Ross Woods, Rev. 2018 Previously published as Practicums: Suggested Best Practice (Rev. Jan, '12)
Not many campus-based colleges are good at integrating practicum into their professional education. Some do it very well. But surprisingly many don't.
This paper is based on what I perceive to be best practice in professional practicums. It is based on my own experience in some excellent practicum programs and my observations of other programs, some of which worked well and some of which did not.
For employees, learning through work is an ongoing part of work. The best employers have ways of training people on the job, and are skilled at using staff meetings as ways of upgrading skills.
The basic principles of practicum are generally the same across the professions and in the training sector. All the professional disciplines have a major theoretical component that is most efficiently taught in a class environment. All of them also have practical skills that can only be refined and tested in real workplaces.
Workplace learning is common at all academic levels and also includes the higher levels in academia. Doctoral students do fieldwork, lawyers do articles, and medical practitioners do internships. In fact, most professions require some kind of workplace learning as a registration requirement. The same workplace learning principles apply for VET higher qualifications where students will mostly be professionals and senior management.
Once upon a time
Once upon a time, the idea was that students would study theory in a classroom then be assigned a workplace for practicum. They might get some on-job orientation and would be expected to put into practice what they'd learned in a classroom.
The current trend is toward more complex practicums with a much richer learning experience. Units are more likely combined into larger, more holistic learning experiences, and the practicum might include much of the learning that would have once been taught only in a classroom.
By the time students graduate, they have both excellent applied skills and a solid track record of experience in a workplace at professional standard.
Most disciplines would probably prefer that the discussion use their particular language, relate to their immediate problems, and list their in-house examples. In Christian ministry, for example, the healthy tendency is to seek a theological rationale. I'd suggest, however, that the main point is the big picture of professional education, so the language I've used is not discipline-specific.
How not to do practicums
Problem 1: The practicum is unstructured and unsupervised.
Practicums that are unstructured and unsupervised do not require the student to actually learn anything. The college might do no more than require students to arrange their own practicums, then before graduation check that they have done a certain number of weeks. In other cases, there might be no mentoring, or the college might require regular reports but give no feedback of any kind.
Problem 2: The college throws the student in at the deep end.
An interesting phenomenon is usually known as "throwing people in at the deep end." Students must quickly adapt and cope in a sink-or-swim situation. The process is poorly conceived, and students get no meaningful orientation or support.
Let's divide graduates of these programs into three groups:
A few learn a lot very quickly and become spectacular successes.
Most students often survive the practicum and learn a great deal, but they find it an unsatisfactory educational experience. They survive, but might still be frustrated or bitter.
Throwing people in the deep end produces many drownings - people who are crushed, frustrated, or disillusioned. The dropout rate is high, and some students bear a long-term bitterness. The college usually works hard to conceal the number of drownings and to justify its approach.
The resultant problem is that some supervisors, especially those who did well at being thrown in at the deep end, expect to treat others the same. They justify the approach thinking, "It was good enough for me, so it's good enough for them."
Problem 3: The profession uses practicum as an initiation ritual.
The sink-or-swim approach also fits the metaphor of an initiation. In an initiation, the existing members are the gatekeepers. They deliberately inflict an unpleasant experience on an applicant as the pathway to become a member. Members justify the process by saying that they all went through it and survived, so new applicants should not be exempt. In fact, exempting them would be unfair on all those who had to do it.
This is most felt in professions where professional registration requirements impose a practicum in which recent graduates work very long hours for very little pay. It also applies in other professions where applicants have no power and senior members act as gatekeepers.
The initiation can also be an inefficient and time-consuming process of entering a first placement, which makes enthusiastic newcomers quite frustrated. It then compounds the frustration by giving them little or nothing to do.
Problem 4: The college uses practicum to teach a great deal of structured cognitive information.
