Teaching and learning communication skills in social work education
The SCIE research review: Teaching and learning communication skills in social work education - a summary
The theoretical underpinning in relation to the teaching and learning of communication skills is underdeveloped. For example, there is little coherence in the literature to assist educators to teach effectively, and little coverage of students’ different learning styles. These differences are reflected in the divergent range of models identified by the Brunel Practice Review (2003)(18), and also in research undertaken by Marsh and Triseliotis (1996)(19).
In light of the requirements of the new degree in relation to teaching and learning communication skills, several aspects require particular attention:
- there is an absence of literature that addresses service user involvement in - and perspectives on - the teaching and learning of communication skills;
- greater focus is needed on the importance of transcultural communication skills given the limited literature and research in this area;
- encouragement needs to be given to enable practitioners to contribute to teaching/learning in all aspects of practice, particularly those areas such as transcultural communication skills, where there is a serious lack of literature and research;
- there is scope for more work to be done on the teaching and learning of specific communication skills associated with specific theoretical approaches;
- the lack of a 'common language’ means that greater rigour is needed when using such terms as generalist, specialist and advanced practice skills, micro-skills and macro skills, interventions and so on;
- the processes involved in teaching communication skills require as much attention as the content of the teaching;
- evaluative studies which focus on the teaching and learning of interviewing and listening skills suggest that the improvements made in simulated settings do not automatically transfer to practice settings with service users. The integration of communication skills training with practice learning is seen as crucial here;
- the increasing use of computer-based programs and skills laboratories is described in the literature, but the limited evaluation of such resources suggests that they are best used to support face-to-face teaching rather than as 'stand-alone’ training in communication skills;
- the relative paucity of evaluative literature indicates that there is an urgent need to develop a robust methodology, particularly with regard to defining and measuring the effectiveness of communication skills with service users.
Conclusion and challenges for the future
In light of the requirements of the new degree, the teaching of communication skills needs to be seen as a priority in social work education. Although this report has not been able to identify from the literature reviewed a unified body of knowledge on which such teaching programmes can be based, it has highlighted those aspects that need further attention.
Firstly, there are two significant aspects of the literature review generated by the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination (CRD) search that were not possible to review within the parameters of this research project (www.york.ac.uk). However, they may be the subject of further examination by SCIE:
- the literature on teaching and learning of communication skills in other sectors such as medicine, nursing and allied health professionals;
- the literature on improving communications skills of users.
Secondly, it is recognised that there is far greater expertise in existence than is reflected in the literature. The findings of the SCIE practice review (2003)(16) indicate that there is a considerable amount of innovative practice being undertaken in this field that is, as yet, barely covered in the literature. It is hoped, therefore, that this report can serve as a catalyst to educators in two ways: by encouraging educators to write for publication about their knowledge and experience on this aspect of education, and to address the gaps in existing knowledge by undertaking research in the areas identified in the report’s key messages.
Thirdly, the theoretical knowledge base that underpins the teaching and learning of communication skills needs to be made more explicit, adopting the same academic rigour used in other areas of social work research and practice theory. The review was enriched by the international scope of the articles provided by the search, but the transferability of much of the material to the UK context is far from straightforward. Furthermore, more research is needed on the transferability of communication skills teaching and learning from the university to practice contexts, and across different settings and service user groups.
If these challenges can be met, there is the potential for the teaching and learning of communication skills in social work to be built on firm foundations - an essential prerequisite for effective teaching, learning and practice.
Copies of the full report of this review, Teaching and learning communication skills social work education, Knowledge review 6, can be found at www.scie.org.uk.