An exploration of conflict in the practicum in four professions.
This article reports on an exploratory study that investigates student/field instructor conflict during the practicum in four professional education programs--social work, nursing, education and family medicine. Quantitative and qualitative findings document a significant presence of conflict in practicum as well as the detrimental impact on student/field instructor and agency/university relationship, student learning, and the well being of those involved. This multidisciplinary research contributes to the understanding of the complex nature of conflict in the practicum and to the development of systematic and interpersonal strategies for managing this inadequately understood inherent dynamic of the practicum.

Rogers, Gayla
Benson, Garth
Bouey, Elaine
Clark, Bruce
Langevin, Paul
Mamchur, Cindy
Sawa, Russell
Pub Date:
Name: Women in Welfare Education Publisher: Women in Welfare Education Collective Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2003 Women in Welfare Education Collective ISSN: 1834-4941
Date: Sept, 2003 Source Volume: 6
Accession Number:
Full Text:

The practicum is considered an integral and essential component in the professional degrees of Education, Family Medicine, Nursing, and Social Work. The practicum in these disciplines facilitates professional development and professional socialization. Within the context of 'real-life', 'real-time' situations, the practicum exposes students to the opportunity for integrating theoretical understanding with the technical skills and values of professional practice. Accreditation and professional guidelines in each of these disciplines encourage early and ongoing exposure and access to professional practice under the supervision of qualified practitioners. The student/field instructor relationship therefore assumes a critical importance to the vitality of professional degrees.

Background and Context

Since 1995 at the University of Calgary, there has been an ongoing dialogue between the professional faculties of Education, Family Medicine, Nursing, and Social Work. These faculties share the mutual challenge of delivering components of their degree programs through practicum education. During the early stages of this exchange it became evident that there were common interests both pedagogically and administratively associated with practicum education. All of us want to graduate students who are self-aware, adaptable, flexible, critically reflective, and intellectually and personally prepared to practice as professionals (Rogers 1995).

During this dialogue, we found that problems expressed in practica, whether it is between students and field instructors, students and other student(s), field instructors and faculty liaisons, are often associated with, or are symptomatic of, larger problems in the system. There was no difficulty finding a common language to discuss and describe our understanding of the system-wide tensions and constraints that affect practicum education and the methods used to resolve or manage practicum-related problems. We could relate to each other's problems in communication, in relationships, and in attempts to resolve difficulties before they escalate into fullblown conflicts. Conflicts in practica require many hours, invoke much stress and inevitably result in someone or several people being anywhere from dissatisfied or unhappy to more disastrous outcomes. We have all had similar experiences of losing a student, losing a community resource by way of a field instructor or placement, damaging collegial relationships within a department or faculty, and coping with the negative consequence on the learning environment, all due to the inability to understand and effectively deal with conflicts.

Rationale for Study

The research project emerged from this collaborative conversation and in particular the concerns about the deleterious effects that can result from conflict in field placements. Based on the interdisciplinary dialogue, the following points ground the research project:

1. University-based professional faculties tend to pay less attention to teaching and learning processes in the practica, since it is field and relies on practitioners from the professional community for much of the teaching, supervision and evaluation of students. Thus, issues such as conflict within the practica are rarely dealt with at a programmatic level (Johnston 1995);

2. Dealing with conflict situations consumes immeasurable amounts of time and resources for students, faculty, and field instructors particularly when all appeal options are exercised (Benson 1995);

3. A better understanding of potential conflict situations and individuals at-risk holds the promise of early identification and intervention (Konnert 1995); and

4. Practicum education by its very nature requires collaborative working relationships between the university and the professional community and conflict jeopardizes this important but often fragile liaison (Sawa 1995).


Despite the awareness of the presence of conflict in field education and its potential to disrupt student learning, little direct and systematic research can be located on this aspect of the practicum (Cavazos 1996; Perese 1996; Smith 1992; Weaver and Stanulis 1996). Consequently, other than anecdotal and impressionistic evidence, assumptions about conflict in the practicum can only be inferred from related research. For example, research dedicated to factors associated with satisfaction with field practica, perceptions of field instructor qualities, and role expectations are unable to provide the comprehensive understanding necessary to adequately address conflict in the practicum.

Factors Associated with Practicum Satisfaction

Raskin (1988) surveyed 170 BSW students in their senior year of practicum to determine factors associated with student satisfaction in their field placements. 'New Learning', the single most significant factor, contributed to over 60% of the variance in student satisfaction with their field placement. Raskin describes this factor as "achievement of field work objectives" (p.329). Less significant factors included the climate of the practicum setting, supervision, and demographic characteristics.

In a study designed to determine predictors of student satisfaction with their field experience, Fortune and Abramson (1993) surveyed 142 MSW social work students. A stepwise multiple regression determined the best predictor of satisfaction among the 16 identified variables associated with satisfaction. Only three factors were significant: perceived quality of field instruction, agency desirability and inclusion, and explanations by field instructors. Of these three, perceived quality of field instruction was the powerful predictor of student satisfaction.

