What are the features of a quality placement?
- Published: Thursday, 17 April 2014 08:57
- Written by National Centre for Universities and Business
Examples of these features are demonstrated in the case studies within the hub.
In the diverse landscape of HE work placements, a wide range of good practice and high quality experiences are being provided through partnerships between universities and employers.
Despite this diversity, there are some simple features common to high quality placement experiences. These are not exhaustive, but based on university and business case studies they show the key areas of interest. High quality work placements are:
Challenging and relevant to the student: It must be an opportunity that is a step up from whatever the student would do as a normal part-time job. There must be learning involved. Quality placements should either be linked to the student’s study or to their long-term career goals. Full integration into the course goals may be appropriate for some accredited placements, including placements linked to professional practice.
Engaging and motivating for the student: The student should have a good understanding of what they can gain out of the placements and be motivated by the challenge.
Real opportunities provided by the employer: Students should be treated as an employee of the organisation and not as a student at a university. They should be fully integrated into the workforce and given all the opportunities and support that any other staff member would have.
Carefully monitored and reflected upon: To ensure the welfare of the student and that the expectations of all parties are being met. Reflection during and at the end of the placement is seen as very important in building a quality experience overall.
CHALLENGING TO THE STUDENT AND RELEVANT
Fundamentally, a high quality placement opportunity should provide a challenge that brings the student out of their comfort zone and encourages learning and gaining new skills. A placement that does not push the student to learn new skills or knowledge is unlikely to have such a positive effect. This is not to say that students should have unreasonable burdens placed upon them. If placements are taken alongside study, there should be a reasonable balance of academic and placement workloads. It is also important that the student’s prior learning and technical skills are at an appropriate level for the projects/activities they are undertaking.
The placement opportunity should also be relevant, either to the student’s HE course, or to their future career goals. Quality in student placements is achieved via successful accommodation of the purposes of the subject discipline, the industry (or sector) of the placement opportunity, and the career goals or ambitions of the student. In practice-based shorter work placements (for subjects such as Education, Medicine or Social Work), the work placements must meet the requirements of course accreditation in order to support the student to qualify professionally. In subjects with less strict placement requirement, a relevant placement could relate to the student’s learning in a broader sense, or to their ultimate career goals after graduation. For individual students and across different courses, what constitutes a challenging or relevant placement will clearly be highly variable.
ENGAGING AND MOTIVATING FOR THE STUDENT
From the student perspective, individual motivation is crucial to ensure a high quality placement. Our small poll of HE and FE institutions that offer placements found the greatest perceived challenge to successful placements is the perception of students and graduates of the industries offering placements. It also found that student motivation was the most important success factor in achieving a quality placement. Academic staff we consulted saw student motivation as being key not only to achieving a placement, but also to deriving course-related benefits.
Student motivation is of course linked to an opportunity’s perceived relevance and ideally there should be a good match between the interests of the student and the type of projects/activities available. Students also accept their responsibility in this area.
Once on a placement, employers also have an important role to play in supporting motivation. In our interviews, employers described motivated students as those who showed enthusiasm and became indistinguishable from full-time employees. One way to harness motivation is to give students personal responsibility or ownership of particular pieces of work, again linking to the importance of challenging the student.
REAL OPPORTUNITIES PROVIDED BY THE EMPLOYER
A feature of high quality placements that was raised repeatedly in the course of the research is that the student should be conducting real work for the employer, at an appropriate level for the individual student. Several employers emphasised to us that their placements are essentially real jobs, with responsibility and a requirement for tangible outputs. The student is then trusted as a member of staff like any other, with responsibility and genuine opportunities to support the business’s goals.
The placement student must be undertaking a role that is of genuine benefit to the employer, and corresponding support and demand for this from the employer is crucial. It may be challenging to fit the employer’s own employment needs around the needs of the institution and student, meaning that the institution as broker must play a role in identifying employment opportunities that can and cannot legitimately constitute HE work placements.
Placements involving real work feel authentic from the student’s point of view, supporting them to learn about the world of work in a direct way. This was certainly recognised by the students we consulted for this research.
CLOSELY MONITORED AND REFLECTED UPON
A crucial part of delivering high quality placements is the monitoring and support of the process by the HE provider, rather than leaving the placement solely as a relationship between student and employer. The role of the institution starts when supporting both students and employers through the application process, and filtering which work opportunities can be classed as placements. Many institutions support employers through their own recruitment or job vacancy websites. Support to students is given around understanding their needs for a placement and in CV building and interview preparation.
During the placement, quality is supported by visits to the workplace by university staff, to ensure that the environment and circumstances of the placement are appropriate and high quality. Consistent, equitable practices across a course or student cohort are important. Where a placement is accredited, the university will need to assess that suitable learning has taken place, as appropriate for the specific course.
The student must also be supported in their role and carefully managed by the employer. In particular, the employer must take steps to support a transition from university life to working life, and to ensure that the student understands their duties and company procedures while on their placement. Although the university has a role to play in ensuring that placement opportunities are suitable, the employer holds primary responsibility for the student’s wellbeing on a placement. One employer we consulted explained that new placement students are commonly supported by at least one full-time staff member, and significant effort is made to ensure that the student is fully integrated into the company.
Of fundamental importance for a successful, high quality placement is the process of reflection after the placement has finished. While a student may gain many work-related skills on a placement, the benefit of doing so is not necessarily realised if they are unable to recognise and articulate these. De-briefing by the university and encouraging written or oral reflection on their experience is a feature of quality placements. This supports the student to recognise and value the learning that they have experienced, which is particularly important as many employability skills are subtle in nature. Once a student is able to recognise these improved skills or knowledge, they are better equipped to articulate this in future job applications or interviews after graduation.