Critical Thinking

Keith Brown holds professional qualifications
in nursing, social work and teaching; and academic qualifications
in nursing, social work and management. He has worked in the
education and training field for more than 15 years, working for
three universities and three council social work departments.
Currently he is the head of post-qualifying social work at
Bournemouth University.

Lynne Rutter is the student support lecturer for
the PQSW programme at Bournemouth University and delivers
information and study skills support via workshops, tutorials, web
pages and printed teaching materials. She is studying for an MA in
academic practice and researching the role of reflective learning
within PQSW education.

The post-qualifying award part one is now firmly established and
its link to career changes and pay structures has resulted in a
significant increase in demand for the programme. Bournemouth’s
rate of completion of the PQ1 has remained steady at almost 90 per
cent. Yet evaluation of the programme has shown that most if not
all post-qualifying award in social work (PQSW) students have unmet
learning needs, particularly around critical thinking and analysis,
reflective learning, and academic writing.

The PQSW award is split into two parts. The PQ part two
competences, in particular, focus on working in complex situations,
exercising powers and responsibilities, managing risk, and making
informed decisions. The competences are not merely a range of
technical skills but are based on aspects of critical awareness,
analysis and evaluation, and the ability to work autonomously and
responsibly. They align with national qualification level
descriptors for final year degree work.

To achieve the PQSW and gain academic credits, students are
expected to be able to express their practice knowledge and
expertise, their learning and development, their critical and
analytical abilities, and their application of theory into
practice. They have to show evidence for all this with reference to
the relevant literature and in a style acceptable for an academic

There are several barriers to achieving this for PQSW students. The
first consideration is that academia, like any specialist
environment, uses a lot of jargon and obscure language. Students
are always trying to second-guess what is required of them,
particularly with regard to assessment. Academic language and
assessment criteria can prove difficult for students to translate
into practical instructions for producing acceptable levels and
styles of work. Morgan developed this further by saying the
“academic socialisation” of working out what is required is a key
factor in students’ ultimate success.(1)

Second, one of the major issues for professionals who return to
study is understanding how to write academically. In practice
settings the skills of critically analytical or referenced writing
are rarely taught or developed, and so the transition from practice
to academia can prove difficult.

For instance, Whitehead’s research with student nurses found that
the academic style itself – rather than the content of their
assignments – became an over-riding obstacle for some students.(2)
Cooper and Rixon (3) showed that writing at an academic level was
similarly an issue in the field of social work, with nearly 30 per
cent of students experiencing major problems.

Last, we know that learning how to use and develop theory and
knowledge in practice is a key part of the PQSW programme. Making
connections between substantive areas of the curriculum, practice
and values, and demonstrating critical reflective thinking,
generates creative rather than programmed responses in students’
work. These responses are best measured with performance-style
assessments such as reflective assignments and portfolios. The main
issue for students is that, as assignments, they require a lot more
interpretation to explain what is required and how they differ from
traditional essays and purely descriptive writing.

In response to these considerations, we decided to provide extra
support for our students with interpreting academic and PQSW
requirements for critical thinking and analysis, reflective
learning, and academic writing. Due to the growing numbers of
students on our PQSW courses and our off-site delivery methods, our
response has been to provide accessible support via a handbook:
Critical Thinking and Analysis: A Guide to Enhancing Reflection,
Learning and Writing for Post Qualifying Social Work

The handbook aims to provide guidance to all students within the
framework of post-qualifying social work education. On our own
programmes it is enhanced by face-to-face workshops, teaching
materials, and support and feedback available upon request from our
lecturers via phone, e-mail or post.

“Critical thinking” as a process can appear formal and academic,
something far-removed from everyday life where decisions have to be
taken quickly in less than ideal conditions. It was therefore
unhelpful to present critical thinking as a linear process.

In the handbook we consider critical thinking as “a range of
essential abilities” linked to the way experts work in practice.
The handbook therefore takes a pragmatic stance and offers
practical and explicit advice on understanding the various types
and levels of critical thinking, showing how students can build on
their existing skills and knowledge to meet the PQ requirements in
their written work.

The issue of academic jargon is addressed by the use of an informal
style, everyday language and examples. This familiarising of the
academic process is also underpinned on our programmes via
briefings to senior managers and our regular contact off-site with
agency managers and training officers.

The handbook is designed to help students extract and express in
writing their learning and professional development. It advises
writing in a series of stages to build up to the appropriate
academic and professional levels of critical reflection, analysis
and evaluation. The stages move from the “what” (description), to
the “how” (clarification), to the “why” (understanding and
evaluation) and finally the “meaning” (learning) of an experience.
The aim is to help students develop an ability to show learning and
professional development using an academic style.

Obviously, critical thinking, analysis, reflection and even writing
can’t be taught with a handbook. Students can, however, develop
their abilities by being aware of the various elements involved and
by having explicit frameworks and processes to follow in order to
learn by doing. We hope this handbook will provide a better
understanding of those elements as well as some useful methods
students can try for themselves.

Critical Thinking…  handbook available for £7.50
from Centre for Post Qualifying Social Work, Bournemouth
University, 10 Christchurch Road (Heron House), Bournemouth, BH1


This article looks at particular learning and study needs of
PQSW students, concentrating on areas of critical thinking and
analysis, reflective learning, and academic writing. Based on our
experience various issues and responses are explored which
highlight the need for more explicit and interpretative


(1)  A Morgan, Improving your Students Learning: Reflections on
the Experience of Study, Kogan Page, 1993.

(2)  D Whitehead, “The academic writing experiences of a group
of student nurses: a phenomenological study”, Journal of Advanced
Nursing, 38 (5), 498-506, 2001.

(3)  B Cooper, A Rixon, Integrating post-qualification study
into the workplace; the candidates’ experience, Social Work
Education, 20 (6), 701-716, 2001.

Further Information:

  • J Moon, Reflection in Learning and Professional Development.
    London: Kogan Page, 1999.
  • G Rolfe, D Freshwater, M Jasper, Critical reflection for
    nursing and the helping professions. A users guide, Palgrave,
  • F Watson, H Burrows, C Player. Integrating Theory and Practice
    in Social Work Education, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2002

Contact Details:

Tel: 01202 464765


More from Community Care

Comments are closed.