Practicum is naturally holistic and personal, and can be used for cognitive information that is integrated into practice. But it doesn't easily fit the structured information of academic disciplines. The better options are those better suited to what is to be learnt: classroom work, reading programs, tutorial discussions, and essays.
It is better to interrelate and integrate theory and practice rather than to treat the two components as a unified, undifferentiated whole.
Problem 5. The college uses practicum to teach a rather disparate collection of units.
It is more effective to define a core learning experience of what students will do as a job-role, that addresses all or most units in quite naturally.
Five key principles for a current best practice model
First, the program needs a clearly field-driven philosophy and ethos.
The point of the practicum program is to "do it out there" and not in isolation in a classroom. It attracts people who would rather do something than study it.
Second, practicums need structure.
This means that students move from orientation to a role in an orderly progression of steps. Practicums are, after all, meant to be an educational experience.
The structure is based around a core learning experience of doing something fairly concrete (e.g. being a team member of a program, running a project). In higher qualifications, this usually involves higher level thinking skills because analysis, problem solving etc. are part of the job.
Third, practicums need standards and focused objectives.
The program must normally work to a generic standard, expressed as either learning outcomes or professional achievements. Students and supervisors negotiate specific goals within the standard, and these are reflected in the students' job descriptions. It is important that students be personally committed to their objectives.
The supervisor can then assess the student's progress during the practicum to ensure that he/she is on target to reach the objectives. Objectives, however, sometimes need on-course adjustments due to changes in the situation or to expectations that turn out to be too difficult or too easy.
Fourth, check that the practicum placement will meet all program requirements. If students cannot learn everything in one workplace, the college may need to do one of the following:
arrange students to cycle through several jobs,
arrange field trips or placements in other organizations, unless it is necessary to protect organizational knowledge,
use simulations in training venues.
Fifth, practicums need clear arrangements in writing, both to ensure educational value and to prevent exploitation.
The current best practice is an individual contract for each student signed by the college, the student, and the practicum supervisor. It should state the location, timeframe, learning goals, job description, student support, and organizational lines of accountability. The college should retain the right to pull the student out if guidelines are seriously breached.
Working with local supervisors to implement a series of steps from the simple to the more advanced is not always as easy as it sounds.
As busy practitioners in the workplace, these supervisors have the workplace at heart, and are often more interested in getting the job done than providing training. Under these pressures, some avoid any training role and use practicums as opportunities to get free labor, whether unskilled or professional. Some might see practicums as opportunities for students to gain only work experience rather than opportunities to learn. Such unpleasant scenarios are less likely if the various parties agree on clear arrangements in writing, and if the college periodically monitors the implementation.
Students may be quite powerless and need protection against exploitation. Their education is at stake, but they might have no control over their work situation. Employers may push the student harder under the implied or perceived threat of an unfavorable assessment.
Exploitation my take various forms:
Some students work long hours for low pay, or no pay.
Some even have to pay for the opportunity of working.
If the employer has a task that urgently needs to be done and the student is the spare pair of hands, the employer is tempted to push an inadequately trained student into the job.
On the other hand, the student's work may be of little value if they make mistakes, supervision costs are high, or if they are doing more learning than working. While perhaps less frequently a problem, the employer may need protection against students who are dishonest, lazy, or poorly suited to a particular practicum location.
Theory and practice: A two-way street
Theory and practice is a two-way street. Neither can carry the whole process, and each needs the other.
The older paradigm was that one learns theory in the classroom and then puts it into practice in the practicum. More recently, theory is seen as reflection on practice and a means of informing and improving practice. In the other direction, practice generates issues in theory. In the background lays the shift from information-driven modernism to experience-driven postmodernism.
Consequently, it is no longer accurate to identify classwork as theory and practicum as practice.
It is best practice to intentionally integrate theory and practice into a complex whole. Class work should to some extent have a clearly practical aspect, just as practicum should also have a clearly theoretical aspect. The relationship between theory and practice has its own literature, and is such a complex topic that it cannot be explored further here.