Based on their findings, both Raskin (1988) and Fortune and Abramson (1993) suggest interventions in the field education program to enhance student satisfaction. Neither of the research reports considered the implications or vicissitudes associated with student dissatisfaction with their field experience.

Field Instructor Qualities

Ellison (1991) surveyed 293 first and second year graduate social work students and 188 of their respective field instructors to identify effective and ineffective field instructor behaviours. Students and field instructors perceived both task and expressive behaviours as important. Provided information, provided opportunity for students to express concerns, feedback, and validated student's feelings were the four most frequently identified effective field instructor behaviours. Ineffective behaviours were often the opposite of effective behaviours. For example, lack of feedback and information, inappropriate/inadequate response to student's concerns, and denigration of student. The study concludes with the suggestion that the research findings have implications for the enhancement of field education. In particular, Ellison (1991) indicates that the findings can be applied to the training and evaluation of field instructors.

Field instructors can be considered a professional role model for their students (Hayes and Harrell 1994). In a 1996 study exploring what resident doctors look for in their role models (staff physicians), Wright developed a 50-item role model questionnaire for residents in internal medicine, family medicine, surgery, paediatrics, and psychiatry. Of the 230 questionnaires distribute, 195 were returned. Clinical skills, personality, and teaching ability were ranked as the top three factors residents look for in their role models. The role model's clinical skills included such items as interaction with patience, enthusiasm for work, and proficiency in diagnostic skills. Personality features of the role model referred to attitude toward resident, compassion for patient, interaction with colleagues. Teaching ability of the role model involved the ability to explain difficult subjects, patience, communication skills, and making learning exciting and stimulating.

Like Ellison (1991), Wright (1996) considers the importance of the research findings in terms of faculty development and evaluation. However, as with Raskin (1988) and Fortune and Abramson (1993), Wright and Ellison make no attempt to determine or suggest the potential outcomes of a role model or field instructor who displays unimportant role model traits or ineffective behaviours.

Role Expectations

Hartung (1982) investigated the role behaviour of social work field instructors perceived to be important by social work students, practicum coordinators, agency executives, and field instructors themselves. In addition, Hartung wanted to determine if there were differences among the four groups in their perception of important role behaviours, the priority assigned to these behaviours, and the amount of time field instructors should spend performing important behaviours.

Responses to a mailed survey questionnaire were received from 398 social work students, 14 practicum coordinators, 134 agency executives, and 163 practicum instructors. By arbitrarily assigning as important all role behaviours that received a "very important" rating by 80% or more of all groups of respondents, Hartung (1982) created a list of important field instructor role behaviours. Included in the list were such role behaviours as defining the student's role in the agency, teaching specific treatment modalities, pointing out student strengths and weaknesses, and helping student with self-awareness.

Differences were also evident among the groups as to the importance, priority, and time to be spent on some role behaviours. For example, the groups differed on the importance of the field instructor communicating with the social work school, helping the student develop a work schedule, writing letters of recommendation for the student, and being aware of other employee feelings toward the student. Similarly, there were differences in the priority assigned to some role behaviours. Each group tended to give priority to their own orientation to the field practicum. Finally, in terms of time allocation, the groups differed on over half of the categories of important role behaviours, for example, the evaluation of students.

Hartung (1982) designated the differences in role expectations as conflicts and suggests that role conflicts can lead to "misunderstandings and feelings of alienation" (p. 669). Apropos to this research project, in the concluding segment of the paper Hartung (1982) states:

Summary of Related Research

In summary, the extant research appears to be dominated by the investigation of variables that are associated with a positive or negative practicum experience. The thrust of this research approach appears to be based on the assumption that the practicum experience can be enhanced if these positive variables can be isolated and then accentuated by practicum personnel. Concurrently, the research tends to pay little attention, beyond identification, to those factors that detract from the field experience. In particular, the research does not address the implication of the presence of negative factors in the practicum.

In a sense, this project begins where the others have stopped--the investigation of one potential impact of the presence of negative factors, conflict in the practicum. For the reasons suggested by Hartung (1982), quoted above, the research project adopted a multidisciplinary approach to the exploration of conflict in the practicum experience.


In recognition of the limited research relating to conflict in the practicum setting, the research team favoured an exploratory research approach (Grinnell and Unrau 1997). To accommodate the diverse research capabilities and interests of the team membership, it was decided to triangulate quantitative and qualitative methods. Six research questions were articulated:

1. Do students/field instructors experience conflict in their relationship?

2. How often do students and field instructors feel in conflict?

3. To what degree does conflict strain the student/field instructor relationship?

4. What are the various types of stimuli of conflict in the practicum?

5. How are conflicts resolved in the practicum?

6. What are the outcomes of conflict in the practicum?

Research Design

A modified simultaneous quantitative/qualitative triangulated research design (Morse 1991) was developed to explore the experience of conflict in the practicum. The quantitative aspect of the design consisted of a mailed survey questionnaire. From the qualitative perspective, in-depth open-ended semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with volunteer survey respondents.


