Joanna Rawles discusses how social work students develop the skills for professional judgement on their placements and what helps them to do so.

Dr Joanna Rawles

Joanna Rawles discusses how social work students develop the skills for professional judgement on their placements and what helps them to do so.

Social workers need to be confident in their ability to formulate and communicate professional judgement. Service users have a right to expect it. If we accept this premise, then I believe it is the responsibility of everyone involved in social work education to enable students to deliver on this expectation. Whilst there is a growing research literature into decision making and professional judgement in social work (eg. Journal of Social Work Practice special issue 2018 vol 32 (2)), we still know surprisingly little about how social work students, or indeed qualified practitioners, actually develop the expertise required for this. If we don't know what helps, then the educational strategies we use can be a bit pot luck and trial and error. This is why I am pleased to be able to share with you some findings from recent Doctoral research with social work students about how they developed the skills for professional judgement on their placements and what helped them to do so.

Before going further it may be useful to scrutinise the premise that social workers need to be confident in their ability to formulate and communicate their professional judgment. Is this really the case?

Social workers and professional judgement

When I have shared this research with groups of practice educators someone often points out that social workers rarely get to use their judgement anymore. Assessment tools are often procedural and prescriptive and decisions are made as part of managerial processes often based primarily on the availability of resources. I don't disagree with this or negate the challenges and frustrations it brings. My response is that we need to acknowledge that social workers themselves are often not the ultimate decision makers in many situations. I believe, however, that we do a disservice to service users and to the profession of social work not to also acknowledge the potential for "good authority" (Ferguson 2011:171) that our professional judgement can bring to bear on those decision makers. I would argue that confidently being able to form and articulate your professional judgment becomes more rather than less important in a procedurally, resource driven environment.

It may also be that the frustration of not having your professional judgement heeded gives a false sense of the extent to which you can or do use your professional judgement at all. Social workers are taking a view and making decisions about, with or on behalf of service users on a daily basis. To not acknowledge this runs the risk of not scrutinising these judgements or reflecting on their potential for using power in a good or a bad way. At its most benign this could be a wasted opportunity; at its most insidious it could be dangerous. Exploring critical incidents with students during my research it was evident that despite not yet being qualified they were already involved in an awful lot of decision making, even though they may not have always realised it at the time.

The research

For the purposes of this research I defined professional judgement in the following way:

To draw a conclusion, make a decision, offer an opinion or recommend a course of action within a professional context as a social work student (Rawles 2016)

I chose to take a broad approach to the definition incorporating decision making as part of the umbrella of professional judgement rather than treating it as a separate concept as suggested by others (eg. Taylor 2010). This was so that the research participants had plenty of scope to consider occasions when they used their professional authority and expertise to reach a conclusion, whether or not this was acted upon by decision makers.

The research participants were social work students in England who were on the point of qualifying. During interviews I asked them to share occasions from their placements that were significant to the development of their ability to exercise professional judgement. We then explored why these occasions were significant to their learning and development and what helped them to be so. I was interested in understanding their 'authentic professional learning' (Webster-Wright 2009). In other words I wanted to understand the learning as it actually took place for them in all its complexity and multi-faceted nature rather than testing or evaluating a specific approach or learning strategy.

How did the participants develop skills for professional judgement and what helped?

The research indicates that social work students develop skills for professional judgement through the presence and interaction of three key areas or domains as illustrated here.

The domains affecting professional judgement

Professional Responsibility

Crucial to their development was having the experience of being responsible for aspects of practice and being responsible for having to arrive at professional opinion about that practice. Regardless of what the piece of work was, or the type of judgement being made, it was the act of owning that responsibility that was important. One participant expressed this by saying it was "by virtue of havingto make the decisions" that he learned and developed. Participants often spoke of the responsibility of holding a case load or leading on a project. They talked of the impact of knowing it would be their name on the assessment or report. The following contribution stresses the impact of this sense of ownership

"Because I am doing the assessment. I am assessing the situation…I am going in with fresh eyes now and I am having to do this, and I am having to make judgements based on what I see not based on what someone else has said."

The significance of this responsibility was the realisation that they were expected to be a professional who holds this responsibility and that this was part of being a social worker. It can be difficult as a practice educator knowing when is right to give your student this level of responsibility but for this group of students it was fundamental to their development.

Facilitating the professional voice

The significance of this domain illustrates why the role of practice educator is pivotal and includes what I term 'active facilitation' and 'responsive facilitation'. It seems that what matters is not just having a good relationship with your student, important though this is, it is what you do to enable them to develop and express their professional view that reaps the most rewards. This can be through actively and intentionally seeking their view (active facilitation) as well as being responsive and valuing of them offering a professional opinion (responsive facilitation).