In some practicums, the supervisor assigns students reading programs, book reports and essay projects on issues arising from students' practicum experiences. Later the students discuss their work with the group. That is, the practicum and theoretical base are deliberately interrelated through reflection.
The college must provide an avenue for practicum students to reflect profitably on their experiences to learn from them. Unreflected experience, no matter how valuable, produces no evidence of learning.
Reflection is a tricky word. It basically means either thinking about what you do and why or analyzing something with a view to exploring implications and application. Practicum supervisors come up with questions like:
Are there basic, wide-ranging principles underneath what we do?
Are there basic, wide-ranging goals above what we do?
What questions arise in practicum that we can bring to the body of theory?
Are there different sets of conflicting goals for what we do?
Are there other ways to achieve the same goals?
Is this the best way to understand what we do? Could we think of it in other terms?
What if ....?
Older models tended to presume that the classroom should drive the practicum. But that need not be so; the practicum can be the driver for conceptual understanding (cognitive development).
A stronger reflection component is especially required for higher qualifications. This is not as convenient as classroom-driven studies, which derive from a body of literature in an academic discipline, and presumes that the theory can be "put into practice" along the lines of a linear logic.
When students reflect on practice as part of their program, they structure their understanding very differently.
Several best practices are:
Reflection results in assessable work such as written or oral reports, personal journals, or discussion contributions.
Some of the reflection to be done with other people, as the interaction enables learning that would be impossible alone.
Students should conduct their own self-assessment, although final assessment is the right of a qualified supervisor acting on the college's behalf.
In one model, each student reports an incident using these basic questions:
What did you learn?
What would you do differently next time?
Things that usually come up in the reflective discussion are:
What could have gone wrong?
What would you do if ... happened?
How does this relate to underlying issues and values?
What to you think?
How do you feel?
The best practicum programs involve peer groups. Students learn from each others' reflections and support each other. Learning becomes a collaborative exercise.
Practicum students in peer groups report their experiences, and digest both the aspects their practicums had in common and the aspects that were different, especially any unique situations. They can reflect on significant issues arising and relate them to the class work.
In most programs, students need to meet with peers and learn together, preferably out of the workplace.
Getting the meetings at the right intervals is important. Too seldom and the relationships don't work so well. Too often and the program starts to be driven by the classroom rather than the workplace.
Face-to-face peer group interaction is a little more difficult when programs have only individual students in any one location, but it just means that one needs to choose the right kind of meeting. Sessions may take the form of:
conferences specifically for presentations of project proposals,
tutorials to reflect on practice, and to discuss reading, writing, or observation tasks
email discussion groups
The kind of interaction will generally depend on the size and nature of the program and the mix of personalities. Some students want to interact by discussing ideas and experiences, while others will primarily expect friendship and perhaps even personal support. Either way, learning goals can include:
making friends with student peers, so they know others who "are going through this too"
learning new content
creatively reflecting on what they are learning
report their experiences
digest both the aspects their practicums had in common and the aspects that were different
identify what it normal and what is not
identify and discuss any unique situations
doing simulations before trying them in the real workplace
relate significant issues arising to their class work and reading.
If students are accepted into a functioning workplace team and get similar kinds of interaction, the team can also act as a peer group. This creates other kinds of meetings in which the student can learn:
review meetings to improve practice
staff professional development.
Practicum students need support and accountability. The college should appoint someone to ensure that the student is making satisfactory progress and that problems are satisfactorily resolved as soon as practicable. It often involves leading both individual and small group meetings.
Students who are doing a good job still need regular support. Their program can fall in a heap if they feel they need help but don't get it.
Supervisors provide adequate interaction through regular meetings, phone calls, or correspondence. When peer groups are not feasible, interaction with a supervisor is the essential to the program's success.
