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Grant supports study to pit role-playing against actors in honing clinical skills

research assistant professor in social work
USC School of Social Work research assistant professor Kelly Turner (Photo/Eric Lindberg)

A $25,000 grant from university’s James H. Zumberge Research and Innovation Fund will enable USC School of Social Work research assistant professor Kelly Turner to test a new way of preparing students to work with veterans and other military clients.

Turner’s proposal offers individual awards to newer research faculty to help launch their careers and support research in areas with limited funding opportunities.

Her project will compare the effectiveness of role-playing versus the use of standardized patients – that is, having an actor portray a military client and interact with students in a consistent manner – in the development of key clinical skills. To her knowledge, this will be the first study to pit role-playing against standardized patients in the field of military social work education.

“Role-play is easy because it’s peer to peer, but there are some challenges,” she said. “If we’re classmates, I might go easy on you. When you’re with a stranger, and they are acting like a real person with real issues, then all of a sudden, you’re a little more engaged, you’re under a little more cognitive load and you’re either going to sink or swim.”

Turner will partner with the instructor of a course on clinical practices with military clients this fall to form two groups of students: one group that will practice their skills by role-playing and another that will interact with a trained actor.

Using an assessment tool developed by the school’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families, she will measure the development of clinical skills for each group of students. Turner also plans to gather feedback from field internship supervisors on how each student has progressed.

“If using standardized clients is affordable and works better, and we can inform classroom practices through research, it seems like the perfect thing to do at a place like this,” she said.

Standardized patients are common in medical school, Turner noted, and there is some evidence of their use in a social work curriculum, though she has found they are typically used as an assessment tool rather than an educational component.

Turner said she was honored to receive the award and hopes to have results by spring 2013.

“It’s really exciting to work in a place where you can get a grant to make the classroom experience better and to make students more prepared,” she said. “USC really does believe in research-informed curriculum and research-informed practice.”

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Grant supports study to pit role-playing against actors in honing clinical skills

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