Social work student essays: the basics

Academic essays require that you demonstrate your understanding of a topic, by referring to relevant discussions and research and coming to your evaluations and conclusion.

by Alison Higgs, lecturer (social work), Open University

Planning your essay

Academic essays require that you demonstrate your understanding of a topic, by referring to relevant discussions and research and coming to your evaluations and conclusion. It can be helpful to think about the activity of essay writing as joining an academic conversation on a particular topic. This allows you to ask questions such as:
• what has been said already?
• what new questions are being asked?
• what gaps have I identified?

Developing an argument

In social work essays, a range of material will provide evidence to support your views and explain others’ ideas. Peer-reviewed academic journal articles, where your topic is discussed and relevant research presented, are as important as set textbooks. When writing about your own practice, you will be expected to illustrate theoretical discussions with non-identifiable case examples. For social policy, you might refer to government documents. These are just some of the different kinds of evidence you can use to explore and evaluate the essay themes.


The way your essay is put together matters as much as the content. Your tutors want to see that you can use your knowledge and understanding to address the essay title. Careful attention to structure will also ensure that sufficient weight is given to each part of the essay question, and help you avoid simply writing all you know about the topic.

Beginning, middle and end?

The idea of an academic conversation about a topic can also be helpful when thinking about structure. How are you going to join in? The introduction should be more than just a restating of the essay question. Instead, it should outline how the question will be answered, and which areas will be focused on. Inevitably, there will be far too much material to look at, so the student can state how and why they have narrowed the focus to particularly important issues.

Having chosen which areas to look at, evaluated different kinds of evidence and developed an argument, the conclusion draws together the main threads of your discussion, demonstrating how a view has been reached. It needs to do more than just restate what has been written: it is an essential part of the essay. Giving yourself enough space to write about each element you need to address will allow you to build a persuasive argument focusing on the essay title as a whole.

Researching your essay

As well as personal notes, handouts and the core reading suggested by your lecturer, essays will benefit from additional research. There is a wealth of online and print material available, via your university library and the internet. Peer-reviewed academic social work journals reflect current debates and offer examples of academic writing.
Organisations led by and working with specific user groups often offer new perspectives. The Social Care Institute for Excellence  and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are great places to find recent research. University library staff will be able to point you to other sources and databases.


Your university librarian can show you how to use referencing databases, such as EndNote or RefWorks, to store and organise the references for any resources you use for academic work, throughout your studies. You can set up folders on different topics, and create reference lists in the style you need, to be imported automatically into your assignments.

Correct referencing is essential to avoid plagiarism. You need to show which ideas and quotations are not your own, and where they come from. Using referencing databases is another way to help you develop this academic skill, supplementing the guidance you will receive at university.

Learning and writing

Social workers need to be able to write clearly for a variety of audiences, identifying key issues and putting forward persuasive arguments. They also need to be confident in their professional judgment, weighing up different views as well as using their own personalities. The best essays demonstrate personal reflection, a critical approach to theory and focused research. Students develop these qualities in their writing as they move through their degree course and expectations change as you move towards your final year of study.


For more information about essays go to the Essay Help section on CareSpace where you can find lots of advice and post your own requests for help.

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