Pre-placement anxiety among foundation-year MSW students: a follow-up study.
This Field Note presents a follow-up to a pilot study that explored pre-field placement anxiety for 1st-year MSW students. Previous studies report that students experience significant anxiety as they anticipate their field placement, and research indicates that anxiety has the potential to affect learning. A sample of 204 students reported moderate levels of anxiety, comparable to previous findings. Older students, and those with prior work and classroom experience, reported significantly less anxiety. Students described specific concerns but also viewed anxiety as an expectable response with positive connotations for enhanced learning. Implications for social work education and future research are discussed.

Article Type:
Social workers (Education)
Social workers (Psychological aspects)
Anxiety (Research)
Students (Psychological aspects)
Gelman, Caroline Rosenthal
Lloyd, Chrishana M.
Pub Date:
Name: Journal of Social Work Education Publisher: Council On Social Work Education Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 Council On Social Work Education ISSN: 1043-7797
Date: Jan 1, 2008 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 1
Event Code: 290 Public affairs; 310 Science & research
Product Code: 8221211 Masters Degrees; 8221210 Masters & First Professional Degrees NAICS Code: 61131 Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools SIC Code: 8221 Colleges and universities
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number:
Full Text:
FIELD LEARNING IS A distinctive and important part of social work students' educational process. Field placements bring classroom learning to life, providing students an opportunity to integrate theory and practice and become increasingly sophisticated in the application of social work tools and interventions. In their role as interns, students are joining an unfamiliar setting where their work with clients, many with backgrounds and experiences different from their own, will be closely observed and judged. Thus, not surprisingly, studies have found that students experience anxiety as they anticipate beginning their placements (Rompf, Royse, & Dhooper, 1993; Rosenthal Gelman, 2004). Previous research on anxiety and academic performance notes that anxiety has the potential to improve or hinder learning, depending on its intensity and whether the enhanced attention capacity often accompanying it compensates for the potential reduced processing it can also cause (Eysenck, 1979; Seipp, 1991). If learning is compromised, this may affect student functioning in the classroom and field, including student capacity to develop professionally within the agency context and to work optimally with clients. Conversely, if some anxiety can enhance learning, then social work educators need to understand how to harness this in the service of student development.

This Field Note builds on a pilot study and is part of a larger research agenda on student anxiety that also includes field instructors' perceptions of this phenomenon as well as comparisons across different programs (Rosenthal Gelman, 2004, 2007; Rosenthal Gelman & Baum, 2007). The primary purpose is to gain greater insight into students' concerns and perceptions of how anxiety might affect learning. The present study used a refined instrument developed from the pilot and a larger sample to obtain more robust data for possible confirmation and expansion of the findings of the original study. Results will guide the development of future research focusing more objectively on the potential interference of anxiety with learning and involving respondents attending different schools of social work varying in terms of geography, size, and field placement scheduling (for example, block plans with students entering the field after receiving substantial classroom instruction). The research presented here is a significant addition to the literature because of its contribution to our understanding of anxiety and field learning and because of the paucity of social work research exploring this topic.

Literature Review

Research in human service fields with practicum components, such as education and medicine, indicates that student stress and anxiety has been an ongoing presence in the learning process and can serve as either a catalyst or hindrance for internship learning (Birch, 1979; Firth, 1986; Frances & Naftel, 1983; Mckay, 1978; Sprengel & Job, 2004). A review of social work literature finds a scant number of studies from 1984 to 2006 that explicitly make reference to student anxiety in the context of learning. These studies cover areas such as fears regarding research and technology (Beaulaurier & Taylor, 2005; Green, Bretzin, Leininger, & Stauffer, 2001; Gustavsson & MacEachron, 2001) and multicultural learning (Deal & Hyde, 2004). Research that examines student anxiety in relationship to the internship experience has also been minimal (Rompf et al., 1993; Rosenthal Gelman, 2004; Sun, 1999). Given the documented existence of student anxiety regarding field practica and its potential for either interfering, or, if properly handled, enhancing learning, this omission from the literature is concerning.

The research that does exist uses content analysis of undergraduate students' final assignments (Sun, 1999) and self-administered surveys of both undergraduate and graduate students (Rompf et al., 1993; Rosenthal Gelman, 2004). In Sun's study of 23 1st-year BSW students, close to half (48%) experienced anxiety related to the practicum supervisory experience or relationship, or both. Students were also concerned about agencY climate (43%), about setting appropriate boundaries with clients (39%), and about their self-perceived lack of skills (39%).

