Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching

Teaching and learning of assessment: How may assessment be taught?

This section refers to the factors that affect the choice of teaching methods in assessment, or that should do so. The section also outlines the different methods, grouping them into categories. The categories are approximate since there is in reality much overlap.

Factors affecting teaching and learning methods

When it comes to recommending method in the teaching of assessment, a rare consensus seems to break out. In what seems like a nascent orthodoxy, the studies of assessment by Crisp and colleagues and Salford CSWR are unambiguous: learning opportunities for assessment should be ‘active’ and provide opportunities to apply theoretical learning (Crisp et al, 2003; Shardlow et al, 2005). A similar and equally strong recommendation is given in the guide on law teaching (Braye and Preston-Shoot, 2006).

When attention turns to recommending particular methods on the basis of evidence, however, the picture is less clear. Crisp and colleagues report that evaluation of teaching is rare in the assessment literature and is mostly confined to levels of satisfaction among students and teachers. The reviewers conclude that lack of evaluation data makes it difficult to recommend any particular approach.

However, there are many examples of methods available for educators to consider (pending more research on effectiveness), and the examples range from the favoured active methods to those where the learner is more passive. For example, the Salford study heard from the group of former students about formal lectures, discussion groups, case study presentations, observation, role play, computer-based learning and practice placements (2005, p 43). Among class-based methods, the formal lecture was the type recalled by most of those respondents. Crisp and colleagues and Salford CSWR both cite literature that cautions against reliance on instructional methods like lectures in teaching assessment (Crisp et al, 2003 p 19; Shardlow et al, 2005, p 43).

The level of resources available will tend to shape the methods chosen in teaching assessment (Shardlow et al, 2005, pp 21 and 30). Staff-intensive methods or those requiring expensive equipment may not be feasible in some UK social work programmes (Crisp et al, 2003). The effectiveness of particular methods may also be shaped by the age of students, according to the Salford study (p 30). The report suggests that it may be necessary to devise methods that allow for the younger age profile of students compared with social work students formerly, to take account of different levels and kinds of experience.

The quality and effectiveness of learning is also argued to be influenced by the type of contributors to the process. Contributions by staff of different academic disciplines, agency staff, service users and carers and other professions will add to the scope for creativity in learning design. A policy of working in partnership with these different groups is recommended for greater access to the range of perspectives on assessment that its complexity requires (Crisp et al, 2003, pp 40–1).

There is a clear view in the SCIE-commissioned assessment studies that learning through practice is indispensable and that methods should be sought to provide this (Crisp et al, 2003). Methods include both classroom-based or classroom-initiated learning and agency-based learning. Special value is placed on teaching that connects the two, with the classroom teaching providing preparation for agency-based learning (Shardlow et al, 2005). The Salford study of HEIs found that placement documents on learning objectives and portfolio requirements showed a clear expectation of assessment as a core and developing skill.

From less active to more active learning: examples of methods

Textbooks, lectures and frameworks

Completely passive learning is a contradiction in terms since some engagement is needed by the learner. Nevertheless, reading textbooks and listening to lectures are at the passive end of the spectrum. Crisp and colleagues espouse active learning methods and, accordingly, examined textbooks for examples that would enliven the text. The reviewers show, in the appendices, those texts that include ‘learning activities’ such as questions for the reader to answer, and case studies. Most of the reviewed texts use case studies to illustrate assessment (2005). The reviewers also found that about two-thirds of books recommend further reading.

None of the frameworks includes learning exercises. However, two do use case examples to show how they might be implemented or, in the case of the care of drug users framework, to show the process from the client’s perspective and to indicate good practice. The frameworks for assessment of children and families and care of drug users include numerous recommendations for further reading. Crisp and colleagues argue that if frameworks are to be used in social work education, this should be done in the context of professional supervision. The reviewers add that the aim should be to induce a critically informed approach to assessment, avoiding the idea that competent practice comes from following printed guidance.

Other kinds of written learning method were identified by the Salford CSWR study. An example is the ‘educational card’ developed by the Bolton Dementia Carers’ Support Group. The card is designed to inform anyone making an assessment, and especially new or inexperienced practitioners, about dementia and the particular requirements of the card carrier (Shardlow et al, 2005, p 95).

