Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching

Teaching and learning of assessment: What should be the content?

The headings from the analysis and discussion in Assessment in social work are summarised below as an alert to possible learning content.

A number of debates are woven into these different topic areas in the assessment sources used for this guide. The debates will be discussed under the three sub-headings below with relevant questions and messages for educators included as they arise.

Principles vs. tools and frameworks

Crisp and colleagues argue that graduating social workers must understand the ‘principles’ of assessment (Crisp et al, 2003). The essence of principles in this instance is their transferability (p 41). Tools and frameworks may offer useful exemplars for learning, but there is a worry that they may also induce a kind of ‘trained incapacity’ in which social workers’ skills are restricted and non-transferable between settings or client groups. Predictably, there is no consensus on principles but reflection on the discussion in Assessment in social work suggests items for a working list which educators and practitioners may revise as necessary.

Other lists of principles are available, offered less abstractly as practical benchmarks in the conduct of assessment and possible guides to curriculum development (for example, Nolan and Craddock in Crisp et al, 2003, p 11).

The knowledge required by students does not stop at transferable assessment principles. Students need to support their ability to conduct the assessment process with a broad repertoire of knowledge and skills. Crisp and colleagues identified four particular areas of wider knowledge that were necessary in conducting assessments (Crisp et al, 2003, pp 29–32). In summary, the areas were:

Critical thinking has a variety of meanings and, as yet, there is limited evidence on how it may best be developed among undergraduates. Nevertheless, the teaching of skills in critical thinking is frequently advocated to ensure that professional social work education is more than the acquisition of technical skills. Indeed, the ability to think critically is said to be a defining feature of competent social work practice (Heron, 2006). A body of ideas is envisaged that assist the student or practitioner in looking beneath the surface appearance of information in order to enhance the validity of judgements and decisions (see Developments in Burgess, 2005).

Research skills are included to enhance the gathering and assessment of information.

Knowledge of the service user groups and social contexts refers to knowledge about the needs, impairments and capacities of, say, older people or people with learning disabilities as well as the wider social and political environments in which social problems occur.

Knowledge to inform the conduct of the assessment is concerned, for instance, with determining the appropriate environment for conducting assessment; forming judgements about the kinds of contribution the service user seeks, and is able, to make; and timing the transition from assessment to intervention.

On the other side of the principles vs. tools and frameworks debate, Crisp and colleagues found in their 2003 study a substantial literature on tools for assessment. The literature tends, however, to relate to training programmes for qualified workers and to be ‘agency-based’ (2003, p vi). The reviewers’ 2005 study examined specific assessment frameworks from government agencies. Some frameworks include useful practical guidelines and, despite worries about non-transferability mentioned above, much of the guidance is transferable to the assessment of other populations, although readers are left to work this out for themselves (Crisp et al, 2005).

Assessment frameworks of the kind described in the 2005 review provide ready-made vehicles for introducing research findings directly into practice. They offer empirically grounded guidance and standardise assessment. The effect is to limit the consequences of poor conceptual skills among assessors, to control idiosyncrasy and reduce inconsistencies and omissions (Crisp et al, 2005, pp 37–8). The greater explicitness that frameworks introduce is said to produce recommendations that are more transparent and verifiable (p 38). They are also proposed as useful tools in teaching about assessment (p 40).

However, explicit headings for information collection do not guarantee the quality of the collection process or of the judgements subsequently made. There is evidence of variation between assessors in the quality of interpretation and in their familiarity with the guidelines they should be applying (Crisp et al 2005, p 39). In short, assessment frameworks are not likely to be sufficient alone to guarantee good assessment (p 40). For similar reasons, frameworks are unlikely to be sufficient on their own as teaching tools.

The three chief studies used for this guide broadly accept that assessment frameworks can contribute usefully to teaching and learning on assessment. But they also express concern that there are pressures to confine learning to the domain of the predetermined framework, with potential detriment to the development of assessment skills and versatility of social workers. The view is encapsulated by a respondent:

we can end up without reflective thinking so we are going to try to get the students to very clearly critically analyse the tools they are using and also to think about alternatives. (Interviewee, HEI study, Shardlow et al, 2005, p 25)

The different strands of the debate are, in fact, more complex than the ‘principles vs. tools and frameworks’ polarity suggests. The position is illustrated in Fig. 5 using a continuum from ‘more abstract learning content’ to ‘more concrete learning content’. The figure locates the types of content that have been discussed in this sub-section. The figure also suggests that the two kinds of learning content produce knowledge and skill with characteristic and contrasting tendencies:

More abstractcontent of assessment learning tends to produce knowledge and skills that are general, adaptable to many situations, non-routine, potentially non-compliant with bureaucratic authority, professionally directed, transferable and less accountable.

