June 3, 2021Print | PDF
Undergraduate students in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Faculty of Social Work are building critical communication and interview skills by interacting with actors and reflecting on their experience as part of a new simulation-based learning environment.
Assistant Professor Michelle Skop saw how simulation-based learning was used in medicine, nursing, and other university social work programs to provide students with opportunities to practice skills based on real-world experiences. She wanted to develop and implement this innovative approach in one of her Bachelor of Social Work courses to provide new opportunities for students to learn by doing.
“I learned that simulation was being used in social work education and I wanted to bring it to Laurier,” says Skop. “It is a high-impact but low-stakes activity for students to practice their interviewing skills, receive feedback, debrief on what they observed and experienced in the simulation, and discuss the application to professional social work settings.”
The idea of a simulated learning environment may bring to mind ideas of virtual or augmented reality, but simulations in Skop’s Communication and Interviewing Skills classroom relate to a method of learning social work skills by engaging in role plays based on social work case scenarios.
“It was during the simulation that I experienced this profound sense of belonging, like I had finally found my calling in the world and knew this was the right pathway for me.”
Simulations are a form of active learning that includes role playing components for both participating students and the profession actors they interact with. In this case, a trained actor played a client in a social work case scenario, several students volunteered to play the roles of social work placement students, and the rest of the class learned through observation and reflective discussion.
“We can use this as an opportunity to relate to people through simulation,” says Skop. “There’s a lot of opportunities here – the sky is the limit in terms of what kinds of experiences and knowledge we can create collaboratively when theory and practice converge.”
Skop collaborated with Eva Peisachovich, an Associate Professor in York University’s School of Nursing and founder of SimXspace, to design, facilitate and evaluate the course simulations. Skop’s initial introduction to simulation at Laurier was propelled from Peisachovich’s larger SSHRC-funded research program, which focuses on exploring the impact this type of simulation has on student learning experiences and professional development.
Simulations were implemented at two different time points in the course. In the first simulation, students practiced beginning a first social work interview, including introducing the topics of confidentiality and consent for service while demonstrating active listening skills and empathy.
“I learned a lot about the impact a counsellor can have on a client,” says Yuliya Yaremenko, a second-year undergraduate student in the Faculty of Social Work. “I received feedback from the actor that some things I said made them feel empowered and other things I said made them feel worse. This feedback was crucial for my learning and growth this term.”
"The sky is the limit in terms of what kinds of experiences and knowledge we can create collaboratively when theory and practice converge."
Building on the same case scenario, the purpose of the second simulation was for students to practice asking open-ended questions and conducting a social work assessment. Course assignments were based on the simulations so that students could identify and reflect on the communication and interviewing skills they observed, and also practice writing a comprehensive social work assessment report.
Experiential learning activities like simulations help students establish confidence in their ability to develop professional client relationships by providing opportunities to practice active listening, build rapport, identify issues and provide feedback.
Anika Berringer had the chance to play the role of a social work placement student during one of the live simulations. Berringer says that while the experience was a bit nerve-wracking, she not only developed confidence in her communication skills, but also left feeling more confident about her future.
“It was during the simulation that I experienced this profound sense of belonging, like I had finally found my calling in the world and knew this was the right pathway for me,” says Berringer.
By introducing virtual simulations early in the Bachelor of Social Work program, Skop is building a foundational understanding of how important these skills will be to students during their degree studies and as future social workers. The course addresses the increased adoption of virtual counselling in response to the COVID-19 pandemic by identifying communication and interviewing skills used by social workers within the context of online service delivery.
“Being able to learn via virtual simulation has helped me to envision what my future will look like in the field of social work,” says Yaremenko.
Through Skop’s experiential simulations, students receive proactive training and support in preparation for their third-year field placements and practice courses. Skop also sees potential for integrating simulations into other courses.
“Being able to learn via virtual simulation has helped me to envision what my future will look like in the field of social work.”
This early exploration of client-practitioner relationships is an experience that Sandy Cao (BSW ’21) says is the greatest benefit of simulation-based learning.
Cao is a recent Social Work graduate and Skop’s teaching assistant for the winter 2021 offering of Communication and Interviewing Skills.
“Effective verbal communication and active listening aren’t things you learn overnight or in one semester – it takes time for you to reflect on the feedback you get so you can nurture these skills,” says Cao. “The earlier these skills are introduced the better because they are foundational in our profession.”
Looking ahead, Berringer’s goal is to pursue a career in mental health or youth and women’s justice. For now, she has her sights set on achieving success in her upcoming placement.
“I now feel like I am ready to strengthen the areas of weakness I was able to identify before I begin my placement,” says Berringer. “This has been the most valuable learning experience I have had in my university career.”
Assistant Professor, Social Work
We see you are accessing our website on IE8. We recommend you view in Chrome, Safari, Firefox or IE9+ instead.×