Evaluation of Student Success within Social Work Education’s Signature Pedagogy
Field education is the “signature pedagogy” of social work education (CSWE, 2008). As a result of the focus on field education in the preparation of social workers for professional practice, the evaluation of students in their field placements has been a vital form of determining student readiness and informing program assessment for generations of social workers. However, the design, execution, analysis, and reporting of field evaluations are not simple tasks.
No two Programs (or field experiences) are the Same
While all accredited social work programs must center their curricula (and responsive assessment) on the nine competencies outlined in EPAS 2015 (and now 2022), each program brings individualized character to their delivery of relevant content. Many programs add additional competencies to their curriculum, and each MSW program must extend and enhance the nine CSWE competencies to represent the individuality of their own specialized practice areas. As we all know, each field placement opportunity brings even more variety to the social work experience students are exposed to.
How can programs effectively design a tool to evaluate student performance in field placement when there are so many different factors to consider?
Keep it Simple
Field evaluations are just one tool at your disposal for understanding student and program strengths and challenges, but they are invaluable. In recognition of their immense value, CSWE’s EPAS 2022 now requires social work programs to use field evaluations as one of the two required assessment measures of each of the nine explicit curriculum competencies.
To get the most helpful information out of field evaluations, keep them simple;
- Don’t overthink their design.
- Stick to the basics.
- “For instance, simply use the language of the competencies themselves (whether CSWE’s competencies or your own program-defined competencies).”
- Avoid confusing questions like double-barreled items.
- Keep the tool short.
- Long instruments are burdensome to field instructors and don’t necessarily yield more valuable information than less complex instruments.
Times have changed
Under EPAS 2008, programs had to report assessment outcomes for each of the 40 individual CSWE-defined practice behaviors. As a result, field placement evaluations became really long. Many of us who were responsible for program assessment at that time are still traumatized by nightmares about complex self-study tables and calculations. The idea of evaluating and reporting at the behavioral level had become so ingrained in us that many programs continued this level of analysis when we moved to the EPAS 2015. Under EPAS 2015, however, programs only need to measure student performance for program assessment purposes at the competency level. We do not need to have long, confusing, and redundant forms that evaluate student practice at the behavioral level. We can use shorter, less complex field evaluations, and our field instructors will thank us for it!
Assessing Student Performance and Program Success through Field Evaluations
Field placement evaluations serve multiple purposes. Field placement evaluations are useful both individually to assess student performance, as well as aggregated to report program-level assessment.
Individual Student Performance
When focused on individual student performance, we use field placement evaluations to determine if a student is able to translate classroom learning into practice realities; we use the process of field placement evaluation to provide students with feedback to inform practice improvements. If a student does well on the field placement evaluation, they are likely to be successful in the program and we can be confident they will be an effective professional in practice. If a field placement evaluation highlights specific, or more global, challenges for a student, the program can give that student focused attention toward the aim of improvement. In some situations, a field placement evaluation might lead a program to counsel a student out of the social work program. In some cases, the field placement evaluation is used as evidence of the necessity of terminating a student’s matriculation in a social work program.
When focused on program-level assessment, field placement evaluations have been a central tool. Program assessment is a required part of the initiation accreditation and reaffirmation process under CSWE’s EPAS. Program assessment ensures thoughtful evaluation of current program practices towards the goal of continuous program improvement.
While it doesn’t always feel like it, it is helpful when program assessment highlights particular areas where students are struggling. With that information, programs can focus efforts on evaluating where the curriculum, or the teaching of the curriculum, is falling short. Please remember, just because students didn’t achieve the highest levels of competency doesn’t mean that programs are failing to educate them. Students aren’t expected to be perfect, and programs shouldn’t be concerned about losing accreditation because of poor student performance. Program assessment is designed to provide a program with helpful feedback to improve, just like field placement evaluations are designed to give students helpful feedback to improve.
The impact of “grade inflation” on evaluation
Programs are often thrilled when their students’ field placement evaluations show the highest levels of competency were achieved. However, when aggregated field placement evaluations show student ratings at almost uniformly high levels, the program should be concerned about “grade inflation.” Grade Inflation is generally defined as the awarding of higher grades than students deserve either to maintain a program’s academic reputation or as a result of diminished teacher expectations. But it’s more complicated than that.
There are many reasons field instructors might give students higher ratings than they earned, 1) the field instructor might need help understanding what the ratings actually mean. Therefore, training on the evaluation tool is very important; 2) the field instructor might feel pressure from the student to provide high ratings, even when they’re not earned; and, 3) the time necessary to thoughtfully evaluate a student might not be available to the field instructor. Field instructors are busy social work practitioners and often do the social work program a favor taking on the extra task of supervising the student. To ensure appropriate assessment of student performance on field evaluations, field instructors need training, support, and guidance.
What’s the Ultimate Goal? Student Competence, NOT Perfection
What level of preparation should social work programs strive for to ensure students meet their field placement learning agreement? COMPETENCE, NOT PERFECTION. The experience in a social work education program allows students to gain knowledge and then develop and practice their skills. Students should not be expected to excel in practice after little time and experience.
Social work educators need to prepare their students to be receptive to feedback, and constructive criticism and administrators need to ensure a clear understanding of expectations for assessment is provided to faculty and field instructors responsible for student evaluation.
Assessment isn’t designed to give everyone a pat on the back. Assessment is vital to informing the feedback loop toward program improvement. No student, or program, is perfect.
To learn about how Sonia can help your social work program ease the administration of student-level and program-level assessment request a demo here.
To learn about how to use SWEAP Assessment Instruments and Services to support your social work program towards successful initial accreditation and/or reaffirmation…
About the Authors:
Kathryn Krase is a social worker, lawyer, researcher and educator. Kathryn has been a member of the SWEAP Team for the past 10 years, currently serving as the Chief Financial Officer. Over the past 20 years, Kathryn has served in full-time and part-time faculty roles at the undergraduate, masters and doctoral level of social work programs. She has served in administrative roles as Field Placement Coordinator, Assessment Coordinator, Undergraduate Program Coordinator, Masters Program Director, and Associate Dean. Kathryn has supported hundreds of social work programs through successful initial accreditation and reaffirmation through her role with SWEAP, as well as private consultation services.
Tobi DeLong-Hamilton has worked in the social work field for 20 years and has experience in child welfare, adoptions, medical, and psychiatric social work. She worked in private practice as a psychotherapist specializing in family and childhood problems prior to moving into higher education full time. While in private practice, she maintained a connection to public child welfare by evaluating, writing reports, and testifying as an expert witness for children in foster care. Dr. DeLong-Hamilton has completed research, written and published in the areas of child welfare and social work education assessment. She is the Chief Executive Officer of SWEAP.