Appointing the right people as supervisors is crucial, although ideal people are seldom available. Particularly relevant qualities are:
Able to establish personal rapport and trust with the student
Able to allocate work, and give guidance and feedback
Relevant practical experience
Able to bridge the different interests of the college and the workplace
Able to teach or coach
Successfully encourage and rebuke
Cultural affinity (important in multicultural teams)
The difference between a mentor and a coach is perhaps more of degree rather than of kind. A mentor is a personal advisor, a respected role model, and a friend with whom the student can share joys or offload burdens. A coach finds the right questions and asks students so that they can find their own answers. In particular, a coach foresees future challenges and guides students to develop their own responses.
Practicum students need up to four kinds of supervision, and these are often four different people: The role model, the local supervisor, the academic supervisor, and the personal mentor.
A role model is a professional person in practice that demonstrates excellence. He/she may be a generalist and need not be immersed in a specialization, as long as he/she is an example that the student may be encouraged to follow. Role models are often involved in skill development.
By seeing someone integrate knowledge and practice, students gain a very holistic kind of learning that shapes them rather than merely trains them.
Some role models are more mature individuals who have developed particularly unique strengths. They also have their own weaknesses or limitations, although these might not be clearly visible. Consequently, students need exposure to multiple role models to develop a balanced set of skills.
Ideally, the professional is not given a formal teaching role; he/she may see it as an onerously time-consuming responsibility, and may not be well suited to it, especially if it involves a large amount of theory. Besides, many excellent role models are not good at teaching because they look at the profession from the viewpoint of current practice, not from the viewpoint of a learner. In a practicum, this becomes a frustrating expectation that students already know what is to be learnt. As a result, the student might need to be proactive in learning rather than passively receive teaching. (That is, they need to ask effective questions.)
A local supervisor is normally individually appointed for each student. He/she is usually a senior employee whose task is to give direction and on-site instruction in the workplace. He/she might be the professional who acts as a role model. This role often requires a paper trail of reports or reviews.
To make the learning process more effective, they need to support students in the workplace. This includes:
liaising with other supervisors to plan an approach with an effective strategy,
making sure that that the work environment is appropriate,
monitoring effectiveness and safeguards, and
resolving problems as they arise.
The academic supervisor
Another kind of supervisor is the academic who protects the college's interests. He/she monitors processes and progress toward outcomes, and particularly any academic work (reading, essays, assignments, etc.). In some cases, the same person could be both local supervisor and academic supervisor, although this is rare and not necessarily recommended.
Academic supervisors usually negotiate specific learning goals with the workplace supervisor and the student, designing programs, and guide student learning.
This role always involves a paper trail of reports and reviews. These supervisors have the student's learning program at heart and want to ensure that he or she is making satisfactory progress. As a program monitor, they keep an eye on program effectiveness and provide help when needed.
The academic supervisor will also be available to intervene and mediate if local relationships in the practicum become soured.
A personal mentor is essential in intensively interpersonal work. Students need someone to whom they can debrief incidents and discuss personal insights and attitudes. The mentor often takes the roles of empathetic listening, encouraging, and giving emotional support.
It is usually best if it is not a work-place supervisor to whom the student is accountable. Mixing personal growth with organizational politics is usually unwise, especially as one of the main stressors is relationships with supervisors.
A step-by-step approach gives all students a fair chance of success and of enjoying their learning experience.
1. Selection of students. Because getting the wrong people as interns is very difficult to fix, good selection is essential.
This is even more important in interpersonal fields where aptitude and personality are essential; they are honed in training rather than gained through training. Nevertheless, aptitude should clearly be identified for admission to course in technical fields.
2. Pre-workplace basic skills. These are the kinds of things that employers expect students to know before they show up at the workplace. They are best taught off the job. They are more important in some technical fields, and may be less important in interpersonal fields where the selection process requires students have them to get into the course.
3. Formal induction. There may be policies to read, introductions to key people, a description of responsibilities, and a tour of the premises.
