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Approaches to Learning & Assessment in Practice

In: Social Issues

Submitted By mcgorie
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This paper will critically explore a dilemma which has been encountered in my role as a practice educator. Approaches to learning, teaching and assessment will be identified and critically evaluated with factors which can impact on the students learning being addressed. Part of this paper will relate to personal refection; this element will be written in the first person. The terminology relating to practice teaching has changed over recent years; for the sake of this paper the most recent term of practice educator will be used.

The practice learning placement is set in a statutory setting in one of the city’s main hospitals; the student’s role is to work as a member of the hospital social work team. The hospital works within a multidisciplinary team approach which involves all disciplines with the aim of the professional team being to promote the service user’s independence and ensure a safe and timely discharge from hospital (Crawford & Walker, 2005). The dilemma I intend to focus on in this case is that of poor productivity and incompletion of set tasks. It is an expectation expressed by a number of sources such as within the White Paper ‘Working Together; Education & Training’ (DH,1996) as well as policies and procedures where the placement is situated, that students’ will complete set tasks ‘effectively’ and ‘efficiently’ which at this stage of the placement was not being achieved (DH, 1996). The dilemma was causing a number of issues and was having a ‘knock on effect’ to not only the service users’ but also to the rest of the social work team (Durkin & Shergill, 2000); issues relating to how the dilemma was addressed will be discussed throughout the body of the text.

The act of ‘adult learning’ according to Jarvis & Gibson (1997, pg 57) is defined as ‘the transformation of experience into knowledge, skills, attitudes, emotions, values, beliefs, senses…’. It has been suggested that for an individual to become an effective practice educator they must have a good understanding of how adults learn, how they absorb and process information and what methods are effective for their learning experience (Cree & Macauley, 2000; Race, 2000). Race (2000) feels that successful learning can be broken down into four main components; ‘motivation’ which inspires the student to learn the set tasks, ‘feelings’ which involves giving positive feedback to encourage the commitment, ‘doing’ by being given confidence to practice and learn by their mistakes and ‘understanding’ by being supplied with suitable material and allowed time to grasp their newly acquired skill. One method of identifying how the student learns is thought to be the use of learning styles questionnaires; an example of this approach can be seen by the work of Honey & Mumford in 1986. Cartney (2000) completed a small scale study in 2000 with practice educators and their students by using the Honey & Mumford’s (1986) learning styles questionnaire; the aim of his study was to consider how adult learning styles can have implications for practice teaching in social work. In his conclusion Cartney put forward that it is ‘essential’ for the practice educator to have a perception of how their student learns by identifying their own as well as the student’s learning style. It could be argued the recommendations of Cartney (2000) were considered in this case as both the student and the practice educator also completed the Honey & Mumford’s tool in an effort to identify both parties learning styles.

There are various schools of learning theories; it is recommended by some that whilst interacting with students practice educators should not be fixed on one particular approach, but should use various approaches to teach (Beverley & Worsley, 2007). One such theory which is considered to be a favourable approach to be used with students is a humanistic approach; the objective of this, according to Beverley & Worsley (2007) is to support the student to set learning goals. A humanistic approach is centred on the student taking responsibility for their own learning and self evaluation of their own work and practice. A most influential academic who writes about ‘experimental learning’ is Kolb (1984) who states that for adults to learn they need to go through a ‘learning cycle’; Kolb proposes there are four main factors relating to learning ‘reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation, active experimentation and concrete experience’. Beverley & Worsley (2007) considered the use of Kolb’s learning cycle; they suggest that students may become ‘stuck’ within the practice of the cycle, which may affect their ability to take in and process the information effectively (Beverley & Worsley, 2007).

It has been proposed there are other factors to learning; Entwhistle (1996) advises one such factor is that of ‘surface’ and ‘deep’ learning. Entwhistle suggests that a student is only learning by a ‘surface’ approach when what is being learned is simply mimicked by the student. This approach, it could be proposed may be linked to the identified dilemma in this case as it was identified the student was using a ‘ticky box’ method of working with the service users’ and not looking at each case by its own merit. However, if deep learning in comparison had been used this is felt to be a more favourable approach to learning; as Entwhistle (1996) points out, students’ endeavour to having a ‘deeper’ understanding of what they are being asked to do. The student who is using a deep learning approach will consider their work more in depth by using reflection and considering what methods and theories will be linked to their practice (Entwhistle, 1996).

