The learning, teaching and assessment of partnership work in social work education

How can students be assessed on partnership work?

See also: Good practice examples

There are questions about the extent to which assessment remains the responsibility of educators alone or whether, and in what ways, responsibility can be shared with other stakeholders. There are also issues about which models of assessment are most appropriate to evaluate different aspects of good partnership practice.

Key information from the knowledge review

Most programmes favoured mixed methods of assessment designed to test students’ awareness of the complexity of partnership working. Patterns of assessment most frequently sought to evaluate the integration of partnership knowledge, skills and values, and their application to the realities of practice.

The examples in this section come from discrete models of partnership teaching. In integrated approaches, which aim to include aspects of partnership throughout the curriculum in areas such as law and communication skills where it is an essential component of the topic, it is more difficult to attach learning outcomes linked to partnership with particular forms of assessment, and, indeed, learning outcomes require us to make aims and objectives explicit.

Assessment patterns reflect the diversity of the learning aims already identified. Even in modules where partnership is a significant part of the teaching and learning aims, it appears that an over-arching conceptual framework is required to structure the learning. The practice survey identified some of the frameworks used to structure the teaching and therefore shape the pattern of assessment. Interprofessional working is the most usually adopted organising framework; other examples have user collaboration or management as their focus.

The assessment of partnership working demonstrates the following characteristics:

The use of mixed methods of assessment

Examples of these include presentations, either individual or group, essays exploring set questions on particular topics or a hypothetical case scenario, posters, simulated conferences, learning logs, group projects and reflective writing identifying learning. These different approaches are combined to demonstrate students’ understanding of different aspect of partnership and to test their ability to integrate theory and practice. The review found no examples of examinations being used, either alone or combined with other methods of assessment. On some programmes e-learning is increasingly being used as a resource in developing methods of assessment.

The assessment of ‘partnership in action’ in the classroom

Partnership learning provides an opportunity to model good practice in the classroom as a means of enabling students to prepare for practice or to reflect on their experience of partnership in practice learning. The most usual vehicle for doing this is groupwork, since it enables students to explore key issues such as power and the management of inequalities. Where groups include different professions the process also provides opportunities for knowledge about working with other aspects of difference, such as roles, values and theoretical approaches. The assessment methods can then require students to consider how knowledge about group processes can be applied to teamwork or to working collaboratively with people who use services and their carers.

The emphasis on ‘real’ situations to assess the application of learning to practice

The practice survey suggests that students are frequently assessed in the classroom by simulating real dilemmas encountered in practice. For example, a conference format requiring students to take on different roles provides a vehicle for students to demonstrate interprofessional knowledge as well as a range of generic skills such as communication and decision-making. Group assessment tasks can be used to demonstrate similar learning outcomes. In other examples, practice situations were assessed through the use of case material to replicate practice scenarios, or ‘real’ situations were created through other forms of virtual resources and assessments developed using video and electronic virtual practice environments.

The involvement of a range of stakeholders in the assessment process

The assessment of practice has traditionally involved practitioners as partners in the assessment process. There were a range of examples of other professionals (both educators and practitioners) being involved in assessment although this can be difficult to formalise in some university systems. There is also a considerable literature discussing the place of student peer and self-assessment in social work education. (22,23,24) Questions remain about the extent to which these stakeholders are centrally involved in assessment decisions. This point is developed by Crisp et al (25) in their survey of current literature exploring stakeholder involvement in the assessment process:

what is less clear is the extent to which persons other than social work academics are involved in final summative assessments. It may well be that … some stakeholders were involved only in formative assessments which offer feedback to students but do not contribute to a final grade being assigned. (p 732)

At the time the practice survey was completed, relatively few examples were found of people who use services taking a formal role in assessment. The process requires time and resources, appropriate training, attention to confidentiality, representation and avoidance of tokenism. However, there were some examples of initiatives taking place which involved people who use services at the heart of assessment decisions:

In the literature, the use of user and carer feedback to students has a number of advocates. Jackson and Morris (3) report that the use of consumer feedback for assessment purposes in practice placements is particularly helpful; Wikler (26) notes the usefulness of parents’ feedback to students on their interview skills; Scheyett and Kim (27) and Shor and Sykes (28) report on informal feedback from consumers of mental health services on a facilitated dialogue with social work students.

In 2005 Ager et al undertook an audit survey of social work courses in Scotland. (5) At that point they found that no courses formally required feedback from people using services to be included in practice assessment: 75 per cent of practice assessors and students said they ‘always’ sought feedback from users, while only two of the 28 users could give examples of being involved in assessment. The authors comment on this discrepancy:

This raises the question of whether some involvement in assessment, perceived by practice teachers, is aspirational (p 471).

The practice survey suggested that, increasingly, people who use services are being asked to provide feedback on students’ performance in practice learning, but their involvement is not always formalised and the weight given to their views is not always transparent.

There are similar examples of users being involved in university-based assessment, but where they are given little power and responsibility. (25) There is evidence that this situation may have shifted somewhat and examples of recent developments in assessment partnerships are considered in more detail in the Ways forward section of this guide.

Innovative approaches to assessment

There was evidence from the review that educators were aware that partnership assessment methods should reflect the complexity of the subject. The practice survey suggested that in some cases their response to this has been to develop some innovative approaches to assessment, specifically those which require students to integrate their learning in relation to knowledge, skills and practice. Examples of this integrated approach to assessment are given in the good practice examples.

Developments in the assessment of partnership also include the increasing involvement of students in self- and peer-assessment.

Proponents of self- and peer-assessments claim they focus on the students’ capacities to assess themselves, to make judgements about their learning (and that of their peers) and to evaluate what has been learnt. (25)

This can include formative assessments during groupwork, self-assessments evaluating the process of learning and student contributions to formal assessments.

See also: How can students be assessed on partnership work? Good practice examples