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Teaching writing as a professional practice skill: a curricular case example.

"I WANT TO BE A SOCIAL WORKER, not a writer," proclaimed "Sharon," a master's of social work (MSW) student in a required MSW writing course, "so, why do I need to take a writing class?" Her remark offers faculty the same challenge we give to social work students: to articulate the need and rationale for an intervention designed to address a concern. As Alter and Adkins (2001) concluded, "The writing deficiency of students today is clearly a systemic problem" (p. 505). Because professional writing is a skill essential to full competence in social work practice, our faculty is compelled to respond.

This article describes the innovations our MSW program implemented to respond to this problem. As coordinators of this writing component, we describe the rationale, implementation, and assessment of our interventions. Our response involves a specific course as well as comprehensive curricular and programmatic changes. Most responses deal

DOI: 10.5175/JSWE.2012.201000030 with this problem in a single modality, whether by referral to a writing center or use of a remedial course and writing lab or writing tutors (e.g., Bond, Douglas, & Fein, 2009; Coppock, Ornelas, & Schuldberg, 2007; Diaz & Horton, 2009). Anecdotal evidence points to writing as a significant concern in social work. When we present on the topic of writing at social work education conferences, lively discussion ensues. Also, when the topic of student writing is generated on the MSW electronic mailing list, engaged discussion follows. Yet the literature on this concern is remarkably limited. In response, this article offers a distinctive resource for a ubiquitous educational concern.

Furthermore, as Sugawara (2009) observes, scholarly literature on curriculum development "is sorely lacking" (p. 447). This article responds to this global gap in the literature. The curricular case example format offers a comprehensive description and specific resources (Grise-Owens, Cambron, & Valade, 2010). Likewise, this article articulates how our MSW program's curricular innovation operationalizes the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE) Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS, 2008).

Rationale for a Writing Component in an MSW Curriculum

Anecdotal accounts and professional literature evidence at all educational levels indicate a pervasive decline in writing skills that negatively affects professional performance (e.g., Alter & Atkins, 2001, 2006; Bushfield, 2005; Grise-Owens, Crum, & Valade, 2007; Korkki, 2007). As Alter and Atkins (2001) contend, "A client's well-being is dependent on the social worker's ability to express clearly the meaning of ... professional judgments and build convincing arguments" (p. 337). This need for competent writing skill is rooted in the National Association of Social Workers' ([NASW], 1999) Code of Ethics. Social workers are to "promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of... individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities" (NASW, 1999, Preamble, para. 2). Furthermore, the Code of Ethics entreats social workers to "contribute to the knowledge base of the profession" (NASW, 1999, Ethical Principles, section 5.0, para. 7). Fulfillment of these ethical obligations requires writing that is convincing, clear, relevant, and credible.

Healy and Mulholland (2007) identify three arenas for professional writing skills: daily practice, professional context, and public context. Falk and Ross (2001) explicate nine purposes of social work writing: (1) to understand and care for sell (2) to communicate self to others, (3) to understand the perspective of others, (4) to describe transactions and findings, (5) to analyze materials, (6) to provide accountability, (7) to reach and persuade various audiences, (8) to build knowledge, and (9) to represent the profession. Falk and Ross issued an invitation for "further exploration of ways in which social work education can enhance writing skills so essential to social work" (p. 140). Our MSW program responded to this invitation.

Our MSW Program's Context and Curricula

Spalding University is a small, urban, religiously affiliated context. The MSW program has been accredited for more than a decade and builds on a longstanding bachelor of science in social work program. Our program actively supports a diverse student constellation and culture. Most of the 40 to 50 students in our MSW program are nontraditional, first-generation college students; most are female, with a significant percentage African American. The intensive MSW program meets every other weekend, which attracts students who work hall-time throughout graduate study. Many students are both underprepared and highly stressed. Learning writing as an additional practice skill often results in increased anxiety.

The MSW program has an integrative practice concentration, which involves an advanced generalist approach with emphases on social justice, critical thinking, and reflective practice. Our explicit curriculum uses these emphases to develop a multilevel, multimethod framework of practice that maintains the holistic nature of social work (Finn & Jacobson, 2008; Roy & Vecchiolla, 2004). In addition, our implicit curriculum is "as important as the explicit curriculum" in affecting both our students' successes and the program's effectiveness (CSWE, 2008, EP 3.0--Implicit Curriculum). Our school's implicit curriculum is encapsulated in our stated approach of "High Standards/High Support." This approach derives from our school's mission, which flows directly from our university mission. Key elements of this mission include (a) embracing a diverse community of learners, (b) meeting the needs of the times, (c) promoting a quality education, (d) remaining grounded in spiritual values, and (e) emphasizing service and the promotion of peace and justice. Furthermore, our MSW program's pedagogical culture is influenced by a criticalist, liberatory approach and social construction paradigm (e.g., Freire, 2007; Grise-Owens, Miller, & White, 2007; Gutierrez, Zuniga, & Lum, 2004; hooks, 2003; Roche et al., 1999; Saleebey & Scanlon, 2005; Witkin & Saleebey, 2007).

