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.

Ellison, M. L., & Raskin, M. S. (2014). Mentoring field directors: A national exploratory study. Journal of Social Work Education, 50, 69–83. doi:10.1080/10437797.2014.856231

The authors collected responses from field directors of BSW and MSW programs in the United States to an online survey regarding the state of mentoring of field department faculty. The survey listed 30 types of mentoring services and asked the respondents to indicate if they were receiving any of these services as well as which services they would like to receive.

Five percent of the respondents received at least one of these services via formal mentoring programs from their institution. The most frequently reported services received were as follows: advice on department/institutional politics, understanding the department climate relative to field, introduction/overview to the department, and introduction to key field personnel. The most frequently reported services desired but not received were as follows: help obtaining field-related funding, jointly publishing with the mentor, peer review/advice on field research, and recommendations for participation in conference activities.

Forty percent of the respondents received at least one of these services via informal mentoring they sought out on their own. The most frequently reported services received were as follows: someone to listen to concerns and act as a sounding board, advice on administering the field program, strategies for success in the field position, and introduction/overview of the field program. The most frequently reported services desired but not received were as follows: peer review/advice on field-related research, jointly working on field-related research, jointly publishing articles, and jointly presenting at conferences.

Fifty-five percent reported that they did not receive any formal or informal mentoring related to their roles as field directors. The most frequently reported desired services were as follows: peer review/advice regarding administering the field program, someone to listen to concerns and act as a sounding board, advising on meeting with CSWE field accreditation standards, and recommendations for success in their field positions.

Thirty-seven percent reported that they provided mentoring services. The most frequently reported provided services were as follows: acting as a sounding board, advice on administering the field program, suggestions for field assignments, and understanding the department climate relative to the field. The most frequently reported services that the mentors wanted to provide but did not were as follows: joint presentations at conferences, joint work on field related research, and joint publication on field issues.

The authors suggest that future studies include mentee/mentor dyads to determine whether there is consistency between what mentees want and what their mentors provide. The authors also suggest research examining the mentoring needs of field directors by length of time in their position, as this could help tailor mentoring to new field directors versus those with more experience.

The authors reported particular concern with the finding that 70% of field directors not receiving mentoring reported that one way they learned about their role was through trial and error. The authors suggest that more mentoring opportunities providing the services that mentees desire could help strengthen the field director role and bring more direction and confidence to the position.

Finch, J., Schaub, J., & Dalrymple, R. (2014). Projective identification and the fear of failing: Making sense of practice educators’ experiences of failing social work students in practice learning settings. Journal of Social Work Practice: Psychotherapeutic approaches in Health, Welfare and the Community, 28(2), 139–154. doi:10.1080/02650533.2013.854754

The authors set out to synthesize the findings of two previous qualitative studies of practice educators’ experiences with failing students in the UK. In both studies, several practice educators reported strong emotional reactions to failing students that seemed to inhibit their ability to reflect calmly and offer insight on these experiences, as well as to adequately assess the students when needed. The authors selected four narratives from the previous studies that exemplified this phenomenon to further analyze. The authors hypothesize that the failing students are using projective identification, placing their own worst thoughts and feelings on the practice educators. In turn, the practice educators experience emotional distress and may start to internalize the students’ failure as their own. The narratives revealed practice educators both feeling guilty about failing a student and not wanting to go through that distress again, making them more hesitant to fail a student in the future. The practice educators also reported passing students that should have failed because of felt pressure from the university and a desire to rid themselves of the emotional distress that they believed the students caused them. The authors suggest that the practice educators need to employ containment when they are subject to the projective identifications of the students, projecting right back and then starting a dialogue about the emotions that have arisen. Practice educators should learn how to tolerate the projections and consider what is being communicated beneath the challenging behaviors of the failing student. The authors suggest that the strong emotions felt by practice educators when working with a failing student should not be an endpoint in the relationship but a starting point for dialogue about the student’s state of mind. The authors point to supervision for practice educators as a potential way to help mitigate the strong emotional reactions to failing students.

Gustafsson, E. & Alawi. N. (2014). “A once in a lifetime experience”: The Practice Placement IN Palestine Project (PPP)—A report. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 23(1), 36–54. doi:10.1080/15313204.2013.855693

BSW students from Lillehammer University College in Norway completed their formal practice placements in a refugee camp in Palestine. From fall 2010 until fall 2012, a total of 20 students in their second or third year of the child welfare program participated. Each student spent three months in the field. The authors describe the placement as “participatory observation” (p. 39) with the goal of students learning the same content as their classmates in Norway, but in a different setting. An advisor from the local community provided on-site supervision and collaborated with the university’s advisor to evaluate student performance when the university advisor visited Palestine halfway through the practicum. The authors report that onsite visits from university staff were essential in mitigating disagreements and ensuring timely resolution of problems. An independent field coordinator was available on-site specifically to address student needs, such as assisting students with translations and organizing activities. Students were required to complete weekly reports on their observations and interactions with families at the refugee camp. Students also completed questionnaires about their learning in Palestine and gave presentations after they returned to Norway. The authors also conducted interviews with the students a few months after their return in order to evaluate their longer-lasting opinions. Students reported that their communication skills improved despite the language barrier; they felt better equipped to relate to others from different cultures; they gained understanding of living in an occupied society and the political conflict; and they felt more comfortable initiating activities and improvising interventions. Students reported discomfort with the prevalent use of physical punishment of children and restrictions on women that they witnessed in the refugee camp. Overall, the students reported being satisfied both professionally/academically and personally with their experiences in Palestine, and no student expressed any regret over deciding to have one of their field placements abroad in a refugee camp. The authors suggest that more opportunities for social work students to complete field placements abroad and with marginalized populations should be made available in order to strengthen the skill base and confidence of the newest additions to the profession.

