Although masters-level social work students typically build clinical skills via role-play with their peers or instructors, several innovative training simulations are emerging in the literature that provide an evidence-informed methodology to build these skills. Prior studies have evaluated the efficacy of computerized simulations at enhancing clinical skills among social work students under ideal research conditions. However, research is needed to begin translating this work into real-world settings.
Using an open-trial design, we evaluated the effectiveness and acceptability of implementing two internet-based training simulations (2 cognitive behavioral therapy, 1 motivational interviewing) in a single 13-week interpersonal practice course among 22 students in a CSWE-accredited MSW program. Trainees repetitively practiced their clinical skills with virtual clients while receiving feedback via real-time nonverbal cues, transcript review, and performance assessment across pre-specified theoretical learning objectives (scores range from 0 to 100). Specifically, we instructed students to complete at least 4 sessions for each simulation and obtain a score of 90% at least once.
Across the three simulations, students completed a mean of 9.6 training sessions (range of 4 to 27) to obtain a score of at least 90% with each session lasting approximately 15 minutes. Regarding efficacy, we observed students improved their scores across all three simulations from M=68.6 (SD=14.9) to M=91.8 (SD=4.5). Moreover, paired-samples t-tests revealed that students reported greater self-efficacy in clinical skills (e.g., OARS), clinical tasks (e.g., keeping sessions on track), and working effectively with differing client presentations (e.g., client with depression) between pre- and post-test (all p<.001). Lastly, approximately 95% of students reported the virtual client characters were engaging and realistic and 90% would recommend the simulations to others.
The results suggest that computerized simulations may help enhance clinical skills and tasks when implemented within a classroom setting. Students reported that the skills learned from the simulations translated into successful real-world clinical settings. Moreover, the students found the simulations to be acceptable which is critical for sustained implementation. Given that students may enter field prior to completing sufficient coursework related to clinical skills, the computerized simulations offer an opportunity for students to learn and practice these behaviors prior to engaging with real clients. Future research would benefit from evaluating the tools using a randomized controlled design to validate the effectiveness of the tool as well as evaluate the implementation of the tool from the perspective of instructors and administrators.