Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching

Teaching and learning of assessment: How may teaching and learning be structured?

The questions that emerged from the commissioned studies about the structuring of teaching and learning of assessment in social work are of three overlapping kinds:

Information on the overall structure of assessment teaching

The Salford CSWR consultations with higher education institutions (HEIs) identified three aspects of structure in the teaching of assessment (Shardlow et al, 2005):

The incremental curriculum describes a pattern observed by the researchers in which, at level one of an undergraduate programme, students are introduced to a broad theoretical understanding of the range of knowledge necessary to inform assessment. Subsequently, modules on assessment are introduced, typically at levels 2 and 3 of the programme.

‘Module-specific’ teaching and learning of assessment followed two main forms:

In the second type, the specialist subject areas (often student-elective modules) included consideration of the assessment technologies and tools favoured within policy and practice.

Learning through practice reflected the incremental curriculum. Increasing levels of sophistication and analysis were required as levels progressed from 1 to 3. This was exhibited in the learning objectives and portfolio requirements at different levels.

Fig. 6  Structure of assessment teaching described in the HEI study by Salford CSWR

Fig. 6 Structure of assessment teaching described in the HEI study by Salford CSWR

The figure does not represent an evaluated structure and so stands as a descriptive example not a prescription. Furthermore, the example does not address or resolve the two other kinds of questions relevant to decisions about teaching structures, which are discussed below.

Discrete or embedded/infused?

The terms embedded and infused conjure slightly different imagery and precise definitions are elusive, but the terms tend to be interchangeable and are generally used, in relation to assessment, to refer to one of two kinds of learning opportunity. In the first kind, learning opportunities are said to be provided implicitly, for instance, during the study of the nature or causes of social problems; in the second kind, assessment is included explicitly but as an aspect, for example, of the wider study of research methods. By contrast, discrete modules would focus explicitly and primarily on assessment.

The literature review by Crisp and colleagues found that assessment teaching tended to be embedded in the curriculum and clustered with other learning objectives. It was rare to find assessment taught as a discrete module. The review identified only three examples of courses reporting a separate module on assessment and most of the group of former students in the Salford CSWR study reported no discrete teaching (Crisp et al, 2003, p 9; Shardlow et al, 2005, p 40).

However, the Salford study’s HEI consultations reported discrete and embedded teaching. The study found that ‘there were often discrete modules on assessment’, which were typically preceded by ‘basic modules on social policy, sociology and psychology’ (Shardlow et al, p 22). The basic modules were described as helping students to understand the range of knowledge that informs assessment and are reported as examples of embedding assessment within the curriculum (p 22). These findings contrast with the pattern described in law teaching: Braye and Preston-Shoot (2006) observe that the favoured approach to law in social work programmes, at least initially, is teaching by discrete modules (p 7).

In view of the great and longstanding importance attached to assessment by virtually all stakeholders, it seems surprising that Crisp and colleagues did not find clearer and more extensive evidence of discrete modules on assessment. The authors suggest that one possible reason for the apparent dominance they found of embedded or combined approaches is that assessment implicates so many areas of knowledge and skill. The findings of the Salford study implicitly support this hypothesis in reporting that, among respondents in HEIs:

There is a recognition that effective assessment is a culmination of knowledge, skills and values gained within the whole programme, and it would be difficult to state that any of the current programme content does not have relevance for undertaking an assessment. (Shardlow et al, 2005, p 21)

There are strong educational arguments, however, for discrete teaching on assessment, and for making the assessment learning component of embedded teaching explicit. In some forms of embedding it is difficult, as Crisp and colleagues say, to differentiate teaching on assessment from other parts of the curriculum. Where the relationship of teaching activity to learning on assessment is not explicit, students may believe that they have learned little on assessment (2003, p v).

Crisp and colleagues argue that if assessment is to be taught by embedding it in the curriculum, it is important to make explicit the assessment learning objectives and to articulate how they are to be achieved (p 41). This is not to suggest that all subjects must be taught with direct reference to assessment – there are many areas of learning vying legitimately for attention. It is to propose that where the teaching of assessment is planned in an embedded form, the learning implications should be visible.

Fig. 7  Categories of assessment module: discrete and embedded/infused

Fig. 7 Categories of assessment module: discrete and embedded/infused

The discussion implies that, from the perspective of assessment teaching, there are three categories of module: discrete, visibly embedded/infused and obscurely embedded/infused. These categories are summarised in Fig. 7. It appears that discrete and visibly embedded/infused may be complementary categories rather than alternatives.

Academic teaching of assessment in relation to practice placements

The Salford CSWR study concluded that the cohort of former social work students ‘generally … felt unprepared by their courses to engage with assessment in their placements’ (Shardlow et al, 2005, p 41). While some respondents reported good experiences, others said that they had received little or no preparation. There were suggestions that some students were expected to learn solely by doing the assessments in practice. Research reviewed by Crisp and colleagues found that a quarter of social work graduates considered that their preparation to conduct assessments was poor or less than adequate (Crisp et al, 2003, p 36). The reviewers suggest that this may partly reflect the clustering or embedding of assessment with other learning, as discussed above, instead of in distinct modules (pp 36–7). The clear implication is that some planned and explicit teaching on assessment is needed prior to placements. A model is available in law teaching.

Braye and Preston-Shoot (2006) report a common view in the teaching of law in social work that legal frameworks should be encountered by students prior to engaging in practice learning on placement. The authors report, as well, the view that understanding will be enhanced if legal frameworks are also taught, or revisited, after a period of practice (p 7). Applied to assessment teaching, this model might take the form, first, of a discrete assessment element in preparation for the practice placement (see Kearney, 2003pp 14–15). Subsequently, learning about assessment should again be explicit but might either be in discrete, dedicated modules or visibly embedded in a wider frame of teaching, or both. The example of this model is illustrated in Fig. 8 below. The modules will vary in their introductory or more advanced content depending on the stage of learning and placement.

Fig. 8  Example of academic teaching of assessment in relation to practice placement

Figure 8

Questions for educators

  • What is the structure of discrete and embedded/infused academic learning opportunities on assessment and its rationale?
  • Are embedded/infused learning opportunities clearly ‘visible’?
  • Does the teaching and learning structure allow systematically for preparation of students for assessment before they enter practice placements?

Messages for educators

Whatever structure, sequence and pattern of modules is chosen for teaching assessment, the clear messages from the research by Crisp and colleagues and the Salford CSWR study are that:

  • programme providers should be able to articulate how the structure enables learning objectives in relation to assessment skills to be achieved (Crisp 2003, p 41).
    • all stakeholder groups should be able to:
    • understand the assessment learning objectives of the programme
    • identify when the teaching and learning opportunities have occurred (Shardlow et al, 2005, p 52).

Next: How may assessment be taught?