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Clinical Social Work Journal

, Volume 47, Issue 1, pp 124–133 | Cite as

The Importance of Feedback in Preparing Social Work Students for Field Education

  • Toula KourgiantakisEmail author
  • Karen M. Sewell
  • Marion Bogo
Original Paper

Abstract

Feedback is an important mechanism that enhances student learning in supervision and field education. Constructive feedback that is specific, timely, and based on observations; bridges theory and practice, enhances self-awareness, and builds holistic competence in social work students. There is scant social work research examining how this teaching mechanism facilitates student learning. In this qualitative study we examined the role of feedback in student learning using a simulation-based learning activity aimed at developing holistic competence in the classroom to prepare students for field learning. The study examined the impact of feedback on student learning and the key elements that facilitated learning related to feedback. We identified four themes that described the impact of feedback on student learning: (1) feedback enhanced knowledge, (2) feedback improved skills, (3) feedback developed professional judgment, and (4) feedback increased self-reflection. The processes influencing the impact of feedback were the source of the feedback, type of feedback given, and delivery of feedback. The results deepen our understanding of feedback as a learning mechanism with implications for field education.

Keywords

Feedback Field education Supervision Social work education Simulation-based learning 

Introduction

Social work education aims to prepare effective and competent practitioners through academic courses and field education. Research demonstrates the importance of key educational processes in field education. The field instructor-student relationship has been described as a mediator of important teaching and learning processes that shape the extent to which a student develops holistic competence (Ellison 1994; Homonoff 2008; Miehls et al. 2013). These learning processes include collaboratively using knowledge and conceptual frameworks to understand client dynamics and to plan interventions accordingly (Fortune et al. 2001; Kemp 2001; Lee and Fortune 2013). The long standing social work emphasis on use of self is addressed through attention on developing self-awareness and emotional regulation (Earls Larrison and Korr 2013). Field instructors facilitate the increase in self-awareness and emotion regulation by observing students’ practice, guiding students’ reflections, debriefing on client interactions, and providing recurring positive and constructive feedback (Davys and Beddoe 2015; Maidment 2000; Saltzburg et al. 2010).

Across professions, researchers have documented the importance of feedback as a core educational process in supervision and field education (Barretti 2009; Bogo et al. 2007; Borders et al. 2017; Goodyear 2014; Heckman-Stone 2004; Miller et al. 2005). Feedback from a field instructor provides information about expected behavior or competencies to close gaps in performance (Goodyear 2014). A performance gap is the difference between the desired behavior and the actual observed behavior demonstrated by the student (Eppich and Cheng 2015). Clinical supervision scholars in social work and psychology argue that providing feedback is imperative. For example, in psychology Bernard and Goodyear (1998) state “when supervisees reflect on their supervision, what comes to mind most often is the quality and quantity of the feedback they received” (p. 163). Feedback guides student reflection on practice, facilitates the link between theory and practice, and enhances self-awareness (Bogo 2015) and self-regulation in students (Heron et al. 2014). Social work education researchers recommend that feedback follows these guidelines: (1) feedback is based on observation of practice, (2) feedback is specific and timely, (3) feedback calibrates positive and critical comments, and includes an opportunity to brainstorm alternative responses, and (4) feedback encourages student self-critique (Abbott and Lyter 1998; Fortune and Abramson 1993; Freeman 1985).

Although the significant role of feedback in student learning has been documented, there is often inadequate and infrequent feedback given by field instructors to social work students (Barretti 2009; Bogo et al. 2007; Miller et al. 2005). Studies have shown that students identify feedback as a critical aspect of field learning and they value this learning process more than field instructors do (Barretti 2009; Ellison 1994; Miller et al. 2005). Barretti (2009) found that the provision of feedback was rated by students as an important field instructor attribute associated with quality field education. In another study, the presence or absence of effective supervision feedback was linked with students’ perceptions of effective or ineffective supervision (Ladany et al. 2013).