Implementation of the Writing Component

Our MSW program's explicit and implicit curricula demand that we respond to this significant problem of student writing with an approach that is informed, just, and systemic. We initiated a curricular writing component formally in 2004, and it continues to evolve. Figure 1 illustrates our program's response, which includes (a) including writing skills in our admissions criteria; (b) offering a required writing course in our MSW program; (c) implementing a standard writing rubric In MSW courses; (d) assigning integrated writing assignments, including peer reviews and sequential papers or rough drafts; (e) collaborating with the university writing center (UWC); (f) providing a writing coach for MSW students; (g) mentoring for professional scholarship; and (h) using the standard writing rubric criteria in the culminating project for our capstone MSW course, Exit Colloquium. In the following sections we articulate the impetus and theoretical underpinnings for our program's approach, as well as its goals and objectives. Then we describe each of the dimensions of our curricular writing component.

Impetus for Attention to This Concern and Paradigmatic Reframing

From our MSW program's inception over a decade ago, faculty consistently identified student writing skills as a concern. Faculty members were stymied. Bemoaning the deficits in the educational system, a typical faculty complaint would be "I barely have time to teach the content for my courses. I should not have to teach writing!" In efforts to address the poor writing, faculty made referrals to the UWC. However, as other social work programs have experienced, students usually did not follow up with these referrals (e.g., Alter & Adkins, 2006; Diaz & Horton, 2009). Consequently, some faculty spent inordinate time tutoring individual students, whereas other faculty simply made allowances for poor writing. Students sometimes complained about inconsistent standards, and some took adversarial stances with faculty who maintained high standards. Students and faculty were negatively affected. Our curriculum faced both a teaching and a learning problem.


The MSW director experienced a pivotal insight: (a) I teach primarily social work practice courses, (b) professional writing is a key practice skill, (c) ergo, I teach writing. This philosophical insight informed a paradigmatic shift that contributed to pragmatic curriculum changes. Instead of resisting teaching writing skills, we would determine ways to effectively teach writing as a practice skill.

Theoretical Perspectives, Goals, and Objectives

Our curricular innovation is based on the premise that a just response to a systemic problem requires structural intervention (Finn & Jacobson, 2008; Lundy, 2004). Our approach requires shifting to a paradigm that posits writing as an essential practice skill, one that requires curricular attention (e.g., Alter & Adkins, 2001, 2006; Falk & Ross, 2001; Grise-Owens, Crum, et al., 2007). Significantly, this critical adjustment moved from the problem-saturated, "Why can't these students write?" to a solution-focused, "How can our curriculum improve writing skills?"

As we considered this concern, we sought a response that would be personalized and assessment based, have a strengths perspective, and offer standards and support (terms that form the acronym PASS). These desired attributes model core social work values. Our approach resonates with Coppock et al.'s (2007) delineation of axioms and concepts bridging literacy theory and social work: (a) Start with where the person is, (b) use a strengths-based perspective, (c) focus on empowerment, (d) emphasize collaboration, (e) engage in reflective practices, and (f) maintain a multidisciplinary approach.

Our approach synthesizes elements from current writing pedagogy, including Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), critical thinking (CT), and the high-standards movement. Since the 1970s a significant amount of literature has developed that explicates these writing pedagogies. Alter and Adkins (2001) provide a helpful description of these pedagogies as pertinent to social work education. In addition, our curricular innovation was particularly informed by Bean (1996) and Zinsser (1988, 2006). These authors offer comprehensive and accessible information on theoretical underpinnings for writing pedagogy. In addition, they provide practical teaching strategies and activities.

