University of Sussex
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Educating for professional judgement: how social work students develop skills in practice

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posted on 2023-06-09, 12:45 authored by Joanna Rawles
This thesis presents a hermeneutic phenomenological study into how social work students develop the skills required for professional judgement. Professional judgement is an important and complex facet of social work. A review of the literature indicates that there has been a recent increase in empirical research into the sensemaking and reasoning of social workers’ decision making and professional judgement, yet little research exists into the development of this expertise. One of the Standards of Proficiency of the Health and Care Professionals Council is that a registered social worker in England should “Be able to practise as an autonomous professional exercising their own professional judgement” (HCPC 2017 p6). It is therefore incumbent upon social work education to enable students to develop this expertise and research is needed in order to understand how this can best be achieved. The intention of the research was to seek answers to the following questions •How do social work students develop skills for professional judgement? •What enables, facilitates and enhances this development? The research was framed within a constructionist epistemological paradigm and conceptually influenced by a combination of Authentic Professional Learning, Appreciative Inquiry and Practice-based Research. The methodology was hermeneutic phenomenology and the method was semi-structured interviews constructed around critical incidents of learning on placement. The participants were 14 MSc Social Work students from a university in England who were at the point of graduation. Nvivo10 was used to code the data and the data were analysed thematically. The findings indicate that the phenomenological essence of the development of skills for social work professional judgement lies in the presence and interrelation of three domains. These are professional responsibility, facilitation of the professional voice and learner agency. Philosophical and psychological concepts of autonomy are discussed and presented as a means to understand what is taking place for social work students. I suggest that a re-appraisal of autonomy as relational and a consideration of the value of autonomy-supportive learning and teaching could prove instructive to understanding both the development of skills for professional judgement for social work students and the way in which this can be enabled.


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  • doctoral

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  • eng


University of Sussex

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