Several barriers impact the extent to which this type of feedback is effectively used to facilitate student learning in social work field education. Many researchers have noted that didactic instruction alone is insufficient for the development of competent clinical practice (Fortune et al. 2007; Saltzburg et al. 2010). Rather, observation of practice is an essential component in competency development (Bogo 2010; Kourgiantakis et al. in press; Saltzburg et al. 2010) or as Stoltenberg (2008) states, “supervisors supervise in the dark” (p. 48). Unfortunately, there is limited observation of student practice in social work (Beddoe et al. 2011; Heckman-Stone 2004). Where this is the case, field instructors must rely on student self-report and self-assessment even though studies have shown that students’ self-assessments of competence are often inaccurate and inconsistent with expert assessments (Baxter and Norman 2011; Eva and Regehr 2005; Greeno et al. 2017; Maidment 2000). According to Eva and Regehr (2005), the “route to self-improvement is not through becoming a more accurate self-assessor, but through seeking out feedback from reliable and valid external sources” (p. S52).

A second barrier to providing students with feedback on competent practice is field instructors’ reticence in giving corrective feedback (Bogo et al. 2007). The most effective feedback is “clear, direct, and based on clearly specified criteria” (Goodyear 2014, p. 88), but delivering this type of feedback is a challenge for many field instructors and supervisors (Abbott and Lyter 1998; Bogo et al. 2007; Borders et al. 2017; Goodyear 2014). Giving constructive feedback is even more challenging when the student does not accept it (Bogo et al. 2007; Borders et al. 2017; Finch and Taylor 2013). In a study examining supervisors’ experiences giving corrective feedback, Borders et al. (2017) found that the reaction of the supervisee influenced the delivery and perception of feedback for the supervisors. When the supervisee was open, supervisors considered that they were giving constructive feedback, but when supervisees were not accepting, they considered it to be a confrontational process. Another study showed that field instructors are reluctant to give students constructive feedback as it places them in a gatekeeping role (Bogo et al. 2007). This role creates a conflict for field instructors who want to uphold standards of competent practice while also trying to focus on student strengths. Field instructors in the study raised concerns about the inadequate preparation of students for field education, and they stated that field instructors assume the burden of evaluating student performance and acting as gatekeepers for the profession. These field instructors emphasized that this should be the responsibility of the school (Bogo et al. 2007). Another problem related to the lack of constructive feedback was reported by Karpenko and Gidycz (2012). They found that supervisors who avoided giving constructive feedback displayed a leniency bias in evaluating their students, thus creating inaccurate evaluations, and not providing students with needed feedback to enhance awareness of areas that need further development.

Despite both students’ and supervision scholars’ reports on the importance of feedback, the literature across helping professions primarily focuses on techniques for providing feedback (Abbott and Lyter 1998; Ramani and Krackov 2012). There is scant research in social work examining how and why this teaching technique facilitates student learning. Accordingly, this article contributes to understanding the learning processes that take place as a result of feedback. A more complex understanding of the contribution of feedback to learning to practice can provide insights to strengthen field education practice. This paper analyzes data collected in a simulation-based learning experience designed to prepare students for field education. The data illuminates the dynamics and can inform pedagogy for field education. Lessons learned from this analysis support and deepen our understanding of its importance in field education.

The present study examined feedback within a simulation-based learning activity known as Practice Fridays—a voluntary enhancement for foundation year MSW students. The aim of this innovation was to facilitate the development of holistic competence in the classroom to prepare students for field learning. This exploratory qualitative study examined the following research questions: (1) How did students describe their learning was impacted by feedback? (2) What key elements of feedback did students perceive as impacting their learning?

Methods

Design and Participants

The data presented in this article were part of a larger exploratory qualitative study that examined student learning and competence development at an educational enhancement known as Practice Fridays.1 Participants in this study were students in the foundation year of the MSW program at a Canadian university. In addition to being in year one of the program, participants were eligible for the study if they attended a Practice Friday in the fall 2015. The sample consisted of 57 students out of 139 students in the MSW foundation year (representing 41% of the cohort). This study received approval from the Research Ethics Board at the university.

Procedures

Participant recruitment and data collection took place during nine Practice Fridays offered from September to December 2015. Students who registered for Practice Fridays were given information about the study by a research assistant (KS) and those who chose to participate in the study signed the informed consent form. Each Practice Friday consisted of a small group of MSW students (ranging from 4 to 12), as well as a faculty member and field instructor. At the beginning of each Practice Friday activity, the faculty member reviewed competencies and effective methods for giving and receiving feedback. Four to six students engaged in a simulated interview with a standardized client for 10–15 minutes. After each interview segment, students completed feedback forms on their observations of peers’ performance and they rated the degree to which the interviewer demonstrated the identified competencies. The interviewer provided an oral reflection of his/her performance and the interviewer was then given oral feedback by designated peers, a field instructor, and the faculty member, as well as the actor. Students then completed an electronic reflection questionnaire at the end of the activity, with 14 open-ended questions about students’ experience and learning at Practice Fridays, as well as the impact of feedback on student learning. For example, students were asked, “What type of feedback about your interview was most helpful? How was that helpful? Describe what was said, as well as how it was said that made it helpful.”

