The International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation

The Nature of Informal Learning of Mental Health Caseworkers

Janice M. Iseminger, Ph.D.
Pathways Behavioral Healthcare, Inc.

Joe F. Donaldson, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis
University of Missouri
202 Hill Hall
Columbia, MO 65211

Iseminger JM & Donaldson JF (2012). The Nature of Informal Learning of Mental Health 
 International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation. Vol 16(1) 86-94

Objective :This paper describes the informal learning activities in which mental health caseworkers in two mental health community agencies engaged to maintain their knowledge and skills. Such a focus is important given current emphases within the health professions on accountability, assessment of learning and competence, and reduction of risk to clients.
Methods :A qualitative research design was employed to identify and describe patterns of learning in which caseworkers in community mental health centers engage. We interviewed eleven caseworkers, eleven supervisors, and eleven peers from two mental health facilities located in two Midwestern states. Further, document analyses and observation were conducted to triangulate the data.
Results: Data analysis revealed three interrelated themes about caseworkers’ informal learning. The first, engaging in authentic work activities, included the activities of learning-by-doing, learning through assessment, and learning through trial-and-error. The second, learning from mentors, included observing and imitating more experienced peers, and receiving and acting on feedback from others. The third theme, using physical and social resources and tools, included deliberate networking with others, discussing practice protocols and problematic situations, meeting in teams, and taking advantage of information found in various media, including the internet and articles.
Conclusions and Implications:  Caseworkers learn primarily through the on-the-job experiences and practice embedded in their work contexts. Therefore, supervisors, management, and caseworkers must recognize the importance of informal learning and related activities that further caseworkers’ professional development. More detailed analysis of the ways organizational processes influence informal learning and the development of caseworkers’ professional competences is needed.
Key Words: Community Mental Health, Professional Development, Informal Learning, Case Management

Mental health caseworkers must maintain their competence with up-to-date skills, knowledge, information, judgment, and performance in order to serve clients and team members effectively with appropriate clinical processes. A range of quality mental health services is needed which are individualized and responsive to client needs. Understanding the learning activities that influence the development of mental health professional competence is important in order to ensure accountability in the forms of risk minimization, the delivery of error-free quality services, and professional development.

Although professional practitioners learn through their participation in formal instructional programs sponsored by educational institutions, professional associations, and the employing agency, research (e.g., Anthony, 1992; Farkas & Anthony, 2001) has shown that much of professional learning that is highly valued by professionals occurs informally within the workplace. This informal learning is, however, an area that has received little treatment in the research literature (Eraut, 2002). Therefore, this study was designed to explore the informal learning activities of mental health caseworkers that increase the effectiveness of their professional practice.

A qualitative research design was employed to identify and describe patterns of learning in which caseworkers in community mental health centers engage to develop and maintain professional competence. One central question guided the present study: According to the perspectives of the study participants, what different learning activities do caseworkers use in their professional development?

We obtained approval to conduct the study from the University of Missouri Institutional Review Board prior to collecting any data. We interviewed eleven caseworkers, eleven supervisors, and eleven peers. Caseworkers were employed in two mental health centers. The two community mental health facilities were located in a mid-western metropolitan city within the United States. Because the metropolitan area crossed state boundaries, each mental health center was located in a different state.

Seven caseworkers were female and four were male. All of the caseworkers had obtained bachelor’s degrees in social science, sociology, rehabilitation psychology, psychology, clinical psychology, social work, and criminal justice. Four of the caseworkers had master’s degrees, two in social work, one in telecommunications, and one in counseling psychology. Two caseworkers were working on their master’s degrees, one in counseling and the other in psychology. Two caseworkers were planning to start working on their master’s degree the following year; one in social work and the other in family and marriage counseling.

The caseworkers’ experiences also differed in terms of years of practice within the field of mental health, ranging from seven to 17 years. Only one caseworker had been at the same facility where she had begun her career; the other ten caseworkers had worked at several facilities but had stayed with case management work in the different work settings.

