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Supporting field instructors' efforts to help students improve writing.

THE PURPOSE OF THIS article is to demonstrate how field education departments and faculty members can support field instructors to help social work students improve their writing skills during their internships. Field instructors bring a fresh and practical perspective to what is commonly acknowledged as a problem throughout social work education: what to do about inadequate student writing (Alter & Adkins, 2001, 2006; Rompff, 1995; Swindell, 2009; Waller, 2000; Waller, Carroll, & Roemer, 1996). To address this problem, we present techniques from the faculty development movement known as Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) (Russell, 1992; Segall & Smart, 2005; Townsend, 1994) that field instructors can use, thus expanding the walls of the classroom to include field instructors in all aspects of teaching students to become effective social workers. As the signature pedagogy of social work education (Council on Social Work Education [CSWE], 2008), field instruction provides another venue for the development of professional writing skills just as it does for the development of interpersonal, assessment, and other necessary skills.

We first consider the importance of field instructors in social work education. After providing a brief summary of key ideas from WAC, we then provide specific recommendations for field instructors. Finally, we explore what faculty and field education departments can do to support the efforts of their field instructors in this area.

Broadening the Role of Field Instructors in Social Work Education

Field instruction plays the primary role in improving all the skills that students are expected to master, and this skill set includes various types of writing. However, little attention has focused on the unique contributions of field instructors in helping students improve their writing, let alone how they can best fulfill this role. Although the need for students to improve their written communication skills is well-acknowledged by social work educators (CSWE, 2008), our review of the literature reveals that response to the concern has been limited to classroom settings (Alter & Adkins, 2001, 2006; Rompf, 1995; Waller, 2000; Waller et al., 1996). In fact, no professional literature addresses how to help field instructors accomplish this teaching in agency settings.

Field instructors may express surprise at the poor quality of their students' writing and may feel that it is an indication that the students are unprepared for the field. When a student enters an internship, a person cannot assume that the student is able to write satisfactorily for professional purposes any more that one can assume the student can interview perfectly. Field instructors can help in the development of students' professional writing skills as they help with all skill development. These practicing professionals are likely to understand how agencies operate, what "good enough" writing (Bloom, 2006) in the real world is, and the degree to which their agencies value good writing. They can impart to social work students this valuable information. In addition, they have unique opportunities to provide immediate hands-on guidance and feedback to students about standards for professional writing. Although not all field instructors are alike in their abilities and dedication and in the quality of instruction they provide, field education departments have chosen them for this role and have a responsibility to support them in this signature pedagogy of the profession. To that end, what follows is a brief summary of ideas from the WAC movement that can be used by field and classroom instructors alike as they strive to meet their mutual goal of improving student professional writing.

Writing Across the Curriculum

WAC is a 3-decade-old faculty development initiative (Russell, 1992) with its own professional journals (The WAC Journal and Across the Disciplines) and conferences; information about how educational institutions use WAC can be easily accessed online. A substantial literature exists describing the origins of WAC, including the return of composition instructors to the pedagogical theories of Dewey as well as the substantial development of WAC theories and techniques since the 1970s. The varied pedagogical approaches that comprise WAC, as well as their practical implications for classroom teaching, have been thoroughly explained in the WAC scholarly literature. Further, many articles have demonstrated the use of WAC in such diverse disciplines as health sciences (Clark & Fischbach, 2008), mathematics (Flesher, 2003), physical education (Cucina, 1999), business (Moore, 1994), and computer science (Taffe, 1989). In addition, some educators have shown how they bring the techniques of WAC into the social work classroom (Kahn & Holody, 2009a, 2009b).

Despite the diverse application and growth of WAC theory, empirical evidence about its efficacy in any discipline is lacking. Various factors confound any clean evaluation of WAC. The use of WAC ideas has historically occurred in classroom settings, which are complex, unpredictable environments. Random assignment of students to otherwise equal WAC or non-WAC conditions would be impossible, and the instructor is a different teacher after having learned about WAC. Social work field placements and field instructors are even more individualistic than classrooms are, thus rendering a thorough and truly scientific examination of the efficacy of WAC in the field impossible. However, certain WAC tenets are especially relevant to helping students improve their writing in their internships.

