Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching

Teaching and learning of assessment: Sources - textbooks and assessment frameworks

The textbooks and frameworks reviewed by Crisp and colleagues have been cited frequently. This section says more on the review of these two sets of key sources for teaching and learning. Textbooks and frameworks are important because they are widely read and have ‘the potential to lead to significant changes in practice’ (Crisp et al, 2005, p 63).

Crisp and colleagues conclude that textbooks and frameworks represent complementary aids to the teaching of assessment rather than alternatives. The power of textbooks rests partly in the expert authority they convey on what should be taught but this needs to be approached critically. Otherwise, textbooks may come to drive the curriculum and socialise both educators and students (Agger, 1989 in Crisp et al, 2005, pp 3–4). In this way, what is included, or indeed omitted, from these sources may serve to reinforce prevailing attitudes or practices in relation, say, to gender, class or race (Wachholz and Mullaly, 2000 in Crisp et al, 2005, p 6). Frameworks may contribute to similar effects, especially if they come with the authority of government agencies, which is a feature of the frameworks reviewed by Crisp and colleagues in the 2005 review. Equally, however, textbooks and frameworks may challenge social practices. The point is to view them critically.

There were three predominant patterns among the generalist social work textbooks analysed (p 13):

The generalist books varied widely in the attention given to assessment and, overall, the textbooks examined were pitched to different audiences: some were plainly directed to beginning social work students, making few assumptions about prior knowledge; others were aimed at readers who were near to qualifying or already qualified (Crisp et al, 2005, p15). Not all books were directed specifically to a UK audience. Some well-known texts originated in the USA and reflected the current debates and preoccupations in North American social work (p 92).

Turning to frameworks, there are many kinds of guidance available to practitioners, especially within agencies, but Crisp and colleagues define an ‘assessment framework’ as going beyond mere guidance in its inclusion of an explicit theoretical or conceptual base (2005, p 40). The authors also argue that a framework should offer guidance on the domains or areas of information that should be encompassed in an assessment, but not necessarily the tools for collecting the information (p 41).

The choice of frameworks for review recognised the employment of many social workers in statutory settings and the relevance to statutory practice of assessment frameworks. Four documents met the selection criteria and were selected for study. Two of them are classed by the reviewers as ‘stand-alone’ assessment frameworks and are published by the Department of Health. Their intended audience is wide, covering a range of professional groups, and is assumed to require introductory information about assessment and need. Crisp and colleagues suggest that there are similarities between these frameworks and some introductory textbooks. The two frameworks are:

The two other selected documents are also aimed at a range of professional audiences but assume substantial expertise in the practice of assessment and in how to work with the target population. This observation has clear implications for the use of the documents in teaching. The first is published by the Substance Misuse Division of the Scottish Executive and the second by the Department of Health:

Crisp and colleagues were unable to find sufficient evaluation data in their first review (2003) on which to recommend particular approaches as best practice in relation to assessment. However, in their second review (2005), the authors do provide clear guidance on the use of key sources, in three forms. First, their sampling criteria provide a basis for evaluating textbooks and frameworks not covered in their review. Second, their appendices show the analysis of all the textbooks and frameworks in the review. Third, they give advice that is applicable to the use of sources but also more widely in course design and this is paraphrased in the messages below (2005, pp 67–8).

Messages for educators

  • Textbooks and frameworks can become out of date as legislation, policy and practice change, which they do frequently.
  • Textbooks published overseas or for other national contexts may offer useful insights on subjects neglected locally but should be used cautiously because of their different origin.
  • There are legislative and organisational differences between the four UK countries, which may restrict the applicability of guidance to a given country.
  • Reading is an insufficient basis for developing assessment expertise; learning exercises, discussion in supervision and application to practice are needed.
  • Assessment as presented in textbooks and frameworks represents a complex set of skills and knowledge. Students and inexperienced practitioners need opportunities to explore and learn how to apply what they read, preferably in supervised practice.
  • Educators and students should be clear on the reasons for choosing particular textbooks and frameworks.
  • Students should be alerted to any limitations of recommended works and especially to changes of policy and practice since the works were written, and be directed to supplementary reading.
  • Educators should be explicit about their intended audience and be sure to match content to student level and needs, as between students needing introductory knowledge and those requiring more advanced guidance.
  • Educators should define how they are using the concept of assessment, bearing in mind that there is no single agreed definition.
  • Learning should include case studies and exercises to encourage active learning.
  • The bases of theory and evidence that underpin teaching should be explicit.
  • Educators should recommend further reading and identify, especially, important topics that have not been fully covered in teaching.

Some of these issues will be revisited in later sections.

Next: How may teaching and learning be structured?