Katz, E., Tufford, L., Bogo, M., & Regehr, C. (2014). Illuminating students’ pre-practicum conceptual and emotional states: Implications for field education. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 34(1), 96–108. doi:10.1080/08841233.2013.868391

In December 2010, 125 MSW students at the University of Toronto were assessed using the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) adapted for social work. At this university, a delayed entry model for field education is used, in which students take classes in social work theory and interviewing skills prior to beginning their field placements. The OSCE was used as a final assessment at the end of the social work practice course to evaluate students before entering the field. The OSCE consists of a single 15-minute interview with an actor presenting with a scenario typically encountered in social work practice. The interview is observed by the field instructor and rated according to a standardized scale. The authors concentrated their study on student responses to a series of structured reflective questions presented via computer immediately following the OSCE. The majority of students reported difficulty controlling their affect at some point during the interview. In general, the most difficulty was experienced as the intensity of the affect of the client increased. When students were unable to manage their emotions, their reported ability to engage with the client and make appropriate clinical decisions was impaired. The authors suggest that field instructors and supervisors pay specific attention to assisting students in strengthening emotion-regulation skills. Students also reported first using their personal and professional experiences to direct interventions before considering social work theory. The authors hypothesize that reflecting on past experiences in place of theory could cause an increase in students’ emotional reactions during clinical interview simulations. Students also reported that the active learning approach of participating in live interviews allowed them to develop concrete practice skills that they are now able to bring into their field placements. The authors assert that simulations should be used in field instruction instead of the more common role plays, because only simulations will activate students’ emotional dysregulation to the extent that they will experience in the field. The authors suggest using university drama students or other volunteer actors in simulations in order to increase the authenticity of the experience for the social work student. Finally, the authors suggest that simulations such as the OSCE adapted for social work may be valuable in evaluating students’ readiness for practicum and identifying students that need extra or different support prior to beginning their field placement if, for example, they are unable to manage their emotions throughout the interview.

Panwar, M., Mathur, D., Chand, G., Dkhaka, M., Singh, R. R., & Moxley, D. P. (2014). Action learning in the Indian village as an alternative to the traditional field practicum in the foundation year of the MSW. Social Work Education: The International Journal. doi:10.1080/02615479.2014.921285.

For three years, first-year graduate social work students at Bhagat Phool Singh Vishwavidyalaya University in northern India have participated in a community-based experience with local rural villages instead of a traditional field placement located in an agency. The students concurrently attend classes at the university and work on the ground in nearby villages. Faculty members are able to teach concepts in the classroom and then supervise and aid students in applying them to their social work practice in the villages. For the first semester, students collaborate with village residents to identify needs and wants for changes to their community. The rural villages often voice concerns related to a lack of infrastructure but also express frustration and challenges due to gender disparities in the region. The students devise action-learning projects intended to address resident-identified social problems. The students gain insight into what it means to be engaged in community social work, as village residents gain insight into how social workers can benefit their society. The second semester is spent implementing the action-learning project, evaluating its impact, and discovering how the project might be continued after the student leaves the village. Examples of action-learning projects include self-help groups for village women concentrating on economic and emotional difficulties, opportunities for adult education, coordinated physical activities for children, and connections to health services. The authors report that qualitative interviews with students revealed a variety of perceived benefits, including increased confidence and self-efficacy, better understanding of how social work theories can be practiced, and hands-on experience working in a community setting that would guide them in the rest of their social work careers. The authors stress that university support for the program is necessary, as are close contact and collaboration between the school and the village elders and properly trained and supported faculty members in the villages.

Sussman, T., Bailey, S., Richardson, K. B., & Granner, F. (2014). How field instructors judge BSW student readiness for entry-level practice. Journal of Social Work Education, 50, 84–100. doi:10.1080/10437797.2014.856233

The authors conducted six focus groups attended by 28 experienced BSW field instructors from one Canadian school of social work. Five groups consisted of field instructors primarily involved in micro practice, and one group consisted of field instructors primarily involved in macro practice. A semi-structured interview developed by the authors was used to elicit the field instructors’ views on evaluating students’ readiness for entry-level practice at the end of a field placement. Field instructors in all focus groups named specific practice skills and personal characteristics that indicated students were competent in social work practice. Field instructors reported that strong conceptualization techniques, such as critical thinking and ongoing analysis appropriately informing interventions demonstrated that a student was ready for practice. Most field instructors reported that students were seen as competent when they were able to document their analyses and interactions in a concise manner with attention paid to prioritizing client needs. In addition, many field instructors reported that self-reflection and emotional control were important skills for students to begin entry-level practice. However, the authors’ analysis of responses indicated that field instructors would generally be satisfied if a student had made progress in these areas and showed the motivation and ability to continue developing in these areas after graduation. Field instructors reported that they would be concerned if a student was unable to separate her values from those of the client or consider the ethical implications of a situation. In addition, openness and the ability to work with diverse groups was seen as a prerequisite for practice. A difference between macro and micro field instructors emerged in terms of awareness of systemic oppression, as only macro field instructors reported that students must take into account structural and social inequality when conceptualizing a presenting problem. The authors suggest that methods and opportunities to track students’ performance and growth in the areas of self-reflection and conceptualization would help make these meta-competencies more apparent and bridge the gap between competency-based evaluations and the reported field instructors’ expectations of students that are ready to practice. The authors also suggest more research be conducted into the similarities and differences between field instructors’ expectations for students and the goals and competencies set out by the social work program’s classroom instructors.