Technology facilitates training in the art of item writing

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At the end of their two-day item writer training in August, ASWB’s 23 newest item writers declared themselves “prepared and ready” to assume their vital role of creating items that measure social work competence at entry to practice. The item writing stage is the first step in the process of developing valid and reliable questions for the licensing exams.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, ASWB shifted the planned in-person training to an interactive, online delivery method. The move helped to ensure safety for the new writers, consultants, and staff involved in the program without negatively affecting the quality of learning for participants or their enthusiasm.

Diverse perspectives

The first step in exam development involves a licensed social worker using an idea from practice experience to write a question that tests a piece of knowledge, a skill, or an ability critical to safe and ethical practice. Recruiting a diverse and qualified group of social workers to write items is crucial to the process. ASWB therefore solicited a large pool of applicants, ultimately reviewing 352 applications from social workers in the United States and Canada. The item writers were selected for their skill in writing sample items during the application process. The group represents racial, ethnic, gender, practice setting, and geographic diversity.

“Ensuring that diverse perspectives are included in exam development is one of the cornerstones of our exam program,” said Carl Hokanson, ASWB’s examination development program manager. “We need to ensure that our item writers are skilled writers and also that they represent the diversity of our profession.”

Collage of new item writers
ASWB’s new cohort of item writers includes members from 16 jurisdictions and represents racial, ethnic, gender, practice setting, and geographic diversity.

Building on expertise

The training built the new item writers’ expertise through a variety of experiences led by item development consultants and ASWB staff. Sessions included presentations on the association, the examination program, and the Item Writing Guide. Interactive sessions used Zoom breakout rooms, polls, and the whiteboard feature so trainees could complete tasks like putting together items from scratch onscreen, editing items in small groups, and meeting individually with their consultant. The online project management tool Basecamp helped everyone access course materials, share information, and ask questions.

Ensuring that diverse perspectives are included in exam development is one of the cornerstones of our exam program. We need to ensure that our item writers are skilled writers and also that they represent the diversity of our profession.
— Carl Hokanson, ASWB Examination Development Program Manager

The online tools also helped the cohort of new writers get acquainted with one another and with consultants. “We want our new item writers to know that when they join the exam program, they are part of a community,” said Hokanson. Everyone used Basecamp before the meeting to upload pictures and bios. During the live training, they joined breakout sessions to introduce themselves and meet the other participants.

Though many might consider in-person training to be the optimal learning setting, Hokanson said that an advantage of meeting online was the ability of participants to join in from the comfort of their home. “We have come a long way with leveraging technology to ensure that an online training like this maintains the engagement and interaction of the participants, while also ensuring that the needed information is relayed effectively,” Hokanson said.

Work that matters

The online format also allowed exam program staff and consultants to achieve one of their major goals: conveying to the writers that their work is important. “Beyond teaching the fundamentals of writing items,” Hokanson said, “we hope the training provides writers with an understanding that the work that they are doing matters to the profession.”

Comments from participant evaluations suggest that the training met and exceeded participant expectations and program objectives. One new item writer summed up the experience, writing, “Wonderful training. I feel it was a great use of time. It was interactive, educational, and informative. I am much more prepared and ready.”

Learn more about the exam program community in the 2021 Examination Program Yearbook