Students need study skills

A recent Community Care article1 highlighted
the high drop-out rate of people undertaking the post-qualifying
award in social work (PQ1) and looked at the need for students to
have access to additional support while they were studying for the
award. The drop-out rate currently stands at 37 per cent.

Several evaluation studies have been conducted with candidates
undertaking the Bournemouth University PQ1 programme (such as Brown
and Keen2 and Young and Keen3). Echoing the
position of Keville, these studies have indicated that the
programme often benefits social workers in terms of confidence and
engaging with core values and policy.

However, a range of learning needs regarding the acquisition and
use of information are also identified in these studies. It has
become apparent from student feedback that, although we live in the
world of evidence-based practice, most students do not know how to
find or access research evidence let alone use it. There appears to
be a significant difference between the world of evidence-based
practice and the reality of social work practice.

So a group of researchers, including these authors, considered
these learning needs to design a strategy so that post-qualifying
social work students could engage with and utilise research

There are two learning outcomes of the PQ1 programme relevant to
research evidence. These specify that students will be able to:

  • Critically review the body of knowledge within the candidate’s
    chosen area.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of their practice using a relevant
    knowledge base including an understanding of legal and policy
    contexts and appropriate research.

To meet these requirements, students need to exploit the range
of information sources offered by their course provider (full
library access, inter-library loans, bibliographic databases and
full-text electronic journals and newspapers) and by others in the
wider academic and social work arena.

However, our research suggests many students found these demands
daunting. Many had limited knowledge of, or limited access to,
sources of either print or electronic information. Many students
lacked basic searching and information skills or said they lacked
time to undertake literature research. These shortcomings often led
to anxiety, lack of confidence and frustrating and futile attempts
to gain the information needed for the programme. As a result, we
would argue that the integration of information and study skills
into the PQ1 programme is vital.

Bournemouth is one of more than 100 university and college
libraries that belong to the reciprocal borrowing scheme, UK
Libraries Plus. This has been a vital resource for PQ1 students who
are not close to the town. By using these other libraries, those
without internet access at home or work may be able to go online or
at least gain access to a wider range of books or printed journals.
Other efforts to help students find information are detailed in the
panel (see below).

PQ1 students at Bournemouth are given password access to a range of
academic bibliographic databases, including Applied Social Sciences
Index and Abstracts (Assia), Lawtel, Medline, PsychInfo, Sociology
Abstracts and Web of Science Citation Indexes, as well as the usual
range of free titles such as Caredata and Cochrane. Many of these
databases provide only abstracts or summaries of journal articles
and papers, so supplementary access is provided by subscriptions to
19 major suppliers of full-text electronic journals. We are also
arranging further access to reading list materials with digitised
book chapters and articles through the Higher Education Resources
Online (Heron) scheme.

The potential barrier to resources is therefore overcome but even
then students often don’t know about the tools and process of
literature searching, which can cause further problems and
anxieties for them. User-focused teaching and support, for instance
via an information skills session, can be used to alleviate this by
giving students a jargon-free understanding of what databases and
other sources are, how they work and what they provide.

The session can also offer a basic introduction to electronic
search skills, as well as a step-by-step procedure for literature
searching which should save students time in trying to deal with
the large selection of sources available. Also valuable are
demonstrations of databases, e-journals and e-newspapers, which
familiarise students with their structure and content and give an
introduction to their search facilities. Many students who tried
basic searches for themselves during the sessions expressed
surprise at how quickly and easily they found relevant journal

Bibliographic literature searching is not the whole story, though.
Many authoritative full-text sources are now available on web pages
provided by organisations, for example the Social Care Institute
for Excellence, and by statutory authorities, such as the
Department of Health. However, most of us have experienced the
frustration of conducting lengthy, fruitless internet searches. To
alleviate the problem Bournemouth has provided students with a set
of links to specific, relevant full-text web pages under such
headings as “statistics”, “legislation”, “practice guidance” and
“policy documents”.

This comprehensive, user-focused package of information skills
support is complemented by support from the candidate’s agency.
Good channels of communication and a framework of co-operation
between the education provider and the agency have been found to be
beneficial to students’ experience of the course and their ability
to complete it. Candidates who feel well supported by line managers
or training officers and who can discuss their work with colleagues
report a more positive PQ1 experience. Bournemouth’s completion
rate of 87.5 per cent, compared with the 63 per cent quoted by
Keville, is testament to the value of such support and

– The authors of this article will be presenting a paper at the
National Association of Training Officers in the Personal Social
Services (Natopss) conference in April on accessing and using
information and research for evidence-based practice. For further
information contact Lynne Rutter, PQSW department, Bournemouth
University, Heron House, Christchurch Road, Bournemouth, Dorset BH1
3NN, or e-mail 

Keith Brown is head of post-qualifying social work
programmes, Lynne Rutter is student support and library skills
lecturer and Natasha Young is research fellow in the PQSW team at
the institute of health and community studies, Bournemouth


1 H Keville, “Doomed to Drop Out?” Community
page 36, 28 November 2002

2 K Brown and S Keen, “Post Qualifying Awards in Social
Work (Part 1): Necessary evil or panacea?”, Social Work Education
(in press)

3 N Young and S Keen, What do Candidates Think of
the PQ1 Programme at Bournemouth University? An Evaluation of the
First Cohort from the London Borough of Redbridge
, Bournemouth
University, 2002

Support service

To meet students’ information needs, Bournemouth University
appointed a full-time student support and library skills lecturer
and developed an information skills session, available to all
students. A primary aim is to build students’ confidence with
information, so a user-controlled, proactive approach to
information has to be encouraged from the start. The information
skills session is relaxed and informal, with the emphasis on
alleviating anxieties about literature and information searching by
sharing experiences early on. In many cases previous bad
experiences could have been avoided, and better practices could be
learned in the session. Other students have had good experiences
finding information and have shared these with their peers.

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