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A Writing Guide for Social Work

Social Work Writing Beyond College

Preparing BSW, MSSW, or PhD students for a career in Social Work means not only helping them gain competence in new areas of content, but also continuing their education in how to communicate effectively. Writing assignments can accomplish much more than simply allowing us to gauge student progress toward course objectives:

  • Learning to Write: Learning to write is an iterative process, one that improves with practice. Writing assignments that help students see the steps from brainstorming to proofreading also help cement writing habits that will serve their needs better than a last-minute rush toward a term paper.
  • Writing to Learn: Informal (or even ungraded) assignments still require students to process information using cognitive methods very different from what they do when they read, listen to us lecture, or speak in class. This cognitive “gear-shift” can help cement course concepts, and also help students explore additional complexities.
  • Writing as Social Practice: Integrating class dialogue into writing assignments—by requiring students to cite one another’s contributions, for instance, or by assigning peer-critiques at any number of stages in the process—helps emphasize that writing itself is a social activity, an ongoing conversation about a complex topic. When students understand that they write for one another, and for posterity, rather than just for us, their perception of our assignments can change.
  • Writing to Communicate: It’s easy for us to forget some of the most pragmatic purposes that writing serves. In addition to traditional academic analysis papers, we can help students understand the variety of writing situations they will face by assigning “practical” tasks, from conference proposals or grant applications to advocacy letters or professional emails.

Effective writing assignments do not just test students’ comprehension or critical-thinking skills. They also offer students the opportunity to apply what they already know about effective communication to new contexts, and to adapt these writing skills to the specific writing situations they will face in their careers beyond the academic classroom.

The Why Write? section in the Student Edition offers students a brief summary of these “real world” writing situations, but we may also find this list useful in thinking through the assignment-design process. This guide aims to convince writers that writing itself constitutes a sustained, ongoing process, and not a sudden burst of work that miraculously produces a product. Likewise, the guide also suggests that effective assignments should always situate both the student and the assignment in an ongoing process: acquiring and practicing discipline-specific writing skills. To do that, scholars in writing pedagogy recommend three key strategies—which many of us have doubtless already begun to use:

  • Link Backward: Effective assignments make clear the skills that students should already have at their disposal, whether from prior assignments in the present class, or from prior courses. In particular, many students forget that they already have many academic-writing skills, because they developed those skills in an introductory English course (as in UTA’s ENGL 0300, 1301, or 1302), sometimes several years before they face rigorous writing assignments in their major discipline. The Student Edition reviews some of these skills, and they may be useful touchstones for “backward links.”
    • Practical Implications: These kinds of backward links can come in the form of simple reminders that even reading-responses or summaries have to “make and support an argument,” or that supporting an argument means we’ll have to “summarize or cite specific sources.”
  • Link Forward: Again, effective assignments make clear how the skills used in the present writing situation will be useful, not just for the completion of this class, or even this degree program, but also for the social work career-path as such. This is not just a matter of stating “outcomes” or “assignment goals.” Effective assignments integrate upcoming tasks into their components and evaluations, which is partly a matter of the next strategy...
    • Practical Implications: Again, rather than listing “skill sets” or “outcomes,” these kinds of forward links should organically remind students of the twofold process of writing and course-completion. If our assignments remind students that, “in a clinical situation, you’ll need to...” or, “when you have to file a progress report, you’ll need to...” then we already use forward-links.
  • Create Exigency: Any assignment that is “just an assignment,” or “just builds skills,” cannot engage students as effectively as an assignment that creates a specific writing situation akin to those mentioned in the student section, Why Write? Faced with odd responses to writing assignments, we sometimes ask, “Would you write that way to your boss?” Well, we can build that frustrated question into our assignments by creating a writing situation that addresses a “real life” job-situation.
    • Practical Implications: Especially for more involved assignments, try creating a brief summary of a “real-world” situation, and construing the student’s paper as a response to that situation. For example, a research-paper assignment might appear as a “call for papers” for a special issue of a journal, or a response/summary-paper assignment might appear as a request for a report. The more creative and interesting the writing situation, the more students will feel called upon to write effective, specific arguments to address the situation.

The next section will discuss assignment design in more detail; the purpose here is to remind us that there are reasons for making students write that go beyond evaluating their performance in the context of a given course—and beyond the customary “term paper” design.

« Introduction What Should Students Expect?  »


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