Marie Diggins is practice development manager at the
Social Care Institute for Excellence, the organisation responsible
for promoting best practice in social care. She began her career as
a social worker and then as an approved social worker and manager
in a London Community Mental Health Team (CMHT). Marie maintains
her management and practice skills by working one day a week in a
CMHT. Marie compiled Resource Guide 3: Teaching and Learning
Communication Skills in Social Work Education.
For some professions communication is a matter of life or death.
Social work is one of these, as we have seen with The Laming
Report1 and other inquiries into adult and child
With the introduction of the social work degree, communication was
established as a core learning outcome in the Department of
Health’s requirements for social work training.2
Recently, the Social Care Institute for Excellence, the
organisation responsible for finding out what works best in social
care, conducted a knowledge review to look at the most effective
ways of teaching and learning communication skills.
Knowledge Review 63 was commissioned to
identify key practice messages. Instead, it uncovered a dearth of
information and a huge area for development. While it identified
several innovative approaches and theories being used in teaching,
few of these teaching methods were published or had been thoroughly
The knowledge review is accompanied by a resource guide4
by the same name which identifies principles of teaching
communication skills, looks at what people are currently doing and
gives practice examples.
The review uncovered a lack of evaluated practice that educators
can use to underpin their teaching programmes and little coverage
of students’ different learning styles. As a result, although the
degree puts a strong emphasis on communicating well, there is a
limited evidence base to help educators identify what teaching and
learning methods are most effective.
The range of practice examples identified show that the literature
does not give an accurate picture of what is happening in current
and emerging educational practice. The practice survey found that
the most common pattern of teaching and learning communication
skills was the inclusion of a dedicated communication skills module
early in the course, or a strong communication component within an
early module on methods, skills and practice. It found that the
most common area covered in communication training was interviewing
skills, such as asking open questions, non-verbal communication and
empathy. This is usually taught in an experiential way, rather than
being based on evaluated theories. There is also a clear emphasis
on verbal communication, with little attention given to written
Overall, there is a strong emphasis on experiential teaching and
learning, such as role play, video work and small group work.
The evaluation of teaching tends to be concerned with satisfaction
with the process and method of training, rather than individual and
collective learning through learning aims and with outcome
measurements. Assessment is also based on self-reporting (“I feel
confident”). This is not enough. For example, service users,
educators and agencies expressed concerns about students’ written
skills whereas students did not.
Also, service users are not involved in teaching communication
skills and it is unclear whether the skills students are learning
in the classroom are transferable to the workplace. As one educator
observed, students consider the practice placement as a place to
get experience but not a place to learn. This illustrates the
importance of students understanding the application of theory to
The knowledge review identified six areas for development:
- Theory. The theoretical knowledge base that
underpins the teaching and learning of communication skills needs
to be made more explicit, adopting the same academic rigour used in
other areas of social work research and practice theory. More work
needs to be done on how some of the theory about teaching and
learning communication should be used in practice.
- The framework of teaching and learning. The
ways in which communication skills are taught are as important as
what is taught. Little of the literature suggested teaching
frameworks that could accommodate different learning styles and
there are concerns about how social work educators are trained in
the content of teaching communication skills and in the approach
- The transferability of communication skills.
Communication skills training must be better integrated with
- Evaluation. More work is needed on measuring
outcomes and the ways in which technology can be employed in
supporting face-to-face learning and teaching. Scie and the
Scottish Institute for Excellence in Social Work Education are
working to explore ways of supporting social work educators to
evaluate their work.
- User involvement. The core requirement of
service user views in the design and delivery of the new degree
makes it essential that educators begin to develop partnerships in
this area. Scie has produced a free resource guide with practice
guidance for involving service users and carers in the social work
degree, called Involving Service Users and Carers in Social
- Meeting different communication needs. The
literature review found very little research or guidance about
training in written communication skills or how to communicate with
people of different cultures and with particular communications
needs, for example, people who have English as a second language
and children. It is important that more work is done in this
An increased emphasis on practice learning will require more
rigorous systems and standards for teaching, learning and the
assessment of communication skills within practice settings. It is
important that as the degree programmes progress, more academic and
practice educators disseminate the work they are undertaking in
teaching and learning communication skills.
This point was driven home recently by professor John Carpenter
from the University of Durham in an address to the Joint Social
Work Education Conference in Glasgow. Carpenter pointed out that
unless social work educators began to evaluate the outcomes of the
new degree, “other people will do it for you!”
Are you a good communicator?
Service users agree that social workers who are good at
- Are courteous and turn up on time.
- Don’t use jargon, and speak directly to service users, not
carers or personal assistants.
- Really hear and accept what carers are saying.
- Explain what is happening and why.
- Say what they are going to do, don’t over-promise, and are
honest when they can’t help.
- Are patient and make enough time to communicate with disabled
- Recognise the loss of dignity people experience when
approaching social services for the first time and respond
- Don’t assume anything about a user’s abilities simply because
of a disability. l Understand the importance of privacy, peace and
quiet, and users’ and carers’ choice of meeting place.
- Know that closed questions (questions that need a yes or no
reply) can be easier to answer for service users with communication
- Remember that young people may prefer to talk while doing
- Build trust and warmth.
This article looks at new research findings on how communication
skills in social work education are taught. It looks at current
teaching practice and how it is evaluated, identifies areas for
improvement and provides some practical suggestions from service
users on how social workers can improve their communication
1 W H Laming, The Victoria Climbie Inquiry: Report
of an Inquiry by Lord Laming, 2003, Stationery
2 Department of Health, Requirements for Social Work
Training, 2003, Department of Health, available at
3 P Trevithick, S Richards, G Ruch, B Moss, L Lines and
O Manor, Teaching and Learning Communication Skills in Social
Work Education, in Knowledge Review 6. 2004, Social Care
Institute for Excellence, available at
4 M Diggins, Teaching and Learning Communication
Skills in Social Work Education, in Resource Guide 3, 2004,
available as above
- Knowledge Review 6: Teaching and learning communication
skills in social work education, Scie, www.scie.org.uk
- Resource Guide 3: Teaching and learning communication
skills in social work education, Scie
- Knowledge review 1: Teaching and learning assessment skills
in social work education, Scie
- Resource guide 2: Involving service users and carers in
social work education, Scie