Rompf and colleagues (1993) sought to understand differences in anxiety throughout various phases of the educational process for undergraduate (n=86) and graduate students (n=141). Both groups of students reported relatively high levels of anxiety; using a 10-point scale, 60% of respondents rated their anxiety as 6 or greater, though undergraduates had higher overall ratings than graduate students. Students who had already completed one field placement were no less anxious than those who were entering their initial practicum. The one strong mediator of anxiety was life experience. Students who reported either work or volunteer experience (most often graduate-level students) also reported lower levels of anxiety. Though more graduate students, who were generally older, reported higher rates of work and volunteer experience than younger undergraduates, this finding remained consistent even when controlling for age.

In a pilot study of 57 MSW students at New York University (NYU), Rosenthal Gelman (2004) focused on qualitatively understanding pre-placement anxiety. As in Rompf and colleagues' work, older students, those who had taken even one social work class prior to entering practicum, and those with more than I year of work or volunteer experience reported significantly less anxiety than their counterparts.

The research conducted for this article builds on Rosenthal Gelman's 2004 study. We report on students' self-perceived level of anxiety and particular areas causing concern, and discuss implications for admissions, curriculum content, field training, and future research in this area.



All students enrolled in 1st-year field advisement sections in the fall of 2004 at NYU, where the pilot study took place, were invited to participate in this project by their advisors. The latter read a description of the study and its purpose, handed out a survey, and requested that it be returned to collection boxes placed throughout the school.


The instrument used was a voluntary, anonymous survey developed based on responses to the pilot study on this topic and with extensive input from the Field Learning Office (Rosenthal Gelman, 2004). In addition to a demographic section, students were asked to rate their level of anxiety about beginning field placement, how much they thought their anxiety would interfere with learning, how prepared they felt, and how excited they were about their practicum. Items were rated on Likert-like scales, from 1=not at all anxious, prepared, or excited, depending on the question being asked, up to 10=extremely so. A 10-point rating scale was used for increased reliability (Nunnally, 1970) and to allow for comparison of ratings with the two previous published studies on this topic (Rompf et al., 1993; Rosenthal Gelman, 2004), which also employed 10-point scales. Open-ended responses to questions in the pilot study regarding students' concerns about their agency, working with clients, the field instructor relationship, and their education as social workers, were used to create fixed responses for participants to select in this current study. Respondents also had the opportunity of writing in concerns not reflected in the list of options. The final section consisted of open-ended questions regarding how students were managing their anxiety, how field instructors, field advisors, and the Field Learning Office could help with this process, and anything else "that would help us understand what you are thinking and how you are feeling about going into your internship." The instrument has a Cronbach's alpha of .65, indicating that more than one dimension is being captured and further development is needed.

Data Analysis

We calculated summaries including means, standard deviations, confidence intervals, correlations, and regressions using the statistical program R (Venables & Smith, 2006). Open-ended questions were coded using a categorical-content approach that abstracted the basic meaning of each response and created larger categories and themes, presented below (Leiblich, Tuval-Mashiach, & Zilber, 1998).


Description of Respondents

Of the 360 students eligible to participate in this project, 204 returned completed surveys, for a response rate of 57%, considered adequate for analysis and reporting when using this data collection method (Rubin & Babble, 1997). Respondents had a mean age of 28 (SD=7.0), and the majority were female (86%), identified as White (75%) and were enrolled in the traditional 2-year MSW program (81%). This sample was slightly younger and less diverse than the MSW program as a whole, which in 2004 had a mean age of 33, and 61% of students identifying as White. This is likely so because we targeted students about to enter a first placement and not the nontraditional students, who tend to be older, more racially and ethnically diverse, and enrolled in alternative programs with different time frames for placement. Forty-one percent of students had previously taken social work courses, and 84% reported volunteer or paid social services experience. Additional descriptive information of the sample is presented in Table 1.