4. Orientation to the workplace. Adjustment to a new workplace is a steeper learning curve than it appears. Learning social and cultural expectations is generally the "how we do things here" kind of knowledge that makes people familiar with their surroundings and the expectations made of them.
During the orientation period, learning is mostly unconscious and students can't necessarily tell you exactly what they are learning. However, they may feel overwhelmed in the first week because they're learning so much. In fact, it is a much, much richer learning experience than was once thought.
Students learn the daily schedule, accountability structure, paperwork, quality expectations, socialization with other workers, expectations of other workers, how decisions are made, where things are kept, and more about the layout of the workplace. For new workers and long-term unemployed, the simple expectations of getting to the workplace and showing up on time ready to work can be a traumatic adjustment.
To ease the adjustment, it is often helpful to assign the student a buddy and give the student some real work to do.
5. Observation. Some practicums have an observation stage, especially where processes are complicated and there is relatively little allowance for error.
Students are assigned specific kinds of activities to observe and are usually given a set of observation question. Examples are: describing what happens, interviewing staff, sitting in on individual consultations, and observing staff meetings. Observation is best done linked to some kind of peer-group reflection where students can verbalize and compare their observations, and ask questions of the tutor.
6. Learning and practicing basic tasks. These tend to overlap with the orientation or observation periods, and there may be some allowance for error.
7. More complex tasks. Later on, students may get more difficult tasks, perhaps with less margin for error. Some staff group work is also a rich learning experience:
8. Formative assessment. Students' progress is monitored so that they get up to speed.
Colleges may retain the right to require extra practicum if it is necessary for the student to pass the course. This may be as simple as requiring the student to repeat a failed practicum unit, but is more complicated when longer practicums are built into a full-time campus course.
9. Summative assessment. An extended period where students must maintain practice at the normal professional standard. The reference of the workplace supervisor is usually essential. Assessment involves both proficiency in applied skills and its related knowledge.
10. Gaining experience. At the end of the internship, senior students may sometimes spend a period taking a full professional workload, and clients are billed accordingly. This strengthens the CV, and in some cases, translates directly into a permanent job.
Simple and complex practicums
In a simple practicum, the student gets on-job orientation in a workplace and implements what he/she has learnt in the classroom. A supervisor regularly meets withteh student o monitor progress.
Simple practicums work well when goals are expressed as specific goals or competencies and are assessed. They work well to compliment other kinds of learning, give orientation to a real workplace, enable students to get, and get practice preparatory to assessment. Simple practicums are also a place to assess the practical skills learnt in the classroom.
The current trend is toward complex practicums, with a much richer learning experience than simple practicums.
A complex practicum is a large, holistic learning experience that includes much of the learning that would have once been done only in the classroom, including some content that was previously only taught in theory-driven units.
Complex practicums comprise at least:
individual meetings with a supervisor and/or mentor
the practicum itself (e.g. orientation, observation, applying new skills), and
assessment of proficiency in applied skills and related knowledge.
If at all possible, peer group reflection meetings are also held. Complex practicums also tend to include at least some of the following:
There may also be assigned activities relating to the group sessions:
writing or research tasks that relate to issues arising in the practicum
on-line or email discussion groups with specific topics, some of which might attract more discussion than others.
Internships and projects
The schema below contrasts aspects of two practicum-based programs, one as an internship and the other as a practical project. So what's the difference?
In an internship, the student fits into a routine that requires particular expertise.
Projects have a more clearly defined end point. The student starts by planning to build or establish something and ends when he/she has achieved that goal and evaluated their performance.
They are not totally different, in that they both integrate knowledge, skills and attitudes from all units into an holistic learning experience.
Either could be split into stages according to the following diagram:
Number of stages
The initial stage of the internship is orientation to a real situation, followed by supported work that builds toward final competence.
A single stage is possible if the early stages are not too demanding or intensive.
1. The student is an observer-learner or a junior in one location. 2. The student then moves to another location in which he/she is a professional working under supervision.
