Staying current with scholarship enriches the work of field educators: it teaches us innovative ways to solve perennial field problems, suggests new readings for field seminars, keeps us abreast of current debates in social work education, and even inspires us in our own writing on theory and research. “What We’re Reading” presents our brief summaries of the findings of recent publications in field education. Our emphasis is on implications for practice. Readers are encouraged to suggest articles or books for future review. Whenever possible, we have provided links to freely available fulltext articles.

Baum. N. (2012). Reflective writing assignment to help social work trainees work through poor supervisory relationships. Social Work Education, 31 (1), 110-124.

This paper describes a structured reflective writing assignment given to BSW social work trainees to encourage them to work through unfinished business resulting from unresolved poor supervisory relationships. Students were asked to define the issue and discuss its treatment in the relevant literature, describe their experience, analyze the experience from the perspective of the literature, and then describe their feelings at the end of the analysis. Analysis of three papers suggested that the exercise was important in the students’ learning.  They began in their descriptions by focusing on the inadequacies of their supervisors.  However, the literature they read (most psychodynamic) offered more complex explanations. Two students were, upon reflection, able to better understand their own role in the failure of the supervisory relationship by integrating theory and personal experience and integrating emotions and cognitions. One student continued to place the onus mostly on the supervisor. All three students said that they benefited from the assignment, that it brought emotional relief, a sense of closure and optimism about the future. The authors suggest that, although in most cases it is optimal to work through the supervisory relationship face to face, doing a reflective assignment after termination without the supervisor present can be an effective last resort.

Beddoe, L., Ackroyd, J, Chinnery, S.A. & Appleton, C. (2011), Live supervision of students in field placement: More than just watching. Social Work Education, 39 (5), 512-528.

The University of Auckland, NZ, requires direct observation of social work students in field placement, five times over the two placements, in the same room as student and service user. The authors begin by outlining the strengths of structured observation of live work: clear expectation of required skills, opportunity for the student’s spontaneous reaction to the unexpected, promotion of critical reflection and good information about the student’s competence. They also outline the risks, including, among others, student anxiety and the complexity of co-constructing criteria for assessment. The latter is crucial for proper preparation; the authors offer helpful questions for reflection during the observation. The second phase involves observation by the field educator and debriefing and feedback, for which helpful questions are again provided. The last phase involves the development of a plan for further learning.  Vignettes are provided for each stage. The authors end by saying, “Good preparation and a model that allows the student and supervisor to co-construct the experience through attention to nuances of emotion and power can go a long way to enabling the utilization of the energy generated by the unpredictability of ‘real’ practice”.

Dalton, B, Stevens, L & Maas-Brady. J. (2011). How do you do it? MSW field director survey. Advances in Social Work, 12 (2), 276-288.

The authors surveyed 135 field directors in MSW programs in the US about field education in their schools. Most programs use questionnaires and/or interviews in placing students. Almost all offer field orientation and/or training. 81% have field seminars for students, usually led by field liaisons; 38% of these offer academic credit for the seminar. Many programs are struggling financially and in terms of institutional support. There was enough variation among programs that the authors recommended that CSWE mandate basic levels of performance for field programs. They suggested at least one field visit per semester, a plan for integration of theory and practice for those programs without a field seminar, and minimum targets for attendance in orientation or training for field instructors. But guidelines should be limited, to leave space for creative responses to challenging environments for field education.

Evans, C. (2012). Increasing opportunities for co-production and personalization through social work student placement in disabled people’s organisations. Social Work Education, 31 (2), 235-240.

The personalization agenda in the UK focuses on enabling service users to have more self-directed support to meet their needs. Accordingly, centers for independent living (CIL’s), managed by disabled people, provide support to service users related to independent living; these are Disabled People’s Organizations (DPO’s) that provide information and referral, independent living skills training, peer counseling and advocacy. This article reflects the author’s fifteen years of experience supervising students in placements at Wiltshire and Swindon Users’ Network, which promotes users’ involvement in all aspects of social care and reaches out to marginalized users. Social work placements in DPO’s, with a disabled person as practice teacher, can foster professional skills and anti-discriminatory practice for social work students.

Gough, H & Wilks, K. (2102). Rotational field placements: Integrative review and application to gerontological social work. Social Work Education, 31 (1), 90-109.

This is a thorough overview of rotational field placements (RFP) in gerontology in the US. Model designs include 1) within-organization rotations (full rotation in two to four departments; brief rotation with a home department and two to six intermittent rotations elsewhere; assignment to one department but five or six peripheral interdepartmental engagements), 2) split placements between two or more agencies, or 3) a new placement each academic term.  Some schools may delay rotation until the second semester or second year; some may offer two or more tracks of RFP’s. Some schools include a summer rotation cycle. Supervision is either vertically multi-layered (one or two primary supervisors often based at the school plus several on-site task supervisors) or rotationally sequential (onsite supervisor that changes with the student’s rotation). Benefits of rotations include diversity of experience, systems knowledge, building short-term intervention skills,  increase in students’ confidence and self-efficacy and networking opportunities. (The authors say that further research is needed on the building of intervention skills). Risks include fragmentation in learning, student anxiety, inconsistencies in supervision and administrative complexities. The authors suggest embedding RFP programs in larger initiatives like the Hartford HPPAE, adding curricular enhancement to supervision, and providing flexible programming and constant monitoring and support from field departments for students.