Student self-perception of anxiety and its interference with learning. The mean anxiety score for all respondents was 5.8 on the 1-10 scale (SD=2.2), with 72% (n=147) of students rating themselves as moderately anxious or higher. Asked how much this anxiety would interfere with learning, students' average response was 3.4 (SD=1.9); 27% (n=55) felt interference would be moderate or higher. We examined the correlation between anxiety and various background variables. There were no significant differences by gender or ethnicity on degree of anxiety. However, anxiety was negatively correlated (p<.05) with age, experience, and participation in prior social work classes. Univariate regressions of self-reported anxiety in individual predictors showed statistically significant results, with anxiety reduced by .57 (SE=.20, p<.05) for each 10 years of age, anxiety reduced by .17 (SE=.05, p<.05) for each year of experience, and reduced by .14 (SE=.07, p<.05) for each prior class. Similar results were obtained by a multiple regression including the three predictors in the model together (n=201), with anxiety reduced by .38 (SE=.21) for each 10 years of age, anxiety reduced by .13 (SE=.06) for each year of experience, and reduced by .10 (SE=.07) for each prior class. The coefficients for age and prior classes were no longer statistically significant but the direction of the results were the same as in the univariate regressions (see Table 2).

Sense of preparedness and excitement about beginning placement. Students felt moderately prepared for entering placement, with an average rating of 5.1 (SD=2.2). Sense of preparedness was also statistically significantly correlated with greater age (r=.16), experience (r=.19), and prior classes (r=.19). On the whole, students were excited about beginning placement, with a mean score of 7.3 (SD=2.3).

Concerns related to field placement. There were four concerns regarding the field agency endorsed by a quarter or more of the respondents. Nearly 70% (n=142) of students were afraid that they lacked the necessary skills and experience to work in their assigned setting, 64% (n=130) worried they would make mistakes, 47% (n=96) were concerned about feeling overwhelmed, and 32% (n=65) expressed concerns for their physical safety, either because of agency location in a high-crime neighborhood or fear of the clients.

Concerns related to working with clients. There were four concerns regarding work with clients endorsed by a quarter or more of the respondents. Nearly 68% (n=138) worried about lacking the skills, experience, and knowledge necessary to work with clients, and, in a related concern, 56% (n=114) worried that clients would sense their inexperience and lack confidence in their capacity. Nearly 40% (n=81) were concerned they would have difficulties engaging the client because of language barriers and racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic differences. Twenty-six percent (n=53) were concerned about becoming over-involved with clients.

Concerns related to the instructor-intern relationship. There were four concerns regarding the instructor-intern relationship endorsed by a quarter or more of the respondents. Forty-three percent (n=88) worried the field instructor would not have enough time to supervise the student well, 37% (n=75) were concerned about not meeting the instructor's expectations, 26% (n=53) worried there would be a poor fit between the instructor's teaching and their learning style, and 25% (n=51) worried their instructor would not like them.

Concerns related to coursework. There were two concerns regarding the classroom portion of the program: 86% (n=175) of students worried there would be too much coursework, and 61% (n=124) were concerned about balancing all of their academic and personal responsibilities.

Management of anxiety. The most common anxiety-management strategy students engaged in was talking with other students, friends, and family about their concerns (45%, n=92 of respondents). In addition, 37% (n=75) of students were engaging in self-care activities such as exercise, relaxation, and counseling. Twenty-eight percent (n=57) were employing active strategies such as finding out more about their placement and contacting their instructor ahead of time. A quarter of respondents (n=51) were normalizing their response as common and expectable. Eighteen percent (n=37) were speaking with field instructors, professors, or advisors about their anxiety, but this low number was most likely because of students having only been in school for 2 weeks and not yet beginning their field placement, set to begin the week following distribution of this survey. Thus, they had had little or no contact with these potential sources of support. Three students reported they were not managing well.

More than half of respondents (57%, n=117) provided specific suggestions for how the Field Learning Office, faculty advisors, and field instructors could help them manage anxiety about beginning field placement. In terms of the Field Learning Office, 53% (n=62) of these respondents suggested improved communication between the school, student, and agency, including providing agencies and students with more information about each other and setting clear expectations for both parties. Twenty percent (n=23) of students offered concrete suggestions, such as organizing forums so students could meet others who previously interned at their assigned placement, and disclosing placements earlier so students had more time to investigate and prepare for them.

A majority of these respondents (57%, n=67) requested that field advisors provide more support by being available and responsive and offering information and reassurance. Twenty-seven percent (n=32) of students requested that field advisors provide instrumental assistance such as guidelines for writing a process recording and time management tips.