These pedagogies offer a number of key elements that informed our curriculum changes. Two primary tenets of the WAC movement are Writing to Learn (WTL) and Writing in the Disciplines (WID). WTL proposes that the process is as important as the product (Colorado State University, 2010). "Writing enables us to find out what we know, and what we don't know" (Zinsser, 1988, p. 16). Good writing results from engagement in a thorough process of invention, collection, organization, drafting, and revision (Axelrod & Cooper, 2001; Kirszner & Mandell, 2009). WID, the second tenet of WAC, responds to the reality that "each discipline has its own unique language conventions, format, and structure" (Colorado State University, 2010, "An Introduction," para. 3). Good writing in social work requires use of American Psychological Association (APA) style and a variety of methods particular to the profession (Falk & Ross, 2001).

Building on the WAC movement, the CT approach incorporates the writing-as-process approach to writing instruction: selecting a topic, articulating a clear purpose and outline, gathering evidence, and forming a convincing argument (Alter & Adkins, 2001). According to Bean (1996), effective writing requires CT, and good written communication "show(s) a mind actively engaged in a problem" (p. 4). In social work, critical problem solving is not just desirable but also an ethical obligation. Finally, our program incorporates the high-standards movement into our pedagogy through our multifaceted interventions. Promoting professional competence and student success, these consistent high expectations are coupled with the necessary high support.

The overarching goal of social work education is to produce competent and ethical graduate social work professionals (CSWE, 2008, Purpose, para. 1). The overall objectives of the writing component of the curriculum are (a) to promote valuing writing as a professional practice skill, (b) to provide students with consistent and constructive feedback on writing, and (c) to produce graduates who are competent in professional writing skills. Because this writing concern is both a teaching and a learning problem, a concomitant objective is to provide faculty with practical resources to teach writing as a professional practice skill.

Evolving Dimensions of the Writing Component

Although the writing emphasis is currently enacted from the admissions process to the final MSW course, Exit Colloquium, our approach was not initially conceived in a comprehensive framework. The first step in our response was initiating a writing course; subsequent changes were built from that course. The following description documents the progression of these dimensions (see Figure 1).

Writing Course

In a significant curricular change, writing instruction begins with the first course in the MSW curriculum: Professional Writing in Social Work (SW-601). Notably, this course is required, not remedial. The rationale for this decision, congruent with our implicit and explicit curricula, was to maintain a systemic approach, avoid labeling of "bad writers," and offer all students equitable resources to improve writing. This approach also validates the importance of writing as a core practice skill, comparable to other skills. For example, although social work students enter our programs with varied abilities in core practice skills, such as interviewing, faculty would never consider having a remedial course for just the students who entered with deficits. Similarly, professional writing merits required coursework.

Taught by a writing instructor from our university, this course covers writing processes and elements of good writing (Bean, 1996; Hacker, 2004; Szuchman & Thomlinson, 2004; Zinsser, 1988, 2006). Syllabus objectives specify that at the end of the course students will do the following.

* View writing as a desirable professional practice skill

* View writing as a multistep process that leads to a final product

* Be familiar with research resources and methods to access resources

* Be familiar with the content and use of Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association and be able to articulate the ethical and logical rationale for responsible source citation

* Articulate the essential elements of effective written compositions

* Understand deficiencies in their writing and be familiar with writing resources and corrective techniques

In the first class, students receive critiques of a prework paper, using an analytic assessment tool designed by the instructor (adapted from Bean, 1996). This analytic structure provides specific feedback, including strengths. Using sell peer, and instructor critiques, students revise the prework paper with the understanding that "the essence of writing is rewriting" (Zinsser, 1988, p. 15). This approach focuses on the process of writing and uses a strengths perspective (e.g., Saleebey, 2008), which promotes self-efficacy (Bandura & Locke, 2003).

Through reading and writing assignments, class instruction, and peer critique students gain knowledge of elements and techniques used to construct credible written compositions that are clear, organized, and well-developed. Specific course assignments include a reflective essay about writing strengths and weaknesses and a source-based essay that requires students to choose a social concern, brainstorm alternative strategies for solutions, and integrate ideas from a published social justice essay into a written discussion of problems and solutions.

Standard Writing Rubric and Sequential Papers

Both of the initial essays for the writing course give the instructor opportunities for evaluation and pedagogy. Use of a rubric enables specific critiques of each essay. The specific elements of writing delineated by this evaluation tool are completion, organization, development, clarity, and credibility (e.g., Axelrod & Cooper, 2001; Bean, 1996; Kirszner & Mandell, 2009). By incorporating an analytic rubric into the learning process, students (a) improve understanding of concepts, (b) experience the grading process in a more objective way, (c) understand strengths relative to needs for improvement, and (d) revise writing (see Appendix).

