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.

Berzoff, J., & Drisko, J. (2015). Preparing PhD-level clinical social work practitioners for the 21st century. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35(1-2), 82-100. doi:10.1080/08841233.2014.993107

In this article the authors examine the ways in which the doctorate preparation of social workers is falling short and affecting many key areas of the profession. Because the traditional PhD is only one on the different types of doctorate level training programs in social work, the authors analyze the different types of doctoral education programs and the unique aspects of each. They discuss strengths of each model and the criticism that exists in the field.

Social work is a practice profession. Research has shown that in general doctoral candidates are not being adequately prepared to train the next generation of practitioners in the classroom. The authors hypothesize several reasons for this shortcoming. One of the primary causes is likely that funding is often acquired through research, and thus programs produce students who excel in research rather than well-equipped practitioners. This change is having a ripple effect into MSW and BSW programs and subsequently out into the field. A declining focus on social work’s person in environment perspective and significantly lower qualifications for teaching practice courses are among the effects discussed in the article. Supervision is another area that has been all but overlooked in most doctoral training programs, which also has potential to have serious implications on the work of future practitioners.

The authors appreciate the need for quality research. However, they present some concerning and thought provoking trends that are affecting current and future doctoral students’ training in the practice of culturally competent and evidence informed social work practice.

Golia, G. M. & McGovern, A. R. (2015). If you save me, I’ll save you: The Power of peer supervision in clinical training and professional development. British Journal of Social Work, 45, 634-650. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bct138

The authors conducted a review of the social work literature pertaining to peer supervision. Peer supervision is defined as “any facilitated, planned or ad hoc interactions with colleagues of similar experience levels […] for the purposes of clinical training, professional development, and mutual aid and affinity” (p. 635). The authors sought out to determine how peer supervision could benefit field practicum students and compliment more traditional supervision provided by established practitioners.

Facilitated peer supervision is sometimes referred to as “group supervision” in which several students provide mutual support while under the direction of a clinical supervisor. According to the literature, students benefit from facilitated peer supervision because they can work through the clinical supervisor’s recommendations and critiques together and provide deeper support and validation for the difficulty of acquiring and adequately utilizing clinical skills.

Planned peer facilitation occurs when at regular times students meet in leaderless groups to discuss clinical issues and case examples. The purpose of these meetings is different from one-on-one clinical supervision as the emphasis is on support and not evaluation. The literature also supports that students feel more comfortable and are more apt to share honest opinions and concerns with peers than with formal supervisors. Students feel less pressure to immediately accept the recommendations of peers than of clinical supervisors because peers do not hold authority over one another.

The authors’ main focus was on ad hoc peer supervision, which is supervision between peers that occurs without planning or formality. Ad hoc peer supervision can be specifically about clinical issues and cases, but can also include conversations intended to promote relationship and community building amongst field practicum students. On a daily basis, students can receive support and have their anxieties normalized in these informal and spontaneous encounters.

There are institutional, director/supervisor, and trainee factors that can increase the occurrence and success of peer supervision (particularly ad hoc) in an agency. Students will benefit from peer supervision when they have the space, time, freedom, and explicit support to practice peer supervision. Directors/supervisors need to explain to students that peer supervision is a respected tool in the agency. The authors suggest that supervisors can use planned/group supervision to introduce the concept of ad hoc peer supervision to students. The importance is that the agency promotes a culture in which students feel comfortable and supported to utilize each other as resources for support and skill building/development. Students themselves need to develop the capacity for empathy and camaraderie for each other and have a true interest in deepening their clinical skills and engaging fully in professional development activities.

Peer supervision can be a powerful addition to formal clinical supervision in the field practicum setting for social work students. Students can benefit greatly from honest sharing and mutual aid as they begin their professional careers. What is important is that peer supervision be recognized by the authorities in the agency as a legitimate tool in the workplace.

The authors’ acknowledge that literature empirically supporting the efficacy of ad hoc peer supervision is severely limited, and encourage more qualitative and quantitative research into how peer supervision affects social work students in their field placements.

Goodman, H., Knight, C., & Khudododov, K. (2014). Graduate social work students’ experiences with group work in the field and the classroom. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 34(1), 60-78. doi:10.1080/08841233.2013.866615

This article discusses recent trends related to group work both in the field and in generalist and specialist MSW training programs. The authors report that students’ experiences in fieldwork and in their professional practice do not align with those they have prepared for in clinical training programs. This discrepancy is one that has been found in social work programs, psychology programs and a variety of psychotherapy training programs alike.

In 1969 the CSWE made changes to their standards which allowed schools of social work to focus student curriculum on a more generalist practice, rather than requiring students to choose a major or specialty. In theory this focus on generalist practice would allow students to gain proficiency in casework, group work, community organization, and administration. However, the article reports that with this change came an increased focus on practice with children and families and a decline in the number of course offerings, specializations and curriculums that address practice with groups.

