Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching

The nature of assessment: Reasons for teaching and learning about assessment

The question ‘why teach and learn about assessment?’ prompts two kinds of response: ‘because of ...’ and ‘in order to ...’. These categories are not sharply distinguishable but provide a convenient way of grouping the factors involved.

Because of …

As outlined in the preceding section, social workers should learn about assessment because of:

The position is summed up in the study by Salford CSWR:

Assessment is a central concern of learning and teaching within HEIs [higher education institutions], partly driven by guidance but also in recognition of the importance of this task within contemporary practice’. (Shardlow et al, 2005, p 20)

In order to …

Aside from the simple re-expression of ‘because of’ reasons (such as that competence in assessment is necessary ‘in order to be awarded the social work degree’, most ‘in order to’ reasons are to do with the idea of assessment as the foundation of social work interventions (Crisp et al, 2003, p 1). Hence, the reasons refer to the quality and characteristics of the assessment and intervention processes and to the associated skills of the assessor. Examples are as follows. Social workers should learn about assessment in order to:

Technical vs. critical

Consideration of some ‘in order to’ questions begins to show the contested nature of assessment. For example, a recurrent debate concerns whether teaching and learning about assessment are in order to produce social workers who are:

technically competent at the task or critical thinkers about the task.

Critical thinkers would possess a knowledge base that enables them to examine the assessment tools they may be asked to use and recognise underlying assumptions, for example about the nature or causes of need. A related debate concerns whether social workers should learn the use of particular assessment frameworks or wider ‘principles’ of assessment that are transferable between settings and kinds of assessment.

There is evidence from the Salford CSWR study that some social work educators feel under pressure from employers of social workers to focus teaching on technical competence in assessment. Service users and carers also have a clear interest in assessment being done in a way that is technically competent. This expectation is plain from the consultations undertaken for the development of the social work national occupational standards (NOS) (TOPSS UK Partnership, 2004).

Similarly, evidence from consultation on law teaching with ‘experts by experience’ for the SCIE Guide 13 indicates that they strongly support education for technical competence, a view that was conditioned by the experience that some social workers did not know the law (Braye and Preston-Shoot, 2006, p 3). However, both the consultations for the law guide and the NOS suggest that service users and carers do not want learning to stop at the level of technical competence. The law guide reports that experts by experience want social workers who are critical thinkers as well. Furthermore, the expectations recorded in the NOS seek social workers whose assessments are creative, review all options within and beyond those immediately available and include the ability to challenge the worker’s employing organisation (TOPSS UK Partnership, 2004, p 3).

There is support for a combination of technical and critical competence from two other sources: first, those who argue that social work should aspire to independent professional standards which include emancipatory values in relation to service users; and second, the regulators of social work education working through standards and benchmarks.

Learning that is restricted to technical competence renders the social worker more bureaucrat than professional and creates over-dependence on the perspectives of the authors of technical assessment tools. Consequently, the social worker’s ability to recognise and question a conservative or illiberal assessment tool may be restricted, with corresponding limits on his or her capacity to represent the interest of the service user. It is of note that, while the social work NOS expect social work assessment to be technically proficient, they also make it clear that assessment should be a process of participation and exploration with the service user and should be underpinned by knowledge of models, methods, causes and needs (TOPSS UK Partnership, 2004, Key role 6). In addition, the subject benchmarks statement for social work expect reflective and critical analysis of evidence, a skill that is plainly relevant to assessment (QAA, 2000, para 3.1.4).

Questions for educators 

  • Are there opportunities for students to consider the ‘because of’ and ‘in order to’ reasons for learning about assessment?
  • What is the focus of teaching, between technical competence, transferable principles and critical analytical skills, or some combination, and what is the rationale for the approach chosen?

Next: The definitions of assessment