Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching

Teaching and learning of assessment: Whose contributions are needed in assessment teaching?

Assessment is multi-dimensional, both conceptually and in its practical application. It gains these multiple dimensions in part from the different stakeholders and other parties who have both an interest in the way that assessment is defined and carried out and a contribution to make in delivering or supporting learning opportunities. The review by Crisp and colleagues and the study by Salford CSWR convinced the researchers that partnership with the various interests is essential in building the necessary assessment learning opportunities (Crisp et al, 2003, p 41; Shardlow et al, 2005, p 53). In addition to the social work teachers and students, the main stakeholders and contributors are:

Service users and carers

It is a requirement of social work degree programmes that service users and carers are involved in all parts of the degree (see discussion and guidance in Levin, 2004). This requirement was initiated in 2002 and came too late to have an impact on most of the literature reviewed by Crisp and colleagues (2003). The reviewers found that, with very few exceptions, the views of service users did not appear in the literature on teaching of assessment (pp 37–8). This finding contrasted with their perception that models of assessment taught on many social work programmes place great store in partnership with service users and in removing the hierarchy of active social worker and passive client (p 38).

Similar contrasts are found in the Salford CSWR study. The majority of former students in the illustrative study could not recall any course strategy to include service users in their assessment learning (Shardlow et al, 2005, p 42). In addition, the HEI study found that service user involvement remains inconsistent. The report notes concerns by respondents about ‘the responsibility placed on service users to undertake tasks for which they may not be adequately equipped or supported’ (p 30). There were related worries about costs and funding restrictions. One HEI respondent reported:

Having service users and agency staff attend as leaders of/contributors to classes involves guest lecturer fees. It is also time consuming for staff organising the module. (p 30)

However, the level of commitment to involvement of users and carers found in the HEI study was strong:

Social work programme providers had a clear commitment to the involvement of service users and carers in their programmes generally. All had incorporated this as either a formally specified requirement of their courses or made strong recommendations that it should be so. Service user and carer perspectives were viewed as an essential part of the learning and teaching, although this did not necessarily have to be delivered by service users and carers themselves. (p 29)

An HEI respondent said: ‘I do not feel there is one effective way, the approach needs to feature as a core part of all of the course’ (p 29).

The report continued:

Programme providers all expressed a desire to increase the involvement of service users in the teaching of assessment. There was one example of a module solely designed and delivered by service users which included issues around assessment within that group context. (p 29)

Examples of service user involvement from the HEI study were not all related directly to assessment but were transferable:

There was a high level of reported service user involvement within modules, with clear indications that where a culture of involvement had developed there was a higher participation rate. Sampling of student work by service users was indicated by one programme as a quality assurance process. Participation of service users as consultants on programme development was also highlighted in several cases, although not specifically around assessment as a discrete task. One programme had developed an initiative where service users were involved in assessing an interview with students, who had to demonstrate their understanding of user involvement. (p 29)

The Salford CSWR study found that the chief area of service user and carer involvement in the teaching of assessment was in relation to teaching within the HEI as distinct from teaching in practice agencies (p 37). A similar pattern was found from the consultation with service users and carers who reported involvement with HEIs in class settings rather than with agencies and practice settings.

All the service user and carer groups consulted emphasised the importance of involvement in the teaching and learning. They viewed their participation in the teaching of assessment as essential because, ‘without an understanding of perspectives grounded in the experience of service users and carers, learning about good practice was not feasible’ (p 33). The study reports that:

Two groups had extensive involvement (CATS and YIPPEE) both in working at a strategic level with educators (for example: participating in curriculum development) and in delivering educational sessions for students on professional social work courses. The service users and carers groups were most involved in the delivery of some components of the educational experience. Knowledge of the learning objectives which were part of professional social work education programmes was limited. (p 33)

Involvement could go further. The ‘experts by experience’ cited in the law guide for SCIE by Braye and Preston-Shoot (2006) gave examples of the value of their participation in a number of different aspects of degree programmes, all of which are relevant to assessment knowledge and skills (pp 48–9):

Commitment among HEIs to extend service user and carer involvement is reported in the Salford CSWR study and in other recent work (Braye and Preston-Shoot, 2006). The Salford study points out that development of service user and carer involvement in assessment teaching and other areas have costs and states that ‘adequate resources need to be provided on a long-term basis to enable the development’ (Shardlow et al, 2005, p 53).