Caution has already been reported about the suitability of didactic methods like lectures for teaching assessment. It seems that lectures may have the distinction of being the most common but least recommended method (Crisp et al, 2003, p 19). Lectures may be resource-efficient but used alone lack the active learning component believed to be essential in assessment learning. Nevertheless, Crisp and colleagues concede that structured teaching about assessment in lecture-like format has a place in an overall strategy that uses other, more active involvement of students.


Engagement of students in more active learning may be facilitated by the use of ‘learning self-audit’. The method is discussed by Braye and Preston-Shoot in the law guide (2006, p 25). Self-audit can provide the student, tutor and practice teacher or assessor with a baseline against which learning objectives can be set and progress reviewed. The audit can be coupled with a learning styles review in which preferred and characteristic styles of learning are identified and scope for trying other styles considered (Honey and Mumford, 1992). Logs can be used to monitor and review progress of learning and the learning methods and styles adopted (Kearney, 2003).

Concept-focused analysis

Earlier discussion of the range of concepts in play in the field of assessment referred to the importance of assisting students to approach the subject in a critical way. Analytical frameworks and structured exercises can provide useful tools in developing critical capacity. The Salford CSWR study identified an example of a learning exercise in which students test their knowledge of different models of assessment and explore their responses alongside a sample analysis (pp 60–1). The exercise is taken from the work of Smale and colleagues (1993 and 2000) who identify three models of assessment:

Smale and colleagues characterise the key assumptions and perspectives typical of each model. For example, they identify:

The questioning and procedural models are characteristic of ‘process-focused’ definitions of assessment described in Section 9 (see page 19). The two models are similar in assuming that expertise in determining the nature and solution of problems is held not by the service user but primarily by others, namely the social worker (questioning model) or managers and policy-makers (procedural model). The exchange model recognises social worker expertise but assumes that people are ‘experts in themselves’ (Smale et al, 2000, p 140). This assumption conditions the definition of goals and the communications between social workers and service users and carers, which take the form of an exchange in which power in assessment is shared. There are similarities between the inclusiveness and user-validation of the exchange model and aspects of the ‘critical social constructionist’ approach described in Section 9 and the ‘collaborative’ model of assessment outlined in Section 23.

The teaching exercise cited by Salford CSWR invites students to consider and describe the characteristics of each of the three models proposed by Smale and colleagues and to enter them on to a grid. The sample analysis is then available to students to compare and debate their responses.

Video and IT-based learning

Video and IT (information technology) are used in a range of methods and are more accurately described as technologies than teaching methods. However, their importance in learning justifies discussion under a separate heading.

Crisp and colleagues and the Salford CSWR study describe use of video in learning assessment skills. Students may use video for consideration of pre-recorded case material, recording and playback of interviews and in ‘skills labs’ to practise active listening, interviewing and assessment roles. Video used in some of these ways provides classroom-based practice learning (also discussed below). Former students with experience of video and role play reported favourably on its value in preparing to undertake assessment (Shardlow et al, 2005).

Learning that employs information technology (IT-based learning or e-learning) has multiple forms, which include ways of accessing formal knowledge and learning resources, and providing involvement with learning networks (Rafferty, 2003). Examples are given by Crisp and colleagues of computer-aided instruction and networked systems for joint student development of assessment tools (2003, p 20). The Salford study describes risk assessment teaching in which students could visit general and specific websites on risk () as well as a site on heuristics (here meaning mental shortcuts) in decision-making (p 82).

The heuristics exercise demonstrates the use of learning opportunities from outside social care (in this case from aviation, a key context for risk and decision-making).

Examples may be found at the following sites:

Crisp and colleagues note that e-learning depends in varying degrees on the computer proficiency of the learners and the time taken to learn the software.

Case-based and problem-based learning

Case-based and problem-based learning methods are found in examples given by Crisp and colleagues, Salford CSWR, Kearney (2003) and Burgess (nd), and are summarised in Fig. 9. The methods link directly with the next category, on classroom-based practice learning. The methods sometimes use video- and IT-based learning (University of Edinburgh, 2006).

