by Susan Mankita, LCSW
There are certainly a lot of tips and tricks for passing social work licensure exams floating around in the licensure prep stratosphere. A few of them are not skill related at all. Silly recommendations such as “if you don’t know, pick only Cs” or “always assess first” are some common, but dangerous, examples. I’ve worked with enough retakers to know that these are failing test-taking strategies. Although it is certainly true that we should assess before taking any action, in most cases, looking for the word “assess” will not help you to find the correct answer. In fact, any strategy that encourages you to stop thinking cannot work. The folks who write the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam questions are wise. Because they are social workers, like you, they’ve attended all the prep courses and read much of same material that you have. It is their obligation to ensure that you won’t get the right answer simply by guessing. They will and they must find ways to ensure that only thinking social workers pass.
Why Mnemonic Devices Like “ASPIRINS” Can Get You in Trouble
For the many nervous social workers who fear they will not remember necessary knowledge, there are a wealth of mnemonic devices—initials—written by colleagues with good intentions. There is nothing inherently wrong with finding creative ways to memorize important information. Mnemonics are one way to trigger your memory of important concepts that are frequently tested on a licensure exam. Unfortunately, they are often remembered literally—and when one only remembers key words, and applies them to the exam without careful thinking and reasoning, it is too easy to be tripped up by the item writing social workers whose task it is to separate the colleagues who aren’t thinking from those who are.
The Licensure Exam Will Test You on Important Social Work Practice Principles
If you are a fan of the aforementioned devices, I strongly suggest that you replace these shortcuts with a deeper understanding of what each of the trigger words that you find in your mnemonic actually stands for. If taken thoughtfully, many of them are essential principles of good social work practice.
If you think about it, in our profession, what else is more important than thinking like a social worker? Thus it is, not surprisingly, a necessity to be “social work-y” to accurately answer licensure exam questions.
I offer you, below, a partial set of wise and time tested “social work-y” practice principles. Your knowledge of these important social work concepts is often tested on licensure exams. Some questions will ask you directly about one of these professional practices. Remember—even when the question doesn’t directly focus on one of these principles, many choices can be ruled out because they represent bad practice—things that a social worker shouldn’t or wouldn’t do.
Values of the Profession
Social workers believe in the basic worth, dignity, and uniqueness of the person. Social workers individualize. We recognize that every person has value, even if they have made mistakes. Rule out choices that involve treating people as unimportant, minimizing human worth, or clustering people together in ways that do not honor their value.
Social workers honor a client’s right to self-determination.
A core principle of social work is that we believe that people who become our clients have wisdom about their own choices for their own lives. Rule out choices that deny or minimize a competent client’s right to make choices based on his or her own values
Social workers work to advance social justice.
Promoting social justice is one of social work’s primary purposes. When we become aware of injustices, we must take steps to address them. Rule out any choices that ignore unfairness, or disenfranchise populations, or treat people unjustly. If you are reading a question and thinking, “That is just wrong,” look for a social justice solution. Work your way up through the chain of command to ensure fair and equitable treatment and services for all people.
Social workers must ensure the safety of individuals as well as the larger society.
Making sure that no harm comes to our clients, or to children, or to vulnerable others, is a major part of our professional responsibility. This balancing act means that we must be vigilant in our efforts to keep people safe—both physically and emotionally—while remaining tuned in to our obligations to the common good. The exam can test this in several ways:
Abuse: If a social worker suspects the abuse of a child or vulnerable adult, we must report it. Be careful to ensure that it is likely to be abuse. Although it is not necessary to prove abuse prior to reporting (and that is beyond your scope, unless you are the investigator), it is important to clarify situations that might be explained in another way, prior to reporting. Rule out choices that do not follow reporting laws. Consider choices that seek clarification if there is doubt about whether this is abuse
Duty to Protect/Warn: If clients lead us to believe they are a danger to themselves or to others, we must ensure their safety, or warn others in harm’s way. Although we may need to clarify whether there is actual danger, once we are aware, we have a duty to warn and a duty to keep our clients alive. Rule out choices that do not adhere to these legal and ethical guidelines. Consider choices that take immediate steps to ensure safety.
Social Work’s Domain and Scope of Practice
Social workers are experts in social work.
Rule out choices that go beyond our scope and domain. If a client is in need of medical or legal help—we are not experts. If the thing that must happen next cannot be done by a social worker, consider referring to the professional who is most qualified to address it.
Different social work roles require different responsibilities.
Social workers work in many different settings. Although many of our skills are generalizable and can be used across settings, there are some unique settings that require more specialized skill sets. If the question identifies “a social worker in a hospital,” it is unlikely that the correct choice will involve doing long-term counseling (although the correct answer may involve referring for counseling). Rule out any choices with practices that would not be done by a social worker in that setting or role.
Social workers practice within their own areas of competence.
As professionals, our training varies. We should not take on a client who is in need of a program we do not offer or a service we haven’t been trained to provide. Rule out choices that place the social worker in a position of doing something he or she is untrained for or inexperienced in. Any choice that requires social workers to provide services that are beyond their skill level or outside of their scope of competence is probably wrong.
A Final Caution
Taking the above selection of practice principles literally is just as dangerous as looking for the actual words from your mnemonic devices within the choices and picking them, without thinking about whether they are applicable to the question. The selected practice principles above are merely filters through which to see potential choices. They are often representative of things we would consider best practices. It is important to note that although these are important practice guidelines for social work, exam questions can be written to test them as rules, or the questions can be written to test the exceptions to these rules. This is another important reason for reading and thinking very carefully about what each question is asking you.
The next installment of this series will focus on another set of important social work practice principles and will look more deeply into how the licensure exams test social work rules and exceptions to those rules.
Susan Mankita, LCSW, teaches licensure prep courses and has helped more than 170 individual social workers around the country, including more than 100 re-takers, pass their social work licensure exams in the past eight years. Her e-mail address is SusanLCSW@aol.com.