Data Analysis

Thematic analysis was used to identify themes within the data using six steps outlined by Braun and Clarke (2006): (1) transcription, reading, and familiarization; (2) coding; (3) identifying patterns and themes; (4) reviewing themes; (5) defining and developing names of themes; and (6) interpreting and reporting. Credibility, confirmability, and trustworthiness were established using an independent coder and multiple rounds of coder comparisons, peer debriefing, the maintenance of an audit trail documenting research decisions, use of memos, prolonged engagement, persistent observation, and use of thick description. During the analysis of the original data, the impact of feedback emerged as an important learning mechanism. We decided to conduct another analysis of the data following the same steps, exploring the impact of feedback on student learning and the elements influencing the degree to which feedback impacted students’ perceived learning.

Results

In response to the first research question, we identified four themes in students’ reflections that described the impact of feedback on student learning: (1) feedback enhanced knowledge, (2) feedback improved skills, (3) feedback developed better professional judgement, and (4) feedback increased self-reflection.

How Did Feedback Impact Student Learning?

Feedback Enhanced Knowledge

Most students spoke about the importance of receiving feedback in the simulation activity, and that the feedback others shared enhanced knowledge and permitted them to conceptualize classroom concepts. Many students also communicated that feedback from others helped clarify and validate their own understanding of interviewing skills. One student stated that, “Some of the comments that the reflecting team made supported and affirmed my analysis of the client’s experience. Others challenged or added nuance to my understanding.” (Student 7). Another student noted, “Hearing other people’s feedback and how they would handle the situation allowed me to better connect the theory and the practice.” (Student 14). Many students shared that hearing a variety of opinions expanded their perspectives, “We got a very comprehensive experience in terms of thinking about what impacts an interview, and strategies to moving it forward.” (Student 17). Students also spoke about enhancing their understanding of how to provide constructive feedback to peers, “The feedback I gave verbally impacted my learning, as it allowed me to reflect on how to give valuable feedback while still using a strength-based approach.” (Student 37).

Some students explained that they learned about their simulated interview performance through the feedback they received, “I felt I was given very good feedback about my social work practice skills. Specifically, in terms of asking open ended questions as well as using silence effectively. I was challenged to think about the ways I was using my interviewing skills.” (Student 56). Furthermore, students shared that completing a feedback form facilitated learning:

I also found it valuable to fill out a feedback form… because it helped me to better analyze each interview and see what practice skills the interviewer used (and which ones they could have improved on)…It helped me see the connection between the use of practice skills and the quality of the interview. (Student 39)

Feedback Improved Skills

Some students described how feedback strengthened their interviewing skills. One student shared how feedback influenced her practice, “I was able to actually demonstrate the skills we talked about and built upon [from the feedback] during the reflections. It’s one thing to listen and understand the relevance of the feedback, and another to actually enact it.” (Student 46). Students described learning not only from the feedback they received on their practice, but also through the feedback they gave their peers:

The feedback that I gave impacted my learning because I had to think of specific examples of what the interviewer did and why it was helpful. This helped me better understand some of the ways in which the practice skills are actually utilized in interviews. (Student 39)

Many students noted how gaining feedback skills could enhance their practice with clients, “[providing verbal feedback] I was able to learn how to effectively present constructive criticism—doing it in a way that was strengths-based, affirming, and useful. These are skills that I will translate into my therapeutic practice with clients.” (Student 42).

Feedback Developed Better Professional Judgment

For some students, hearing feedback on social work practice enhanced critical thinking,

It was very useful to hear other people’s interpretation of an interview. Often team members agreed on common items for feedback, and other times highlighted different aspects of the interviewer’s performance. It gave me an opportunity to think critically about a wider variety of ways in which interview skills are applied. (Student 15)

Another student indicated that the feedback allowed her to critically reflect on her assumptions. “It helps you think about the biases you have in observing others… you tend to see what you do wrong yourself.” (Student 52).