According to some, in order for the student to learn they need to be ‘taught’ what is required (Jarvis & Gibson, 1997). It is proposed that ‘all those who are involved in teaching should understand their roles and responsibilities and have the knowledge, understanding and skills needed to discharge this competently’ (DfEE, 1998, pg 46).
It is thought that for a practice placement to be effective it is the responsibility of the practice educator to teach by using a ‘variety’ of teaching methods (Jarvis & Gibson, 1997); it could be argued that this proposal was considered in this case as a range of strategies were used to support the student.

One method of teaching support which was used, and is considered to be helpful to students’ is the use of reflection; it is advised students should be encouraged to reflect on their practice by using such methods as ‘critical incident analysis’. Beverley & Worsley (2007) have used the work of Fook (2002) to create a critical incident analysis tool; the use of this tool is considered to be a helpful device for both the student and the practice educator. The tool was used in this instance with the student; it was in fact found to be a helpful instrument for both parties to address the main issue, recognise what was the cause of the problem and to identify a resolution (Beverley & Worsley, 2007). An additional proposition which had been put to the student was that she may consider using a reflective diary throughout her placement. When this subject was first broached it had been declined as a non necessity, however, after further consideration the student found it a helpful device to identify what areas had gone well in addition to identifying areas for improvement (Rowntree, 1987; Miller et al, 1998).
As the practice educator I reflected on my involvement in the placement relationship; I identified I was expecting the student to be able to complete tasks which were too complicated in the first instance. To make it easier for the student any set responsibilities put in place were broken down into small manageable amounts so that they could envisaged as achievable; a SMART approach ‘specific, measurable, achievable, reliable, timely’ was used (Beverley & Worsley, 2007). Consideration was also required on the practice educator’s behalf in regard to such things as putting the programme of learning together for the student. Had this been done at an appropriate level and pace? Had the set tasks been too complicated for the student to grasp first hand? (Evans, 1999). Initially I felt incompetent to complete the task as I was also learning alongside the student; although I was confident in my ability as a social work practitioner, it was completely different having to consider supervision and putting an effective process in place to facilitate the student in their learning (Evans, 1999).

One of the main factors for a student whilst in the practice placement is having their professional capabilities assessed; the subject of assessing students has been considered by a number of writers (Evans, 1990; Rowntree, 1987). The objective of assessment is evident from a number of sources both legally and academically according to Evans (1990); he suggests it has ‘two main functions’ in social work education; to aid learning and to select students’ suitable standards for professional entry’. The Department of Health have issued guidelines relating to assessment of students prior to commencing in practice placements and state ‘all students should undergo assessment preparation for direct practice to ensure their safety to undertake practice learning in a service delivery setting (DH, 2002, pg. 4). Continuous assessments of student capabilities are completed by both summative and formative methods; the use of both methods is thought to be beneficial as it identifies a more holistic understanding of the student’s professional ability (Brown & Knight, 1994).

Although it is very perceptible as to why the student’s professional ability must be fully considered, it can cause difficulties in the practice placement; Evans (1999) suggest the student may feel ‘overwhelmed’ by having their working practice assessed and scrutinised on a daily basis. It has been argued that certain factors can impact on the student’s capacity to learn; examples of such factors according to Evans (1990) could be personal barriers which may be related to caring responsibilities or past experiences from when they attended school / higher education may well, he feels, hinder their ability to take in what is being shown to them. Atherton (1999) also considered how some individuals can have a resistance to learning especially so if they have had a prior similar practice placement. Atherton points out how some students may see the work being given to them as ‘substituting’ the knowledge that they already feel they know. Thus, it is suggested, can make the student feel ‘threatened’; the result of this may lead to the student not being able to ‘get their head around it’ (Atherton, 1999). It could be proposed the findings of Atherton (1999) are relevant in this case as the student had been in a similar placement prior to her current practice setting; she had had previous experience in her second year and had passed her placement without any concerns being raised.

A further strategy used to support student learning is thought to be that of constructive feedback; the use of feedback has been identified by a number of writers as being a positive aid to learning (Nichol & Mcfarlane, 2006; Beverley & Worsley, 2007). Nichol & McFarlane for example suggest that any feedback between the practice educator and student should be ‘effective, positive and timely’. The use of feedback was used in this case; both positive and negative feedbacks were discussed from the student’s point of view and in turn the practice facilitator’s point of view. The objective of this approach is thought to be supportive for both parties to identify what is needed to address any identified dilemmas as swiftly and efficiently as possible. It is suggested bringing mistakes ‘out into the open’ allow the student to consider and address any issues; if feedback was not given mistakes may continue to escalate as the student may feel they are ‘doing it the correct way’ (Beverley & Worsley, 2007).