The final grade for the writing course depends on the successful completion of a paper for a subsequent course. This requirement is an expectation of faculty in both courses. Students send their papers electronically to the writing instructor and receive written and oral critique in time to revise their papers before they are due in the next course. Thus begins the curricular infusion of the standard writing rubric.

Curricular Infusion

Our experience soon indicated that a single writing course, although helpful, did not adequately address the systemic problem of poor writing. Even offering additional writing consultation was insufficient. Like all significant educational goals, teaching writing as professional practice must engage knowledge, values, and skills. Educational theorists maintain that competency is not achieved simply through providing content. Deeper learning requires redundancy of material across assignments, scaffolding that builds from one assignment to another, and meaning-making, that is, connecting with personal experiences and values (e.g., Driscoll, 2004; Weimer, 2002). This deeper learning necessary for competency requires consistent curricular attention.

Thus, continuous communication between the writing instructor and the MSW director is essential to the success of the writing curriculum. After completion of the writing course the writing instructor meets with the MSW director to discuss challenges and aptitudes of students. In turn, the MSW director alerts faculty advisers to issues that might affect student success. This key assessment identifies not only students who can benefit from additional supports but also those who demonstrate exceptional writing skills. Also, the completed writing rubrics for students' papers from the writing course are placed in students' files; faculty teaching subsequent courses can review these files to promote earlier intervention and build on previous feedback. This shared documentation also promotes interrater reliability.

Likewise, with the goal of broadening support for and understanding of the writing component, the writing teacher provided an initial training for faculty on the writing rubric. She attends faculty meetings, as pertinent, to promote ongoing discussion about writing across the curriculum. The MSW director meets with new faculty to promote effective attention to writing as a professional practice skill in addition to discussing other aspects of the program.

Most faculty members now use the writing rubric in subsequent courses throughout the curriculum. This WAC approach provides a standard writing rubric for evaluating papers. Also, we link many writing assignments with practice situations. For example, congruent with the CT movement, our course Critical Thinking and Reflective Practice requires students to write a reflective paper on a critical incident from a practice experience. In an example from one of the practice courses, students write a case study analysis paper based on their field placements. The student builds this paper sequentially over the course through multiple rough drafts, using feedback for rewriting. Concomitantly, students read each other's papers and provide peer feedback, using the standard writing rubric. These strategies are designed to promote deeper learning (e.g., Bean, 1996; Driscoll, 2004; Zinsser, 1988).

Finally, the capstone course in the MSW curriculum, our Exit Colloquium, involves a culminating project that consists of a major paper and a public presentation. The project is required to demonstrate core professional competencies, integration of the MSW curriculum, and expertise in a particular practice area. The evaluation form includes professional writing as a core competency; the standard writing rubric criteria are explicitly used to evaluate that competency in the culminating project.

Complementary Dimensions of the Writing Emphasis

From the outset of this curricular innovation, the MSW program sought to collaborate with the UWC. Although the UWC was largely inaccessible to and ineffective with MSW students when the School of Social Work initiated our systemic change, through advocacy and collaboration the UWC has become a more viable partner. For example, the UWC began offering weekend hours, when MSW students are on campus, and providing tutoring and workshops related to APA editorial style. We began introducing the UWC coordinator in our writing course as a valuable educational resource. These steps have increased student usage of the UWC. However, students' continued reluctance to use the UWC-as noted earlier, a common circumstance--reinforces the necessity of a curricular approach.

To meet student needs, the MSW writing instructor serves as an ongoing coach. She is available to receive writing and meet with students throughout graduate study. Advantages of this strategy include (a) the development of a working relationship between the student and writing instructor, (b) use of instructor's knowledge of social work writing expectations, and (c) enactment by the coach of the MSW program's high-standards and high-support philosophy.

We strive to assess writing abilities and improve those skills, for both deficits and proficiencies. Faculty consistently mentor students toward professional presentations and publications. The Student Social Work Association sponsors an annual workshop, "Preparing for Professional Scholarship," led by the MSW director and another faculty member.

Our students increasingly enter writing contests, submit articles for publication, and present at conferences such as CSWE's Annual Program Meeting and the university's Annual Scholarship Showcase, which is indicative of their writing improvement. For example, our MSW program had 17 student abstracts accepted for the statewide consortium of schools of social work's 2011 Spring Student Conference. This number exceeds most other schools' participation, including significantly larger schools. Some of our students are also encouraged to continue with doctoral work and are mentored in that process. This multidimensional approach strengthens professional scholarship and fosters further professional development of our graduates.

