The measurement of clinical skills continues to be a challenge in social work education and research. Students training to be social workers are dependent on human interactions, where providing opportunities to develop clinical skills is essential to preparing students for engaging in successful therapeutic relationships. Further, clinical social work education research requires methods for accurately observing and measuring clinical skills. The use of standardized actors (SA) can provide researchers with a reliable and standardized method for measuring clinical skills by providing participants with real-life situations that contain a higher degree of fidelity essential for measuring therapeutic skills. SA’s can also introduce students to a variety of scenarios dependent on the research purpose. The use of SA’s has been thought to come with challenges such as cost, time intensive training and lack of availability. The purpose of this presentation is to demonstrate how SA’s can be effectively utilized in social work research as well as demonstrate the efficacy of utilizing SA’s in measuring clinical skills.
Authors will present the methods through which SA’s were trained and prepared to work with MSW students as a mechanism for measuring clinical skills. Forty-four students were recruited to participate in a three-week clinical skills training that in part focused on recognizing and responding to symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and risk of suicide. Students participated in a 15 minute mock clinical interaction with a SA prior to and after the training, which allowed researchers to establish students’ baseline clinical skill level as well as clinical growth post training. Pre and post tests were recorded, and observed and scored by trained raters using a standardized measure developed for the study.
Students’ improvement in clinical skill development was easily visible through the use of SA’s. In the area of recognizes and responds to symptoms of PTSD, before training, 27.3% of students scored as having no recognition or further inquiry into symptoms of PTSD. After the training, 87.8% of students scored at least minimal recognition of PTSD symptoms or higher. Similarly, in the area of recognizes and responds to suicidal thoughts and/or behaviors, 27.3% of students scored as having no recognition or response to thoughts or behaviors that could indicate suicidal ideation prior to the training course. After the training, 92.7% of students scored as having at least minimal recognition or response to thoughts that could indicate suicidal ideation, or better.
Although the challenges in using SA’s in social work research have often been thought as difficult to overcome, SA’s proved to be a standardized, rigorous, efficient and effective way of measuring clinical skills. Researchers were able to easily train and manage actors, and students’ interactions with them allowed for observations of their clinical skill set. Also, the cost of using actors is not as expensive as believed. Using SA’s, undoubtedly showed skill growth among the students, making it an effective means of measuring clinical skills and a measurement that can be considered more by social work education research.