1. The first stage is a simpler project that prepares the student for the next stage. The student is freer to make mistakes. 2. The second stage is a more challenging project.
A best practice model for campus programs
In its simplest form, this model assumes that students are studying full-time over several years in a campus and have no prior knowledge of the field of study. The adjustments are fairly obvious for cases where these assumptions do not apply.
The practicum in a college course comprises orientation and observation. The student is put on location to get a feel for it, and starts by meeting all the relevant people, learning how the organization works, and learning the parameters and demands of the role. Adjustment is a very holistic learning experience and students usually learn much more than they realize.
Whether it takes place over the entire first year or just one of its semesters depends partly on the general maturity of the students, and the extent to which theoretical knowledge is prerequisite to practicum. The current best practice is that the sooner the student understands the workplace the better, for several reasons:
Younger students might need to confirm that this is really the right career choice. If they dislike practice, they can transfer to something else sooner and waste less time for everybody.
They go into their studies seeing actual practice as a concrete base for discussing theory.
It meets the students' need to get close to actual practice, rather than only study it from books. Many can be frustrated if the college prevents or delays them from seeing what professionals actually do.
The student is assigned to a practicing professional who has been selected for his/her professional skills, their willingness to have a student observe them, and their ability to be a mentor. Nevertheless, he/she should at least make time to orient the students and regularly answer the student's questions.
Students are given no real responsibility, although they often take on an assistant role.
The student observes what happens, taking observation notes as much as possible, and determining what questions he/she needs to ask. Observation works best when students have particular purposes such as questions to answer or procedures to describe. (Teacher training programs use observation most effectively as a training tool; student teachers sit in on a class and make notes.)
The middle years
During the middle years of the qualification, the student is given from three to five months practicum each year. This sounds a lot for a campus-based program, but less than three months is too little to be effective.
How the time is used varies according to the structure of the profession. If it comprises a variety of quite different skills, then the student moves around to different locations to gain experience in each skill area. If the course does not have such a variety of different skills, the student can be moved from one environment to another so that he/she may adapt skills to widely different environments.
Students need enough variety to find their area of talent, especially when this determines choice of optional subjects, choice of later practicum locations, thesis topics, and further studies.
In any case, students must get supervised experience actually doing the job for which they are being trained, eventually making real decisions and bearing the consequences. Observation alone is inadequate.
The final year: A culminating product
In the final year or the final semester, the student is given a full professional role, and is formally assessed on his/her performance. Many colleges call it a final practicum or something synonymous.
I was once at a school where we required students to go into a new, real situation, first of all to identify needs and to write a formal written proposal on how to meet those needs. They had to choose non-routine tasks that were so stretching that the risk of failure was real. We found that this took considerable observation time.
The student started the practicum itself when the administrators of the college and the practicum institution approved the proposal. Practicum comprised developing new programs, running them, evaluating them, writing them up, and being assessed.
The program was well documented. During practicum, the supervisor scheduled weekly meetings with the student and kept a record, which was valuable as a tracking diary for accountability and growth and not like a formal report. The monthly formal written reports gave a much more succinct picture of the development of the practicum, and were included in the final submission.
The practicum project was then written up and bound like a thesis. Chapter one contained the statement of need and referred to observation notes and indicated the program rationale; the practicum contract was an appendix. The following chapters contained a full description of the program implementation and the monthly reports. Most students produced teaching materials, which were also included. The last chapters contained the student's program evaluation. The college's assessment process was similar to that for a thesis.
In our case, the practicum report was the culminating product of the entire degree's practicum, and a research thesis was a separate requirement.
Others call it a thesis or a project:
Thesis is appropriate for original research. In some institutions, it may be applied applied research, perhaps even using a project development methodology.
Project is appropriate for work that is not original research but requires the student to demonstrate a high level of professional skill, innovation, and problem-solving ability.