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Writing Strategies to Develop Critical Thinking for Rural BSW Students
Monte Miller
School of Social Work


Introduction

The Council on Social Work Education’s Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards mandate that social work students engage in critical thinking during their educational process (CSWE, 2006; Kersting & Mumm, 2001). Critical thinking is integral to social work education and practice (Gibbons & Gray, 2004). Texts on practicing social work from a critical thinker’s perspective (Gambrill, 2006) and exercises to develop critical thinking for social work (Gibbs & Gambrill, 1999) are available. Social work educators continue to strive to teach, document and implement critical thinking in social work education. Vandsburger (2004) presented a critical thinking model for teaching Human Behavior and the Social Environment. The model was designed for developing social work students’ critical thinking skills by introducing a critical thinking framework in the context of social work interventions. The model’s goal was for the students to demonstrate their ability to use critical thinking skills in evaluating interventions.

This paper describes the application of a critical thinking model to a writing intensive BSW research course. Sousulski, Cunningham, and Sellers (2006) used qualitative research to examine the experience of one participant in a social welfare program and foster critical thinking from a feminist perspective regarding the participant’s experience. A case study regarding a mother and her children who were receiving TANF in a rural environment was designed for this paper. The title is “Patty’s Case.” It is in Appendix A of this paper. Rural social work differs from social work in other areas from problem assessment, to intervention development and intervention evaluation (Avant, 2004; Davenport & Davenport, 1995;  Martinez-Brawley, 1998:  Scales and Streeter, 2004). This case for this paper was developed from a case presented in the Popple and Leighninger (2005) text “Social Work, Social Welfare, and American Society.” The case was modified to include some conditions which might be encountered in a rural area.

The case was designed to develop critical thinking skills through application of research concepts in written assignments. Bloom’s taxonomy of learning (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) was introduced to the students as a way to define the levels of critical thinking for the assignments. It also served to help them understand the need for critical thinking with regard to social work research. Levels of the taxonomy were paired with various steps in the research process including assessment, intervention planning, and evaluation. Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) is presented in Appendix B. The students were required to use writing to express their critical thinking skills and understanding of the research process. The levels of critical thinking were paired with components of the research process. Social work students can improve their writing skills by using writing as a means to conduct assessment, design interventions, and evaluate problems (Alter & Adkins, 2001).

Writing Intensive Institute’s Application to BSW Research Class

The instructor of a social work research course attended a 9 week Writing Intensive Institute provided by the university. The institute’s purpose was to assist professors who teach writing intensive courses in thoughtfully designing, implementing and evaluating written assignments. There were twelve social work students in the research class described in this paper. They were in their second year of undergraduate education. The course was designated as a writing intensive course by the university which meant that it had to include at least 20 pages of written assignments. There were three writing intensive assignments related to the case study which were developed as part of the Writing Intensive Institute. They are in Appendix C.

Critical Thinking at the Analysis Level and Social Work Case Assessment

The first writing intensive assignment was related to assessing the problems in Patty’s case. The importance of problem definition and assessment was outlined using the Rubin and Babbie (2008) text “Research Methods for Social Work.” Students were asked to read Patty’s case and then define at least three problems from their perspective in Patty’s case. Then they were asked to put themselves in Patty’s place and redefine the three problems from her perspective.

This assignment focused on three important elements for social work education. First, it helped the class to understand that they needed to work in partnership with their clients when defining problems. Second, it provided an opportunity for them to use Analysis from Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) of learning in “identifying the elements, relationships, and organizational principles of a situation.” Finally, it helped the students to understand the importance of linking research with practice in order to conduct professional assessments of their clients’ needs. Nine of the twelve students were able to demonstrate the “Analysis” level of critical thinking from Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). The professor teaching the class and his research assistant independently coded the assignments and then discussed any cases on which they did not agree. There were very few disagreements throughout the process for all three of the writing intensive assignments. During class discussion the remaining three students were able to verbalize their understanding of the links between assessment, critical thinking at the Analysis level, and collaborative problem identification which involved client input.

Critical Thinking at the Synthesis Level and Social Work Intervention Planning

The second writing intensive assignment for Patty’s case involved the students using critical thinking at the Synthesis stage to develop possible interventions for the problems they had identified in the first writing intensive assignment. Students were asked to develop possible interventions for the problems that Patty was facing from their perspectives. Then they were asked to develop possible interventions for the same problems from Patty’s perspective. Lastly, they were asked to combine or synthesize at least one of the interventions which included their perspective and Patty’s perspective regarding an intervention.

