Supervision in Social Work Practicum and associated Challenges


The word supervision is derived from Latin words super (over) and videre (to watch, to see). Thus, the literal meaning of the term is to oversee, or monitor the work of another with responsibility for its quality. The supervisor gives instructions and assigns tasks and sees to it that the tasks assigned has been carried out as directed and expected. (Subhedar, 2001)

Social work supervision

In social work, supervision  has been defined primarily  in terms of the administrative and educational functions. Overseeing or monitoring the work assigned to people and regulating and controlling the quality of the work according to the requirement of the organization, constitute the  administrative functions whereas guiding the supervisee to improve upon their practical knowledge and skills and techniques in different fields, constitute the educational functions. Within the framework of these two functions, Kadushin (2002) has identified a few definitions of supervision  by various scholars which are as follows: 

According to George R. Terry, “Supervision is the achievement of desired results through intelligent utilization of human talents and facilitating resources in a manner that provides the greatest challenge and interest to the human talents.”                                                            

As per the Encyclopedia of Social Work, 1965, “Supervision is a traditional method of transmitting knowledge of social work skills in practice from the trained to the untrained, from the experienced to the inexperienced student and worker.” The sixteenth (1971) and seventeenth (1977) edition of this encyclopedia emphasized the administrative function and defined supervision as, “supervision is an administrative function, a process for getting the work done  and maintaining organizational control and accountability.”      

According to Towle,  “Social work supervision is an administrative process with an educational purpose.” (Kadushin and Harkness, 2002). 

As per Barker (1995) “ social work supervision is an administrative and educational process used extensively in social agencies to help social workers further develop and refine their skills and to provide quality assurance for the clients.” (Sui, 2005)

Historical development of field supervision

If we look into the historical development of social work supervision, the first course on field work supervision was offered in 1911, under the sponsorship of Charity Organization Department of the Russell Sage Foundation. It was headed b8y the highly respected social work pioneer, Mary Richmond (Kadushin and Harkness, 2002; Sui 2005). In 1920s, the location for the training of social workers shifted from the human service agency to the university; and field work supervision came to be viewed as an educational process that imparted the required values, professional knowledge, and practice skills to the prospective social workers. Students learned social work practice at individual supervision sessions in their field work placements (Sui, 2005; Munson 2002).

Due to these educational roots, tutorials, and individual conferences were adopted as the most common formats for the supervision of the social workers in human service  agencies.  What the students learned as part of their field work was reflected in their way of supervision when they became social work supervisors (Tsui-2005). Later on the differences in the  objectives between student supervision and staff supervision were identified  and recognized by scholars and these two took separate paths. 

Student supervision also consists of two aspects : supervision of field work at the agency and supervision of field work at the school. The latter being the focus of the present study. 

Supervision in social work field practicum

Supervision is an essential component in the practicum training of social work students. It is a means to teach the students the art and practice of effective social work. It is a helping process in the social work profession, where the students put their theoretical knowledge into practice and the supervisor helps them to use and apply this knowledge skillfully and carefully. Supervision has a specific contribution in the development of professional capability among students. “Fieldwork supervision teaches the students to integrate theory and practice in the field. It creates an environment in which professional skills for social work practice can be learnt.”(Subhedar, 2001).

Singh has defined supervision as “a two way process between supervisor and the supervisee in which supervisor, instructed , enabled , guided, supported and communicated with the student in his quest for developing professional social work skills , knowledge and attitudes.” (Singh, 1985).        

Fieldwork supervision has two important components-

i)  Supervision by faculty members

ii) Supervision by the practitioners or agency supervisors.

The faculty members guide the students in understanding the concepts , philosophy, principles and techniques of practice , and the worth of social work practice. In other words the faculty supervisors help the students to strengthen their  theoretical  knowledge and conceptual clarity so as to apply these  theoretical concepts in practice. On the other hand the agency supervisors guide the students  in the  use of the techniques, skills and methods in the actual field by providing services to the needy and  indulging in problem solving with the helpless. According to Munson “Supervision should be a mutual sharing of questions, concerns, observations, speculations, and selection of alternative techniques to apply in practice” (Munson, 1993).

