Assessment Tools for Affirmation and Improvement

The Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work

-Approximately 20 students graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work (BSW) each year.
-Approximately 80 students are awarded a Master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) each year.
-Both the BSW and MSW programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of the Council on Social Work Education.
-UH Mānoa began offering a social work training program to students at the undergraduate and graduate levels in 1936.

Violet Horvath, an assistant professor specializing in pathological gambling and child maltreatment, leads program assessment at the Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work. For her, program assessment is all about “getting faculty involved, getting students involved, and getting [assessment] more a part of student life.” As a professional school that needs to demonstrate ongoing assessment practices as part of their professional accreditation process, the School of Social Work has experience executing long-term assessment plans, but for Violet, assessment is more than fulfilling accreditation requirements: program assessment means collaboration and communication. “It has to be the faculty who are involved,” she said. “The assessment committee is not the one that makes the decisions; we simply facilitate the process. It has to be the faculty who’s coming up with the competencies, who’s setting up the benchmarks, who looks at that data and decides what we can do with this information.” The assessment committee has drafted a new program assessment plan and will be sharing it with faculty for review. They will then meet with faculty to talk specifically about program assessment and to decide whether to modify elements of their plan, mission statement, or objectives.

The School of Social Work clearly articulates their programs’ objectives through wide distribution of what they call the Seven Abilities—statements about what successful students will know, do, and value at the end of the program. “That’s actually a part of this process,” Violet said. “Once you’ve set up goals or objectives or competencies they need to be widely published . . . so that [students] really understand there’s some meaning and purpose to what we’re doing, that we have  standards that are to be met.” The Seven Abilities are in the student handbook, on the web site, and appear on course syllabi. “All our course syllabi . . . [are] tied back to the Seven Abilities,” Violet said. “You can add your own and in fact instructors are encouraged to do so if you want to add some other unique learning objectives for that course.”

Students in the School of Social Work are involved in program assessment through conference evaluations, course evaluations, and exit surveys. The School is also looking at adding focus groups of six to eight graduating students. Focus groups are being pioneered to see if they elicit more in-depth data. “Like a group exit interview,” Violet explained. “[Students] still do their exit surveys, then on top of that, those who want to can participate in the focus groups.” The assessment committee will train students to lead the focus groups and plans to run one focus group session for undergraduate students and two or three for the master’s program. Like many an assessment tool, the process is still in development. “Some people are saying . . . they’re just graduating so it’s too close, why don’t we do focus groups with alumni,” Violet said. “I think it’s still valuable to do [with graduating students], and we can do it with alumni too.”

In keeping with the practical nature of their field, the School of Social Work focuses primarily on direct measures of student learning. “We have a lot of subjective data from the students, and it doesn’t mean that’s not important,” said Violet. “But we needed more objective data,  what are called direct measures.” For example, to measure Ability #1, students are able to “understand, articulate, and integrate the principles, values, and ethics of the social work profession into their practice,” employers/supervisors directly evaluate each student’s performance in the required in-field practicum and report their evaluations to the School of Social Work. The assessment committee is considering expanding the focus group assessment method to get more in-depth information from employers and supervisors as to how the in-field training is working as a whole.

The School of Social Work used program assessment to identify and test responses to a proposed program modification. The assessment committee systematically collected information over a two-year period from conference attendees, student exit surveys, and the community. They used data from this multi-pronged qualitative assessment research to support re-focusing the curriculum to give special attention to the Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and Asian communities of Hawai‘i and the Pacific Region so that graduates are better prepared to practice social work in the Islands. Given the practical bent of the school, the assessment committee used assessment to confirm that social workers in the community agreed with the change. “Did they think it was a good idea?” Violet asked. “They definitely did. One of the most interesting things to me when we went to the community with this [was that] they basically said, great, we’ve been waiting for you . . . So that was very gratifying.”

Faculty at the School of Social Work undertake program assessment not only because of accreditation requirements, but also out of their genuine desire to better equip students to practice social work when they graduate. “We’re here because we care about students,” said Violet, adding that assessment “should help them . . . have a clearer picture of what to expect out of a course and what they’re aiming for.” But assessment isn’t just for students. “It can also affirm what you’re doing [as a program],” Violet said. The program gets additional benefit from assessment during the accreditation’s reaffirmation process. “When we go up for reaffirmation, the site visitor meets with the President and the Chancellor and uses that information from that reaffirmation process to say, they need more faculty or they need these resources. So [assessment] can actually be used as a tool to help you advocate.”

If Violet Horvath thinks about assessment as a tool to help both her students and her program develop, the crux of the process for Violet is about collecting the right data to answer meaningful questions. “It’s just figuring out, how do I get the information that we really need to see if we’re doing what we say we’re doing, or to see what needs to be changed,” she said. Her advice to programs reticent to get their feet wet is equally clear. “You’ve got to have some goals or competencies or whatever the heck you want to call them. You’re doing it already . . . just put it down on paper,” Violet said. Documentation of assessment increases communication, and when combined with faculty and student collaboration, the assessment process in Social Work grew in utility. “I think it’s getting better and better,” said Violet, adding, “we have a UHM Assessment Office that has lectures and information online, and I think those are tremendous steps to help people whether you’re starting out or whether you’re established . . . I understand the hesitations [but] if you look at it, it’s really meant to help the students, so start working on it!”

Keys to Success

  • Get faculty involved: use an assessment committee to facilitate the process.
  • Get students involved: widely distribute learning objectives so they become part of student life.
  • Use assessment to test new ideas and get guidance on how to improve the program.

Methods to Collect Evidence

  • Direct measures: performance evaluations from employers and supervisors.
  • Conference evaluations.
  • Exit surveys.
  • Community input.
  • Focus groups of graduating students.

Quick Tips