration between university and practice curricula

Communication skills will be included in the practice curriculum (within a module entitled 'Principles and skills of social work’ and so practice teachers representing a wide range of agencies will be involved in the assessment of students’ communication skills in practice.

Feedback/evaluation

The course convenor reports very good feedback from students. Even students who are already working in social care have been surprised at how much there is to communication, and how much there is to learn about something which they had previously approached in an instinctive way.

Further information available from Clare Seymour, Anglia Polytechnic University (c.v.seymour@apu.ac.uk).