Karpetis, G. (2011). A relational approach to the evaluation of the practice performance of social work students in Greece: The supervisors’ perspective. British Journal of Social Work, 41, 1158-1175

Supervisors of students in the Department of Social Work of the Technological Educational Institution of Athens, Greece were trained in a new Student Practice Performance Evaluation Report (SPPER) based on a relational approach.  The evaluation began by assessing the student’s professional stance and consistency in keeping up with working hours. The field performance evaluation included twenty variables, including, among others, motivation and commitment, knowledge of the social work role in the multidisciplinary setting, ability to “learn from observation by withholding the urge to act”, application of theory to practice, creation of positive relationships with clients and practice teacher and team members, management of clients’ aggression and sadness, self-evaluation and acceptance of criticism, and overall effectiveness. Separate evaluation of performance in supervision included, among others, regular process recording, an attitude of curiosity, accepting mistakes and not repeating them, thinking about own emotions, and positive relationships with supervisor and team. Most supervisors surveyed found the SPPER helpful, and student complaints were reduced by use of the SPPER. However, the new evaluation failed to address the problem of boundary violations, like extending supervisory hours and “grade inflation”, on the part of some supervisors; the author suggests hiring criteria for supervisors, including requirements for advanced training on psychopathology.

Kinman, G & Grant, L. (2011). Exploring stress resilience in trainee social workers: The role of emotional and social competencies. British Journal of Social Work, 41, 261-275.

The study surveyed 240 trainee social workers, 69% first year and 31% second year, at the University of Bedfordshire, UK, about resilience in the face of stress in the workplace. The students were administered measures of emotional intelligence, reflective ability, empathy, social competence, resilience and psychological distress.  Trainees who were more adept at perceiving, appraising, expressing, understanding and regulating emotion appeared to be more resilient to stress. Reflective students, who could reflect on their thoughts and feelings and beliefs and who could consider the position of other people and therefore communicate effectively with others, were more resilient and less distressed. Perception of competence in social situations, and gaining and maintaining strong social networks, were also associated with resilience to stress. Empathic concern enhanced stress resilience, but empathic distress lessened it. The authors recommend training in different facets of reflection and reflexivity, attention to emotional and social competencies in selecting students in admissions, and attention to the structural organizational causes of stress.

Mirabito, D. (2011). Educating a new generation of social workers: Challenges and skills needed for contemporary agency-based practice. Clinical Social Work Journal, 40 (2), 245-254.

The author presents an overview of literature on needed practice skills for interns to learn, including results from her own 2001 survey of field instructors. There is an increase in certain populations at risk: older persons and their families, diverse youth and adults, veterans and those affected by poverty and/or by mental illness. Interns need to broaden their definition of “clinical” social work to include crisis intervention, group work, outreach, problem-oriented treatment, advocacy, case management, prevention and program development and to focus on “reality-oriented” services like anger management and activities of daily living. Interns must understand changing agency contexts like retrenchment of services and decentralization and the impact of welfare reform and managed care. Most important, interns need sophisticated organizational skills, including verbal and written communication (including use of technology), teamwork, and diversity management. Finally, interns should learn how to apply evidence-based practice in the field. The author addresses balancing clinical, organizational research content in social work curricula, including training for field instructors and students in evidence-based practice models. She suggests the need for academic and field educators to collaborate in research about the emerging needs in field education.

Sieminski, S & Seden, J. (2011). An exploration of how some tutors use learning materials to enable student social workers to link theory to practice while learning in the workplace. Social Work Education, 30 (7), 797-810.

This paper presents the outcomes of a day-long investigation of successful approaches used by nine tutors in a distance learning program to help students integrate theory with their work in placement. Students in the program at the Open University, Milton Keynes, UK, have a practice assessor in their placement, a program tutor to oversee the student’s progress in the placement, and course tutors who deliver, and assess students’ performance in practice learning and academic assignments. A study day, funded by the University’s Practice Based Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, explored the best practices of nine “champion” course tutors, including self-reflective writing tasks, exercises to build student confidence, and case studies and scenarios. The tutors identified individual student barriers to self-reflection, including cultural factors, difficulty adjusting to the student role, and fear of criticism from practice assessors. They also suggested that reflection and linkage of theory to practice can be hindered by the climate of “managerialism, instrumentalism and proceduralism” in many agencies. The tutors expressed satisfaction with the study day, and practitioner partners appreciated tutors’ promotion of feedback between academics and agencies.