Methods: During Weeks 3-4 of the Spring 2020 semester, students enrolled in MSW clinical practice courses (n = 68) completed two consecutive, three-hour simulated sessions. Students enrolled in a clinical research course for mental health and health care concentrations focused on a substance use scenario; students enrolled in the children, youth, and families concentration focused on self-harm behaviors; and students enrolled in a school social work practice course focused on individualized educational plans (IEPs). Cultural and diversity considerations were integrated into each scenario by specifying that clients were from ethnically and racially diverse backgrounds, in a same-sex relationship, and/or placed in foster care.
During Week 5, students were invited to participate in focus groups assessing their overall experience with the simulation; understanding of SMART goals; and themes related to diversity, ethics, and skill-enhancement. 10 PhD students co-facilitated five focus groups of students (n = 36). Audio recordings were transcribed verbatim. Three coders completed three rounds of thematic analysis—open, axial, and thematic coding—and completed inter-rater reliability (Braun & Clarke, 2006).
Results: Findings indicate the value of simulation-based learning for student application of skills, processing discomfort, and learning through challenging, realistic scenarios. Five themes emerged. First, students identified logistical components of the simulation, including peer modeling through observation and debriefing, limitations (e.g., acclimation time) and benefits (e.g., unfamiliar client actors), and recommendations (e.g., requiring additional preparation time). Second, students discussed key components of goal formulation: client-centered, navigating micro- and macro-level systems (e.g., family and institutional dynamics), and collaboration with co-clinicians. Third, students expressed relational micro-skills: preparation, flexibility and adaptability, viewing the client as the expert, conflict resolution, and self-awareness. Fourth, students discussed skills explicitly taught in the course: SMART goals, clinical skills (e.g., active listening, rapport-building), and ethical considerations (e.g., privacy). Fifth, students highlighted attitudes and feelings on certainty in the clinical environment: needing more information on goal formulation, balancing rapport with goal development, self-efficacy, working through discomfort, and the value of simulations. Specifically, students expressed their limited knowledge of legal considerations and policies (e.g., breaking confidentiality).
Conclusions and Implications: Simulations effectively facilitate students’ knowledge, values, and skills acquisition of SMART goals. Due to students’ discomfort and anxieties navigating policies, future research is needed on the expansion of simulation-based learning in policy courses. Policies create social service programs, reallocate funding toward programs, and providing communities with essential services and resources. Simulation-based learning can facilitate the application of policy knowledge, values, and skills through the identification of social problems, development of SMART goals, and creation of social justice-oriented, community-centered policies.