While most students had not yet met their supervisors, 42% (n=49) recommended that field instructors communicate frequently, openly, and clearly. Students also felt that supportive, reassuring instructors who acknowledged common fears, were understanding of a student's status, and encouraged questions and the voicing of concerns would reduce their anxiety (29%, n=34).

Approximately One third of students (32%, n=67), responded to the final question of whether there was any additional information that would help us understand what they were experiencing as they anticipated commencing field placement. Nearly half of those responding (n=33) reiterated that they were feeling anxious: "I feel overwhelmed, apprehensive about managing it all," "I am stressed, worried about making mistakes," "Not sure what to say [to clients] at first." However, 25 (37%) of those responding underscored their anxiety as a normative, expectable response to this new, complicated situation, and focused on anxiety's positive aspects of excitement and anticipation: "I know that anxiety will drop in time, it will be worth it," "I am anxious because this is something new, not because I am unprepared," "There are a lot of feelings involved in addition to anxiety, I am excited, eager to start, and want to do well."

Discussion and Implications

Field placement continues to be a crucial component of master's-level social work education. The three available studies (including this one) exploring students' anxiety in anticipation of practicum indicate that, overall, students are experiencing moderate anxiety, with scores on a self-perceived 1-10 scale being remarkably consistent: an average of 5.9 in Rompf and colleagues' 1993 study, 5.5 in Rosenthal Gelman's 2004 study, and 5.8 in the current study. As was true for the previous studies, older students, those with related experience, and students with even one prior social work course either reported less anxiety (Rosenthal Gelman, 2004) or a greater sense of preparedness for entering placement (Rompf et al., 1993). Admission of applicants with life, work, and volunteer experience may translate into students who are more prepared to negotiate the challenges of academic and agency life, and less prone to experience maladaptive anxiety.

Nevertheless, while significant, the negative correlations between age, related experience and prior coursework and anxiety were relatively weak, indicating the existence of other important variables. Undoubtedly, there are individual variations in expression of and capacity to tolerate and cope with anxiety, affected by previous experience with and idiosyncratic responses to this emotional state (Kaye & Fortune, 2001). In addition, as a significant number of respondents remind us, some level of anxiety is expected given the complex nature of field learning, and this anxiety often has positive connotations of excitement and anticipation, and should be harnessed to enhance learning. The small percentage (only 2% in this study) of students who may not be managing well would require monitoring and additional support.

While the degree of perceived anxiety was similar between the current research and the pilot study, there was a statistically-significant difference of 0.7 (SE=.25, p<.05, 95% confidence interval 0.2-1.2), with students in the pilot study averaging a score of 2.7, and those in the present study averaging a score of 3.4 on how much they felt their anxiety would interfere with learning. What remains to be explored in future research is whether and how much anxiety is actually interfering with student learning.

The particular concerns students had across the three studies were quite similar. As could be expected, given their status and relative inexperience, students worried about lacking the knowledge and skills needed to function well in their agencies and with their clients, and feared that they would make mistakes. Students need specific knowledge, skills training, and reassurance as appropriate, which should come from and be reinforced by professors, field instructors, and field advisors alike. However, because of mounting competitive pressures, faculty often lack the time or incentive to actively engage in the student advisement process (Bogo, 2006). Similarly, social service agencies are being challenged to function at higher levels with fewer resources (Jarman-Rohde, McFall, Kolar, & Strom, 1997). Thus, there is growing reluctance and decreasing time to supervise students. Students did raise strong concerns about the availability of quality supervision, a crucial factor in student satisfaction with placement (Fortune & Abramson, 1993; Fortune et al., 1985; Knight, 1996). In the short term, schools may need to use classroom time in addressing anxiety and the skills and knowledge students are requesting as they enter their practica. In the longer term, there needs to be a reassessment of the traditional field instruction/advisement process and the development of innovative models to support agencies in training students (Wayne, Bogo, & Raskin, 2006),

The safety issues raised in the current study echoed fears mentioned in the pilot and reflected in studies of verbal and physical assaults against social work students (Cherrey Reeser & Wertkin, 2001; Knight, 1999). Few schools have formal written policies on safety, and safety-training programs are not widespread (Cherrey Reeser & Wertkin, 2001). Schools might consider jointly developing and instituting formal safety policies and trainings on assessment and prevention of dangerous situations to alleviate student concerns (Burke & Harris, 1996).