Many students described having an increased awareness of decision-making in social work practice and that there was often more than one way of responding to situations:

What was most helpful was when people would discuss alternative responses or different directions that the interviewer could have taken the session. It was helpful to hear some more options and discuss the usefulness, purpose of each path, and what each could lead into. (Student 28)

Feedback Increased Self-Reflection

Most students spoke about the manner in which feedback triggered self-reflection and also guided reflection on practice. One student noted,

[Feedback was] very helpful both in picking up on things I didn’t notice (thereby cueing me to be more aware of certain areas) and also in validating my own interpretation of the interview…I think that my awareness of open-ended and close-ended questions was enhanced by listening to people’s feedback. (Student 7)

Many students spoke about how feedback contributed to increased confidence, “[feedback from others] made me feel confident in my capabilities—they were supportive. They pointed out gaps that I didn’t notice while in the interviewer seat.” (Student 41).

Students learned from the feedback they received and also from the opportunity to give feedback to peers. Students found it valuable to hear the feedback that their peers received and this facilitated reflection on practice. As one student described, “I found the ability to provide feedback and observe the interviewers to be helpful. It allowed me to also reflect on what I may have done differently, as well as what skills I should work on.” (Student 4).

What Key Elements Influenced the Impact of Feedback on Students’ Reported Learning?

In response to the second research question, students described three key elements that influenced the extent to which feedback impacted their learning. For students, the impact of feedback on learning was influenced by: (1) the source of the feedback, (2) the type of feedback given, and (3) the delivery of the feedback.

Source of Feedback

Students described that the source providing feedback influenced the impact of the feedback and the weight it was given by students. Feedback given by the faculty member was described by students as credible and significant for their learning. Specifically, students noted the faculty member’s skill at providing constructive feedback while identifying strengths in students’ performance. They expressed that feedback from the faculty member bridged classroom learning with practice,

Feedback provided by the instructor was very helpful because it was tied to what we are (or will be) learning in class, plus I treated it as being very accurate since the instructor is experienced with interviewing and will be evaluating our skills throughout the semester. (Student 23)

Students had variable descriptions of feedback from field instructors. Some students stated that field instructors provided a real-world perspective and they appreciated examples from their practice, “The field instructor had direct experience working with clients feeling loss, so it was really beneficial for the scenario the client was experiencing. The field instructor was able to give very specific examples related to the topic.” (Student 1). Another student stated that feedback from the field instructor was valuable as it provided a window into the practicum experience, “I … seemed to gravitate most toward the feedback given by the field instructor. I think this is largely because practicum is coming up and I am feeling apprehensive about what is expected in that setting.” (Student 54). Other students did not value feedback from field instructors, “That the field instructor was so brief in her feedback, and offered limited evidence ...[her feedback] provided little to the overall interview experience because she wasn’t able to tease out specifics.” (Student 24).

Peer feedback was valued by most students as it validated interviewer and observers’ experiences and insights, “I found the students also gave encouraging feedback and I was relieved to find out that their constructive feedback was aligned with my own self-reflection.” (Student 51). Feedback from students also normalized learning and emotional experiences, “it was helpful to hear from peers that we are having the same types of challenges, worries and questions.” (Students 26). While peer feedback was valued highly by most students, several students noted that peer feedback was not given as much credibility as feedback from other sources, “I found that students were too nice to each other overall ... I think we are also just learning our skills, and sometimes getting feedback from other beginners is not as useful as getting it from experts.” (Student 17).

Type of Feedback Given

Many students stated that they need specific and concrete feedback to know they are “on the right track,” in their understanding of interviewing skills,

Specific feedback was the most helpful and this was something that had been lacking in previous role-play experiences. For example, one of the observers commented on my language that may have inadvertently made the client feel negatively. I was so glad to get that specific feedback because I think it will help me to be more careful of my word choice in the future. (Student 7)

Many students noted that when feedback was given with a specific example, this augmented learning, “to illustrate, I liked when classmates would comment on the effectiveness of the interviewer’s use of reflection and then would provide an example of when it was used in the interview.” (Student 50). Another student underlined the importance of feedback specificity, “In terms of the structure, if someone brought up a specific skill, gave a concrete example of how it was used, and then explained how it could have been done differently, this increased my understanding and facilitated my learning experience.” (Student 16). When feedback was too global or vague, students did not find this beneficial for their learning, “I understand that we all want to make each other feel supported, but hearing ‘you did a really good job’ often translates to ‘you did okay but you were nothing special.’ By being general you can actually cause self-doubt in the presenter and you defeat your purpose.” (Student 17).

