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A Writing Guide for Social Work

Writing assignments give students the opportunity to practice applying the course concepts they have been learning in a specific context. As instructors, it’s easy for us to forget how unfamiliar most of these assignments will actually appear to our students—who may be re-entering college education after a prolonged time in a professional context, or who may not be as prepared to face academic writing situations as we expect.

The companion Student Edition section of this guide points out that students should approach assignments with an understanding that all academic writing is to some extent formal, and that all academic writing should in some way make an argument, by supporting claims with reasons, and suiting both claims and reasons to the audience and context. Although many students have learned to do this before they arrive in our Social Work courses, many also have trouble transferring these skills, particularly if they don’t understand the writing situation they face, or the task they should accomplish.

Tips to Make Your Grading Easier: Clarify the Assignment

Off-topic responses, last-minute sloppy work, and most of all, plagiarism, often occur because students face an assignment they don’t understand, and effectively “freeze up,” avoiding the assignment for weeks because they don’t feel capable of completing it. In some cases, these responses form a pattern of intentional avoidance or shortcuts, but more often than not, we can help. Here are four “tricks” for assignment design that help increase student investment and avoid confusion. The next section, What Is Social Work Student Research? offers more and different tips...

TIP # 1: Describe the Writing Situation

Start an assignment description by explaining what real-world writing situation it emulates. Many of us already do this for major assignments, but even daily journal assignments need justification. For further information, see the section Why Make Students Write?

TIP # 2: State the Writing Genre and Expectations Clearly

The Student Edition of this guide provides a list of common assignment genres, entitled Common Assignments in Social Work Education. This list, while not completely comprehensive, is meant not only to prepare students for what they’ll be expected to do, but also to remind us that students face many different kinds of writing assignments every semester. Our assignment sheets can help them respond more effectively by clarifying the kind of writing, argument, and logic we expect. It’s easy for us to forget to distinguish between a conceptual argument and a practical argument, since we’re used to writing these ourselves, and assume that the distinction is obvious—but for students who may not have taken a basic writing course (or even any course that demands significant writing) for many years, the distinction may not register unless we point it out explicitly.

TIP # 3: State the Task Clearly

As mentioned in the Student Edition of this page, a writing assignment serves two purposes: it completes a task, and it demonstrates a student’s abilities. In writing up the assignment, we need to keep these two purposes separate. Consider the following set of instructions:

  • Your paper should conduct a case-study.
  • Your paper should demonstrate and improve your command of social work ethics.
  • Your paper should apply three theories from our textbook to your client’s situation.

The instructor who mixes task-oriented instructions with course-goal-oriented expectations should not be surprised when a student’s thesis statement says something like: "In this paper I will improve my command of social work ethics."

A clearer set of instructions would distinguish between what the student’s writing needs to do, and what benefits the successful accomplishment of that task will provide:

  • Assignment Instructions: Conduct a case-study in which you...
    • ...identify your client’s strengths, needs, and goals, and ask 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.
  • Course Objectives: By creating a clear, convincing case-study, you will...
    • ...demonstrate your command of the theory-bases we’ve covered so far.improve your grasp of social work ethics.
    • ...prepare to conduct case-studies in clinical practice situations.
    • ...etc.

These instructions leave less ambiguity about what the resultant piece of writing should look like.

TIP # 4: Provide Resources

Students now entering college have grown up in the Web generation. Many have used Web-based resources all their lives, and this familiarity has both positive and negative consequences. Among the potential negatives is the “shallow click-depth.”

Click-Depth: Web-designers and Internet marketers know that most information-seekers on the Web lose interest after very few clicksz—3 is a common number—so the talented programmers design their pages to place all information within three clicks of any given page.

Students who grew up in this environment sometimes have surprising difficulty finding online resources—particularly research-oriented library resources and style guides—because university websites often do not follow the 3-click rule. We can help them by putting useful links at the end of the assignment sheet itself.

  • For any paper demanding APA style, the Purdue OWL’s APA guide would be a good place to start. We can simply copy-and-paste the following into our assignment sheets:

For assistance with APA style, please see the Purdue OWL APA style guide:
http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/2/10/

  • For any paper demanding more involved research, UTA’s own Subject Guide or Social Work Electronic Library would be good additions, as would this guide:

For assistance with Social Work research, please consult the UTA Social Work Electronic Library, or the UTA Library’s Social Work Subject Guide:
http://libguides.uta.edu/SocialWorkInfo
http://libguides.uta.edu/socialwork
Putting these resources directly on our assignment sheets gives them a click-depth of exactly one, and makes our students much more likely to find them.

« Why Make Students Write? What is Social Work Student Research? »


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