MSW Program Admissions Essays

The most recent development of our MSW program's attention to writing as a professional practice skill is at the admissions stage. With the critical and successful progression of the above-described dimensions, we determined that using the standard writing rubric in admissions decisions would close the loop in systemic intervention. Historically, all applicants to our MSW program have been required to write an essay with prescribed content that relates to their fit with professional social work. A faculty member analyzes this essay for qualitative acumen (e.g., whether it articulates values consistent with the profession).

Beginning in 2009 the faculty member also evaluated this essay for writing ability, using three of the four criteria from the School of Social Work writing rubric. Organization, development, and clarity are evaluative elements in the admissions essay, whereas credibility-in-text and reference citation--is not. The faculty members who interview MSW applicants participated in an interrater reliability training. The faculty member interviewers rated the same three applicants' essays. When compared, their ratings were found to be consistent. Furthermore, in a faculty meeting we discussed this process and clarified particular ratings. Faculty expressed initial confidence in their ability to provide fair and consistent ratings for the essays. We will continue to assess interrater reliability as we implement these changes.

The score on the writing rubric is one of five criteria considered in admissions decisions. Other criteria are undergraduate gradepoint average, an individual interview, volunteer and job experience, and professional references. We decided to include the writing rubric in the admissions process for three key reasons: (1) to promote more refined admissions decisions; (2) to provide early assessment of writing ability, allowing for earlier intervention for students who demonstrate excellent potential for professional social work but may need additional supports to successfully complete graduate school; and (3) to promote early socialization to the program expectations regarding professional writing, thus promoting student awareness and investment. This essay score provides a concrete indicator for consideration; the standard writing rubric provides a consistent measure.

Though it is too early to ascertain the long-term effect of this admissions process change, anecdotal evidence points to preliminary benefits. For instance, faculty members are now more likely to identify writing concerns and needed supports. Here is one example. We admitted a student with a low essay score who met other criteria sufficiently. We informed the student during the interview and acceptance process that she would be expected to work with the writing coach and/or writing center. This early assessment promotes earlier intervention, which promotes retention.

Assessments: Addressing Challenges and Measuring Success

Notably, all the strategies and assignments described earlier incorporate key aspects of established writing pedagogies: WAC, WID, WTL, and CT. We have seen positive results from these curricular changes, in both enhanced student performance and reduced faculty frustration. We continue to implement evaluative measures as essential to our program's efforts. The following section briefly describes various assessment processes related to the curricular innovation, including programmatic, curricula, and CSWE EPAS considerations.

Faculty Buy-In: A Key Indicator

Realistically, the success of any curriculum change is significantly affected by faculty buy-in (Grise-Owens, Cambron, & Valade, 2010; Sugawara, 2009). As Alter and Adkins (2006) noted, although writing counts, faculty can be reluctant to devote class time to writing, and "concern with writing skills will always take second place to the teaching of social work practice" (p. 350). Thus, the theoretical framework of social capital is particularly pertinent. Sugawara defines social capital as elements such as "networks, relations, norms, values, ties, affinities, responsibilities, and resources that enable people to act and achieve collective ends" (p. 447). One key social capital measure of the success of this curricular innovation is the increasing level of faculty buy-in, which is affected, in turn, by other social capital factors.

Faculty buy-in did not happen readily, and it continues to evolve. Although only one faculty member initially used the standard writing rubric introduced in the writing course, now most MSW faculty members use the rubric. Some use the rubric in total; others adapt the rubric's writing criteria as a component of their assignment rubric. Also, the tone around this teaching-learning issue is increasingly solution oriented. Several factors influence faculty buy-in, such as (a) engaging leadership of faculty members; (b) refraining writing as a professional practice skill; (c) providing a specific, accessible tool; (d) fostering a systemic, collaborative approach; (e) receiving positive student feedback; (f) articulating this curriculum component through professional scholarship; and (g) socializing new faculty.

As mentioned earlier, the MSW director assiduously promotes the paradigm shift toward writing as a core practice skill, with a curricular component. Also, the faculty member who teaches the writing course collaborates diligently with other faculty, providing mini-workshops at faculty meetings on the writing rubric and serving on the ad hoc committee to revise MSW admissions processes. Most faculty members are overextended; resistance to taking time to figure out how to teach writing is understandable. However, most educators welcome tools for teaching more effectively. A standard writing rubric provides a tool that benefits both students and faculty.