Most students stated a preference for constructive feedback, “I prefer receiving constructive vs positive feedback. I personally don’t need the validation that I’m doing things [right]. I would rather focus on what I need to improve so I don’t make the mistake again.” (Student 32). Even though students preferred receiving constructive feedback, some students noted that there were challenges in providing constructive feedback to their peers, “As an observer, I found it difficult to offer corrective feedback. As we are just learning interview skills, I don’t want to be overly critical.” (Student 3).

Delivery of Feedback

Students shared that how the feedback was delivered influenced the way in which they understood and internalized the content. Receiving timely feedback was important for students, “Gaining immediate feedback is very valuable because sometimes after the session—I know for me anyway—my mind goes blank after the session and I don’t remember what I said or did so receiving that immediate feedback while it’s all still fresh in mind is very valuable.” (Student 4). Providing feedback with warmth and empathy also influenced the impact of feedback on student learning, “It was explained to me in a supportive way…I did not feel like I was being chastised, more that I was getting some useful information.” (Student 15).

Students used a feedback form to record their observations of peer feedback and this helped students hone in on specific skills, and assisted them in connecting theoretical concepts with practice.

I also found it valuable to fill out a feedback form for each interviewer, as it ensured that I was focused during each interview… it helped me to better analyze each interview and see what practice skills the interviewer used (and which ones they could have improved on). Thus, it helped me see the connection between the use of practice skills and the quality of the interview. (Student 39)

Discussion

Field education literature emphasizes the importance of feedback as a core educational process and provides techniques for delivery (Bogo 2015). This teaching technique is acknowledged as a best practice, however there is little research that explains why this technique is valuable. While this study was conducted in the context of simulated client interviews designed to prepare students for learning in the field, there are useful implications that can inform the use of feedback in field education.

Students’ descriptions of their learning of complex practice behaviors were consistent with a holistic view of competence (Bogo et al. 2014; Council on Social Work Education [CSWE] 2015; Kourgiantakis et al. in press). For students in this study, feedback improved the development of procedural competence such as knowledge and skills, and enhanced meta-competence including professional judgment, and emotion regulation. These results are important as they exemplify that feedback is a pivotal learning mechanism. The effectiveness of feedback was shaped by several elements such as the credibility of the source providing feedback, the type of feedback provided, and the delivery or approach used in giving feedback. These elements have been highlighted by other researchers who have stressed the importance of field educators providing clear, specific, constructive feedback, based on clearly identified competencies for students (Abbott and Lyter 1998; Davys and Beddoe 2015; Fortune and Abramson 1993).

The findings from this study support the literature in social work, psychology, and family therapy (Bogo 2010; Goodyear 2014; Montalvo 1973) on the importance of field instructors observing students’ practice and providing feedback (Saltzburg et al. 2010) as a method of teaching generalist and specialized competencies (Beddoe et al. 2011). Observation is also a crucial assessment method as it permits instructors to assess the degree to which a competency has been demonstrated (Bogo 2010). There has been a dearth of studies written on this supervision modality despite the reported benefits for student learning (Andrews and Harris 2017; Saltzburg et al. 2010). In the absence of observation field instructors rely on students’ self-assessment of practice behavior which is the most common (and inaccurate) supervision modality (Goodyear 2014; Maidment 2000). In a seminal article, Montalvo (1973) described the critical role of an instructor observing a student-client interaction from the outside where they are distanced from the emotional intensity and can draw hypotheses on the dynamics that may be missed by a student. According to Montalvo, there is a gap between what a student reports and what happens in a session, which has been documented in more recent research (Beddoe et al. 2011; Boud 1999; Eva and Regehr 2005). Supervision research in psychology has shown that students often experience anxiety in their early work with clients and this is inextricably tied with learning (Stoltenberg 2005). Stoltenberg’s study did not rely on self-reports, but used direct observation to assess student performance and to increase self-reflection and self-awareness in students on their own emotional states.