In order to gather opinions from all stakeholders involved in the practice placement, feedback was also obtained from other parties including service users’, other social workers as well as from other disciplines within the multidisciplinary team (Durkin & Shergill, 2000). The intention of this approach was to facilitate the student to have a more holistic understanding of what was required as a professional social work practitioner. Second opinions helped towards the assessment process of the student; nevertheless I was aware this may further impact on any anxieties she may have felt about being assessed by a number of people in the setting. Formal participation of a manager in the assessment process was also found to be helpful as all assessments have to be passed through to management to be signed off. Knowing this process is in place effectively gives the practice educator a second opinion as to the student’s ability to complete their working practice efficiently (Durkin & Shergill, 2010). Gathering feedback from other stakeholders proved to be an effective strategy to use; the student gained mostly positive in addition to some negative feedback, which was used in a constructive manner to again reflect on her professional capabilities (Durkin & Shergill, 2000).

As referred to earlier a dilemma had been identified in the practice setting; that of poor productivity and incompletion of set tasks. As this was affecting the placement it needed to be addressed sooner rather than later; the lack of productivity was not only an issue to the work load, but was a necessity for the student to complete the set National Occupational Standards. A number of writers have considered student practice and when cause for concern is raised (Danbury & Sharp, 1999; Cowburn et al, 2000); ‘concerns’ according to Danbury & Sharp (1999) should be made clear to the student as simple and timely as possible to ensure they fully understand the problem being raised; they suggest it is imperative that the practice educator gains knowledge of how the student perceives the situation.

Danbury & Sharp (1999) advise to address any identified concerns in practice placements effective strategies need to be considered such as the use of an ‘action plan’. This suggestion would seem appropriate in this case; additional shadowing opportunities were put in place, further training was arranged for the electronic recording system in addition to role play being used as a learning method which allowed the student to take the place of the service user as well as the social worker. A third party was involved in this process, which offered support to both the practice educator as well as the student (Durkin & Shergill, 2010).
Regular formal supervision was already in place, however, it was felt by both parties it would be helpful if this was addressed again to also include informal supervision as / when required. Entwhistle (1998) proposes that using both ‘formal and informal methods’ can support the student to learn more effectively. Supervision is an expectation from both the HEI as well as being written in the policies and procedures in place in the practice placement. Tsui (2005) feels there are different approaches to supervision, these are, he suggests ‘normative’ which would focus on the aims to be reached throughout the supervision session and ‘empirical’ which is expected to address the objectives of the approach. The purpose of supervision is thought to address a number of factors including ensuring the student understands their role and responsibilities in the work setting; in addition it is considered an effective way to tease out concerns and to highlight and promote professional development (Morrison, 2002).

Both the practice educator and the student are expected to work within a professional and academic criterion; for the student there are a number of National Occupational Standards which are standards of performance for social work (TOPPS, 2002). Students are required to demonstrate and achieve these standards and skills at a competent and professional level. There is an expectation from the HEI that the practice educator will facilitate the student to learn the areas of practice set down in the Practice Educator Standards (Northumbria University, 2011); the main aim of the practice educator is to organise and facilitate learning opportunities for the student as well as offering support and judgement by assessing the student’s professional ability (NOPT, 2006).

A further expectation of both the practice educator and the student is to demonstrate practice which is conversant and fitting within a professional and educational ethical framework. Under the Codes of Practice students should be ‘fit for practice, have the potential to develop high quality professional knowledge & skills that are essential to practice as a social worker’ (GSCC, 2002). Throughout the practice placement an array of ethical issues could potentially occur; all social work practitioners are expected to practice ethically. It is hoped that the practice educator would translate these principles into the practice educator role (NOPT, 2006); ethical consideration must also be given as set out in the Codes of Ethics whereby both the practice educator and the student are expected to adhere to the recommendations set out within these codes (BASW, 2002). Furthermore, the HEI who has placed the student will have issued set standards which students are expected to work to such as completing any set tasks successfully and competently and to demonstrate all the key roles laid out in the NOS (Skills for Care, 2008).

This paper has critically investigated an identified dilemma in the practice setting; the writer has attempted to devise strategies in which to approach the problem in an effective and positive manner. Approaches to learning, teaching and assessment have been recognised and critically discussed, whilst methods of how to support this process for both the student and the practice educator being considered. The writer has highlighted that there are a number of factors which can impact on the student and their ability to take in and process information whilst in the practice placement. However, for the student these obstacles must be addressed and overcome if they are to be deemed competent to practice in the professional field of social work

Word Count: 2,995.

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