Teaching and learning communication skills in social work education

Signposts to new ways of working

Learning aims and outcomes

The SCIE practice review found uncertainty about how and where best to teach and learn communication skills. There was confusion about whether academic or practice settings, theoretical or experiential approaches, were more appropriate. While setting learning aims and measuring learning outcomes is familiar work to HEIs, extending these appraisal skills beyond 'classroom’ learning may be new, just as demonstrable learning outcomes may be new to practice agencies. However, learning aims and outcomes can be best achieved if they are explicit and are extended outside of the university classroom to include the practice environment and the work of the practice assessors.

While the increased number and range of practice learning opportunities is welcomed, this new environment is potentially complex. HEIs and their practice agencies will be most effective if they can specify learning aims and outcome measurements for academic and practice settings.


Clear learning aims follow on from clear standards. Social care standards take account of the views of people who use services and their carers. The standards of communication skills expected of student social workers, laid down by HEIs and Care Councils for Wales and Northern Ireland, will need to reflect this aim. Practice assessors should be as mindful of the views of people who use services and their carers in this as in any other aspect of their professional work.

What service users and carers value in their communication with social workers will help in developing standards locally.

Other sources of information about the standards that service users and their carers expect from services and service providers can be found in the following publications:

See also the General Social Care Council (GSCC) Codes of practice for employers and social workers (2002(6)) and Care Councils for Wales and Northern Ireland, which include both specific and related standards about communication and communication skills (www.gscc.org.uk, www.wales.gov.uk, www.ni-assembly.gov.uk).

"Don’t panic when we express feelings. Often it is useful to sob, shout, scream, shake or shiver. We appreciate being listened to and encouraged. We want space to do that without disturbing other people.” (MIND guidelines, from Harding and Beresford, 1996, p 203)

"Young people don’t feel listened to. This is partly because they choose to talk when there is no one to listen, and sometimes in a way that makes listening difficult. Being asked how things are for you, how you feel about what’s happening, suggests some commitment.” (WHO CARES TRUST, from Harding and Beresford, 1996, p 203)

"Listening should be done with insight and sensitivity: staff should be able to discriminate between over-complaining and a muted cry for help.” (National Pensioners Convention, from Harding and Beresford, 1996, p 203)

"Black and ethnic minority communities value staff who understand their religion and culture; staff who can communicate with them in their own language; staff who can deal with any communication barriers by acting promptly and getting interpreters when required, can find out which language the client speaks and appreciate the need for a male or female interpreter. Interpreters need to be trained and qualified. There is nothing worse than having someone try and explain procedures and rights when they do not have either fluency in a particular language or training around issues that are very personal and need to be dealt with sensitively.” (Newham black and ethnic minority community care forum, from Harding and Beresford, 1996, p 213)

"Sensitivity in communication needs to be extended to record keeping. Some groups reported that 'What is written in files can be brutal’.” (Newham black and ethnic minority community care forum, from Harding and Beresford, 1996, p 223)

"… it’s kind of more than just information that’s needed [by staff], it’s also a kind of training on skills of negotiation with the system, you know, for people to be able to use the language that will get them the things they want….” (The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, 2002, p 475)

Assessing communication skills

Building the confidence of students in communication skills was seen in the practice review as a key element in teaching and learning for beginning and qualifying level practice. Students described this as reaching a state of "feeling ordinary” and having "confidence” in communication skills.

However, self-reporting on achieving a level of "feeling ordinary” or feeling "confident” is not enough. Some markers to help establish who is a confident practitioner, for example, being prepared, being reflective or, indeed, an over-confident practitioner, are probably helpful. Otherwise, these are difficult notions to capture without measures, particularly as the SCIE practice review noted discrepancies of perception between students and other stakeholders. Service users, carers, HEIs and agencies expressed concerns about students’ written skills whereas students did not.

There are a number of questions that arise from the SCIE practice review findings relating to assessment of communication skills, and which HEIs and their partner agencies could ask themselves:

Evaluation of teaching and learning communication skills

The combined findings from practice and research are that evaluation tends to be concerned with satisfaction with the process and method of training, rather than individual and collective learning through learning aims and with outcome measurements. Shifts in thinking about practice learning, skills laboratories and learning resource centres offer the chance to try out new ways of teaching and learning, including evaluating outcomes.

Service user and carer involvement

One of the degree requirements is service user and carer involvement. While this is a moral imperative, it is also a pragmatic one, recognising involvement as a strong lever for improving social care. Although not the prime focus of this guide, nevertheless, no respondents discussed the involvement of users in the planning of courses when asked what factors in planning might help improve teaching. SCIE has produced a companion guide to this, called Involving service users and carers in the social work degree7 (a full text version and electronic guide can be found on www.scie.org.uk). The benefits of this involvement include: the availability of more immediate feedback and a true sense of the impact on the recipient of the student’s communication skills; material to reflect upon in supervision and academic assignments; a focus on individual learning objectives; and a contribution to the overall appraisal of the student’s learning.