The sample included all students and their field instructors at a large urban university in their senior practica during one term from Family Medicine (N=128), Nursing (N=120) and Social Work (N=150) but a random sample from Education (N=150). This occurred because of the large number of students in the Faculty of Education (N=500) compared to the other disciplines.

From the quantitative respondents, 58 students and field instructors volunteered for qualitative interviews. Potential participants were contacted by telephone with the goal of interviewing three students and three field instructors from each discipline. The final qualitative sample involved 24 participants: three students each from Education, Nursing, Family Medicine and Social Work; and three field instructors from Education and Social Work, two from Family Medicine, and four from Nursing.


The research team developed a four-part survey instrument judiciously adjusted for students, field instructors and discipline. Each of the two survey forms (student and field instructor) contained sections requiring the respondents to provide descriptive data related to themselves and their perceptions of the field instructor/student relationship, their perceptions of the nature of supervision, their perceptions of conflict in the practicum, and general information. The nature of field instructor supervision section provided the opportunity to assess the presence of conflict in relation to various aspects of the supervisory relationship. These instruments were pre-tested by a small number of recently graduated students and former field instructors from each discipline, which resulted in minor changes to the instruments.

Every effort was made to make the qualitative interview as open-ended as possible. However, it was necessary to introduce some structure into the interviews. An emphasis was placed on exploring the participant's perceptions about the formation of the student/field instructor relationship, how the relationship progressed, the challenges that might have emerged in the relationship, how any challenges were managed, and suggestions for improvements in the programs.

Data Collection

The data collection phase of the research project consisted of two parts. First, the survey questionnaires were mailed to students and field instructors. The initial and only mailing consisted of a covering letter explaining the research project and soliciting volunteers for the qualitative portion of the study, a consent form, and the survey instrument. Ethics approval was granted and all participants were informed.

In the second phase the one member of the research team who was not affiliated with any of the four disciplines conducted semi-structured interviews. Interviews, lasting from 60-90 minutes, were carried out in the researcher's office, the participant's office, or the home of the participant. All interviews were recorded on audiotape and later transcribed verbatim. Coding ensured the confidentiality of participants. Transcripts were verified and corrected as necessary by participants. Validations were received from 17 participants.

Response Rate

A total of 548 questionnaires were distributed and 234 were returned--110 students and 124 field instructors--for a response rate of 43%. It was hoped that there would be a high return rate from student/field instructor dyads. However, this only occurred in 58 cases.


Although the research design contained quantitative and qualitative components, this article concentrates on the quantitative findings. Nevertheless, the qualitative material has influenced the discussion and concluding sections of the paper.

Characteristics of Student Respondents

Of the 110 student respondents 86 (78%) were female and 24 (22%) were male. The vast majority had a Bachelor degree (71%); 22% had no degree. One student possessed a Master degree and four (4%) were RNs. Most students (73%) were in the 20-29 age range. One-fifth (20%) fell into the 30-39 age category. Six students (6) were in the 40-49 age bracket and one student was in the 49 plus age grouping. Social Work had the largest number of students in the 40 plus age range while Family Medicine had proportionally more students in the 30-39 age range.

Almost two-thirds (62%) of the students overall reported that their university experience either "did not prepare them" or "only prepared them a little" for their field placement. However, in both Education and Social Work 79% of the students reported the university prepared them little or did not prepare them.

Characteristics of Field Instructor Respondents

Of the 124 field instructor respondents, 88 (71%) were female and 36 (29%) were male. Slightly over half (54%) of the field instructors had Bachelor degrees, 27% possessed a Master degree and six (5%) held doctorate degrees. The remaining field instructors (14%) were RNs. Half (50%) of the respondents were in the 40-49 age range, 32% fell into the 30-39 age bracket, and 13% were 49 or over. Six (5%) of the field instructors were age 20-29.

Most of the respondents had student supervision experience; 84% reported supervising either a few or many students. Almost all respondents (94%) were 'willing' field instructors. One respondent was 'not willing' and six (5%) felt 'it was their duty'. About two-thirds (65%) indicated that the student's university experience either prepared them a little or not at all. Finally, 53% reported participating in a workshop designed to develop supervisory skills.

Nature of Supervision

Students/Field instructors were asked about their perceptions of the supervisory experience. Questionnaire items included the amount of supervision and feedback; the helpfulness of the feedback and the students urge to question the field instructor's feedback; and permission, encouragement and support for trying new approaches/techniques of practice. Tables 1 to 3 summarize the findings in regard to these items.