As the name implies, WAC views the goal of better student writing to be the responsibility of all instructors regardless of discipline, as opposed to that of English composition departments or campus writing labs. Further, WAC's primary focus is writing to learn rather than learning to write. That is, instead of only focusing on the mechanics of correct written expression (i.e., grammar, spelling, punctuation), students are asked to write in order to learn and explore new or challenging concepts. WAC seeks to engage students to learn the content of academic disciplines through varied, creative, and extensive writing exercises, both inside the classroom and at home. The experiential nature of WAC activities is consistent with Dewey's emphasis on students interacting with curricula and taking part in their own learning. Writing about different ideas forces students to engage with those ideas. Just as one must really understand a concept to accurately and clearly explain it to someone else, one must more actively think about a topic to write about it. Writing allows students to develop meaning or to think through new ideas for themselves. They bring their own experiences to their writings and do not merely rely on the instructors' perspectives. Again, as Dewey proposed, the teacher is a facilitator and partner in this thinking and learning process and students are not passive receptacles. The underlying concepts of WAC hold that writing promotes learning and student participation. A variety of student voices can be heard via the safe medium of the students' own writings. By writing, students are engaged in critical thinking and analysis that is not afforded when they are listening to a lecture.

The focus on using writing to learn does not mean that the rules of written expression are ignored. In fact, WAC proponents hold that practicing writing helps students become better writers. Without the opportunity to write and experiment with language and vocabulary, students certainly will not improve their writing. WAC emphasizes that writing is a skill and, as such, .it can be improved (Bean, 2001). As with the development of other skills, improvements in writing occur incrementally through practice and useful feedback. WAC distinguishes between content errors (i.e., errors in thinking, organization, or assessment) and surface errors (such as spelling and grammar). Although surface errors are important and need correction, learning content, higher order, less rote and rule-driven, and more important skills, such as assessing and integrating information, are essential. Indeed, surface errors can interfere with a clear articulation of well-understood material, but the most eloquent writing cannot mask a fundamental misunderstanding of a discipline. WAC aims to address both problems through a variety of techniques.

Although some of the approaches of WAC may appear to be based on common sense, complaints about student writing demonstrate that WAC methods are neither obvious nor easy to implement. WAC focuses on what instructors can do differently. For example, if a student receives a paper that is filled with red-ink comments and has no opportunity for revision, the student may view the instructors' laborious efforts to provide feedback as overwhelming and pointless. Similarly, instructors are likely to be in agreement about the importance of correct grammar; however, in practice they are likely to disagree about which rules are more important, and some may actually assign grades that do not depend on the proficiency of the writing. In sum, when students receive feedback that they perceive as excessive, inconsistent, and arbitrary and they have no opportunity to incorporate the feedback, they are less likely to improve their writing.

With its long reliance on experiential learning in the form of fieldwork, social work is well-situated to adopt some of the ideas of WAC theory with its focus on participation and student engagement. Even in the classroom, social work instructors have traditionally used some WAC techniques and approaches without explicitly using WAC terminology; for example, journal entries and reflective writings are known as "low stakes" writing in WAC parlance and process recordings are a type of "double-entry notebooks." Joining the WAC dialog expands the pedagogical possibilities for educators both in the classroom and in agency settings. Just as classroom teachers are increasingly and profitably applying WAC to their pedagogy, so too can field instructors borrow from WAC to be more effective educators. We seek to bring field instructors into the broader pedagogical discourse and to support them by providing explicit and practical approaches.

Recommendations for Field Instructors

In this section, we provide 11 practical recommendations for field instructors who want to help their students improve their writing skills. Even without the support of faculty and field education departments, field instructors can take the initiative to address student writing on their own. Our recommendations could be used by either field instructors who have responsibility for assignments, skill development, and evaluation or by task supervisors who provide day-to-day oversight within the agency.

