Social work professors explore department’s simulated-client teaching method

Simulating real-world experiences that social work students could face in their careers is a unique aspect of the department, according to social work professor Bryan Duckham, and students do not even need to leave the classroom.

From left, social work professors Hsin-Hsin Huang, Kathleen Tunney and Bryan Duckham. Photo courtesy of Duckham

Duckham, along with social work professors Kathleen Tunney and Hsin-Hsin Huang, will have their paper, “Theoretical support and other considerations in using simulated clients to educate social workers,” published in the “Smith College Studies in Social Work” journal.

They explore how students respond to conducting counseling lab scenarios with hired actors, which the social work department does, as opposed to student-to-student role playing.

The hired actors, according to Duckham, “portray social work clients with the kind of problems that clients may bring to social workers either at the bachelor’s or master’s level.”

Duckham said “it was clear” that using hired actors was preferable to student-to-student role play.

“When students role play with each other it’s just not as serious…,” Duckham said. “[There’s an] implicit agreement that they’re not going to challenge each other too much.”

Duckham, the lead researcher on the project, looked at the reason for that through a theoretical perspective using psychodynamic and Bowen family systems theories.

Psychodynamic theory focuses on how a person’s psychology affects their reaction to an experience, while Bowen Family Systems theory considers families as emotional units that can affect behavior.

The paper also discusses suggestions for implementing such a program and concerns that could come with the program.

Role play with hired actors creates a “more realistic role play,” according to Duckham, and puts students in a safe environment while experiencing “more real situations” in which they can make mistakes and be successful in a controlled environment.

The social work department hires paid actors from the student body, according to Duckham, though they are not all theatre majors.

“Some of them have an acting background, some don’t and we help them construct a role,” Duckham said. “We have roles that we can give them… [and we] provide orientation and ongoing training [and] supervision.”

Using hired actors is a more real experience for students, according to Duckham, and it can cause more anxiety than in a student-to-student role play. That being the case, Duckham said the hired-actor method “is a great opportunity for them to learn more about themselves.”

Similarly, Tunney said students do not take the counseling sessions as seriously when working with fellow students.

“Student feedback on the simulated client methods says, essentially, ‘This was very scary, but we need to do more of it,’” Tunney said. “In other words, skill development is greatly assisted by an experiential learning environment that utilizes more ‘real life’ stimulus.”

Graduate and undergraduate students can enroll in courses that use this method.

Huang said the department recently received additional funding to upgrade the camera equipment used in the department’s three counseling labs for recording the mock-counseling sessions. Students are able to critique and learn from each other, according to Huang.

Duckham said he got interested in studying this because it is “fairly unique” to SIUE’s program and allows SIUE to offer an aspect of classroom learning “that enhances a student’s clinical training.” His area of research is interpersonal theory, so Duckham said that aspect was interesting as well.

Tunney brought the “client-simulation method” with her to SIUE in 1997.

“When I was a student at the University of Illinois-Chicago, I saw the effectiveness of this method in educating doctors and other health care professionals, including social workers,” Tunney said. “So we started using it at SIUE, and as the years went by, we expanded its use.”

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