Most students reported that they received the right amount of supervision and the right amount of feedback from their field instructor (83% and 72% respectively). Ten students, six of whom came from Social Work, reported that they did not receive enough supervision. Nine students, all from the other faculties, reported that they received too much supervision. In relation to feedback, 27 students did not believe that they received enough. The largest single number of these students came from Nursing, followed by Social Work, Education and Family Medicine.

The vast majority of field instructors reported that they provided the right amount of supervision and feedback (85% and 88% respectively). Six field instructors, four of whom came from Social Work, believed that they did not provide enough supervision. Thirteen field instructors, nine of whom were from Education, believed they provided too much supervision. Eleven field instructors evenly distributed among faculties, thought that they did not give enough feedback, while only three field instructors all from Education reported providing too much feedback.

Table 2 shows that over three-quarters (77%) of the students found their supervisors' feedback useful. Another 20% found the feedback at least helpful occasionally. Only three students claimed their supervisor's feedback was never useful. Field instructors have an even more optimistic view of their feedback. Eighty-seven percent reported that their feedback was either frequently or always helpful. Another 13% believed their feedback was occasionally helpful. No field instructor reported his or her feedback as never being helpful.

A response pattern similar to that of the amount of supervision and feedback emerged in the data regarding permitting and supporting students trying new approaches/techniques, as shown in Table 4. The majority of students expressed the view that their supervisors allowed, encouraged and supported trying new approaches/techniques (85% and 75% respective). An overwhelming majority of field instructors reported that they allowed, encouraged and supported students trying new approaches/techniques (100% and 98% respectively).

Research Question 1: Do students/field instructors experience conflict in their relationship?

Students and field instructors were asked if they experience conflict with their field instructor/student. Table 4 summarizes the extent of conflict in the student/field instructor relationship. Overall, 32% of students reported the presence of conflict with their field instructor. Students in Family Medicine reported the highest percentage of conflict (44%), followed by Education (38%), Social Work (29%), and Nursing (24%). These differences were not statistically significant. Several other interesting findings emerged from further analysis of the student/field instructor conflict outcome data although the category "facilitated student growth" would appear as a potential positive effect of conflict, this outcome was consistently paired with less attractive outcomes such as "impeded student's learning", "detrimental to student's health", "impeded supervisory ability", "detrimental to field instructor's health", "mediation sought" and "relationship dissolved". Of the seven students who reported that conflict led to seeking mediation, five identified that the conflict was detrimental to their health. In these five cases, the supervisory relationship was dissolved in two instances and rescued in three. However, in the later situation, none of the three students reported that the conflict contributed to their growth. In the 10 cases in which students reported that the conflict was detrimental to their health, only half were involved with mediation.

From the field instructor perspective, one-quarter of field instructors report the presence of conflict with their student. Field instructors in Family Medicine had the highest percentage of reported conflict (50%) followed by Social Work (30%), Education (25%), and Nursing (17%).

The remaining research questions pertain to those 35 students and 31 field instructors who reported that they had experienced conflict with their field instructor/student. These students and field instructors are not matched dyads.

Research Question 2: How often do students and field instructors feel in conflict?

Those students and field instructors reporting the presence of conflict were asked to indicate how often there were occasions when they felt in conflict with their field instructor/student. Table 5 summarizes the findings. Just over half (51%) of the students either frequently or most always felt in conflict with their field instructor. On the other hand, 16% of the field instructors reported either frequently or most always feeling in conflict with their students. For the most part, field instructors report conflict with their student occurring occasionally.

Research Question 3: To what degree does conflict strain the student/field instructor relationship?

Those students and field instructors reporting the presence of conflict were asked if there was strain in the relationship with their field instructor/student. Table 6 summarizes the findings. Over half (59%) of the students perceived their supervisory relationship as either strained temporarily or for a prolonged period of time. In contrast, 70% of the field instructors perceived the relationship with their student as either not strained at all or only momentarily.

Research Question 4: What are the various types of stimuli of conflict in the practicum?

Those students and field instructors reporting conflict were asked what they perceived to be the stimulus for the conflict with their field instructor/student. Respondents were permitted to select as many stimuli as they perceived applied in their circumstance, thus the categories are not mutually exclusive. Table 7 summarizes the frequency of respondent's choices.

Students most frequently cited "expectations of field instructor", "personality/personal issues between student and field instructor", and "issues associated with the institution where practicum took place" as stimuli for conflict. Field instructors most frequently selected "expectations of field instructor", "expectations of student", "knowledge level of student", and "skill level of student" as the stimulus for conflict.

Research Question 5: How are conflicts resolved in the practicum?

Students and field instructors reporting conflict were asked how the conflict in their relationship was resolved. Respondents selected one category of resolution from the six categories offered as alternatives. The frequencies with which the six categories of resolution or non-resolution were reported are summarized in Table 8.

