The Flipped Classroom: Harnessing technology to teach clinical skills to MSW students

Dr. Elisabeth Counselman-Carpenter

Dr. Elisabeth Counselman-Carpenter, PhD, LCSW is a lecturer in social work at Columbia University and maintains a private practice where she works with children and families.  In this blog post, she talks about the reasons why she flipped her course on clinical practice with children & families and the practical steps she took to achieve the flip. If you have questions for Elisabeth, you can tweet her at @ElisabethAnneCC 

This course was designed as first semester, second year elective called “Advanced Clinical Practice with Children and Families”.  Built on previous content from other courses about life span model and ecosystems perspective, students are expected to leave this advanced clinical course understanding the context and application of evidence-based social work practice with vulnerable populations.

After teaching the course for a year using traditional lecture format, I surveyed students regarding their learning preferences as well as goals and objectives for the semester. Some of the questions I asked included:

– What are your personal goals and expectations from this class for the next 14 weeks?
– What would strengthen your experience in this class?
– What have been some of your key take-aways from other practice classes?

Feedback indicated that students were most interested in focusing on play therapy and other forms of evidenced-based practice with skills be directly taught in class (i.e. modeled and then time for practice in the classroom). Uniformly, students reported that they felt unskilled in putting into place any form of direct practice with children because they only had a surface grasp of “how” to use certain skills with children.  All students requested that the course focus on direct application, with a ‘walk-through’ of the skills and interventions, by the professor, covered in the course readings and lectures. Additionally, students felt unsure about where to gather accurate information on how to implement their skills, and reported they were not often given time in field to observe and practice these skills with other staff members.  They requested digital case examples, such as training videos, in addition to single case study research articles to enhance their knowledge.  This course had rich material in the texts, but students struggled with the “how to” and were bored by simply reading about the techniques.

I informally brought in some art and play therapy supplies, and asked students to work with them, providing directives on how to use the materials, theoretical support for the different interventions and sharing case examples from my own practice.  The class gained energy and momentum, and suddenly students seemed more enthusiastic about coming to class.  The next step was to create more structure with the in-class learning activities that could be operationalized by the students. I began to look for pedagogical models with highly rated student perceptions of learning and opportunities for active learning in the classroom.   Flipped classroom models met these criteria, and I began the re-design the course.

The Flip

Lectures on the readings became pre-recorded and posted in our learning management system, Canvas.  These videos were recorded with a screen-capture software called Camtasia, with the PowerPoints Slides embedded and posted under weekly Modules.  These lectures included current and historical theory, evidence-based practice methods, and skill development and tools for evaluation within the field, and were all developed from the required course readings. These videos were created by me, and edited by a team member at the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at my institution. I recorded in a variety of locations including my practice office, teaching space, and community settings such as outdoor spaces and local agencies.

After watching the videos and completing the readings prior to attending class, students were responsible for completing weekly quizzes, which assessed their knowledge about the content.  These quizzes were ten multiple choice questions and allowed for consistent assessment of learning outcomes.  However, post-course evaluation supported the current literature that demonstrates quizzes are the least popular aspect of the flipped classroom model.

In class, each week, we would spend 10-15 minutes in a mini-lecture, discussing the theoretical foundation of the exercises in which we would engage that week and over an hour in experiential exercises such as mask-making, sand tray, therapeutic doodling, found poetry, puppet play interviews and group work exercises.  We would then engage in a group discussion about the process, talking about what came up, and challenges that students had in the experiential practice.  We concluded the class by watching media from YouTube clips and digital library holdings that demonstrated the interventions in vivo, and then conducted a critical analysis and comparison of the techniques we were viewing.

