Work-related learning, whereby a student has the opportunity to undertake a project or work alongside staff in an organisation, is encouraged and recommended in many publications even if they are short-term (Thompson, 2016; Pang, 2015; Cooper, 2015). However, the burden of work in my experience generally falls on the academic in charge of the placement course and is rarely accurately recognised in any workload model. So, are these short-term placements worth the effort?
Enhancement through work-related learning and employability:
Students on placement experience the real-work environment and this is sometimes not what the student expected. My students have witnessed negative aspects of work: serious disagreements between staff, incidences of plagiarism, lack of progress on projects, rudeness, etc.; but they have also been made to feel: part of a real team with responsibility for important pieces of work, independent in their work, valued, and in some cases, they have been offered employment. For me, two cases stand out in what a placement with an organisation is trying to achieve:
‘It literally changed their life’
- Case study 1 involved a student who wanted to work in fish farming once they completed the degree. I duly arranged a placement for them at a local trout farm. For 8 weeks, the student carried heavy bags of fish feed, stood in very cold water (placements run January to March), counted thousands of vendace fish eggs (they were being re-introduced into a local loch) and tried to fit in with the very small team of staff. At the end of their dissertation they stated that they did not want to work in fish farming!
- Case study 2 involved an average student who was lacking engagement with the course but performed at the 2ii level. I suggest a placement with a local conservation organisation and it literally changed their life – this student volunteered with several charities after graduation and eventually worked for a large organisation with responsibility for a particularly endangered species; they have now set up their own environmental consultancy.
Enhanced engagement with employers
The University and student certainly benefit from these placements. Placement providers have asked for students in the succeeding years, offered field class opportunities, specialist speaker talks, and work – voluntary, paid, full-time and part-time. The organisation also benefits from witnessing the calibre of our students and what they can offer to their organisation. Students have developed social media for organisations, written reports (with correct referencing!), completed or commenced a project for the organisation, and finally, be a source of employees. These students have been authors on published papers in recognition of the work they have completed, and been co-presenters at conferences with me; have changed the mind-set of an organisation to hosting placement students; and been valued members of a team, so much so that some of them have returned to the organisation for the Honours Project.
As part of the assessments on the course, students propose some personal learning goals which are explicitly linked to the University’s Graduate Attributes Matrix (University of Glasgow, 2017). Goals have included:
- … to improve my ability to locate, analyse and synthesise information through independent, self-directed research … [investigative]
- … to be able to communicate effectively with work colleagues … [effective communicators]
- … to gain a thorough knowledge and understanding of the process of environmental impact assessments … [subject specialists]
Students can then enhance their CV by detailing the achievement of these personal learning goals with explicit links to the University’s graduate attributes; thereby improving their employability as evidenced from the destinations of our graduates – 95 % go into environment-based work or higher degrees immediately after graduation.
To conclude: are these credit-bearing placements on my degree programme worth the effort? Definitely! For the experience gained (and the many benefits) by the student, the organisation and the University. However, a note of caution … don’t underestimate the effort involved in setting up such a course, running the course, assessing it and ensuring the student is insured and safe.
Cooper, S (2015). A collaborative assessment of student’s placement learning. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. 42(1):61-76
Pang, P (2015). Learning to work during work placement: negotiating access to work and participation through ‘Origination’ and establishing a ‘Legitimate Presence’. Journal of Vocational Education & Training. 67(4):543-557
Thompson, DW (2016). Supporting students’ learning on ‘short term’ placements. Journal of Teaching and Learning for Graduate Employability. 7(1):42-57
University of Glasgow (2017). Graduate attributes matrix. [Online] Available at: http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_183776_en.pdf