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Building Innovative Learning
Environments for Practice

Simulation innovation

For decades, airline pilots have used flight simulators for training and assessment. Simulation is also common in medical schools, where students are tested in life-like situations.

Now, simulation is being used for teaching and evaluation with social work students. It’s part of an exciting experiment taking place at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto.

In December 2010, for the first time ever, first-year Master’s students were evaluated using ‘simulated standardized scenarios’ for one of their final assignments. Highly-trained actors helped evoke real-world situations. One scenario involved an elderly woman dealing with loss. In another vignette, students interviewed a young mother who recently arrived in Canada with her baby.

“The benefit of using simulation in teaching is that it’s very active,” explains Professor Marion Bogo. “Students are using the knowledge, the values and the skills they’ve learned about in the classroom.”

Although simulations have been used before to teach social work competencies, the difference here is the use of trained actors – with their ability to play all kinds of emotions and situations – rather than peers. Also, students are rated on their performance in the scenarios.

“We can see whether, and how, students use what we’re teaching. It’s not in any way meant to replace the valuable learning students get in the real world, but it’s a very useful bridge,” says Prof. Bogo.

And it gets around a long-time challenge: how do universities know what students can and can’t do in the practicum? Professors aren’t on site to observe,” says Prof. Bogo, who developed the new approach based on research with Vice-Provost Academic Programs Cheryl Regehr.

It’s modeled on the Objective Structured Clinical Examinations (OSCEs) used in health professions, but there’s a twist: students do a written reflection immediately after completing the exercise. This means that they learn not only from doing an interview, but also by reflecting on it. The ‘reflection’ helps faculty to assess “what students are taking from classroom sessions and using in their practice.”

Students are enthusiastic about the whole experience. They report that it reinforces skills learned in class and gives them greater confidence heading into their practicum. “It’s exactly what the latest cognitive neuroscience research tells us about the value of learning by doing,” Prof. Bogo adds.

Right now, the scenarios are played out in an office setting at the university. As a next step, the Faculty wants to create a lab that simulates settings in which social workers do their jobs, such as a home or hospital room. The ‘Learning Lab’ would have video equipment so that sessions could be recorded and analyzed by students and instructors.

“It’s all about ensuring that students are ready for the complex practice situations in which they will find themselves as social workers,” says Prof. Bogo.

© 2011 Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work