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 full-text articles.

Cimino, A. N., Rorke, J., & Adams, H. L. (2013). Supervisors behaving badly: Witnessing ethical dilemmas and what to do about it. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 10(2), 48-57.

The authors present findings from a descriptive qualitative analysis of interviews conducted by graduate students in an elective course in social work ethics. Students were required to interview social workers currently in the field about an ethical dilemma they had experienced. For the purposes of this study, the authors chose to focus on the interviews “concerning ethical issues between a supervisor (or an agency policy) and supervisee” (p. 50). Of the 43 interviews conducted, the authors determined that 10 fit the criteria for inclusion in the study. The interviewees described ethical dilemmas involving their supervisors that they faced when they were interns or just starting out in their professional careers. These dilemmas included supervisors drinking on the job, being romantically involved with former clients, being physically abusive to staff and verbally abusive to clients, allowing personal beliefs to interfere with clients’ self-determination, acting in a socially unjust manner by denying services to undocumented immigrants and advocating keeping clients at a lower level of care than they needed in order to financially benefit the agency. The authors recommend the specific inclusion of possible responses to supervisor-instigated ethical dilemmas in the social work education curriculum because “student interns are particularly vulnerable in these situations given their dependency at a placement for their degree” (p. 56). The authors encourage field instructors to open up a dialogue with students about the potential for ethical dilemmas involving supervisors and how to handle these situations in line with the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) code of ethics.

Duffy, K. (2013). Deciding to fail: Nurse mentors’ experience of managing a failed practice assessment. Journal of Practice Teaching and Learning, 11(3), 36-58.

Ten mentors who failed students in a nursing practicum were interviewed in a qualitative study The initial question was, “What has been your experience regarding students whose clinical performance has been weak?” The mentors quickly identified the weak students, recognizing early signs such as lack of interest and lack of cognitive, affective, or psychomotor competencies. The mentors then made informal approaches to the students and sought support from the university, especially with documentation. Their second step was to develop an action plan. The reaction to failure was often externalization, anger, and disharmony within the team. When the mentor finally decided to fail the student, it was emotionally challenging. Respondents were concerned about a lack of feedback about student outcomes following the failed assessment and a lack of support from higher educational institutions. The author recommends improved collaboration during the process of failing a student, including critical incident stress debriefing.

Eno, S., & Kerr, J. (2013). ‘That was awful! I’m not ready yet, am I?’ Is there such a thing as a good fail? Journal of Practice Teaching and Learning, 11(3), 135-148.

A senior practice educator and a university course director for practice learning ask if there are circumstances where a failing grade is not only appropriate but also helpful to the student’s development. Review of literature suggests that fail recommendations are usually discussed in terms of associated difficulties. The situation is complicated by a tendency to “pass the chalice,” high investment in passing the student in the final placement stage, questions about whether a student is prepared to transition to employment as a social worker, and difficulty achieving consensus among parties involved.  The authors propose that a ‘good fail’ is possible under certain circumstances. The fail recommendation should have a “sense of appropriateness…[and be] fair and equitable” (p. 146). Progress and achievement should be recognized so the student may build on them. It should be recognized that students can and do fail field as well as other assignments and should have the opportunity to redo their fieldwork with constructive feedback. During a period of suspended study, the university should continue to support students through further experience, academic study, and/or tutorial contact.

George, P., Silver, S., & Preston, S. (2013). Reimagining field education in social work: The promise unveiled. Advances in Social Work, 14(2), 642-657.

Social work education in Canada, say the authors, has become part of the “neo-liberal academy,” no longer a public institution but a capitalist enterprise. Aspects of the neo-liberal academy include an emphasis on efficiency, accountability, and competition; privileging of grant-funded research over teaching and service; and managerial approaches based on performance appraisals and reward systems. According to the authors, field education has become “problematized”: it is primarily agency-based and focused on service delivery (mostly individualized and group-based services), retreating from engagement with communities and discouraging critical thinking and social activism. The authors re-imagine field education, based on several principles:

1) Focus on historical and current power relations and marginalization; 2) Understanding of contextual challenges and engaging with communities in relevant responses to them; 3) Reciprocity between school and community in co-creating critical and transformational knowledge; and 4) Reflexivity, including uncovering processes of power and domination.

They propose field education based in the whole community and focused on its broader goals and intentions. Rather than attending to contracts and assessments, the field education office, led by its liaisons, would become a “hub” where community members and academics would meet, deliberate on current social problems, identify priority issues, and develop alliances to meet these challenges. The authors then imagine collaborative field placements based on a salient issue like food security among “new and racialized immigrants,” as an example of collective action towards social justice.

Lee, M., & Fortune, A. (2013). Do we need more “doing” activities or “thinking” activities in the field practicum? Journal of Social Work Education, 49, 646-660.

