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Virtual counselling reaps rewards

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A Curtin psychology lecturer who engages an actor and a real-life client to put students in the shoes of real-life counsellors has been lauded at the national level.

Jan Grant recently received an Australian Learning and Teaching Council citation for her innovative postgraduate teaching techniques developed over the past 20 years.

Associate Professor Jan Grant

“In teaching, I like to use a lot of practical, interactive approaches which encourage a lot of student participation,” says Associate Professor Grant who is program director of Curtin’s Masters and PhD programs in counselling psychology.

One such teaching technique is to employ an actor to develop a role as a client with a personality disorder.

“For the last two decades I’ve been using an actor to act as a client and when I came here I developed that even further with my colleague Jenny Thornton,” she says.

“We employed an actor to come in over eight weeks … and each week a different student would go in and counsel her as a client.

“She presented as if it was the same therapist every week and the students knew that.”

Associate Professor Grant says that the actor is primed to provide real-world challenges for postgraduate counselling students.

“This client actually has a personality disorder and so she’s quite a complex client, she’s quite difficult,” she explains.

“She gets angry at the drop of a hat.

“She tries to push the boundaries of the therapist.”

Associate Professor Grant says that once the mock counselling session is finished, the student and their peers constructively talk through “what went well and what didn’t go so well”.

“We’re trying to really make the learning situation as real as possible, so that students don’t just learn theoretically what to do but actually are doing it under supervision,” she says.

“These contributions form one part of a cohesive program that emphasises a high level of integration of theory and practice through experiential learning that is taught by the whole academic team in counselling psychology.”

The health science expert has also created DVDs that present segments from 20 psychotherapy sessions conducted with a client who had experienced domestic violence.

“The segments are interspersed with a colleague of mine talking about what the therapist was doing, what skills were being expressed and asking learning questions,” Associate Professor Grant says.

She paid tribute to her client for having the courage to undergo therapy in front of a camera.

“She had just left a domestically violent partner and she really wanted help in staying out of the relationship and feeling stronger and less intimidated,” Associate Professor Grant says.

“At first we were both anxious with the camera but then the camera just ran and we just got used to it and we conducted it like any other session.

“She moved from being very, very intimidated by this violent husband through in the 20 sessions feeling much, much stronger, able to assert herself with him.”

The videos, and two of Associate Professor Grant’s books, have been adopted for teaching use by other universities.

Faculty of Health Sciences Pro Vice-Chancellor Jill Downie says Associate Professor Grant consistently challenges students to achieve their potential.

“I have seen time and time again how Jan’s vision inspires and motivates our psychology students,” Professor Downie says.

“The range of teaching tools that she employs helps to prepare our students to be excellent therapists who are emotionally responsive, understand clients deeply, and intervene effectively with those experiencing psychological problems and mental health disorders.”

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