'Active facilitation' can be as simple as asking the student what they think. The question "what do you think?" was a light-bulb moment for many of the participants and proved a highly significant turning point in them understanding their responsibilities for professional judgement. I would suggest that if there is just one thing you incorporate into your interactions with students it is to simply ask them what they think and resist the temptation to tell them what you think first! This question often stopped the students in their tracks and made them realise not only that they needed to work out what they didthink and why but also suddenly appreciated that it was part of the responsibility of their role to offer a professional view.

Practice educators that were most valued were those that used strategies to encourage the student to talk through what they thought, why they thought it and where they got the evidence from (which included formal as well as practice knowledge). This was referred to by the participants as "drawing it out of me" or "forcing me to come up with the goods" and was considered by all as invaluable. It is important to note that this was effective when it was part of a good working relationship and often incorporated humour so that it was perceived as a positive challenge not as oppressive.

It was also very important to participants when any professional opinion that they did venture was explicitly valued. The reason I refer to this as 'responsive facilitation' is to emphasis the role these responses had in facilitating the professional confidence of the student.

Learner agency

Domains 1 and 2 above work in tandem, one is rarely effective without the other. The third piece of the jigsaw is the students' recognition of themselves as learners and their endeavours to actively engage with people and opportunities. They could be given the practice opportunities, have a practice educator facilitating their professional voice but it was they themselves who ultimately made the connections between all these components. Several of the participants referred to "using" other people. This could be as part of discussions, meetings and observing practice. The active way they expressed this demonstrates their endeavours to get something out of the interaction rather than merely being a passive recipient of information or of other people's views. Another way this was referred to was "bouncing off other people". Particularly powerful for some was the realisation that professionals could have different views. This propelled the student to then reflect on what their own view was and why.

You may think the significance of learner agency suggest that it is all down to how 'able' the student is. It is true that, for many reasons, students all have different starting points in their approach to learning. It is also true that several will not be able to achieve what is required of them and will not pass. I want to stress however that this capacity for agency in the participants' learning was developed because of the interaction of the other two domains. In other words, they developed this proactive approach to learning through being positively facilitated and by being given the opportunities for responsibility. This created an upward spiral of self-efficacy for students ultimately contributing to their growing professional confidence.

Drawing it all together – supporting autonomy

One of the key messages is the importance of supporting students' autonomy. To have responsibility and ownership is autonomy enacted, to facilitate the professional voice is to encourage and enable autonomy and to have agency in learning is to autonomously pursue a goal. Autonomy does not mean doing things entirely independently or being 'thrown in the deep end'. Autonomy means "to act volitionally, with a sense of choice" (Deci and Ryan 2008:16/17). Autonomy-supportive teaching (Reeve 1998) should place as much emphasis on the 'supportive' as on the 'autonomy'.

If we want social workers who can think for themselves, we need to encourage, enable and support them as students to think for themselves.

Here is a brief summary of ideas on how you might incorporate the findings of this research. Many of these you may well be doing already but I hope this will inspire you to incorporate some other ideas and strategies along the way.

Professional Responsibility
  • Provide opportunities where students are responsible and have ownership of work
  • Help students perceive themselves as professionals who are responsible
Facilitating the Professional Voice
  • Put students into situations where they have to come up with their own professional opinion. Either through practice requirements or your own teaching and learning strategies. Ask "what do you think?" Then ask "why?"
  • Explicitly value when students offer their professional judgement and views
Learner Agency
  • Do not stifle the students' own pursuit of expertise development whatever form this takes
  • If students struggle to be proactive develop a culture of asking what they have learned from experiences or what they are hoping to learn from each situation


This piece is based on a presentation I gave at the NOPT 2018 conference. The presentation is available on ScOPTbox at


Deci, E. and Ryan, R. (2008) 'Facilitating Optimal Motivation and Psychological Well-Being Across Life's Domains' Canadian Psychology Vol 49, No.1 p14-23

Ferguson, H. (2011) Child Protection Practice: Basingstoke. Palgrave MacMillan

Rawles, J. (2016) 'Developing Social Work Professional Judgment Skills: Enhancing Learning in Practice by Researching Learning in Practice', Journal of Teaching in Social Work,36(1), pp102-122

Reeve, J. (1998) 'Autonomy support as an interpersonal motivating style: Is it teachable?', Contemporary Educational Psychology23, pp312-330

Taylor, B. (2010) Professional decision making in social work: Exeter. Learning Matters

Webster-Wright, A. (2009). 'Reframing professional development through understanding authentic professional learning'. Review of Educational Research. 79, pp702–73

About the author:

Joanna Rawles has recently taken up the post of Head of Social Work for England at The Open University after having worked as a senior lecturer for 10 years at London South Bank University, mainly on the MA Social Work programme but also on the Practice Educator programmes. Prior to this she spent 15 years as a social worker and social work manager in several different London boroughs. Earlier this year she completed her Doctor of Social Work at The University of Sussex with a thesis entitled "Educating for Professional Judgement: How social work students develop skills in practice".

You can follow Jo on Twitter at @jorawles

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