This research, part of a large longitudinal study, examines “whether activities that involve observation, doing, and conceptual linkages are related to students’ perceptions and performance” in field practicum (p. #). Forty-eight MSW students at a large northeastern public university completed a questionnaire three times over the course of their field practicum. The survey included questions about satisfaction with field, self-rated social work skills, and frequency of certain learning activities. These activities included observation, participatory activities (working independently, varied activities, and process recording), and conceptual linkage activities (self-assessment, generalization and reflection-in-practice). The findings were that observation was related only to satisfaction, participatory activity was significantly related to professional skills and satisfaction, and conceptual linkage had the greatest impact on skills and satisfaction. The authors conclude that social work educators need to teach students how to reflect, to integrate theory and practice, and to think critically. They encourage field instructors to provide more written works, like process recordings and portfolios, to stimulate students’ thinking and learning.

Mishna, F., Levine, D., Bogo, M., & Van Wert, M. (2013). Cyber counseling: An innovative field education pilot project. Social Work Education: The International Journal, 32(4), 484-492.

The authors instituted a four-year pilot project at the University of Toronto in which every year, six MSW students provided a combination of face-to-face and online counseling to undergraduate students through the university’s counseling center. This project was the first time that social work students had their field placement in the university’s counseling center. An outside part-time social worker served as the main field instructor, and social work doctoral students provided back-up supervision. A cyber counseling expert provided in-depth training to the MSW students, field instructor, and doctoral students. The authors found that cooperation and coordination was needed between the undergraduate and graduate schools of the university. The pilot was financially supported by an outside donor in order to establish the physical space and technology needed for the MSW students to provide both face-to-face and cyber counseling. The MSW students and the field instructor analyzed the verbatim recordings of cyber counseling sessions. The authors report that this allowed the field instructor to more closely and accurately evaluate the students’ progress in the field than they would have been able to do with only the typical process recordings that rely on the students’ recollections of sessions. The authors established a cyber counseling competency rating scale to measure the students’ acquisition and use of skills directly related to this manner of service delivery. The cyber counseling consisted of email correspondence between the MSW student clinician and the undergraduate student client. Expectations of response times were established and agreed upon by all involved parties. Undergraduate students reported that the cyber counseling was more convenient and comfortable than face-to-face counseling due to their having busy schedules and being more accustomed to online communication. The authors state that part of social workers’ responsibility is to meet the client where they are at, and in the case of undergraduate students, that often means utilizing technology for therapeutic interactions. The authors support the creation of more opportunities for cyber counseling in field placements for social work students. The authors call for more rigorous study of cyber counseling and integration of these competencies into social work education.

Nimmagadda, J., & Murphy, J. I. (2014). Using simulations to enhance interprofessional competencies for social work and nursing students. Social Work Education: The International Journal. doi: 10.1080/02615479.2013.877128

The two authors are from Rhode Island College, one is a nursing faculty member and one is a social work faculty member. They worked together to create patient scenarios that incorporated both medical and social work components and objectives. Four different scenarios were created, representing a variety of patient physical complaints and socioeconomic circumstances. Medical actors represented family members and SimMan® 3G was used to simulate a patient in physical distress. Three nursing students, one nurse practitioner student, and one social work student were involved in each scenario. The students needed to work together to attend to all of the needs of the patient and his or her family as they arose during the simulation.

Two social work faculty and two nursing faculty observed each simulation. After each simulation, the four observers led the students in a group debriefing session. Common themes from all of the debriefing sessions included students being unsure of the values and ethics of the other professions, being unsure of roles and responsibilities for each profession (who does what and when), how to negotiate boundaries between professions, and how to create a plan for care as a united team. Students reported that after just one day of interprofessional simulations, they felt that they were better prepared and ready for working interprofessionally in their practice. The authors suggest that redesigning the social work curriculum and adjusting accreditation standards to include interprofessional education and simulations would be greatly beneficial to the field, as social workers continue to be employed in environments, such as healthcare settings, in which collaboration with people in other professions is essential for ethical and efficient client care.

Rawles, J. (2013). Whose students are they anyway? Could a difference in how practice organisations and higher education institutions perceive social work students be a barrier to collaboration when problems arise in placement? Journal of Practice Teaching and Learning, 11(3), 59-78.

Data on the process of failing a student was collected through questionnaire given to 15 practice educators, eight students, and four team managers and through interviews with four practice educators, three students, and two team leaders. Questions were asked about level of satisfaction with practice learning, the extent of support, and ideas about what could have been done differently. Difficult experiences with a student were particularly salient in affecting the decisions of practice educators to take a student in the future; respondents also complained about time pressures and lack of validation from institutions of higher education. There was little animosity towards the individual tutors, but there was a perception that institutions of higher education abdicate responsibility for practice assessment, are reluctant to allow students to fail, and/or lack transparency about a student’s failure in a previous placement. The author emphasizes the damaging effect on collaboration between agencies and higher education institutions and suggests the use of activity theory to analyze organizations’ “goals, mediating artifacts, multi-voicedness and historicity” (p. 76) and cultivation of a shared community of practice.