Provide Examples of "Good Enough" Writing

An easy way for supervisors to establish performance standards is to provide their students with examples of "good enough" writing, which will vary depending on the field of practice and type of agency. Field instructors can provide examples from the first day of the internship using multiple types of writing and make the explicit statement that the examples reflect acceptable written communication for the given purposes.

Require Writing From the Beginning

Field instructors can also require writing even before students have client contact; for example, field instructors can ask them to summarize their understanding of the agency's mission.

Require Students to Summarize Their Questions in Writing

When students are asked to read case records, they can write their questions, comments, and reactions to the material in preparation for face-to-face supervision.

Require Written, Detailed Agendas for Supervision

Field instructors can require students to prepare written agendas prior to the weekly supervisory meetings with specific topics, questions, issues, and concerns they have. Rather than listing cases of concern, the students could prepare annotated agendas. For example, instead of writing, "I need help with Mrs. Jones," a student could write, "How can I address the domestic violence Mrs. Jones is experiencing when she only wants to talk about repairs in her apartment?" Asking the students to write their questions in such a detailed way is really asking the students to think through their work critically.

Prioritize Expectations

Field instructors should prioritize their own expectations for quality of writing and communicate such expectations to the students. They could easily hold writings such as e-mails, text messages, quick written notes, and even process recordings to a more generous standard with regard to grammar and spelling. However, notes that enter agency records, court reports, or letters on agency letterhead require much stricter oversight because poor writing would likely diminish the affect of the content and distract the reader.

The purpose of the writing controls how much attention, including time, the field instructor gives to the students' errors of writing. Process recordings illustrate this principle nicely. They typically are designed to evaluate and improve the students' development of professional skills such as data collection and self-awareness. Often students say that completing recordings is an onerous task, and they do the work poorly as a result. It is not surprising that students may be confused if they have their grammar corrected after being instructed to write a verbatim interview. Field instructors who microedit process recordings increase the likelihood that students will misunderstand the intent of this learning tool; they also risk burning themselves out over surface errors, which are of secondary importance in this context.

Select Appropriate Interventions

Students who have problems with spelling and grammar do need feedback. However, there is a difference between students who occasionally misspell a word or make similar grammatical errors and those whose work is littered with punctuation and capitalization mistakes, incomplete sentences, subject-verb disagreements, and other surface errors. The former student probably needs little more than a reminder to double-check work; the latter student, however, probably needs more intensive and academic interventions, which, frankly, are neither available in the field nor should be within the purview of field instructors' responsibilities. For students whose writing falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, field instructors could identify three persistent mistakes and ask the students to focus their attentions on these. In doing so, the field instructors help the students develop the skills of self-editing.

Expect Revisions of Certain Documents

Certain kinds of writing require more than self-editing; they need multiple drafts and supervisory approval. Even field instructors need to revise their work. When students are exposed to employees rewriting and refining their work for submitting grant proposals or reports to other agencies, they learn that rewriting is necessary, that writing is an iterative process, and that improvement of this skill is valued by social service agencies. Thus, field instructors should similarly require their students to submit early drafts of certain documents and should provide prompt and useful feedback about this work and demand rewrites when necessary.

Promptly Communicate Concerns With Faculty Liaisons

If students' writings are significantly below agency standards, field instructors should communicate these concerns with faculty liaisons just as they would alert the school if there were problems of the students' performance in other areas such as attendance or maintaining confidentiality. The type and quantity of early writing assignments described provide a base for assessing the students' writing before too much time has passed and, if necessary, opportunities for prompt intervention. In addition, early in the internship, field instructors should also communicate to the students the standards by which their performance, including their writing, will be evaluated as described in the school's evaluation form.

Avoid Conflating "Writing Problems" With Student Performance Problems

In the evaluation process, field instructors should distinguish between a "writing problem" and other problems of student performance. For example, students who repeatedly fail to address problems with their writing are, more significantly, resisting appropriate demands from responsible authority. The failure to submit required rewrites does not signify a writing problem per se but rather a refusal to accept supervision, and field instructors and social work programs need to confront such students about their overall professional development.