Question for educators

  • Has the requirement of service user and carer involvement in social work education been translated into assessment learning opportunities that are effective for students and sustainable for service users? If not, are reasons identified and solutions defined?

Message for educators

  • Development appears especially to be needed in the involvement of service users and carers in students’ agency-based assessment learning.

Agencies and staff involved in practice learning

Practice teachers and assessors and their agencies are clearly indispensable to the development of assessment knowledge and skills. The purpose of the partnership recommended between social work programmes and agencies by Crisp and colleagues and the Salford CSWR study is two-fold: first, to secure the involvement of agency staff in student learning and examination of competence; and second, to enhance understanding among practice learning contributors of learning objectives and theoretical approaches to assessment. The report of the Salford CSWR study gives a particular example of this second objective in describing the goal of gaining the commitment of practice teachers and assessors to the critical perspectives on assessment expected in degree programmes. The researchers heard in the HEI study that:

Partnership with agencies is also seen as a way of aligning agency-based learning with course objectives in relation to service user and carer involvement in student learning and other values pursued in the social work degree. Anecdotal evidence suggests that providing course materials online, and enabling students and practice teachers and assessors to access the materials both separately and together, can enhance a common approach.

The findings of the Salford CSWR HEI study and illustrative study of agencies prompt the following questions for educators.

Questions for educators

  • Are agency staff and particularly practice teachers and assessors appropriately briefed on class-based objectives, teaching methods and assessment methods on social work assessment skills?
  • Are the expectations of the social work degree course regarding practice learning objectives and opportunities clear and agreed by all parties?
  • Are there ways to ensure that learning opportunities extend beyond familiarisation with agency standard assessment forms?

Other professions and agencies, and academic disciplines

Social work practice has become widely recognised as an interprofessional activity. This means that, in order to achieve social work goals as shaped by users’ needs and agency objectives, social workers have to get work done in collaboration with other professions and occupations. In some cases collaboration in assessment is a policy requirement or a function of predetermined roles and procedures. In others, it is simply good practice.

The recognition of interprofessional practice has been accompanied by growth of interprofessional education and support for the method of choice: that is, learning ‘with, from and about’ other professions (Barr et al, 2005, p xxiii). Crisp and colleagues located examples of interdisciplinary training on assessment in their literature review but the only published examples involved qualified social workers (2003, p 3). An England-wide study of social work programmes commissioned by the Department of Health, found many initiatives in joint learning for collaborative practice (although data was not collected specifically on assessment learning) (Whittington, 2003c). The pattern of examples seemed, most typically, to consist of periods of shared learning between students of separate professional programmes. There remain relatively few integrated professional joint-award programmes, while initiatives in which students from different professions learn together throughout their courses also remain in the minority (Taylor et al, 2006).

The pattern described above explains the importance placed by social work educators on investing in educational partnership with other professions, faculties and students inside and outside the university (Whittington, 2003a and 2003c). Interprofessional educational structures have to be built, and maintained, on existing professional structures. In short, cooperation has to be constructed and, without cooperation, it is difficult to develop and sustain opportunities for interprofessional teaching and learning, including learning on assessment.

Social work is an inter-organisational activity as well as an interprofessional one and this implicates assessment, as discussed in Section 19. Almost all respondents in the study of social work programmes cited above recognised the distinction between interprofessional and inter-agency dimensions of collaboration and provided data on the factors that assisted and hindered learning for each (Whittington, 2003c). The good news from the research is that many of the factors that benefit the development of learning opportunities for interprofessional collaboration also benefit opportunities for inter-agency learning. The factors included, particularly, placements in a variety of settings and especially in multi-disciplinary teams and agencies; having staff and visiting teachers who are committed to collaborative practice; and learning that takes place in course and agency environments with good cross-agency links and permeated by collaborative ideas and values.

Finally, cooperation is also needed with contributory teachers who, depending on the structure of the faculty and teaching arrangements, may include, for example, teachers in law, sociology, psychology, social policy and ethics. Each discipline has a potential contribution to make to teaching and learning about assessment and exposes students to different perspectives on the subject.

Questions for educators

  • What opportunities are there for learning with, from and about other professions in relation to assessment?
  • Are there learning opportunities in which students can work across agencies and understand the inter-agency and multi-agency dimensions of assessment?
  • Are there assessment teaching arrangements that expose social work students to the perspectives of teachers from other professions and disciplines?

Next: Conclusion