Another significant course change was the redesign of the final assignment, which  included a technological focus aimed at building a library of knowledge that could be used as a resource for future students and to directly implement in their community of practice.  There was initially significant anxiety about needing to be ‘tech-savvy’, so regular meetings with the CTL mentor to walk them through the steps helped manage this stress, and guided the students to gain, and own their skills through the project was an important step.  Students created extraordinary projects including:

  •  A fully developed and coded behavioral intervention app for parents:
  •  The framework for an app to help identify feelings;
  •  Training videos for Focus-Oriented Art Therapy, Sandplay Therapy, an introduction to clinical social work for     children and a YouTube Channel featuring attachment exercises for young mothers and their infants;
  •  Websites and blogs on topics such as bilingual resources for disenfranchised families; a call to social action for families in which a child lives with ADHD; play therapy resources for African-American families; and psychoeducation on music therapy for adolescents, their families and providers.

Feedback & Motivation

Motivation to complete the readings and to watch the weekly video was managed through the weekly mandatory quizzes in Canvas.  Students received feedback throughout the semester in a variety of formats –  during dialogues in class about their process in the experientials, in small group meetings with the technology mentor from CTL, and written comments through Canvas SpeedGrader, a tool in the learning management system that allows instructors to give written feedback on assignments.  Students also received completed rubrics with narrative following the conclusion of their semester-end presentation.  Students provided feedback to the professor through weekly journals and a post-course email interview, which demonstrated themes of improved critical analysis of course materials, student -reported improved curiosity and interest about the theories and interventions, and an appreciation for an alternative model of learning.

Overall, students identified the class as “fun”, “interesting” and “creative”.   One student shared, “it challenges the format of sometimes monotonous lecture/traditional classes.  I’m a visual and kinesthetic learner so this class kept me interested and engaged because I could explore and engage in experiential learning”

Two of the greatest successes included students taking their projects outside the classroom.  One  field placement agency actually embedding the training video created by their interns (students from the class) onto their website for parents.  Another student took an extra coding class, and  then went on to develop a fully working model of her behavioral modification app for parents.   Two challenges included the loathed quizzes and student vulnerability.  My ambivalence about the quizzes remains – students do loathe them, but Canvas provides an easy grading platform and they are currently the only measure of whether or not the students are watching the videos and completing the readings.  In future iterations of the course, I may change this to reading/video lecture logs with short answer questions about the material instead.

The other greatest challenge, as reported by students was the varying levels of student vulnerability in the experientials.  A few students felt that their classmates were either too playful or not engaged enough in the activities which affected the overall class experience. As one student reported, “I think this class would be most beneficial if students are willing to be vulnerable during exercises…I think it is incredibly valuable for practitioners to honor and understand what we are asking of our clients, and to find in ourselves where our own resistance plays a role in the process”. Post-course interview feedback demonstrated that students responded very positively to the course and relished having time to practice their clinical skills in the classroom, which then carried over to field where they were more willing to implement the interventions practiced in class.

Tips for Flipping a Class

  • Plan ahead. A flipped course requires significant behind the scenes preparation, including prepared lectures (preferably at least 4-6 weeks ahead), prepared quizzes, & materials ordered for the experientials. Each video requires the creation of the PowerPoint first (anywhere from an hour to two hours for the PP, estimate an hour of recording time for each 20-minute video, plus another 30 minutes of editing).  Posting videos takes about 5 minutes in Canvas.
  • Ask for help. Reach out to your Center for Teaching and Learning to see what services they may have to support you in video editing and software that may be available to you.
  • Collect feedback. Magnifying student voices has continued to help this class evolve and strengthen as it’s replicated.
  • Have a schedule. Just as you ask students to build in time for asynchronistic work, make sure you are regularly checking the site in which the lectures, quizzes and discussions are posted.
  • Have fun. Watching students try new skills, struggle kinesthetically with the material, and delve deep into clinical material in the classroom is incredibly rewarding and adds great dimension to the knowledge you’re disseminating.

How to Cite this Post:

Counselman-Carpenter, E. (2017, October, 13). The Flipped Classroom: Harnessing technology to teach direct clinical practice skills to MSW students [Blog Post]. Retrieved from:

Author: Laurel Hitchcock

Dr. Hitchcock served as the editor for this blog post. The author is the Guest Educator.

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