Expect Language Appropriate to the Setting

Students need to learn the language preferred by professionals in their fields of practice and to avoid casual and otherwise unprofessional terminology. Failure of students to meet this expectation may suggest that the student has not yet integrated the knowledge necessary to communicate in that setting or that the student is not responsive to supervisory demands. Field instructors should evaluate whether the students understand the words in question and ask them to submit drafts of any work that requires professional terminology. If students understand but consistently refuse to integrate appropriate terminology, the problem is not a writing problem but a problem of maturity, professional development, or understood expectations and requires a different focus of attention.

Attend to Substantive Problems Over Surface Errors

There are different levels of genuine writing problems, and the reality is that all instructors, in the field and in the classroom, tend to focus first on surface errors. Substantive issues such as the students' abilities to summarize, organize, synthesize, and analyze information reflect not only higher-order thinking but their ongoing understanding of agency purposes and clients' needs. Students would benefit more if field instructors explained what parts of the written work were confusing or which information was omitted or in the wrong place rather than being told to rewrite the document with the general feedback that the first version was not good. Students need opportunities and resources, which include the benefit of field instructors' agency experience, to think through the writing problem anew.

Role of Faculty and Field Education Departments

CSWE (2008) requires its accredited programs to "provide orientation, field instruction training, and continuing dialog with field education settings and field instructors" (p. 10). Thus, field education departments already have numerous face-to-face venues where they can help field instructors to assess and improve their students' writing. These meetings could reflect the importance that programs assign to the development of student writing skills. Programs can also offer specialized workshops to provide field instructors with opportunities to problem-solve issues surrounding student writing as well as suggest new ways to approach these problems. Faculty and field education administrators can connect field instructors with the substantial body of literature that concerns adult learning or andragogy (Ortiz Hendriks, Bertrand Finch, & Franks, 2005) and help them apply these ideas to their student situations.

The most obvious signal of the importance social work programs assign to writing skills is an explicit assessment of student writing in their fieldwork evaluations. CSWE's 2008 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards list a demonstration of effective written communication (p. 4) as a practice behavior characteristic of all social workers and, therefore, programs need to measure student achievement of this behavior. The field evaluation forms can reflect two different objectives. First, they can differentiate the types of written communication that students are likely to be asked to demonstrate such as with clients, with field instructors, in agency records, in e-mails, and with colleagues and the community. Second, they can allow an evaluation along a continuum of performance. For example, on a standard Likert scale, a student may be evaluated with a 3 for frequently competent concerning completing agency records but a 5 for advanced competence with a more casual written communication such as submitting an agenda of concerns for supervision. Field education departments can urge faculty responsible for monitoring and grading field performance to emphasize the importance of professional writing skills equally with confidentiality, attendance, or other performance issues that require early intervention. During field site visits faculty can make a point of devising improvement plans when there are concerns about student writing for the agency.


Whereas social work educators have recognized the critical role field instructors play in the development of professional social workers, the new emphasis on field education as the signature pedagogy underscores the importance of the need to prepare field instructors for understanding and fulfilling their roles. Part of this responsibility includes the active participation of field instructors in assessing students and improving all of their skills, including their writing skills. When faced with students who do not seem to write well, field instructors may feel unprepared or unsupported. Rather than accepting the students' writing as a given or becoming frustrated and cynical in attempts to fix the problem, we believe that all social work educators, including field instructors, can help their students improve. WAC provides a new perspective as well as guidance for assessing writing problems and new tools for responding. We hope that the suggestions provided empower field education departments, social work faculty, and field instructors to actively address concerns about students' writing.


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Accepted: 12/10

Jessica M. Kahn

Lehman College

Richard Holody

Lehman College

Jessica M. Kahn is assistant professor and Richard Holody (deceased) was assistant professor at Lehman College.

Address correspondence to Jessica Kahn, Lehman College, Department of Social Work, Carman Hall B-18, 250 Bedford Park Boulevard West, Bronx, NY 10468; e-mail:

DOI: 10.5175/JSWE.2012.201000018
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Author:Kahn, Jessica M.; Holody, Richard
Publication:Journal of Social Work Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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