Academic journal article e-Journal of Business Education and Scholarship Teaching

Designing Assessment to Promote Engagement among First Year Social Work Students

Academic journal article e-Journal of Business Education and Scholarship Teaching

Designing Assessment to Promote Engagement among First Year Social Work Students

Article excerpt


This paper presents research findings addressing the question of how performative assessment can be used to foster students' engagement in the earliest phase of their social work education. In particular, it focuses on how assessment can enhance students' sense of connection with each other and course curriculum, in ways that promote persistence and learning. The relationship between assessment and engagement is discussed in relation to the findings obtained from original qualitative research that explored students' experiences of undertaking a presentation/performance assessment task in an introductory critical social work course at a regional university in Australia. The findings, while limited to one course, suggest that assessment can play a major role in fostering a sense of connection and belonging integral to student engagement. However, consistent with Barnett's (2008) notion of ontological learning, the analysis indicates that the assessment tasks most likely to inspire belonging are those that engage a student's whole being, as a self-conscious and collaborative agent of change, rather than those requiring instrumental or formal engagement (Barnett & Coate, 2005).

Background and Literature Review

The concern with student engagement is situated within the broader literature on student progression and retention, which has become an increasingly important issue in higher education in Australia and other parts of the Western world (Moriarty et al., 2009). Retention (often used interchangeably with 'persistence') is most basically defined as students remaining enrolled to successfully complete their educational goals (Tinto, 1993). There is now a significant body of research examining retention at the institutional (Kalsbeek, 2013), degree/ program (Noel-Levitz, 2008) and individual course (Gajewski & Mather, 2015) levels of enrolment. This article discusses some promising findings on student engagement at the individual course level.

The broader research on retention and engagement covers both extra-institutional and intra-institutional factors that hinder student completion. The former pertains to social contextual barriers, such as student poverty, socio-economic status or class, indigeneity, disabilities, location and the increasing costs of higher education (Krause, Vick, Boon, Bland, & Clark, 2009; Rubin, 2012; Universities Australia, 2008), which institutions have limited capacity to address directly apart from bursaries and lobbying government to address social inequality. The latter, intra-institutional factors concern the demands of the curricula, pedagogy, on-campus services, social support and student engagement. While these matters are not unrelated to social context, they are more readily within the capacity of academic communities, teaching staff and learners to address (Tinto, 1993); and they constitute the terrain of student engagement in which this study is situated. There are various understandings about why students leave before completion (Moriarty et al., 2009; Yorke, 2004; Christie, Munro & Fisher, 2004). Some of the most commonly attributed factors include choosing the wrong university or area of study, personal difficulties, and struggling with academic demands of study (Yorke, 2004).

Social Work Students and Engagement

Paralleling these broader societal factors that potentially impact all students, it is argued that social work students may face additional challenges. Many of these students have personally experienced social disadvantage, marginalization, and oppression and/or traumatic life events (see for example Bernard, Fairtlough, Fletcher & Ahmet, 2014). Whilst such factors may be implicated in the decision to study social work in the first place (Rompf & Royse, 1994), they also potentially impact on students' capacity to progress, and ultimately complete, their studies (Fletcher, Bernard, Fairtlough & Ahmet, 2015). …

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