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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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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
The authors thank Anna Koren for her assistance with data entry and
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: Csr6@nyu.edu.
TABLE 1. Demographic, Program Status, Educational, and Placement
Characteristics of Students (N=204)
21-29 152 75
30-39 31 15
40-49 17 8
50 and older 4 2
Female 176 86
Male 28 13
White 152 75
Hispanic/Latino 17 8
Asian/ Pacific Islander 13 6
Black/African American 13 6
Other 8 4
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
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
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 *
age/10 -.57 * .20 -.09 .80 -.46 * .20
experience -.17 * .05 -.09 .05 -.15 * .05
prior classes -.14 * .07 -.10 .07 -.19 * .07
age/10 -.38 .21 -.06 .20 -.22 .21
experience -.13 * .06 -.09 .05 -.16 * .07
prior classes -.10 .07 -.10 .07 -.15 * .06
correlations: 5.00 .10
with age -.17 *
with experience -.24 *
with prior classes -.19 *
age/10 -.37 * .15
experience -.14 * .04
prior classes -.14 * .05
age/10 -.18 .16
experience -.12 * .05
prior classes -.12 * .04
* p < .05