Lance Peterson

A Simple Solution for Complex Learning

From my experiences as a mental health therapist, researcher, and educator, I have been plagued with two nagging questions emanating directly from my deepest moral and philosophical beliefs regarding student preparedness for the workforce and accountability to the social work profession. Both questions have been the driving force of my teaching and research interests. The first question relates to my feelings of competency upon first entering the field of social work. While I valued my graduate training, I felt inadequately prepared to be a social worker. Anecdotally, a few years later in my career when I began adjunct teaching at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), I sensed that Masters of Social Work (MSW) students were having the same experience I had: feeling like the emphasis on theory outweighed the emphasis on skill development, thereby leaving them feeling unprepared for the workforce. Some feeling of inadequacy is natural when beginning any field of work, but I could not help but wonder: Was there more that could be done to help students gain needed skills for practice?

The second question relates to social work practice with families and couples. Despite the profession emphasizing working with “systems,” meaning other relational influences with which the client engages, there was surprisingly little emphasis on how to conduct clinical practice with couples and families. Yet, my early experience in clinical practice was fraught with questions about how to engage other family members. I could help a child feel safe to express herself in my counseling office, or listen to a spouse express his concerns about his partner. But what happened when these people went to their homes, and did not feel emotionally, and in some cases, physically safe with their parents or partners? And if clients’ family members attended therapy sessions with them, would I even know how to work with the emotional energy of two or more people in the office? These questions were subsumed under one critical question: How was a social worker supposed to learn skills related to working with two or more people in the counseling room?

A simple idea addressing both of these questions began to emerge after a conversation with my mentor, Dr. Wally Gingerich, at CWRU. He and I were both teaching a course in clinical social work practice with families. He informed me that he was introducing a new assignment to his class, which would include their recording a role-play video of a social worker/client encounter to a CD. He would watch the video, and then given them feedback. Given my concerns about competencies generally, and more specifically to clinical practice with families, I decided that his idea might be a good one to adopt.

When I initially started using the video-recorded role-play assignments, I quickly became discouraged by the time commitment. I typed up feedback for students in a Word document, which was incredibly time consuming (40-45 minutes per student). Eventually, I opted to try using a digital audio recorder for student feedback. After recording the feedback, I uploaded the recordings to my computer, and then sent them via email. I found that this way of providing feedback took approximately half the time it took me to type it. Moreover, after teaching three or four courses in which I incorporated this role-play and feedback strategy, I believed I had a teaching method that was making a real difference. Although students frequently approached the activity with high anxiety and doubts, it seemed that 80 to 90 percent of them found it to be a crucial part of their competency development.

When I arrived at UST, I had to come up with a creative plan to continue the video-recorded role-play assignments. I had been accustomed to sending students to a recording studio, which was unavailable. Importantly, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I sought outside help during the J-term 2011 from Media Relations at UST. I was re-energized when they introduced me to the Flipcam. I did not need high-tech recording gear; I simply needed something that would allow me to watch and listen to students conduct role-plays. And this method would be simpler and make the process even more user-friendly for students. I soon found out that Flipcam technology was reasonably priced, and immediately pursued an internal grant with Dean Barbara Shank to procure enough of them so students would not be reliant on their own technology.

Although I was excited about having the technology I needed for helping students develop competencies for social work practice, I had not yet considered the prospect of attaching this work to a research agenda; however, I openly talked about what I was doing with my colleagues in the School of Social Work at UST; I thought they would be interested to see how this idea could work in classes designed to teach clinical social work practice skills. Eventually, my colleagues in the School of Social Work began encouraging me to view my strategy as an avenue for research.

The seed my colleagues planted in me grew, as I thought about recent mandates from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to move toward competency-based social work education. Although the signature part of this education is the field placements in which students engage, I knew it also needed to occur in the classroom. Moreover, I was dissatisfied with the recent literature trend on peer role-play (i.e., role-play involving only students); it seemed to focus on either the latest technology or the latest role-play strategy, both of which are inordinately time- and resource-consuming, rendering such strategies a poor fit for more time and resource-deprived social work education programs. Indeed, I felt my idea was not only important as a matter of educating students, but as a matter of ethical principle to present ideas that other social work programs could adopt.

Ultimately, I sense that this method may provide at least some answers for both of my original questions. However, my question about how to do social work with two or more family members in the room still needs a lot of attention. Devising a “skill set” for working with individuals is complicated enough, and this complexity is even more pronounced with couples and families. At a recent training on emotionally-focused couple therapy, the presenter informed us that, when working with a couple, one has three clients: the first partner, the second partner, and the relationship between them. And that is just with a couple!

In spite of this challenge, I believe video-recorded role-play activities, accompanied by audio-recorded feedback and classroom discussions, provide a fertile learning environment for students with respect to all types of clinical practice, including practice with couples and families. In my family and couples treatment course, I talk to students about necessary skills for joining with families, and then turn them loose on role-plays, in which two students play some family dyad (i.e., romantic couple, parent/child dyad, etc.), and another student plays the role of social worker. Importantly, I do not simply “give” students a “skill set” to use for these role-plays, rather, I meticulously observe how they incorporate skills, and comment on their ability to use them as a function of the different personalities of clients, as well as the relationship patterns developing between the clients in the role-play, and between the clients and the social worker. Concepts such as empathic conjecture, complimenting, and normalizing clients’ experiences come to life when I point out to students how they used these skills, and how they may have used different skills given particular characteristics of the interview and/or the couple or family. Student skills are enriched through observing videos of classmates who do particularly well in the role-play exercises. Finally, students develop greater awareness of the myriad of ethical decisions that happen minute by minute in the counseling room, as well as greater self-awareness about how they need to carefully monitor the impact of their personal biases on the clinical decisions they make.

I look forward to continuing to develop research methods that capture the learning that is occurring through these exercises. And as I continue, I recognize that I am indebted to colleagues, both internal and external to the School of Social Work, for helping me develop my ideas.

I would never have seen this work as a research agenda had I not received many voices of encouragement telling me that what I was doing was important.

Lance T. Peterson is assistant professor in the School of Social Work.

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.