Another important finding from this study relates to the link between learning and emotion. Neuroscience researchers have shown that when a student engages with new learning, multiple systems are involved (Cozolino and Santos 2014; Schenck and Cruickshank 2015; Siegel 2006; Taylor and Lamoreaux 2008). Attention is one of these systems, and it must be managed to scan the multitude of stimuli the student confronts and to decide where to focus one’s attention. Since “thoughts and sensations are encoded with emotion as they come and go” learning involves emotional states (Schenck and Cruickshank 2015, pp. 83–84). These states are connected to the learner’s self-concept and the feelings connected with whether students perceive themselves as progressing in their attempt to master the new content. Students are not consciously aware of many of these processes, they occur in a spontaneous, out-of-awareness manner. Field learning assignments inevitably present innumerable complexities that are rarely addressed in a straightforward manner, hence challenging students’ cognitions and affective reactions. Indeed, the view of holistic competence described in EPAS (CSWE 2015) conceptualizes practice as the use of knowledge, critical thinking, and emotion regulation brought together in choosing appropriate in-the-moment use of skills; all aiming to provide effective interventions for the needs of the unique client. Learning to practice social work through field education therefore involves challenges for the student in deciding where to focus their attention and how to manage the emotions evoked by a client experience.

This study shows that instructors who observe student practice play an integral role in helping students focus attention on specific experiences and make meaning in the experience while it is still fresh in their minds. This can reduce cognitive overload for students. Cognitive load theory posits that unguided learning with complex learning tasks can result in a heavy working memory load and have adverse effects on students who are lacking proper schemas to integrate new information with prior knowledge (Kirschner et al. 2006). Goodyear (2014) discusses supervision of psychology students and describes learning on a developmental continuum with guided instruction at one end and self-directed learning at the other end; feedback is the common element between these two processes and it facilitates the development of effective practice. This underlines the important role of feedback at all stages of student learning and development (Stoltenberg and McNeill 2010). According to Goodyear (2014), “reflective practice is the primary means by which professionals enact self-regulated learning” (p. 92).

Schön (1983) introduced the terms “reflection-in-action” and “reflection-on-action” and these involve a critical analysis of complex cognitive and affective processes that permit a learner to create new understanding and meaning. Students require knowledge about content and process to be able to engage in effective reflective practice which they learn through the provision of feedback from an instructor or supervisor (Goodyear 2014). The content refers to outcomes or identified competencies and how effective practice behavior would look. This was described by students in this study as an enhancement of knowledge and skills in social work practice. Feedback appeared to enhance students’ ability to integrate theory and practice—a fundamental goal of field education as the signature pedagogy of social work education. “The intent of field education is to integrate the theoretical and conceptual contribution of the classroom with the practical world of the practice setting” (CSWE 2015, p. 12). Students also learned about the process of reflection as they received feedback and learned about missed opportunities in client interviews and how to reflect on their practice. Instructor feedback also focused on self of the student and students’ cognitive and affective processes that influenced the relationship with the client. Students had an opportunity to provide oral and written reflections on their experiences and the feedback given by instructors. Many students in this study commented that the feedback provided raised their awareness of different dimensions of the social worker-client relationship. This study showed that feedback is an important learning mechanism that teaches students how to become what Schön (1983) referred to as a “reflective practitioner” to be able to engage in more effective practice.

Finally, research demonstrates that effective practice results from numerous cycles of identifying what one needs to learn, bringing focused attention to instances of practice of particular skills, reviewing that practice in the light of those intentional efforts, and practicing again until achieving a level of proficiency (Chow et al. 2015). Guidance with reflection on practice and the provision of focused feedback supports students in processing their learning, creating intentional connections (Schenck and Cruickshank 2015), and integrating into memory (Siegel 2006). Ericsson and Lehmann (1996) describe this development of competence or expertise using a term known as deliberate practice. It is a process in which instructors identify competencies just beyond a student’s current abilities and provide the opportunity for guided practice or repetition, accompanied by coaching and expert feedback which facilitates refinement of practice (Anderson 2005; Ericsson and Lehmann 1996). In an early study on deliberate practice, Ericsson et al. (1993) noted that “in the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for a highly motivated subject. Hence, mere repetition of an activity will not automatically lead to improvement” (p. 367). This has been supported by other researchers who note that accurate feedback is important not only to enhance proficiency, but it is also needed to avoid having students engage in ineffective or harmful behaviors (Anderson 2005; Stoltenberg and McNeill 2010). Given the complexities of practice situations field instructors need to attend to a myriad of issues when providing supervision to students. These issues include helping students arrive at accurate assessments, joint goal setting with clients, and effective implementation of plans. Given the findings from this study they also need to dedicate time to provide feedback that identifies specific skills needing attention. This approach will provide the focus needed for students to continue to engage in repetitive practice and promote learning.

