Skip to main content

A Writing Guide for Social Work

Student research exists in an odd liminal space: it has to achieve much more than the simpler exercises of the students’ prior education, but it also cannot reach the level of precision and comprehensive knowledge that we would expect of ourselves or our colleagues. Increasingly, scholars in education and composition have come to acknowledge a key difference between “basic” and “advanced” student research: basic research focuses on reporting information, and hoping that the answer is correct. Advanced research begins by deriving a question before embarking on a quest for answers, let alone writing up a complete paper, and then develops into the students’ comprehensive attempt to respond to the questions they propose.

Current research in writing instruction demonstrates that college (and graduate) students respond best to what’s known as an “inquiry-based” approach to writing assignments—but that these assignments are relatively uncommon in secondary education and entry-level college classes (let alone in the working world). Inquiry-based assignments combat plagiarism and encourage critical thinking by emphasizing the student’s questions, rather than ours. For a very rough working definition, this guide distinguishes between:

Retrieval-Based Writing Assignments: These assignments require a student to conduct basic research—whether in the course texts or via library search engines—with the goal of finding and reporting specific information back to the instructor.

Inquiry-Based Writing Assignments: These assignments require a student to come up with a research question and refine it before even venturing into the textbook, library, or Internet to find answers. The specific information that a student may need to retrieve therefore varies depending on the question, forcing the student to decide not only how to answer a question, but what questions to answer.

The retrieval model encourages rapid, uncritical searches for any material that may appear “relevant,” and ultimately results in many of the unintentional plagiarism cases that instructors face. When students seek out and report information before understanding its relevance, they will have a hard time paraphrasing it effectively. Furthermore, when students believe that their writing simply reports “knowledge” that is “already out there,” they become far more likely to copy-and-paste. The present section suggests a few simple ways to revise writing assignments to encourage students to adopt an “inquiry” approach. The next section, How Can We Help Students Start?, will include more practical tips on how to get students put their best foot forward.

Tips to Make Your Grading Easier: Use Inquiry-Based Writing Assignments

Off-topic responses, last-minute sloppy work, and most of all, plagiarism, often occur because students believe that their writing simply repeats or reports what someone else has already said—and adds nothing more. Sometimes this is a matter of student laziness or avoidance, but more often than not, we can help. The difference between the two very general types of writing assignment can be quite subtle—so by revising our assignments just slightly, we can often turn a “retrieval” assignment into an “inquiry-based” assignment that encourages critical thinking and combats unintentional plagiarism.

TIP # 5: Start with a Present Situation

When a writing-assignment task begins with a phrase such as “choose ten of our course concepts,” or, “choose and explain a theory base from our textbook,” the emphasis on already-established knowledge encourages students to assume that (as in The X-Files) “The Truth Is Out There.” More often than not, students will respond to such assignments by assuming they need to repeat back to us the material from the textbook—which puts them at risk for plagiarism.

We can help our students start off on the right foot by emphasizing the need to discuss, debate, or respond to a specific, present problem, a problem that they are in a unique position to try to solve (often a client’s problem, but current events or news items can make great starting points as well). We can start an assignment by instructing students to start working well before they start looking for answers or writing. Here is an example from the previous section:

Assignment Instructions: Conduct a case-study in which you...
  • ...identify your client’s strengths, needs, and goals, and ask yourself how you can best serve the client.
  • ...apply three theories from our textbook to your client’s situation.
  • ...recommend a strategy to use the client’s strengths to accomplish one goal, via two measurable objectives.
  • ...support your recommendations with specific examples from the text (etc…).

By starting with an instruction to “identify” aspects of the client’s experience, this assignment invites students to ask questions that will drive their own inquiry process. This way, when they reach the point where they need to “apply three theories,” they will know that they need to do this to best serve their own client—to answer questions that stem from the client’s situation, and not simply the categories already established in the textbook.

TIP # 6: It’s Not (Just) About Assessment

It’s easy to let writing assignments simply restate our assessment goals, but this kind of restatement usually encourages a “retrieval” model. If we invite our students to show their command of a theory-base, for example, or demonstrate that they understand the connections between research studies and practical situations, we invite them to go and find “information” that already exists. Ultimately, after all is said and done, we invite them to repeat that information to us—which means, for a small but consistent minority—we invite them to plagiarize. Here is one example:

Assessment Goal: Students should demonstrate that they understand how the latest empirical research in group therapy helps guide practice (preparing students to use evidence-based practice).

Retrieval Model: Write an essay in which you explain how the following articles (in a list, for instance, or perhaps asking students to find current articles in the library) help guide practice in group therapy.

Inquiry-Based Model: Before you write, consider the challenges you will face in facilitating group therapy sessions with clients undergoing rehabilitation from substance addiction. Make a list of urgent questions you would want to know how to cope with before entering this practice situation. Then consult the following articles (in a list, or for student research in the library), and write an essay in which you explain a.) how they could help you address your urgent questions, and b.) what further information you would want to find before entering the practice situation.

The “inquiry-based” model bases the assessment goal on questions that the students will have to derive, rather than on questions that we simply impose upon them. By so doing, it turns the research articles into tools for student work, rather than passive “objects” to be read and repeated. In a direct-practice setting, portraying extant research findings as useful tools helps encourage students to adopt evidence-based practices—and to stay current with the latest tools. In a research-oriented setting, this approach encourages students to see other studies as shoulders upon which to stand, and also to identify opportunities to say something truly new.

The “inquiry-based” version also introduces two key components: It assumes that the writing process starts before the research or the literal act of sitting down to write. And it assumes that the inquiry process continues long after the present assignment ends.

«  What Should Students Expect? How Can We Help Students Start? »


A Writing Guide for Social Work
Created in 2011-12 by Christopher D. Kilgore for the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Arlington