The underlying problem with these changes is that in the field the number of practitioners conducting groups with their clients has not decreased in a similar fashion. Additionally, research continues to support the effectiveness of group practice for many diverse populations and insurance reimbursement favors this practice because it is seen as less costly than individual treatment. The decrease in group work specializations also decreases the number of practitioners that are experts in group work and capable of conducting a course or sharing relevant case examples with their students. Subsequently, a cycle is created that negatively impacts the proficiency of the next generation of social workers. Practitioners who are conducting groups without adequate preparation will very likely engage with the group as “a collection of individuals” rather than as a group. The authors conclude that failure to consider the importance of group dynamics and mutual aid, for example, can be detrimental to the success of a group.

The authors conducted a study to examine these trends further within one school of social work that still has a group work major (N = 294). They found that among all respondents (including both group work majors and non-group work majors) 82.9% had a group component to their field placement. Though students’ responsibilities in group varied (facilitation, cofacilitation, group formation, use of manual in group, etc.), overall, only a quarter of the students engaging in group work of some form felt adequately prepared to do the group work assignment successfully. Further, less than one half of students were satisfied with their academic preparation for their group engagement. Much to the authors’ surprise, results indicated that the most satisfied group in terms of academic preparedness was the group of students that took a group work elective course but were not group work majors.

The article concludes with a call for future research in this area to explain their findings further and determine how student satisfaction and performance in groups can be improved. Additionally, they recommend that for the future of the profession, social work programs should reconsider the capacity to which they require students prepare to engage in group practice in their fieldwork and professional practice.

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

The authors conducted this study with a sample of pre-practicum students (n=109) to better understand how students conceptualize their practice, regulate their affective responses, and view their learning and growth as professionals. They asked students to participate in and reflect on an Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE). OSCE is a naturalistic training model used in many allied health disciplines to prepare students for work with clients or patients. Several noteworthy patterns were revealed in the qualitative data and the findings have potential to impact how MSW programs conceptualize students’ readiness for field education.

The first finding noted by the authors is that MSW students’ interventions in their field placements are generally based on their experience, rather than on theoretically supported interventions and evidence-based treatment. This finding calls into question the practice of sending students into practicum without any training from which to draw.

A second significant pattern relates to the emotional reactivity of students, particularly those that are new to the field. Though students are often able to recognize when their emotional responses are affecting their practice, their ability to regulate their emotions once recognized varied widely. Many students admitted to feeling unable to prevent themselves from getting reactive when clients discuss difficult topics.

The final major takeaway was that students generally agreed that there is no substitute for engaging in an actual interview. Actively engaging in this work is arguably the only way to truly improve your practice. According to the article, giving students an opportunity to practice their interventions in a space where a client’s well being is not at stake would be an invaluable addition to students training before they enter their field placements.

These findings support the implementation of a naturalistic training program, like OSCE, in all social work programs. This would allow students to improve their emotion regulation, practice theoretically based interventions, and have real material from which to self reflect and modify their practice with real clients accordingly. The authors describe how professional competency in social work requires both meta-competencies and procedural competencies, which are difficult to master without learning through doing.

Testa, D., & Egan, R. (2015). How useful are discussion boards and written critical reflections in helping social work students critically reflect on their field education placements? Qualitative Social Work, 0(00), 1-18. doi:10.1177/1473325014565146

Social work is a mission driven and practice oriented profession. Thus, it is not a skillset easily mastered while simply sitting in the classroom. Students need to actively apply themselves to make the most of all hands-on practice experience. Students would benefit from strategies supported by the literature that have been shown to help students learn even more from their placement experience by thinking critically and learning from every decision. To this end, the authors performed an exploratory study with BSW students at Victoria University (n=9).

The authors explore the effectiveness of online discussion boards and written critical reflections in helping students process their placement experience. There is a sizeable collection of literature on the importance of developing critical reflections skills but a significant absence of literature that shows if doing it is actually helpful. In general, the authors found that students appreciate the opportunity to evaluate their practice in order to develop their own insights, rather than having to blindly accept the practice wisdom of their professors. Students tended to post in the online discussion boards significantly more often than they were required to and found the free-thinking and exploration process to be very rewarding. Students shared their thoughts about the process in a focus group discussion, which demonstrated that they found it to have significantly benefitted their practice skills. Some students even suggested beginning the critical reflection exercises earlier so that they were oriented to the process before beginning their field placements. In line with their reports, students’ critical reflections demonstrated how their processing did, in fact, become significantly deeper and more insightful throughout the experience.

The authors discuss students’ constructive feedback of the process as well as potential improvements to their research. Although the study was conducted with a small sample of students (n=9) from only one program, the findings show promise in the development of a standardized tool that allows students to critically reflect while learning from their peers, externalizing their emotions and rationalizing their decisions.