Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching
The nature of assessment: Evidence-based assessment
Two aspects of evidence-based assessment are considered here:
- learning to identify, gather and use evidence in making assessments
- the use of evidence to support and evaluate given approaches to assessment.
First, it is necessary to provide a brief context for evidence-based approaches. The growing promotion of evidence-based or knowledge-based approaches in the UK has been associated with a number of developments related to the goal of improved quality in services and professional decision-making. These developments include clinical governance in the NHS, clinical and social care governance in the Northern Ireland health and social services and related quality regimes in social care in other parts of the UK, together with the establishment of SCIE and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) (Whittington, 2006).
The idea of evidence-based practice raises a number of questions:
- What is the nature of the knowledge or evidence to be applied and how it was produced?
- How are practitioners to access the evidence?
- What can be done to help practitioners use evidence to inform practice?
Evidence-based practice tends to polarise views among both practitioners and researchers along the following dimensions:
- between ‘scientific’ ways of producing social and psychological evidence and ‘humanistic’ approaches
- between the priorities of the professionals/service providers and service users
- between managers and frontline staff.
(Marsh and Fisher 2005; Whittington, 2006)
The use of evidence in making assessments
In line with the general development of evidence-based approaches, some textbooks encourage the use of research-based evidence in assessment, explicitly discussing the strength of evidence in support of various assessment approaches (Crisp et al, 2005, p 154). Some texts also describe the influence of research evidence in shaping assessment in relation to offenders and ‘looked after children’. Others, while citing references of various kinds, engage in no explicit discussion of research evidence and give no guidance on the extent to which research findings shape the practice advocated (Crisp et al, 2005, pp 26–7). This approach hardly seems likely to encourage a rigorous approach to evidence among readers.
Each assessment framework advocates an evidence-based approach. To paraphrase, this means in the children and families framework (Crisp et al, 2005, p 55):
- using knowledge critically from research and practice
- systematic recording and updating of information, distinguishing sources such as observation, records of other agencies and information from family members
- evaluating continuously the effectiveness of the intervention and modifying action accordingly
- evaluating interventions to develop practice wisdom.
Two of the frameworks provide typologies that categorise types and sources. The typology in the framework for older people is used to cross reference in-text citations (Crisp et al, 2005, p 54). The framework on the care of drug users offers a typology that distinguishes five types of research source: systematic reviews, narrative reviews, primary research studies, user consultations and working groups and other consultations (Crisp et al, 2005).
The systematic use of evidence is expected by the requirements of the social work degree. The academic benchmarks expect knowledge of factors underpinning the selection and testing of relevant information; and knowledge of the place of evidence from international research in assessment and decision-making processes in social work practice (QAA, 2000, paras 3.1.4/5).
The use of evidence to support or evaluate given approaches
None of the works reviewed by Crisp and colleagues, except two of the frameworks, explained systematically the evidence supporting particular guidelines that were offered. However, the Salford CSWR study of social work programmes found that:
Modules related to the nature of research and evidence supported the development of a critical analysis of assessment tools and frameworks, enabling students to reflect on their epistemological basis, thus gaining a clearer understanding of the knowledge informing such materials. (Shardlow et al, 2005, p 24)
The case for enabling students to develop skills in accessing, evaluating and applying research-based evidence is twofold. First, these skills provide a systematic and reviewable approach to improving both the content of assessment information and the quality of the method. Second, students with research skills are able to keep themselves updated in environments where the pace of change and demand for new knowledge are both rapid (Braye and Preston-Shoot, 2006).
Questions for educators
- Are there opportunities for students to learn of the debates that surround evidence-based practice?
- Are there opportunities for students to develop the knowledge and skills that different evidence-based approaches to assessment require?