Students’ emphasis on learning communication skills by putting them into practice strongly indicates that user and carer involvement should be part of practice settings as well as the classroom. Inviting users and carers to become part of the learning and assessment of student communication skills in practice settings has very obvious benefits. Service users and carers can give feedback on the range of communication modes used by the student, for example, written (including recordings on file), verbal, telephone, use of interpreters and so on. Feedback can be given directly to the student or via a third party, that is, the practice assessor in a situation acceptable to the service user/carer. The benefits of this involvement include: the availability of more immediate feedback and a true sense of the impact on the recipient of the student’s communication skills; increased material to reflect upon in supervision and in academic assignments; a focus on individual learning objectives; and a contribution to the overall appraisal of the student’s learning.

The relationship between practice and academic settings, including quality assurance

The SCIE practice review identified a 'fault line’ between practice settings and college, as noted above in the confusion about 'where, when and how’ to teach communication skills. Some respondents understood the need for closer collaboration and expressed "goodwill and commitment” to achieving this. Putting goodwill and commitment into action will involve filling in the fault line with shared, explicit standards, aims and outcome measures that apply to both settings. Review findings demonstrate that teaching, learning and the assessment of communication skills needs to take place in the academic setting, in the agency and in the relationship between the two.

Students consider the practice placement as a place to get experience but not a place to learn: this observation from one academic illustrates the importance for HEIs and practice assessors in ensuring that students understand that the application of theoretical understanding to practice situations is equally important in both the classroom and practice setting.

There are several examples in this chapter of the guide of how this strengthening and clarification of the independent and collective roles can be expressed. Further possibilities include:

Applying theory

The research review found that the theoretical underpinning of teaching and learning of communication skills is underdeveloped, with little in the literature to assist educators to teach and students to learn effectively.

The practice review found that there were few attributed teaching models mentioned in the review. Egan’s SOLER model8 was the only one to be mentioned more than once, indicating a continued emphasis on the teaching of counselling skills as a basis to communication skills in social work.

The literature, however, does not give a full picture of what is happening in current and emerging educational practice, and this can be demonstrated by some of the practice examples given in Chapter 7 (p 22) that demonstrate theoretical underpinnings to teaching and learning.

It is important that, as the degree programmes progress, more educators disseminate the work they are undertaking in teaching and learning communication skills. More evaluative accounts from key stakeholders will assist educators and students and give a more accurate picture of what actually happens in practice.

Writing skills

Writing skills were identified clearly as a concern by all stakeholders with the exception of students. Attention to writing skills particularly for a younger intake of students who it is anticipated may have a lower skills base could represent a resource implication for HEIs and agencies.

The Department of Health Requirements for social work training in England9 include a requirement on providers of social work education to ensure that "in addition to the university’s own admission requirements for the degree, all entrants have achieved at least Key Skills level 2 in English and mathematics”. Also, the requirement that providers must "satisfy themselves that all entrants can understand and make use of written material and are able to communicate clearly and accurately in spoken and written English”. Therefore the new degree status of qualifying social work education may go some way in establishing that entrants to training will have the necessary written skills required to begin an academic course of this standard, regardless of their age.

However, the standard of written skills expected from students at all stages of recruitment and training should be explicit and measured to avoid confusion about what is acceptable practice, and to avoid negative resource implications.

Transferability across practice settings and from training to doing

Effective professional communication with children, adults and those with particular communication needs requires the ability to transfer learning across a range of practice settings and from training to doing.

In their study of transfer of learning, Cree and colleagues10 suggest the following factors need to exist for transfer of learning to be able to take place:

See also Practice example 9, Social work skills: A practice handbook, the University of Bristol, which gives a further example of what is needed to transfer learning (p 42).

Learning from, about, and with other professionals

Renewed interest in communication is in part related to the exposure that social work has received in the mass media in recent years. Independent inquiries into adult and child homicides raise crucial issues about lack of communication, both with services users and within and among different professional groups. It is imperative that educators ensure that teaching and learning includes the necessary communication skills needed to work across adult and childcare services.

Service users and carers emphasise the need for social workers to be able to communicate effectively, verbally and in writing, with other professional groups, in order to be able to access services that they need, and to avoid repetitive questioning from the various professionals involved in people’s lives.

Evidence from the practice review suggests that social work programmes prior to the degree were already paying attention to interprofessional education, with more opportunities planned for the new degree.

Interprofessional learning and working in partnership will be covered more fully in a forthcoming SCIE social work education guide, dedicated to this area of teaching and learning.