10 Helpful Fieldwork Tips for a Successful Experience
Occupational therapy fieldwork is an integral part of every therapist’s education.
While classroom learning is great for building theory, the experience of treating and interacting with real patients and clients is second to none.
And while simply showing up to your fieldwork is half the battle, being an engaged and excited learner can make the difference between a good placement and a great placement.
Whether you’re just preparing to start your first Level 1 fieldwork or you’re a seasoned student finishing up your last Level 2 fieldwork, here are some of my top occupational therapy fieldwork tips to help you get the most out of your placement. These tips are applicable to both OT and COTA students.
1. Start The Experience With Effective Communication
This should begin before you even step foot in the facility.
Be sure to read everything the facility sends you in advance, as well as become familiar with your school’s own policies and procedures for fieldwork. This will ensure that no surprises come up that may impede your placement (“I didn’t know I needed a TB test!”) as well as answer some of the questions already bubbling in your brain, such as dress code, caseload expectations, facility holidays, parking, etc.
Once you have thoroughly read this info, reach out and make contact with your fieldwork supervisor/clinical instructor at least 6-8 weeks before your placement, either by phone or email. They should be able to answer any other questions you may have and make suggestions for what to review before beginning.
2. Share Your Learning Style With Your Supervisor
Once you begin your fieldwork placement, continue the practice of having open and honest communication with your clinical instructor (CI). Don’t be afraid to discuss your prior experiences, strengths, and weaknesses. One great bit of information to share with your supervisor is your ideal learning style.
If you’re not sure what kind of learner you may be, you can take a quick quiz here to find out. While this may not be especially relevant for a mostly observational Level 1 experience, your Level 2 CI will likely appreciate the information and can more effectively facilitate the educational experience for you.
3. Don’t Be Afraid To Admit When You Don’t Know The Answer
Keeping in line with the theme of honesty, get comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” You are here to learn, so it would be crazy to think you would know every answer right away. At the same time, take ownership of your learning process. Offer to research questions if you don’t know the answer.
A great habit to keep is carrying a notebook that you can use to jot down quick questions and observations. This is useful too for when you may not be able to ask your supervisor something in the moment – such as a sensitive question in front of a patient.
4. Realize That You Will Make Mistakes
While you should be careful to fully think about your decisions, especially as they relate to patient safety, mistakes are natural and are part of the learning process.
When you do make a mistake, analyze the factors that caused you to make it. Was it a lack of knowledge? Did you feel rushed? Were you doing something that was beyond your skill level at the time? What could you change that would cause the situation to play out differently the next time?
Ideally, have this conversation with your CI. Taking ownership of a mistake and creating a plan to rectify it is a valuable and mature skill to have.
Trust us from experience that you will also learn from these mistakes which is a part of the learning process.
5. Research Evidence-based Treatments For Your Setting
One of the best parts of a fieldwork experience is that learning can occur on both sides. Many supervisors enjoy being fieldwork educators because students can share a wealth of knowledge about the latest research and occupation-based treatment ideas.
Your education is valuable and may even help your supervisor approach a problem in a way they wouldn’t have thought to before. Even if you’re not currently taking classes, continue your studies by looking up research articles as they relate to cases you have at fieldwork.
6. Think Beyond The Day-to-day
A requirement of many placements is completing a special project such as giving an in-service, or writing a resource to share with families. However, whether you have an assigned project or not, think about things you can do to help your supervisor and facility even after you leave.
Sometimes it just takes a fresh set of eyes to notice that the therapy equipment could use some reorganization, or that a client would benefit from a piece of low-tech adaptive equipment that you could create.
7. Take Time To Observe Other Disciplines
If your fieldwork placement doesn’t already have this embedded, it is a valuable experience to seek out. While you should have plenty of opportunity to observe and perform occupational therapy directly, observing an SLP or PT will also make you a more effective OT practitioner.
Every discipline sees things through a slightly different lens and learning about your patients from varied perspectives can be an insightful experience.
8. Anticipate Problems Before They Occur
Ideally, all of your OT fieldwork experiences will be smooth with no major issues. However, it’s always best to be prepared for possible complications. Taking small steps like leaving the house early on your first day just in case there’s unexpected traffic can help head off minor problems off before they occur.
For more major issues, simply taking time to think through back-up plans is a useful exercise. While you won’t be able to predict every possible outcome, you will be more prepared to roll with the punches. You will likely be able to handle every inconvenience that comes your way with this outlook.
If you do end up facing significant obstacles to your success, don’t be afraid to reach out.
Your CI should be able to help you with most issues. If they can’t, contact your school’s fieldwork coordinator. Their neutral perspective may help you come to a solution. And, worst-case scenario, if your placement simply isn’t a good fit, they will be able to help you figure out your best options going forward.
9. Take Time For Self-care
No matter how much you prepare, fieldwork is still often a demanding and stressful experience. Practice what you preach by building opportunities to relax and always take care of yourself. While it may seem counter-intuitive when you are likely already pressed for time, taking a few minutes each day to read, exercise, or meditate can pay off in dividends.
10. Practice Gratitude
Be thankful for this experience! Even when things get tough, remember that this will make you a stronger therapist. Challenge yourself to find the teachable moment in everything you do. And when your placement comes to a close, don’t forget to share that gratitude with all the people that have helped you along the way.
While getting a small gift for your CI (and anyone else!) can be appropriate, most will be more than happy to just receive a handwritten thank-you card. However, if you’re looking for more gift ideas, check out our article, 10 Best CI Gift Ideas to Show Your Appreciation.
Occupational therapy fieldwork is certainly one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of your OT education. Starting with a clear goal in mind for what you’d like your experience to be will ensure that you have an excellent placement.
Do you have any other fieldwork tips to share with future fieldwork students? Let us know in the comments!
This post was originally published on June 14, 2018 and updated on September 2, 2023.