We completed unstructured interviews over a period of two months. Interviews with supervisors and peers, as well as review of state policies and mental health center policies and procedures were also conducted to triangulate the data and their sources in order to address issues of trustworthiness and dependability (Silverman, 2001; Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Creswell, 1998).

We transcribed interviews verbatim and analyzed the data inductively (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The first stage of data analysis consisted of reducing the data by assigning codes to small pieces of information until all transcribed data had been coded; this process led to identification of categories. In the second stage, we looked for relationships between the categories (Strauss & Corbin; Creswell, 1998). These relationships constituted themes concerning the learning activities that contributed to caseworkers’ competence development. By using qualitative methods, we were able to explore the experiences of mental health caseworkers as they voiced how they remained current with professional knowledge, skills, and applications in their work.

Theoretical Frameworks
    This study was informed by four theoretical frameworks:
1.    Nowlen’s (1988) Competence Models;
2.    LaDuca’s (1980) Situated Model of Competence;
3.    Eraut’s (1994;2004) conceptualization of the practitioner performance period; and
4.    Theories of situated learning developed by Wenger, McDumott, and Snyder (2002), Brown and Duguid (2002), and Rogoff (1990).

Nowlen’s Models
Nowlen’s (1988) framework contains three models: Update, Competence, and Performance. The Update Model’s focus is on updating knowledge of disciplinary-based theories and concepts specific to a practitioner’s profession, and enhancing the relationship between knowledge, skills, and performance. This model draws attention to practitioners as consumers of knowledge that they use in practice settings.

The Competence Model (Nowlen, 1988) focuses on the effective, efficient, thorough, and appropriate use of professional skills and abilities to perform a professional role, as well as on maintenance of up-to-date knowledge about one’s profession. Competence in this case includes generic skills that are valid across a range of jobs and professional practice, as well as competencies unique to a field of practice. Techniques involving task analyses are used to define competencies which are then stated in performance (behavioral) terms. These capabilities involve a “synthesis of behavior objects as well as some elements of covert behavior” (p. 32). Both the update and the competence models focus exclusively on the individual with little, if any, consideration of the social nature of practice and the mutually constitutive role that context plays in practice.

The Performance Model (Nowlen, 1988), in contrast, goes beyond the Update and Competence Models and views professional practice as a social activity occurring within particular practice environments. “Performance is a function of both individuals and ensembles. Even when viewed as an individual matter, performance is the result of interacting social and personal influences” (p. 86).

LaDuca’s Situated Model
LaDuca’s (1980) Situated Model of Competence shares many characteristics with Nowlen’s performance model. The Situated Model focuses on the interactions of the client, the clinical problem, and the clinical setting. When a professional works with a client, the client’s behaviors become part of the context; at any specific instance, the situation imposes requirements for performance, and one cannot judge professional competence without “situation reference for. . .described tasks” (LaDuca, p. 255). “[P]erformance is not simply equivalent to competence because an individual’s competence does not reside solely in the ability to perform a task or activity, but in performing the task correctly and at the appropriate time” (LaDuca, Engle, & Risely, 1978, p. 151). 

Eraut’s Performance Period
Eraut (1994, 2004) viewed practice as operating within a performance period.  “The analysis of a performance period is concerned with everything done by the performer during a specified period of time, particularly with such aspects as reading the situation, deciding what to do, changing one’s plan, responding to unforeseen events, allocating time and managing the transitions to other periods” (Eraut, 1994, p. 150).

Time is an important element of a performance period (Eraut, 1994, 2004). When time and action coincide in the action-present, the professional acts in an instant/reflex, semi-explicit mode, reading the situation via pattern recognition, making decisions instantaneously, and using learned practice routines. When the length of time expands beyond the action-present, the practitioner acts in a rapid/intuitive mode. The professional reads a situation via rapid interpretation, and intuitively employs routine activities of which they are aware. When ample time is available to reflect back on a performance period, the practitioner employs a deliberative/analysis mode of thought. The professional reads a situation and makes decisions via discussions and analysis with others and acts on the basis of plans developed through deliberation.

Eraut (1994) uses the concepts of “hot” and “cold” action to describe the speed that the practice environment requires for the practitioner to act. The characterizations of professional action within different lengths of time coupled with the concepts of “hot” and “cold” action provide a framework for exploring the role that time plays in the informal learning of practitioners.