Furthermore, the collaborative tone and systemic approach promote consistency and investment. Because this component of the curriculum is measured throughout the curriculum rather than sequestered in a writing course, broad ownership is promoted. Students respond positively to this consistency, which in turn fosters faculty investment. The MSW director and writing coach present nationally and locally on this curricular evolution. Articulation in scholarship of teaching-learning contexts serves to inform the changes and to reinforce the legitimacy of the approach. Finally, as new faculty members are oriented to the MSW program, this approach to writing as a professional practice skill is becoming more normative. All the above-described factors can be conceptualized as social capital, which influences systemic changes--including curriculum development (Sugawara, 2009). Evolution of this change depends on continued attention to social capital, including assessment data to inform this curricular emphasis.

Evaluation of the Writing Component Across the Curriculum

To that end, the faculty and student performance in the writing class are continuously evaluated. The student completes two evaluation forms: (1) the university Scantron form and (2) an MSW program formative evaluation that requires a numeric ranking and a narrative evaluation. Consistently, these evaluations are positive overall. For example, four cohorts in a 2-year period (2008 and 2009; n=43) gave the writing class a mean 92% positive ranking in nine categories. Students ranked the writing class using a Likert scale (1-5). The writing class received its highest rankings (4 and 5) in three areas: (1) "The instructor facilitated learning" (100% agree or strongly agree), (2) "The course challenged me to think" (96% agree or strongly agree), and (3) "Learning methods used in this class session contributed to my learning" (95% agree or strongly agree). Lowest rankings on formative evaluations are on two measures: (1) "The instructor selected materials that were effective in achieving the course objectives" (87% agree or strongly agree) and (2) "The course syllabus accurately described the class session content" (91% agree or strongly agree).

Specifically, the most frequent positive remarks on the formative evaluation (n=43) are in four areas: (1) feedback on papers, (2) instruction in the writing process, (3) help with clarity, and (4) APA citation style. Some comments that illustrate student evaluations, respectively, are as follows: "The most helpful thing was the amount of feedback," "I learned how to think things through," "It helped me get rid of unneeded verbiage," and "APA guidance (was helpful)." The most useful negative remarks on evaluations regarded the separation of the writing course from other academic classes. This critique led to the decision to make the writing class contiguous with another course. This format allows for the critique and revision of a paper for the other course as part of the writing course.

The writing course introduces professional writing standards and methods. Following completion of the writing course, students continue to use the standard writing rubric with rough drafts, peer reviews, and faculty feedback. These multiple feedback sources with a consistent grading tool reinforce learning for the student.

Concomitantly, this approach provides faculty with a core evaluation instrument that enables clear instruction. As one faculty member commented, "The writing rubric gives a common language and framework. Now, students are less likely to think I am just making up these writing rules." A part-time faculty member who also teaches full-time at another institution reported, "The writing rubric is helpful to use in all my courses." One new adjunct faculty member did not use the rubric for the first writing assignment in her course. Some students complained to her that they did not understand her feedback. When she used the rubric with subsequent assignments, she reported improved communication. In fact, when she dealt with a student's grade disagreement, the writing rubric promoted nonadversarial communication about grading standards.

Overall, student complaints have decreased because faculty are more consistent and have the tools to provide feedback. As one student remarked, "We don't have to figure out in each new class who cares about writing. You all care about it!" Another student e-mailed a professor, "Is there a different rubric for this assignment or will we be using the usual rubric?"

For a more formalized evaluation of the effect of this writing emphasis in the curriculum, in November 2009 we surveyed the MSW students in the concentration year. Respondents were from two sections of the Integrative Practice course (taught by two different professors), comprising students in the second year of the regular program and advanced-standing students who began the program in June 2009 (n=24). Students were provided with information necessary for informed consent, including the assurance of confidentiality and that responses would be compiled by a (nonsocial work) graduate assistant.

Here are the student responses on a Likert scale (1-5): (a) "Use of a consistent writing rubric promotes improved writing" (4.67), (b) "Use of a consistent writing rubric contributes to my learning" (4.63), (c) "Use of peer reviews contributes to my learning" (3.83), and (d) "Use of rough drafts contributes to my learning" (4.79). Notably, these composite responses to use of the writing rubric and rough drafts were strongly positive. The weakest area was the use of peer reviews.

The survey also sought specific comments regarding strengths and weaknesses. The comments about the use of the writing rubric were very positive, with only one negative comment: "It can stifle creativity." This feedback reminds faculty to encourage creativity in the invention phase while emphasizing that the final product should conform to professional writing standards. Qualitative themes emerged that the rubric helped with "focus, organization, consistency, clear expectations." A representative comment was, "I really love the idea of the [writing] rubric. It basically was a tool and guide for me to follow. It was very helpful! Keep it!" Similarly, student assessment of the use of rough drafts was positive. A typical comment: "Rough drafts and feedback definitely help writing process."

