Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching

The nature of assessment: The definitions of assessment

Assessment is widely agreed to be of great importance, but that is where agreement ends and contestation over what it is begins. For the purpose of their literature review, Crisp and colleagues stated that assessment ‘involves collecting and analysing information about people with the aim of understanding their situation and determining recommendations for any further professional intervention’ (2003, p 3). Two years later, however, their review of textbooks concluded that there is no single definition and the review of assessment frameworks found the same (Crisp et al, 2005). This conclusion can be confirmed by reference to the summaries of reviewed textbooks and frameworks provided by Crisp and colleagues in their appendices.

The reviewed definitions are not repeated here. Instead, the definitions have been analysed to identify distinctive characteristics and to assess whether those characteristics are shared among authors. The result of the analysis is a set of approximate groupings or ‘ideal types’ of definitions. The types do not characterise perfectly the sources on which they are based but they do indicate sets of tendencies and perspectives that help in reflecting upon approaches to assessment. The analysis suggests four types of definitions found in the textbooks and frameworks reviewed by Crisp and colleagues:

This simple, four-part typology conceals variation, especially among process-focused definitions which predominate in the works reviewed by Crisp and colleagues (2005). Furthermore, while some reviewed approaches to assessment fall very clearly into one or another of the types, other approaches overlap the types. Overlap is most likely to be found between process-focused and contingent types. Contestation and critical constructionism represent different theoretical paradigms from the others and are less likely to combine elements with them, although they do overlap with one another insofar as they share a critical perspective on contemporary policy or practice.


The process-focused group of definitions concentrates on assessment as an essential, practical function that must be carried out with professional sensitivity and competence. Of all the approaches, process-focused definitions are the nearest to an implicitly technical, even ‘scientific’, view of the assessment task as a set of methods to be learned and professionally applied. The concept of assessment itself is not thought to raise fundamental questions. Attention is directed to providing clear guidance on what to do, what questions to ask and procedures to follow, in making an assessment. Examples combine, in some form, the activities of information-gathering from service users and carers and other sources, exploring facts and feelings, analysis, understanding the situation, making judgements and determining action or recommendations. These activities may be found in the other types, including the critical social constructionist type, but there the very idea of assessment is treated as problematic and activities such as analysis and understanding the situation are used to question the process itself.

Process-focused approaches vary on a number of dimensions. They are:

The approaches also vary by their conception of assessment as:


The contingent type has some similarities with the process approach but is contingent in the sense that the nature and direction of assessment is taken to differ according to particular independent factors. It is implied either that the approach to assessment is determined by a given independent factor, or variable, or that a given approach to assessment is particularly suited to that variable. Variables that are influential on assessment include:


The contestation-focused type differs from process-oriented approaches in not viewing assessment procedurally, but shares with contingent approaches the recognition that other variables condition assessment. However, the focus is on the conflict or contestation between variables. Hence, the approach defines assessment as an area of contestation between different policies, perspectives and priorities represented, for instance, by:

Critical social constructionist

The critical social constructionist type proceeds from the view that the act of assessment involves the construction of meanings as distinct from the determination of objective facts and causes of problems. The understandings that constitute assessment are socially constructed by those involved, reflect their contexts and may be contradictory. The assessment made by the social worker represents his or her construction of a narrative or story about the situation in question and may, accordingly, reflect the perspective of the social worker more than of the client. In the process, particular people become defined as service users or carers and ‘clienthood’ is constructed (Hall et al, 2003).

The critical aspects of the approach are found in the challenge to traditional, process-focused definitions of assessment and in the analysis of unequal power both in the assessment relationship and in the ideas and policies that influence those involved. Together with this critique, the approach envisages ways of thinking about and doing assessment that reflect on the narrative construction process and shape it in the interests of service users and carers. The critical social constructionist type shares aspects of its approach with the ‘exchange model’ of assessment, which recognises that people are experts in their own problems and should be engaged by the social worker in a collaborative exchange to define and tackle issues (Smale et al, 1993 and 2000).

The contestation and critical social constructionist approaches treat the idea of assessment as problematic. They provide critical perspectives on:

Neglect of social and political contexts may stem from the professional’s preoccupation with the skilled conduct of the assessment process. Yet a process dimension is inescapable for social workers and their educators. In some form, a repertoire of technically and professionally proficient steps of the kind described in some textbooks and guides (Nicholls, 2006), is indispensable if assessments practice is to take place. But it is also important for the social worker to be able to submit the process to critical review and revision. To be able to do so, social work students need to encounter all of the types in their learning. The case for this strategy echoes the earlier debate between technical and critical competence.

The Salford CSWR study observes that the lack of consensus about what constitutes assessment and its contested nature raise fundamental questions for educators and students in deciding what should be taught and the methods to be used (Shardlow et al, 2005, p 47). There are no absolutes in responding to these questions but later discussion will set out and discuss the kinds of choices unearthed by the SCIE-commissioned assessment studies.

Questions for educators

  • Does teaching rely on one or more of the following four ‘types’ of definition: process-focused, contingent, contestation-focused, critical social constructionist?
  • What are your criteria for choosing the type(s) that are taught and examined?
  • What are the implications of your choices, for student learning and for students’ understanding and conduct of assessment?

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