Supervision  in social work is a highly interactive  process and its effectiveness depends on the   quality of the relationship between the supervisor and the supervisee (Cohen & Laufer, 1999).

Objectives of fieldwork supervision

Some of the objectives of fieldwork supervision as identified by Subhedar  are:

  • To provide an opportunity to the students to learn social work techniques in practical situations in different fields and to meet the needs of professional education.
  • To organise and accelerate the process of learning practical aspects of social work theories and philosophies in the different fields of social work. 
  • To facilitate achievement of learning goals especially practical use of principles and philosophies, skill and techniques, in social work practice.
  • To enable the students to enhance their practical knowledge and to develop their art of dealing with humans in various situations. 
  • To help students acquire professional skills and to develop their social attitudes.
  • To help the students to assess their strengths and weaknesses.
  • To assist the students in developing their social perspectives and social outlook  for effective social work practice.
  • To enable the students to enhance their interest in social work profession.
  • To help the students acquire  sound practical knowledge , and help them to build a career in the field of social work.   (Subhedar, 2001)

Functions of Supervision

Some of the functions of supervision identified by Patricia Lager are:

  • Assessing the student’s level of knowledge and skill.
  • Assuming responsibility for working out a plan that will provide the student an appropriate and challenging learning opportunities during the practicum. 
  • Assisting the student in understanding and adapting to the community or environment where the practicum takes place.
  • Assessing the “fit” between the student’s and client’s backgrounds and experiences (i.e. urban /rural, middle/lower class) and their implications for interactions.
  • Monitoring the student’s practicum experience and assisting in evaluating the student’s performance.
  • Assisting the student in identifying his or her learning needs, formulating learning objectives, and preparing a learning agreement.
  • Facilitating the student’s learning by providing guidance and serving as a source of information.
  • Assisting the student in integrating social work theory and the specific experiences of the practicum.
  • Educating the student by modelling appropriate practice behaviours and techniques, providing relevant feedback and encouragement, clarifying and interpreting various behaviours exhibited by the student, and sharing experiences that enhance the student’s development. 
  • Encouraging self-acceptance and enhancing self esteem.
  • Encouraging interpersonal regard.
  • Managing interpersonal and organizational tensions.
  • Fostering interdependence of the student.
  • Advocating for the student
  • Evaluating the student’s progress and development.

The supervisory process should be guided by the basic principles of learning. Kadushin and Harkness (2002), have identified six principles of learning that guide the supervisory process. According to them learning takes place best in the following situations- 

  • when we are highly motivated to learn .
  • when we can devote most of our energies to learn.
  • when learning is successful and rewarding .
  • when we are actively involved in the learning process.
  • if the content is meaningfully presented.  
  • if the supervisor takes into consideration the supervisee’s uniqueness.  

Effective field learning  depends on the collaboration of service organizations and universities. The social work students are placed in organizations by the university and are guided by the faculty and the personnel at the agency simultaneously. Three types of organizations have been identified by Bogo (2006) where the students are placed for field work:

  • Organizations with a formal and continuous link to the university
  • Organizations with one or more field instructors who have a semi-formal relationship with the university
  • Organizations where one social worker independently volunteers to offer field instruction 

The way the students are supervised and the learning opportunities will depend on the type of organisations they are placed in. The first type of organisations carry out  certain student programs and activities and  are supervised effectively according to the learning needs of the students. The other two types do offer a range of learning opportunities but it might not be organised and structured and the supervision at the agency might not be as effective. (Bogo, 2006).