From the student's perspective, the majority of conflict situations (68%) were not resolved to the satisfaction of the student. In contrast, field instructors perceive conflict being resolved to the satisfaction of the student and field instructor in the majority of instances (63%). There are no instances in which the conflict was resolved to the satisfaction of student but not the field instructor. However, there were conflict situations perceived as being resolved to the satisfaction of the field instructor but not the student.

Research Question 6: What are the outcomes of conflict in the practicum?

Students and field instructors reporting conflict were asked what outcomes resulted from the conflict. Respondents were presented with 11 potential outcomes. Since they could select as many outcomes as they believed to be appropriate, the categories are not mutually exclusive. The frequencies of outcome selection are presented in Table 9. Field instructors chose "facilitated student's growth" as the most frequent outcome. Whereas, students selected "facilitated student's growth" with the same frequency as "impeded student's learning" as their number one conflict outcome.

Correlates of Conflict

The student and field instructor data were further analysed using contingency tables and the non-parametric statistic Chi squared. Statistically significant relationships between the presence of conflict and various independent variables are itemized in the figures below.


As a group we were somewhat struck by the extent, prevalence and complexity of conflict in the practicum. Moreover, the study has revealed the deleterious effect conflict can have not only on learning but also on the physical and psychological well-being of those involved. Although as professionals we like to think that conflict presents the opportunity for growth, there is little evidence in these findings to support such a proposition. There are four aspects of the findings that are particularly noteworthy: the presence of conflict in the supervisory relationship; the difference in perceptions of students and field instructors; the correlates of conflict; and, the complexity of the phenomenon of conflict.

Magnitude of Presence of Conflict

Fully one-third of the students and one-quarter of the field instructors reported the presence of conflict in the supervisory relationship. The qualitative data tend to support this quantitative finding. Furthermore, the qualitative data suggests that the quantitative findings may not have captured the full extent of the presence of conflict. There is no alternative but to view this quantitative finding as indicative of conflict as an inherent feature of the practicum for a number of students and field instructors. Certainly this finding can support the contention that conflict in the practicum setting cannot be ignored.

A partial explanation of the ostensibly high incident of conflict in the practicum lay in two systemic issues. First, restructuring in the social, health, and education sectors is having a serious impact on the training of professionals. The management of social and health services coupled with the cutbacks in education have created new tensions and added more stresses to university/community relations especially at the point of field instruction. Social workers, nurses, teachers, and physicians are no longer afforded the time, support, training and resources that once were associated with the role of supervisor. Yet, the organizations in which these professionals work (and train students) are increasingly complex in their management models, program structures and accountability measures (Farber and Armaline 1994; Giddings Thompson and Holland 1997). At the same time, students present with more complicated lives and juggle multiple roles and responsibilities. These factors may mean that students have less energy for coping with stressful work/learning environments (Knight 1996).

This theme of time pressure and lack of resources experienced by field instructors finds expression in the qualitative interviews. One field instructor in conversation about what could improve the practicum experience eloquently conveys the sense of this theme with the comments:

Secondly, students are increasingly diverse in part due to the efforts by the university to recruit from equity groups and take affirmative action seriously. A wider range of differences between field instructors and students increases the potential for misunderstanding especially without the time, support, training or resources to manage, mediate or resolve difficulties before they escalate to conflicts (Hayes 1994; Wiggins and Clift 1996). In a discussion about the selection of diverse students, a field instructor explains:

A field instructor may assume that problems in the practicum are due to the cultural background of the students.

Difference in Students' and Field Instructors' Perceptions

Although the nature of the data precludes a statistical determination of a difference in perceptions, the findings appear to support this assertion. Marked difference between students and field instructors appear to emerge in the data relating to all the explored dimensions of conflict. Students tend to report higher rates of conflict, more often feel in conflict with their supervisors and experience a greater degree of strain in the supervisory relationship. They emphasize conflict stimuli related to the field instructor and practicum setting. Conflict resolutions are perceived by students to favour the field instructor. Finally, they characterize outcomes as more detrimental to their learning, health and self-image than do field instructors.

On the other hand, field instructors incline toward reporting lower rates of conflict, less often feeling in conflict with their students and a lower degrees of strain on supervisory relations. They emphasize conflict stimuli relating to the student's knowledge and skill level, problems with clients and student expectations. Unlike students, field instructors perceive conflict resolutions dominated by field instructor/student satisfaction and outcomes that emphasize student and field instructor growth.