Situated Learning
Professionals interact with others in communities of practice (Wenger, McDumott, & Snyder, 2002; Brown & Duguid, 2002). Communities of practice are  “…groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an on-going basis” (Wenger, et al., p. 4). Through mutual engagement, members “… think, invent, and find solutions together. . . .They share a basic body of knowledge that creates ‘common ground,’ allowing members to work together effectively” (Wenger et al., 2002, pp. 37-38), in order to solve problems. Brown and Duguid (2002) concluded that communities of practice develop and transfer the most accepted professional practices and skills because members learn from each other and from the more skilled professionals in the community.

New professionals learn through a process that Rogoff (1990) termed cognitive apprenticeship, or participation in an activity with the guidance of more skilled people. The apprentice observes a practitioner who is more knowledgeable and skilled. The apprentice also participates in the work, beginning at the periphery in terms of essential practices but still engaging in legitimate (genuinely associated) practices and ultimately moving to the core of practice, where the apprentice will achieve required levels of competence.“Communication between social parties [within communities of practice] provides a medium for new members…to participate in more skilled problem solving with the guidance of partners. . . .It facilitates growing skills and participation in activities” (Rogoff, p. vii).

Data analysis revealed three interrelated themes about caseworkers’ informal learning. The first theme, engaging in authentic work activities, included activities of learning-by-doing, assessing situations, and making mistakes. The second theme, learning from mentors, included activities of observing, imitating, and receiving and acting on feedback. The third theme, using physical and social resources and tools, included actively networking, dialoging, meeting with teams, and reading. Table 1 provides a list of themes and the individual learning activities that comprised them. Pseudonyms are used in illustrative quotations below to protect caseworkers’ identities.

Table 1

Caseworker Learning Activities

Major Themes                                      Learning activities

Engaging in authentic work                    Learning by doing

Transacting with context


Assessing situations

Making mistakes


Learning from mentors                          Observing


Receiving and acting on feedback


Using physical and social                       Networking

resources and tools                               Dialoguing

Asking questions

Meeting with teams



Engaging in Authentic Work

Caseworkers learned from engaging in authentic work, by doing their jobs, transacting with context, experimenting with solutions to problems, assessing situations, and making mistakes.

Learning by doing. Caseworkers reported that their most valuable learning outcomes were achieved through engagement in job activities that occurred over a length of time and in actual practice settings. Jo remarked: “. . .learning kind of as you go, day to day, what’s effective. . .experience is definitely the key.” Francis thought that she gained knowledge about her job by doing it: “I—learned on the job…gaining knowledge through my job…knowledge through the clients that I’ve worked with.”  And Gale said that “I really think that the actual experience of doing it [casework] has taught me way more than anything the books could have ever taught me.” Lennie added to this understanding the importance of working in the actual practice setting: “…but I think to do case management, it’s really the [case work] activity—you have to be in the community day-to-day…that’s the most important---engage in activity.”

Transacting with context.  A major part of learning on the job consists of the process of contextual transaction in which mutual influence is exerted by the context on the practitioner and the practitioner on context. In this case context is defined to include problematic situations, clients, and other caseworkers. Jo thought that getting together with co-workers and “learning from each other was very helpful.” Francis described situational interactions as:
… a combination of different things: resources that you have out there for your own professional career. Information that you glean from your co-workers; what you learn from your co-workers. Hearing your doctor talk. Having a dialogue with your supervisor. Knowing your clients. You have to be able to take in the information. 

Experimenting. By working in contexts that are uncertain and ambiguous, caseworkers learned by trying out different styles, techniques, and skills and seeing what did and did not work. Alexis stated, “I think that’s something that I learned over time. . .a kind of trial and error type situation working with different types of clients.” Jo thought of her learning occurring “…kind of through trial and error.”