The "weaknesses" comments related primarily to peer reviews. A typical comment was, "Peers can be unreliable. Professor feedback is always useful." This feedback reminds us to emphasize more consistently for students the importance of peer feedback and its implications for professional practice. To that end, we implemented a brief module on peer feedback and now provide more ongoing input regarding quality peer feedback. Anecdotally, we have seen improvement this year in both the quality of peer feedback and students' valuing of this practice as important for ethical practice.

Overall, this evaluative feedback indicates positive effects and affect related to these curricular efforts to improve student writing. We continue to assess these efforts and make changes as indicated.

Embedded Assessment, University Scorecard, EPAS Implications

Using a standard writing rubric is an "embedded assessment" method, as originated by Walvoord and Johnson-Anderson (1998). This method "allows multiple courses to use the same outcomes and rubrics.., thereby, guaranteeing consistency without the use of cookie-cutter syllabi or methods" (Gerretson & Golson, 2005, p. 139). Furthermore, an embedded assessment across courses promotes program cohesion, because "instructors feel more engaged in a common cause" (Gerretson & Golson, 2005, p. 145). This embedded assessment in courses across our curriculum leads to the capstone course, the Exit Colloquium, with a required culminating project. All full-time MSW faculty members are assigned to mentor five to six students and evaluate their projects. The comprehensive grading rubric for this project explicates the standard writing rubric criteria to assess the "graduate-level writing" competency.

Embedded assessment is an accessible and pertinent evaluative measure for an academic unit. Our university uses a "unit scorecard" as a means of evaluation. Each academic unit identifies annual objectives related to university and unit goals and evaluative steps. For academic year 2008-2009 the MSW program selected "competency in graduate-level professional writing" as one unit objective for our scorecard. We specified the intended outcome as "MSW students will score an average of 3.5 or above (on a 5-point scale) on the culminating project's graduate-level writing" criterion. In evaluating this unit outcome, the average score was 4 (n=19), indicating that our school exceeded the identified objective. Although these results are encouraging, we continue to monitor this measurement and look for ways to improve both the overall unit score and individual student writing.

Finally, we consider this curricular innovation through the lens of the CSWE (2008) EPAS. Schools of social work must demonstrate adherence to these standards. As noted in the Rationale section of this article, writing is a practice skill essential to ethical and competent practice. Thus, professional writing is an overarching skill that directly or indirectly relates to most of the explicit curriculum core competencies (EP 2.1). To illustrate: EP 2.1.1--Identify as professional social worker and conduct oneself accordingly--specifies demonstrating "professional ... communication." EP 2.1.3--Apply critical thinking to inform and communicate professional judgments- requires that students "demonstrate effective oral and written communication." CSWE (2008) EP 3.0, "Implicit Curriculum," requires that programs demonstrate effective strategies in admissions, student supports, and retention. Because of recent (2008) implementation, assessing the use of the standard writing rubric in our MSW admissions process is preliminary. However, faculty readiness to implement the rubric in the admissions process is also an indicator of faculty buy-in. We will continue to assess the effectiveness of this dimension, including the effect on implicit curriculum considerations such as student composition, success, and retention.

Furthermore, CSWE (2008) EP 4.0, "Assessment," requires that programs demonstrate systemic assessment strategies. Our curricular writing innovation exhibits our MSW program's systemic attention to writing as a professional practice skill. This innovation stems from a needs assessment and demonstrates an informed intervention using a strengths perspective. Furthermore, this systemic development shows how our program supports students while maintaining high professional standards. In sum, this curricular innovation responds effectively to Holloway, Black, Hoffman, and Pierce's (n.d.) instructive paper, "Some Considerations of the Import of the 2008 EPAS for Curriculum Design." Specifically, the writing component of our curriculum "emerges from mission and goals" (p. 7) and is attentive to "measurable practice behaviors that are comprised of knowledge, values, and skills" (p. 2). Our approach provides specific knowledge, promotes the value of writing as a practice skill, and specifies integrated measurement. Furthermore, this writing knowledge, value, and skill "architecture" is integrated throughout the curriculum (p. 9); the standard writing rubric means that "student outcomes on particular assignments can be aggregated and used for [assessment]" (p. 12). Finally, this curricular design "requires that faculty work together in the building of competencies" (p. 14). This EPAS emphasis on collaborative curriculum development is congruent with attention to social capital. As Sugawara (2009) attests, "Social capital requires maintenance . . . and must be renewed and confirmed" (p. 14).