These findings suggest the lived experience of conflict differ for students and field instructors. Conflict for the student can be conceived as a more intimate, involved and threatening phenomenon than for field instructors. In effect, students have more to lose in a conflict with a field instructor, therefore require a heightened sensitivity to the phenomenon. The qualitative data makes it quite clear that students are aware of the power differential that favours the field instructor, an observation supported by the literature (Collins 1993). This specific point arose in a qualitative student interview. During a discussion about a practicum problem, the student, who had two field instructors, expressed the power issue in the following way:

Students and field instructors do share some common ground regarding the nature of the supervisory relationship. The majority of students and field instructors maintain that they receive/provide the right amount of supervision and feedback and that field instructor feedback is helpful. Similarly, the majority of students and field instructors agree that field instructors allow, encourage and support students trying different approaches/techniques. However, the percentage of field instructors supporting these variables is noticeably higher than that of students.

The work of Schacht (1991) provides one plausible insight into this field instructor/student dynamic. Schacht suggests that a facilitative supervisory relationship must be in place before students feel comfortable engaging in controversial dialogue with their supervisor and creative solutions can be found. A facilitative supervisory relationship consists of the core dimensions of empathy, respect, genuineness, concreteness, confrontation and immediacy.

Correlates of Conflict

The researchers found that personal characteristics such as age, gender and education of the students and field instructors were not associated with the presence of conflict. Rather, in this study correlates of conflict were confined to the nature of the supervisory relationship and the role performance of students/field instructors. These findings appear to be consistent with the research related to the factors associated with student satisfaction in the practicum and the behaviour and role expectations of field instructors (Alperin 1998; Ellison 1991; Fortune and Abramson 1993; Hartung 1982; Knight 1996; Raskin 1988; Sieh and Bell 1994; Wright 1996). Moreover, these findings offer a suggestion to what happens when students are not satisfied with their practicum, their field instructor displays ineffective supervisory behaviour, or there are contentious role expectations--an effect overlooked in the related research.

Complexity of Conflict

In the developmental phase of the project, the research team shared a somewhat naive and simplistic view of conflict. What we found is that conflict in the practicum occurs within the context of the student/field instructor relationship--a relationship embedded in a dynamic intricate web of systemic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal forces. From an ecological perspective (Sheafor, Horejsi and Horejsi 1997), three fundamental ecosystems can be identified: the university represented by the university liaison, the practicum setting represented by the field instructor and the student (Figure 7). The student/field instructor learning relationship manifests itself at the intersection of these ecosystems.


Superimposed on and concurrent with the ecosystemic interactions are the interpersonal and intrapersonal dynamics of the university liaison, the field instructor and the student (Figure 8).


The importance of the psychosocial impact on the dynamics of conflict was evident in both the student and field instructor qualitative interviews. For example, a field instructor offering an insight into a conflict with a student remarks:

The antecedents of conflict are lodged in the web of ecosystems and psychosocial forces. Conflict emerges from these antecedent conditions. Once activated, conflict flourishes and is addressed in unique circumstances peculiar to the ecosystems and people involved. Conflict cannot be considered a simple matter (Figure 9).



A notable limitation of the study is the reliance on student and field instructor perceptions. Although students' and field instructors' judgements are important considerations, there may be an element of bias in the responses. For example, Bratton (1997) suggests that social workers are uncomfortable with conflict and tend to avoid conflict and unpleasantness. In addition, the study did not operationally define conflict, the key variable being explored. Students and field instructors were free to assign their own personal meaning to the term 'conflict'. Other variables important to the study such as supervision, supervisor feedback and relationship strain share the same shortcoming. As a consequence of these two limitations, the findings relating to the presence of conflict in the supervisory relationship may be under represented or over represented depending on how the respondents interpreted their situation and what meaning was assigned to conflict.

Another limitation of the study is the number of respondents reporting the presence of conflict. The overall sample was dramatically decreased in the detailed analysis of conflict. This was particularly noticeable in the N for individual disciplines that limited statistical analysis by disciplines. The detailed analysis of conflict therefore provides an interdisciplinary view of conflict that may or may not accurately reflect any one of the four disciplines.


This exploratory study has shed some light on the student/field instructor conflict in the practicum. However, as with all exploratory research, more questions than answers have been forthcoming. We therefore hope that others will use these findings as a starting point to further investigate this area of professional education.

A person in charge must befell more than heard-not heard more than she is felt.