Robertson, J. (2013). Addressing professional suitability in social work education:  Results of a study of field education coordinators’ experience. Journal of Practice Teaching and Learning, 11(3), 98-117.

Field coordinators have many roles: administrator, educator, placement organizer, consultant, and public relations expert. Attention has been drawn to the process of addressing student professional suitability by the Memorial University lawsuit in Newfoundland, which awarded a student over $800,000 after the Supreme Court of Canada determined that a professor and director had not exercised a “duty of care” responding to a student concern. This study of field coordinators’ perspective on assessing professional suitability began with a focus group of eight Canadian field coordinators, followed by a survey questionnaire to 54 field coordinators. Most respondents agreed that gatekeeping falls mostly to field educators. Respondents mentioned a large number of measures pre-and post-placement to assess and improve student professional suitability, including individual meetings with the student, review of student placement applications, promulgation of the Code of Ethics and standards of conduct, and facilitation of field review meetings. Coordinators were concerned about role conflicts inherent in gatekeeping, lack of criteria to assess suitability, legal uncertainty, and workload pressures. They stressed the need for more support from social work schools (especially at the administrative level), more training for all concerned in gatekeeping, and improved dialogue among all stakeholders. The authors recommend an analysis of gatekeeping through the lens of anti-oppressive practice and discussion of the role of educated intuition in practice. They suggest future research on the policy context of program delivery, on the effectiveness of screening measures, and on student professional suitability concerns.

Schaub, J., & Dalrymple, R. (2013). Surveillance and silence: New considerations in assessing difficult social work placements. Journal of Practice Teaching and Learning, 11(3), 79-97.

The authors review literature on a decade of ‘failing to fail’ in social work practice learning. Ten practice educators in Southern England were interviewed about their views of challenging or failing social work students in placements. Respondents identified poor communication between students and practice educators, lack of student engagement and self-awareness, need for students to acquire social work competence and values, and practice educator isolation and anxiety. The authors identify surveillance and silence as important factors in the failure to fail. They suggest that crucial conversations about student learning are hampered by field educators’ experience of being under scrutiny from the university, the profession, and their own colleagues. The authors recommend that practice educators and students should have institutional support and safe spaces in which to hold difficult conversations about student performance.

Simpson, G., & Murr, A. (2013). The ‘not yet competent’ student: Exploring narratives of failure. Journal of Practice Teaching and Learning, 11(3), 118-134.

The authors examine the narratives of 21 students who received a fail or refer grade; they assert that failing students is a political act, because it guards the entry to the profession. They describe and critique the process by which practice is assessed in England, including practice portfolios. The respondents indicated that they had been failed for three reasons: not observing administrative requirements (like submission date); academic failure to write appropriately about their practice; and early termination of placement due to unsuitability (but not incompetence). The authors challenge each reason, recommending that there needs to be a clearer understanding of the power dynamics and competing interests in practice assessment and a renewed focus in the assessment process on the practice of social work rather than writing about it. According to the authors, assessment of student practice should be done “in a thorough and creative way, freed from unnecessary administrative and bureaucratic constraints” (p. 132).

Xenakis, N., & Primack, S. (2013). The clinical aspects of case management and its role in graduate field education. Social Work Education: The International Journal, 32(5), 685-691.

The authors conducted a six-question assessment of social work graduate students’ perceptions and understanding of case management at the end of a first-year clinical practice course at one social work program in New York City. The authors report that the majority of students conceptualized case management and clinical work as separate tasks, with the latter being more important and challenging. Students reported that their supervisors in the field did not emphasize the integration of clinical and concrete services. When presented with the option, students reported being in favor of integrated case management training both in the year-one practice class and also at the field placement site: “In this way, students would have a formal opportunity to learn about the services and resources specific to the population with which they were working” (p. 687). Students reported that if field supervisors and instructors demonstrated that case management skills were important to learn that they would be more eager to integrate it with their clinical practice. As a result of this feedback, the authors included a case management component in the first-year clinical practice course the following school year. The authors report that students began their social work education learning that case management and clinical practice do not have to be separate, and that in fact the effectiveness of each can be strengthened when they are used in tandem. The authors recommend including integrated case management in the social work curriculum. The authors further recommend that the Supervision in Field Instruction (SIFI) course curriculum be modified to include training for field instructors on the clinical interventions that can be used when providing case management services. The authors suggest that faculty advisors and field instructors should help MSW students understand that case management interventions often lead to successful clinical outcomes. The authors recommend that field supervisors ask students to include case management interactions in their process recordings in order to establish that these interventions are important and will be evaluated. The authors argue that the integration of concrete and clinical services is necessary in order to meet the complex and constantly shifting needs of the vulnerable populations that social workers serve.