More concrete content of assessment learning tends to produce knowledge and skills that are specific, applicable to particular situations, routine, compliant with bureaucratic authority, organisationally directed, non-transferable and more accountable.

Fig. 5 Content and tendencies of assessment learning: an abstract–concrete continuum

More abstract learning content
More concrete learning content
types of content of learning
tendencies theories More abstract principles of assessment Less abstract principles of assessment assessment frameworks tools, checklists and structured protocols tendencies


applicable to particular situations


compliant with authority



principles of critical thinking     knowledge and skills relating to the service group and assessment process  


adaptable to many situations


potentially non-compliant with authority



  knowledge and skills on how to research evidence and on the nature and contexts of social problems          

Where the emphasis should be placed in teaching and learning is debated among educators, learners, employers and service users but the outcome should not ultimately be of an either/or kind. Social workers need learning opportunities and practice skills along the entire abstract–concrete continuum. Furthermore, since there are limits to what can be included in any curriculum, the combination of abstract and concrete content will need to be chosen for maximum transferability.

Questions for educators

  • Do learning opportunities predominate in one area or another of the abstract–concrete continuum (with its corresponding tendencies, types of knowledge and skills produced, and implications for practice)?
  • Alternatively, does teaching cover both of the following:
    • knowledge of assessment processes, including tools and assessment frameworks
    • a broader repertoire of transferable theory, principles, skills and social science knowledge for use in assessment?

Messages for educators

  • The message from the main sources is that social workers need learning opportunities and practice skills along the abstract–concrete assessment knowledge continuum.
  • Since there are limits to what can be included in any curriculum, the combination of abstract and concrete content will need to be chosen for maximum transferability.

Consensus vs. difference in stakeholder views of the assessment curriculum

The literature review by Crisp and colleagues raised the question:

To what degree, if any, is there a consensus among key stakeholders (for example, employers, social work academics, service users) as to what students should learn about assessment prior to qualifying as a social worker? (Crisp et al, 2003, p 41)

The Salford CSWR study took up this question (Shardlow et al, pp 50–1). It reports considerable variation both within and across stakeholder groups about what social work students should learn. There were indications of tension, for example, between higher educational institutes and agencies over the nature of the assessment task. Crisp and colleagues also refer to the tension between the training requirements placed on social work educators and the expectations of agencies who want social workers to be able to operate employers’ assessment tools and national frameworks (2003, p 37). The expectations of some service users also look set to produce tensions. They told the Salford CSWR researchers that social workers should be ‘loyal advocates’ even in the face of management opposition, regarding loyal advocacy as the essence of the assessment function (Shardlow et al, 2005, p 51).

These kinds of findings are more than differences of self-interest among stakeholder groups and reflect the range of different understandings of assessment. The findings are of limited help in determining the content of assessment learning if the goal is to include only those topics on which there is a consensus. However, it is abundantly clear already that, while there may be many points of agreement, assessment is a highly contested area. It is to be expected that a full stakeholder consensus will be hard to find. The content of learning must reflect that reality.

Question for educators

  • Does the content of teaching recognise the mix of stakeholder consensus and difference about the content of the assessment curriculum?

Diffuse vs. specified learning

There are concerns in the assessment studies used for this guide that the teaching of assessment may in the past have been too diffuse. Section 28 will look at the structure of teaching and learning, but staying with the present focus on content, the findings from the Salford CSWR study note that former students from DipSW programmes had limited recall of assessment content (Shardlow et al, 2005, p 52). Gaps in preparation for undertaking assessment in practice placements were also indicated. It is not known whether these findings would be replicated in a larger sample but, on the assumption that recall of learning opportunities is a better indicator of learning having taken place than no recall, the following questions for educators are suggested, prompted by the Salford findings. The questions are informed in part by issues covered in Assessment in social work.

Questions for educators

  • Are students able to identify areas of learning that contribute to their understanding and skills in relation to assessment?
  • Are students able to identify particular models, definitions, purposes and theories of assessment taught on the course?
  • Are students able to identify particular formal frameworks of assessment taught on the course?
  • Do students consider themselves prepared for undertaking assessments during their practice placements?

Next: Sources: textbooks and assessment frameworks