Florence Nightingale

Figure 1. Conflict and Student Perception of Field Instructor

Conflict is more apt to be present for students when they perceive their field instructor as not:

* willing to supervise students; [chi square]=28.883, p<.0001

* considering students' university preparation as valuable; [chi square] =19.091, p<.001

* being professionally competent; [chi square]=11.262, df=l, p<.001

* providing the right amount of supervision; [chi square]=28.246, p<.001

* providing the right amount of feedback; [chi square]=16.754, p<.001

* providing feedback that was either frequently or most always helpful; [chi square]=23.279, p<.001

* permitting student to trying new approaches/techniques; [chi square]=20.138, p<.001 (this relationship was strongest in Nursing and Education, somewhat weaker in Family Medicine, and non-existent in Social Work)

* supporting students to try new approaches/techniques; [chi square]=14.107, p<001 (the relationship was strongest in Family Medicine, somewhat weaker in Education and non-existent in Nursing and Social Work)

Figure 2. Conflict Reported by Students

Conflict was more likely to be reported by students who:

* felt like either frequently or always questioning the feedback of their field instructor; [chi square]=26.025, p<.001

* are less satisfied with their field placement; [chi square]=29.188, df=3, p<.001

* are less satisfied with the quality of their field instructor's supervision; [chi square]=56.12, df=3, p<.001

* are less satisfied with their relationship with their field instructor; [chi square]=52.737, df=3,p<.001

* are less satisfied that the practicum met their learning needs; [chi square]=28.331, df=3, p<.001

Figure 3. No Statistically Significant Relationships Between Conflict and Students'

No statistically significant relationships were found between the presence of conflict and students':

* gender (except for Family Medicine where males outnumbered the females)

* academic degree

* age range (proportionally more students in the 30-39 age bracket reported conflict)

* membership in a visible minority

* perceived degree of preparation from university (proportionally more students who reported conflict either felt that the university either did not prepare them or prepared them little)

Figure 4. Field Instructors and Conflict

Conflict is more apt to be present for field instructors when they perceive their student as:

* not prepared by the university for the practicum; [chi square]=15.332, df=1, p<.001

* wishing to question their feedback but refrained from doing so; [chi square]=18.928, df=3, p<.001

Figure 5. Conflict Reported by Instructors

Conflict is more likely to be reported by field instructors who:

* participated in a supervisory workshop; [chi square]=6.687, df=l, p<.01

* perceived themselves as not providing the right amount of feedback; [chi square]=10.721,df=2, p<0.01

* perceived themselves as not providing frequent or almost always helpful feedback; [chi square]=20.176, df=2, p<.001

* are less satisfied with the practicum; [chi square]=28.512, df=3, p<.001

* are less satisfied with the relationship with their student; [chi square]=18.124, df=3, p<.001

* perceive that the student's learning needs are not being met; [chi square]=10.000, df=3, p<.05

Figure 6. No Statistical Significant Relation Between Conflict and Field Instructors'

No statistically significant relationship was found between the presence of conflict and field instructors':

* gender

* academic degree

* age range

* membership in a visible minority

* previous experience supervising students and willingness to supervise students


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Russell Sawa Author:

The authors form the Professional Education Cluster, University of Calgary. Direct communication to: Dr Gayla Rogers, Professor and Dean, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive, NW, Calgary AB Canada T2N 1N4. Phone: (403) 220 6155. Email:
The general area of practicum, fieldwork, internship, practice
   teaching, or whatever term a specific profession uses to
   describe the practical training of its students has potential
   for further study. A review of the literature indicates that
   there is very little transfer of information from one profession
   to another in this area. Although there are, of course,
   differences in subject matter and approaches among professions,
   much could be learned from research and experience of other
   professions (p. 669).

I think that one of the things that supervisors really need in
   order to do a good job is the full support of their managers
   to provide them the time to work effectively with students.
   In my experience what happens is there's a list of priorities
   that I'm responsible for handling and the student unfortunately
   comes at the bottom. You know, while it may not be realistic
   to expect that people dump half of their workload, I think
   that there can be a balance struck, if the organization really
   buys into this [the value of the practicum].

And so when we were interviewing for students, one of the things
   that we've been looking at as part of the directive of the
   multicultural organizational change work is the accessibility in
   our agency and looking at diversity across a lot of variables.
   One of the things that I found was that our counselling staff
   in particular, were quite similar in terms of age,
   gender and background. So I have been trying to recruit different
   candidates when I'm looking for new employees. So this young woman
   [practicum student] brought some of that in terms of coming from
   another culture. Her first language was not English.

...they were quite disappointed that I was saying that I didn't
   think this community was ready for this kind of program. That's
   not what they wanted to hear but they were willing to swallow it
   at that last stage. But I think part of the reason why it became
   a lot more clear at that last meeting was because I knew I had
   somebody [university liaison] there who understood clearly what
   I was trying to say and was on my side. I felt a bit, J don't
   know what the word is, but you know how you always kind
   of feel a power imbalance between the supervisor and student
   anyway. When you have two supervisors and a student, it seems

I wanted to work with Jane but have everything out in the open
   a bit more as I didn't know what was going on with her. It sort
   of seemed like she was preoccupied and not really focussed and
   that she was sort of in never-never land. It was almost as if
   she was on drugs but J didn't think she was on drugs. 1 thought
   there must be something happening with her life and that point
   I didn't really know her very well personally. I just
   knew that her initial choice for a practicum was [another city]
   where her former fiance had lived and she said they had broken
   off. And actually the university staff person later told me it
   was her fiance and that they had planned a wedding and it was
   all off.