As part of this social capital maintenance we continually ask the "bottom line" question: What are the costs versus benefits of this writing emphasis? As all students are required to take the writing course, the tuition income offsets the relatively meager cost of paying an adjunct faculty member to teach and offer coaching. Likewise, this 1-hour course and coaching resource supports the MSW program's integral commitment to preparing graduates with professional competencies, including professional writing. This commitment merits investment in resources throughout the curriculum.

Notably, this academic year our university began exploring how to improve student writing skills in all the academic programs. Our MSW program's investment in addressing this concern can inform this broader university-wide initiative. Also, this university emphasis can reinforce our unit's progress and potentially provide more resources. Through further collaboration all our university programs can benefit.

Concluding Invitation

The writing component of our curriculum continues to evolve through maintenance, renewal, and confirmation. Our curricular interventions have not been perfectly executed, nor are they a panacea for poor writing. As with any systemic issue the problem, systems, and responses are dynamic. However, our MSW program's response to the pandemic problem of poor writing offers a significant contribution for social work education. We encourage the philosophical shift from viewing the teaching of writing as an extra burden to understanding it as an essential element of teaching effective social work practice. We provide specific strategies and tools to enhance teaching and improve student writing, using an integrated, competency-based approach. In addition to its contribution to addressing a significant educational concern, this article responds to a call for more attention to curriculum development (Sugawara, 2009) and offers strategies for implementing EPAS (CSWE, 2008). We invite continued collegial dialogue about this important curricular component and broader scholarly attention to curriculum development.

We conclude with a follow-up report on Sharon, introduced at the beginning of this article, who questioned the need for learning how to write more effectively. In the second year of Sharon's MSW program a faculty member met with the student and her field supervisor for her field evaluation. Her field supervisor complimented Sharon's excellent writing skills. Sharon shared that she used the writing coach resource; spontaneously, she articulated the need for writing in professional practice. Through our explicit curriculum Sharon learned that ethical practice requires competent skills, including professional writing. Through our implicit curriculum Sharon learned that responsible social work programs demonstrate addressing systemic concerns with systemic responses.

Appendix. MSW Program: Standard Writing Rubric (a)

The paper is assessed in five areas: completion, organization, development, clarity, and credibility. Each area is rated on a scale (b) describing how consistently the paper meets standards.


Paper complies with specific guidelines provided by instructor.

* Paper sufficiently addresses each topic specified on the assignment description or outline.

* Paper meets page-count requirements.

Numeric ranking: -- Comments:


Paper is well-organized.

* An introduction clearly describes the topic.

* Body of paper relates directly to the topic described in the title and introduction.

* Conclusion makes connections between content areas and describes the relevance of present evidence to the overall topic.

* APA headings are used appropriately.

* Paragraphs are focused on one topic.

* Transition phrases/sentences help the reader move smoothly from one idea to the next.

Numeric ranking: -- Comments:


Paper reflects critical thought and is fully developed.

* Writer defines terms that are key to the central topic.

* Writer develops each new idea or content area with relevant and specific supporting evidence.

* Writer consistently interprets the relevance of supporting evidence.

Numeric ranking: -- Comments:


Sentences are clear and coherent.

* There are few proofreading errors.

* Sentences are concise and/or easily understood.

* Word choice is appropriate and precise.

* Writer uses punctuation and mechanics proficiently.

* Writer uses active voice most of the time.

Numeric ranking: -- Comments:


Writer uses APA style to cite a variety of credible sources.

* Writer uses outside sources including experts, scholarly articles, relevant unbiased print media, and personal experience to support central idea or argument.

* Paraphrases seem appropriately reworded.

* Writer uses quotation marks for direct quotes.

* In-text citations contain necessary information.

* Reference page is in proper format and corresponds with in-text citations.

Numeric ranking: -- Comments:

Overall Comments

Summarize specific strengths and areas for attention:

(a) To save space, the format above is compressed; typically, the rubric contains ample space for


(b) Scales vary depending on the points available for the particular assignment.


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Accepted: 05/11

Erlene Grise-Owens is director and professor and Kimberly Crum is part-time faculty at Spalding University.

Address correspondence to Erlene Grise-Owens, Spalding University, School of Social Work, 845 South Third St., Louisville, Kentucky 40203; e-mail:

Erlene Grise-Owens

Spalding University

Kimberly Crum

Spalding University
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Author:Grise-Owens, Erlene; Crum, Kimberly
Publication:Journal of Social Work Education
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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