Role of supervisor

supervision in social work field practicum

It is considered the responsibility of the supervisor to make the student  learn the skills which are to be used in the field work . The supervisors can be role models for the students hence the effectiveness of supervision depends on the capability and skills  of the supervisors. Tata Institute of Social Sciences has given some tasks for the field work supervisors which are as follows: 

  • Orienting the student to the agency, its structure and functions in order to help him/her to identify with the agency.
  • Specifying to the student his/her tasks and responsibilities.
  • Making available for the student opportunities of learning.
  • Paying adequate attention to the student’s work , by carefully planning his assignments and by reviewing his written work regularly.
  • Guiding and teaching the student in specific area of work by means of scheduled supervisory conference, unscheduled on- the- spot contact necessary, supervisor’s demonstration of practice skills and through other educational tools like role playing.
  • Helping students to acquire professional attitudes and values and good work habits by acting as a model practitioner .
  • Maintaining contact with the field work coordinator, attending, supervisor’s meetings and sending regularly reports of the students field work performance.

Issues of concern associated  with practicum supervision

Social work practicum and supervision consists of three  components namely faculty supervisor, the supervisee and the agency supervisor. Effectiveness of supervision will depend on the coordination of these three parties. However there are certain problems and limitations faced by each in the process of supervision which hinders the professional learning.

Supervision becomes difficult due to the students not taking much interest in learning. Lack of initiatives by the students for their own learning in the field is also one of the challenges which the supervisors face. Sometimes the students may lack interest as a consequence of their placement  in the agencies without  taking into consideration their interest or not getting the required learning opportunity in the agency. This also affects the learning and the supervisory process.

One common issue with supervision is the availability of professionally trained and experienced supervisors. This effects the quality of supervision received by the students of social work as they might not get efficient guidance in integrating theory with practice. Sometimes the supervisor supervisee ratio is too high in the universities which might be coupled with lack of infrastructural facilities which again is a challenge for effective supervision.  (Subhedar, 2001)

Culture also plays an important role in the supervisory process. Culture guides the values of the supervisor, supervisee and the agency policies. The way the supervisors will guide the students will be influenced by his/her cultural beliefs and values and the students’ learning needs will depend on their culture. The differences  in the culture of the supervisee and the supervisor also creates a challenging situation which has to be overcome for effective supervision. (Tsui and Ho, 1998). 

It is also very important for the supervisors to deal with transference and counter transference. The situation may arise between the supervisee-supervisor or between the supervisee and the client. Only a seasoned social worker would be able to identify the situation and deal with it and train the students to deal with these type of phenomena.  

The agency supervisors have own their tasks to complete in the organization  and have no motivation for supervising the students. It becomes an extra work for them therefore cannot focus upon the learning aspect of the students. Also many organizations do not have a fixed pattern of supervision or curriculum design for conducting practicum. Therefore the students get the exposure to the activities undertaken by the organization rather than practicing the specific methods of social work.


Supervision being an important aspect of social work practicum needs to be addressed for the challenges coming up in the process. There is a lack of research base in India on  supervision which is the need of the hour to combat the problems faced by social workers in the process of supervision. As it is an interrelated process, it is desirable that the school and the agency together work upon it to minimize these challenges.


Bogo, M. (2006). Field Instruction in Social Work. The Clinical Supervisor, 24 (1), 163 — 193.

Cohen, Ben-Zion and Laufer, H. (1999). The Influence of Supervision on Social Workers’

Perceptions of Their Professional Competence, The Clinical Supervisor, 18: 2, 39 — 50.

Kadushin, A. and D,  Harkness. (2002). Supervision in Social Work. New York: Columbia University Press. 

Munson, C. (1993). Clinical social work supervision (2nd ed.). New York: The Haworth Press, Inc.

Lager, P. (2010). Models and Modes of Social Work Supervision. (ed) Gracious Thomas. New Delhi: IGNOU.

Singh, R. R. (1985). Field work in social work education :A perspective for human service profession. New Delhi: Concept  publication.

Subhedar, I.S. (2001). Field Work Training in Social Work. Jaipur: Rawat Publication.

Tsui, Ming –sum. (2005). Social Work Supervision –Contexts and Concepts. USA :Sage publication. 

Tsui, Ming-Sum and Ho, Wui-Shing. (1998). In Search of a Comprehensive Model of Social Work Supervision. The Clinical Supervisor, 16: 2, 181 — 205.

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