Table 1: Interdisciplinary student/field instructor perception of
receiving/providing supervision and feedback expressed numerically and
in percentage

                  Students (N= 110) *

               Right        Not       Too
               Amount     Enough      Much

Supervision   90 (82.6)   10 (9.1)   9(8.3)
Feedback      78 (71.6)   27(24.8)   4(3.7)

               Field Instructors (N=124) **

                Right        Not      Too
               Amount      Enough    Much

Supervision   104(84.5)    6(4.9)   13(10.6)
Feedback      105(88.2)   11(9.3)   3(2.5)

* 109 students reporting on supervision and feedback

** 123 field instructors reporting on supervision and 119 on feedback

Table 2: Interdisciplinary student/field instructor perception about
the helpfulness of field instructor feedback expressed numerically and
in percentage

Frequency      Students (N=110)   Field Instructors (N=124)

Never             3 (2.8) 0
Occasionally     22 (20.2)              16 (12.9)
Frequently       26 (23.8)              40 (32.3)
Always           58 (53.2)              68 (54.8)

Total               109                    124

Table 3: Interdisciplinary student/field instructor perception of
student permitted and supported in trying new approaches/techniques
expressed numerically and in percentage

             Students (N=110) *      Field Instructors (N=124) **
               Yes         No         Yes          No

Permitted   92 (85.2)   16 (14.8)   112 (100)
Supported   79 (74.5)   27 (25.5)   110 (98.2)   2 (1.8)

* 108 students reported on permitted and encouraged, 106 on supported

** 112 field instructors reported on permitted, encouraged, and

Table 4: Interdisciplinary student/field instructor perception of the
presence of conflict in the supervisory relationship expressed
numerically and in percentage

        Students (N=l 10)   Field Instructors (N=I24)

Yes        35 (32.4)              31 (25)
No         73 (67.6)              93 (75)

Total         108                   124

Table 5: Interdisciplinary student/field instructor perception of how
often feeling in conflict with field instructor/student expressed
numerically and in percentage

Frequency      Students Reporting   Field Instructors Reporting
                Conflict (N=35)          Conflict (N=31)

Occasionally       17 (48.6)               26 (83.9)
Frequently         13 (37.1)                4 (12.9
Most Always         5 (14.3)                1 (3.2)

Total                 35                      31

Table 6: Interdisciplinary student/field instructor perception of the
extent to which the presence of conflict strained the student/field
instructor relationship expressed numerically and in percentage

Extent of Strain   Students Reporting   Field Instructors
                     Conflict (N=35)    Reporting Conflict

Not at all               6 (17.6)          6 (20.0)
Momentarily              8 (23.5)         15 (50.0)
Temporarily              8 (23.5)          7 (23.3)
Prolonged               12 (35.4)          2 (6.7)
Total                      34                 30

Table 7: Interdisciplinary frequency of students/field instructors
reporting types of conflict stimuli

Stimulus                      Students Reporting   Field Instructors
                              Conflict (N=35)      Reporting Conflict

Expectations of field             21                     20

Personality/personal issues       17                      7
between student & field

Issues associated with            10                      4
institution where
practicum took place

Knowledge level of                6                      14

Skill level of student            6                      12

Personality/personal issues       3                       8
between students and

Field placement office            1                       1

Expectations of student *                                16

Other                            12                      11

* This stimulus did not appear on the student version of the

Table 8: Interdisciplinary students and field instructors selection of
different categories of conflict resolution expressed numerically and
in percentage

Category of Conflict           Students Reporting   Field Instructors
Resolution                       Conflict N=35      Reporting Conflict

Resolved to the                   11(31 .4)            19 (63.4)
satisfaction of both student
and field instructor

Resolved to the                      0                     0
satisfaction of the student
but not the field instructor

Resolved to the                   6(17.1)               1 (3.3)
satisfaction of the field
instructor but not the

Some resolved but some            7 (20.0)              7(23.3)
left unresolved

Acknowledged but left              4(11.5)              2 (6.7)

Neither acknowledged nor          7 (20.0)              1 (3.3)

Total                               35                    30

Table 9: Interdisciplinary outcomes of conflict

                                           Frequency of Outcomes
Outcomes                              Students       Field Instructors
                                    Experiencing       Experiencing
                                  Conflict (N= 35)    Conflict (N=31)

Facilitated student's learning          16                 22

Impeded student's learning              16                  8

Destructive to student's                15                  3

Detrimental to student's health         10                  2

Impeded field instructor's               9                  6
ability to supervise

Facilitated field instructor's           7                 19

Mediation sought through a               7                  5
third party

Supervisory relationship                 6                  2

Destructive of field                     3                  1
instructor's self-image

Detrimental to field                     2                  2
instructor's health

Other                                    4                  7
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