Assessing situations.  Caseworkers experience new situations each day and learn by assessing their various situations, circumstances, and clients: “kind of do an assessment on how I’m going to do what I need to do. . .I just go out there and see what’s going on” as one caseworker defined this process. CJ reported that “probably one of the first things that I had to learn when I first got into this field is how to assess someone, to see what level of psychiatric crisis they were in and therefore be able to incorporate the right intervention for them. . . .It’s all about assessing their situations and assessing their level of need…”

Making mistakes. Caseworkers briefly discussed learning from their mistakes. They reported that if they did something wrong with assessment or treatment, they would commit that learning to memory and would use those memories as references if they encountered similar situations in the future. Ira admitted that along “with any job you start, you learn from your mistakes; and you really have to do that.” Dot noted, “I know we all make mistakes and I remember talking to co-workers…and realized that I had to get [things] down pat [correctly].”

Learning through Mentors

Caseworkers observed and imitated co-workers who had expertise in particular situations or from co-workers who provided feedback about job performances.
Observing and imitating. Caseworkers discussed how, when they first started their jobs, they learned primarily through mentorship, role-modeling, and observations. When Ira began his job, his reliance on his co-workers “to initially help me was the key to really learning what I needed to learn.” Alexis reported that ‘They set me up with another caseworker and that caseworker would teach me what I needed to know.” Bo identified that the “ride a-longs” were important to her learning processes: “We would go with an experienced case manager to the clients on home visits. And tag along and learn about community resources. The actual experience is so beneficial.” Huie also reported, “But a lot of it was a growing situation, learning from peers in my field and from supervisors in my field.”

Receiving and acting on feedback.  Caseworkers identified clients, co-workers, and supervisors as the principal people who provided them with feedback about their job performance. Gale described a feedback experience: “I just had an incident last week and there was another co-worker in the room and the client was getting really upset and I didn’t think I was doing my job.” And then her co-worker provided her constructive feedback about how she handled the situation. Gale also praised her supervisor for her feedback: “That’s one thing [with which]…I have been really blessed—her willingness to let me know that what I am doing well, and maybe this is what I can improve…”

Using Physical and Social Resources and Tools
Physical tools consisted of technology such as computers and cell phones and other non-human resources such as buildings and printed materials. Social tools consisted of co-workers, supervisors, agency staff personnel, subject matter experts, and community resource personnel. Caseworkers used these tools in several ways to learn.

Networking. Caseworkers actively networked when they exchanged and shared information with co-workers, when they connected with community agencies, and when they talked with community personnel about how to obtain services for clients. Contact would be made either by face-to-face encounters or through the telephone. As Ira explained, “I had very limited knowledge on that [topic] and I had a co-worker that had been doing the job for quite a few years and was connected with those folks in the community and he kind of guided me through. I met some key people in the community that basically you could go to.”

Dialoguing. Talking with others was a mechanism used by caseworkers to share ideas and information. If caseworkers did not know about a needed resource or information, they used their cell phones to call other caseworkers to obtain information. One caseworker would say to another caseworker, “hey, I have a question” and then discuss the situation with her colleague. Dialoguing and listening assisted caseworkers with understanding how to do their jobs and locate and find needed information and resources. Dot added: “And that’s how I’ve learned—just through talking to other people, getting new techniques on how to handle certain situations, going to treatment team, overhearing my office mate while she’s on the phone with somebody.” Francis also stated that “it’s just acquiring knowledge…day by day, paying attention in team meetings, listening to my co-workers talk, having conversations with them, talking with my supervisor.”   

Asking questions. Caseworkers said they also learned by asking questions. Bo asked questions of her co-workers, therefore using them “as a resource.” Gale used her supervisor as a resource for asking questions and obtaining information: “I can ask her how…I do certain things or ask her for suggestions and then she’s wonderful coming up with things.” If caseworkers were out in the field, they asked questions of their colleagues and even of community resource personnel over their cell phones.

Meeting with teams. Caseworkers discussed how team meetings provided a setting where learning occurred as they discussed problematic situations and listened to ideas and opinions expressed by co-workers. Gale thought that meetings were important to her job: “We do have team meetings and during that time, we’ll talk about problem solving.” Jo saw the importance of using her team members as resources for learning: “We get together as a team and think or brainstorm to think of ideas to help with clients.”