Study Limitations

It is important to acknowledge limitations of this study. The data collected about the impact of feedback on student learning came through self-reports. We minimized this response bias through prolonged engagement over the course of the study by the principal researcher (TK) and the research assistant (KS). We also had observer triangulation which permitted us to reduce participant and researcher bias. Other strategies that were used to enhance rigor and trustworthiness included peer debriefing and maintaining an audit trail. To enhance credibility, we sought negative evidence and two independent researchers analyzed the data for discrepancies. We also used thick description which augmented credibility and transferability.

Another potential limitation is that the data were collected in a study where student learning was based on interactions with trained actors portraying simulated clients. If feedback was provided on students’ interviews with actual clients, they may have performed differently, hence affecting the feedback given and insights into the dynamics of teaching and learning. However, educators across the health professions have adopted and promoted the use of simulation-based learning, noting that one of its key attributes is the level of authenticity (Bland et al. 2011). In contrast to other methods of preparation for learning in field or clinical settings, such as peer role plays, simulations feel authentic and have higher fidelity because actors can be trained to portray diverse clients with a wide range of emotional intensity (Bland et al. 2011).

Implications for Social Work Education, Practice, and Research

The results of this study have implications for field instructors, social work educators, and pedagogical researchers. For field instructors, an understanding of the role of feedback as a learning mechanism can serve to create the ideal conditions for enriching student learning in the field. These conditions include articulating clear competencies, identifying focused practice opportunities upon which to scaffold learning, observing practice, guiding student reflections, and providing specific, immediate, constructive feedback related to these competencies. This will promote self-reflection, build competence, and facilitate students’ ability to self-regulate.

The study also supported an innovative method of teaching and learning holistic competence in the classroom. Simulation-based learning permits instructors to observe student practice, provide students with focused feedback on practice, guide students’ reflections, in order to prepare students for field education. This provides social work programs with suggestions on methods of teaching holistic competence. Furthermore, while the importance of feedback for the development of student competence has been documented, most previous studies focus on students learning how to do practice in the field. This study provides promising findings on the impact of feedback in the classroom. While most social work programs use role plays to teach students to practice and prepare for field learning, there are several factors that interfere with fidelity and authenticity. First, during classroom role plays students are interacting with peers and there is familiarity and sometimes camaraderie. In simulation-based learning activities, students are interviewing unknown actors in the role of standardized clients. Peers are not trained to adjust the level of difficulty according to the interventions provided by the student in the interviewing role. When the interviewing student is experiencing challenges, the student in the client role will sometimes make it easier for their peers, while in other instances it is too advanced. Finally, students are not trained to accurately demonstrate the level of emotion required for client scenarios. In peer led role plays, it is not uncommon for students to disengage when the emotional intensity heightens (Mooradian 2007). Simulation-based learning mitigates these problems and creates a learning experience that feels authentic for the student (Bland et al. 2014; Mooradian 2007).

Field educators have recommended that social work programs identify, teach, and assess “a baseline set of professional expectations and skills” (CSWE 2015, p. 9) that prepare students to enter into field learning. We studied the impact of simulation-based learning and assessment of competence similar to that described in another paper (Bogo et al. 2017). In this study, field instructors reported that information about students’ performance in simulated experiences provided a bridge to field education. Specifically, they gained an initial understanding of students’ competence in simulated practice which was useful for setting field goals. In addition, the discussion with the student about their learning experience and how they received and used feedback in the simulations, facilitated meaningful engagement in the student-field instructor relationship.

Conclusion

Our qualitative study focused on elucidating the contributions feedback can make to learning and the development of holistic competence in social work students. While conducted in a simulation-based learning environment, the findings can inform field education practice. The results demonstrate that students valued constructive feedback and feedback enhanced knowledge, skills, professional judgment, and self-reflection. For students the impact of feedback on learning was facilitated by the credibility of the person providing feedback, the type of feedback provided, and the approach used to deliver the feedback. The findings from our study provide an imperative for the observation of student practice and the provision of feedback by field instructors.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    Study design and procedures were originally reported in Kourgiantakis et al. (in press).

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social WorkUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

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