This assignment focused on the importance of collaboration with clients when developing plans for interventions, using critical thinking at the Synthesis level to combine social workers’ perspectives with clients’ perspectives when designing potential interventions, and lastly “devising a plan of action” (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) as part of the social work helping process in contracting with the client. Saleeby’s (1998) strengths perspective was included in the assignment to assist the students in realizing that clients have strengths and can contribute to the social work process. Although Patty faced many problems in her case she also had several strengths and resiliency such as having a job, going to school, and going to the support group to help other women who were in similar situations. “Deriving a plan of action” is a crucial step in getting to and succeeding in critical thinking at the Synthesis level of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001.) Developing a helping and collaborative relationship with clients is one of the most important facets of the practice of social work (Scales & Wolfer, 2006). Eight of the twelve students were able to demonstrate Synthesis in the second writing intensive assignment.

Critical Thinking at the Evaluation Level and Social Work Practice Evaluation

The third writing intensive assignment for Patty’s case involved moving into the beginning stages of the evaluation of social work practice. Students had to use the Evaluation level of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) of learning to develop possible research questions to evaluate the interventions they had designed in the second writing intensive assignment. This meant that they had to “be capable of making a critical judgment based on internal and external criteria” (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). Specifically, the students had to rely on their internal knowledge of social work in coming to an external decision about what intervention to evaluate in Patty’s case.  Students were asked to develop at least two questions for one of the collaborative interventions from the second writing intensive research assignment. Students were required to assess whether the research questions would provide the type of data that would be needed to evaluate the intervention. Students were also asked to focus on the research questions with regard to whether they were from the social worker’s perspective, from Patty’s perspective, or from both of their perspectives. Students were asked whether the evaluation of an intervention is best done by the social worker, the client, or the social worker and the client in partnership.

This assignment was intended to require critical thinking on the Evaluation level of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001.) It was also designed to assist students in exploring their own beliefs regarding whether the social worker, the client, or both parties should be involved in evaluation research. The students had trouble with this assignment so time was set aside during class and they developed their research questions in groups and then reported out to the class. All of the students seemed to learn about the importance of how to design and ask research questions, who should be involved, and the importance of asking the right type of question to get the type of data that is needed for an evaluation.

Discussion

The following table contains the main themes of the three intensive writing assignments, the level of critical thinking on Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) and the actual research activity that was required of the students.

  Theme
Level of Critical Thinking
Social Work Process
WI Assignment One
Assessment
Analysis
Assessment of Client Situation
WI Assignment Two
Intervention Development
Synthesis
Development of Intervention
WI Assignment Three
Evaluating Practice
Evaluation
Formulation of Research Questions for Evaluation

The three successive assignments anchored by Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) of learning as well as Rubin and Babbie’s (2008) in-depth description of the research process helped the students to link theory, critical thinking and the social work process together in a way that was meaningful for them.

The use of a case study for this exercise in critical thinking and teaching BSW students in a rural environment offers a great deal of flexibility to social work educators. Cases which capture the interactive, richly textured, and dynamic social fabric of diverse rural areas can easily be developed to fit particular rural regions or areas. The use of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning was beneficial for the students. Several of them made verbal comments or in some cases wrote on their papers that it was helpful for them when the instructor used a framework such as Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) to measure critical thinking. Students indicated that in other classes they were asked to engage in critical thinking but no framework or examples were used to demonstrate the concept of critical thinking to them. They valued having a critical thinking framework to utilize as well as examples of how critical thinking linked with social work practice and research.

The example provided in this paper involved a small BSW research course with only 12 students. The assignments, techniques, and strategies used in this paper need to be utilized with larger numbers of students and perhaps in other curricular areas. It was also a sample of convenience so cannot be generalized to other social work students or classes. Although the professor and the graduate assistant utilized inter-rater techniques for reliability the interpretation of the results could still be biased.

Despite these limitations the students involved in this study indicated that the combination of critical thinking theory, research examples from the textbook and the instructor, and successive assignments were very helpful to them. They indicated that learning about social work research, critical thinking, and very specific writing assignments designed to demonstrate particular concepts assisted them in reaching the goals required for the research course. Social workers must possess excellent writing skills in order to best serve their clients regardless of field of practice or level of education.

This study is only one small example of a means of improving writing skills. Rural social work educators are resourceful and knowledgeable about their educational programs and the needs of their regions. When requiring social work writing assignments rural social work educators can use whatever format best fits their situation. Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001.) can be applied in written formats such as writing up case reports, reporting on group dynamics, or critiquing films or vignettes. The taxonomy call also be used in demonstrating learning in field practicum situations. Hopefully this small study will provide some ideas for ways to improve rural social work education with regard to writing, critical thinking, and utilizing research to evaluate practice.