Reading. Caseworkers read reference materials, books, policy and procedure manuals, Internet web sites, email messages, articles, newspapers, community bulletins and resource guides. By reading, caseworkers again obtained information that was related to job performance. Bo discussed how she “looked to the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistics Manual-IV] and I go through it and I look in there to see what the criteria is [sic] for such and such a diagnosis.” Another caseworker discussed how she would read “a good book on psychopharmacology and that’s been very helpful because clients are always asking questions about their medications and side effects.”

Discussion and Conclusions

The findings of this study were consistent with the literature on professional learning. Further, the findings were likewise consistent with the insights provided by the theoretical frameworks used to guide the study. The following paragraphs provide illustrations of these consistencies.

Caseworkers reported that they learned primarily through on-the-job experiences and situations embedded in their work. They did not perform alone or engage in solitary activities but instead participated in social interactional processes (Wertsch, Minick, & Arms, 2002) located within performance periods (Eraut, 1994). Therefore, they learned because they constructed their knowledge as they engaged in practice (Daley, 2002), being present within and actively involved in events and situations that took place within their working environments (Brown & Duguid, 2002; Nowlen, 1988; Rogoff, 1990).

The findings of this study are congruent with Nowlen’s (1988) and LaDuca’s (1980) focus on the central role that social context plays in professional learning. The findings of this study demonstrated that most of the caseworkers’ learning resulted from social interactions with clients, colleagues, supervisors, and community members. Learning was also fostered and influenced by their working environments and the clinical situations and problems presented by those environments.

Caseworkers interacted with each other and used tools of practice within communities of practice (Wenger, McDumott, & Snyder, 2002; Brown & Duguid, 2002). Caseworkers learned from each other. They observed and discussed techniques and skills that worked in certain situations while more expert caseworkers role-modeled how to apply skills and techniques.

New caseworkers learned from more experienced caseworkers. They shadowed their more experienced co-workers by going with them into client’s homes and observing the interactions and treatment interventions as their experienced colleagues modeled, explained, provided feedback, and reinforced what was going on in the situational interactions (Lave & Wenger, 2002).    

Caseworkers worked in teams. As team members, they learned by building a shared knowledge base about practice and treatment protocols. Regular team meetings provided a networking context in which to network in order to exchange information and learn through such activities as asking questions and dialoguing about clients and work performance techniques.

Caseworkers consistently worked with novel and ambiguous situations and under conditions Eraut (1994) termed “hot action.” Caseworkers learned to solve problems as they dealt with diverse client needs that had unknown solutions and made decisions rapidly and responded instantaneously to problematic situations (Eraut). By learning from experiences and situational contexts, caseworkers acquired the skills and techniques to perform their jobs effectively.
As Eraut (1994) stated, the caseworkers developed expertise when they developed the ability to cope with difficult, ill-defined problems, demonstrated the ability to correctly read situations, and resolved client’s problematic situations. Caseworkers continuously learned as the demands of the situations shifted and changed. Shared learning and knowledge creation, coupled with authentic work engagement, enabled caseworkers to develop skillful behaviors and deliberative processes.

Implications for Practice
In interviews, supervisors and management concentrated on the formal learning processes that are viewed by the mental health centers as important to caseworker learning. One implication for practice therefore is to begin the process of improving supervisors’ and management’s recognition of the importance of informal learning and related activities that help develop caseworkers’ professional competence. In relation, another implication for practice is making sure that caseworkers’ understand that most of their learning occurs because of these informal learning activities. As such, supervisors should help caseworkers use these learning activities to extract knowledge and further the development of their professional development.

Implications for Future Research
During the course of the literature review, we uncovered very few studies that specifically explored the informal learning activities of caseworkers. Thus, we conducted this study to contribute to a deeper understanding of the types of informal learning activities mental health caseworkers actually use in their professional development. We trust that we have made a contribution in this area. However, more must be done. A continuing need is for more detailed analysis of the ways organizational processes influence informal learning, the exact content of caseworker informal learning, and the relation between informal learning and the development of particular mental health caseworker competences.



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