Fig. 9 Case-based and problem-based learning

Method Elaboration
case studies favoured for enabling the teaching of skills in relation to particular client groups while ‘assisting development of knowledge in several content areas’ (Crisp et al, 2003, p 13)
client review presentations involve presentation of assessments to fellow students, teaching staff and service users, followed by discussion and feedback (Crisp et al, 2003, p 14)
analysis of case-relevant material in films, theatre and novels Crisp et al, 2003, pp 14–15
observation, coupled with reporting and reflection for example, observation of children, court business or case conferences to increase awareness of behaviour, feeling content and process (Crisp et al, 2003, pp 15–16; Kearney, 2003)
‘standardised clients’ in which actors perform to a standard script giving all students the opportunity to experience the same situation (Crisp et al, 2003, pp 16-18)
interactive workbooks consisting of questions and answers on assessment (Kearney, 2003)
learning from service users and carers for example, interviewing users on their experience of assessment (Kearney, 2003) and by practising assessment skills in simulated assessments designed by users (‘Citizens as trainers’ in Shardlow et al, 2005, p 95)
problem-based learning (PBL) and enquiry and action learning (EAL) methods which engage students as active learners working cooperatively, promote learning through dialogue and reflection and seek to enhance motivation by using applied scenarios and problems (Burgess, nd).

Practice learning that is based or initiated in the classroom

These methods bring together and expand methods described in previous categories and include practice in skills labs and video role play. Learning may be entirely by simulation or link into agency-based practice, for instance through classroom-based application of assessment methods to cases, possibly supervised by the tutor. Problem-based learning (PBL) and enquiry and action learning (EAL) belong in this category as well as in the previous one when, for example, the scenarios and learning objectives they use extend beyond the identification of skills needed, to simulated practice of those skills.

Many of the methods described focus on assessment involving individuals and families. However, the Salford CSWR study refers to the teaching of community profiling, which may be used as a prelude to a community project. A widely cited text in community profiling is the practical guide Community profiling: auditing social needs (Hawtin et al, 1994). Additional sources include a basic online guide, which suggests steps that can be taken ‘to gather information about a particular neighbourhood in Britain or Northern Ireland’, and a paper on the development of a module for social work students on poverty, deprivation and discrimination (Ferry and Watson, 2001). The paper places experiential community profiling at the centre of the approach, using it to bridge the gap between theory and anti-oppressive practice.

The Salford study also identified a module designed for students of health and social care to work jointly in a series of assessment-focused interprofessional workshops (Shardlow et al, 2005, pp 69–76). The workshops use case-based scenarios, supported by video and IT lab work, and their learning outcomes include the following:

Agency-based practice learning

Sources widely agree that agency-based practice learning offers potentially rich and valuable opportunities for applying and developing knowledge and skills in assessment. Examples of learning opportunities include (Crisp et al, 2003, p 22):

Community profiling is also applicable to placement-based learning and extends the scope of assessment beyond an individualised focus (Shardlow et al, 2005, p 23).

Supervision is regarded as a key context for learning, providing a forum for articulating and challenging the assumptions of students and agencies and for active reflection on student practice (Crisp et al, 2003, p 22). Former students in the Salford CSWR illustrative study reported the critical role of skilled supervision in facilitating learning of assessment skills. However, agency-based practice learning and supervision, for all their potential merits, are not a panacea in the teaching of assessment. Crisp and colleagues point out the vast array of matters that have to be covered in supervision and the variation of teaching priorities among practice teachers. It is therefore risky to take for granted that supervision will represent a substantial and effective source of assessment learning (Crisp et al, 2003, p 22) but training and briefing of practice-based teachers will help.

Messages for educators

  • The best prospect for assessment learning seems to be a combination of approaches in which reading – and lectures, where used – are enlivened by a variety of active learning opportunities allowing for different learning styles.
  • Agency-based practice learning facilitated by supervision is highly favoured but needs support and preparation via class-based learning and guided reading for students, and briefing for practice-based teachers.

Next: What should be the relationship between what is taught and assessment practice in care agencies?