Suggestions students had in this study for ways that social work educators could help them manage their anxieties reflect those reported in the earlier studies. Fundamentally, there is agreement that providing more information about the placement as early as possible will allow students to prepare and thus allay their anxiety. There is also a need to provide forums for students to get specific information and emotional support. For example, nursing programs have successfully used peer mentoring to reduce student anxiety (Sprengel & Job, 2004). Peer mentoring allows students to learn from each other without the pressure of evaluations, while mentors benefit by reinforcing their own skills as they teach others. Technology such as Web-based support groups and chat rooms for the exchange of information should also be explored.

While the results of this study are consistent with previous research findings on anxiety and field learning, there are several limitations. First, its findings have limited generalizability because, despite the relatively large size, the sample was non-random, and all students surveyed attended the same school of social work. As mentioned, future work will involve respondents attending different schools of social work varying in terms of geography, size, and field placement scheduling. In addition, this study tells us only about interns' self-perceived level of anxiety and how it might impact their learning, and not if and to what extent anxiety might actually be interfering with learning. Future research should focus on this, and on whether specific interventions such as those suggested above serve not only to allay student concerns, but actually result in better learning. Nevertheless, findings confirm that students do indeed experience anxiety, much of it expectable and indicative of excitement and anticipation at beginning placements. Social work educators need to better understand this phenomenon in order to fully harness it in the service of student learning.

Accepted: 04/07


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Caroline Rosenthal Gelman

New York University

Chrishana M. Lloyd


Caroline Rosenthal Gelman is assistant professor, New York University, School of Social Work. Chrishana M. Lloyd is research associate, MDRC.

The authors thank Anna Koren for her assistance with data entry and management.

Address correspondence to Caroline Rosenthal Gelman, New York University, School of Social Work, 1 Washington Square North, Room 315, New York, NY 3.0003; e-mail:
TABLE 1. Demographic, Program Status, Educational, and Placement
Characteristics of Students (N=204)

                                                        n    %
21-29                                                  152   75
30-39                                                   31   15
40-49                                                   17    8
50 and older                                             4    2
Female                                                 176   86
Male                                                    28   13
                            Ethnicity/Race (n=203)
White                                                  152   75
Hispanic/Latino                                         17    8
Asian/ Pacific Islander                                 13    6
Black/African American                                  13    6
Other                                                    8    4
                               Program (n=202)
2-Year                                                 163   81
Extended                                                39   19
                            Most Common Placements
Mental health                                           55   27
Family and children                                     34   17
Health care                                             29   14
Gerontological                                          25   12
School based                                            21   10
                          Most Common Undergraduate
                               Education Areas
Human services                                          98   49
Liberal arts                                            57   28
Social services                                         31   15
                          Prior Social Work Classes
Yes                                                     83   41
No                                                     120   59
                           Prior Volunteer or Paid
                          Social Services Experience
Yes                                                    169   84
No                                                      33   16

TABLE 2. Relation Between Anxiety and Age, Experience, and Prior

                              Anxiety      Learning      Unpreparedness

                            M       SE     M      SE       M       SE
Mean response
correlations:             5.80     0.10   3.40   0.10    5.10      .15
  with age                -.19 *          -.04           -.16 *
  with experience         -.21 *          -.13           -.19 *
  with prior classes      -.14 *          -.10           -.19 *
Coefficients for
univariate regressions:
  age/10                  -.57 *    .20   -.09    .80    -.46 *    .20
  experience              -.17 *    .05   -.09    .05    -.15 *    .05
  prior classes           -.14 *    .07   -.10    .07    -.19 *    .07
Coefficients for
multiple regression:
  age/10                  -.38      .21   -.06    .20    -.22      .21
  experience              -.13 *    .06   -.09    .05    -.16 *    .07
  prior classes           -.10      .07   -.10    .07    -.15 *    .06


                            M       SE
Mean response
correlations:             5.00      .10
  with age                -.17 *
  with experience         -.24 *
  with prior classes      -.19 *
Coefficients for
univariate regressions:
  age/10                  -.37 *    .15
  experience              -.14 *    .04
  prior classes           -.14 *    .05
Coefficients for
multiple regression:
  age/10                  -.18      .16
  experience              -.12 *    .05
  prior classes           -.12 *    .04

* p < .05
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