GRADUATE STUDENTS & NEW PROFESSIONALS
Guidelines for Positive Experiential Learning Experiences for Students and Supervisors
University of South Carolina
Overview – Assessment Practicums and Internships
Many higher education and student affairs (HESA) graduate programs promote engagement in first-hand experiential learning experiences for students to learn about the varied types of positions and professional duties existing in the field. Often referred to as practicums, internships, or experiential learning opportunities, HESA programs may require this field experience in a half-semester, full semester, or summer term, and they may or may not be credit-bearing. For the field-based supervisors, the additional “hands-on support” in the office or program can be perceived as both a blessing and minor challenge as finding the correct amount and appropriate types of activities to shape a comprehensive view of their unit, or expertise area, can be daunting. For the student, the exposure gained from the experience and developing skillset can be difficult to articulate if not pinpointed early as part of the internship design. For example, can supervisors articulate what skills or knowledge the field students will be gaining from the personalized experience? Is there a roadmap to help ensure the student and supervisor will have a quality and engaged learning opportunity benefitting both parties?
In my professional role as a director of assessment in a university housing department, I provide leadership across assessment design of residential engagement outcomes and staff satisfaction, summative program evaluation, and documentation of departmental strategic planning. I regularly supervise 1-3 practicum students across varied lengths, including the half-semester, full semester, and summer-long internship. The following account demonstrates how supervisors and student participants can promote quality practicum experiences, regardless of the length or area of expertise involved.
In terms of participants, my institution’s HESA program requires a combination of practicum experiences to complement the theoretical foundation provided through the academic curriculum. While these experiential learning opportunities are considered a program requisite, students are able to self-select from a number of offices providing practicum opportunities each semester. Interested supervisors are asked to submit available opportunities via a listserv, and no obligation exists to participate from the offices themselves.
My decision to write this article stems from the many positive experiences I personally have encountered with providing practicum experiences to graduate students and the positive feedback I receive from participants completing the specific structured experience. Former practicum and internship participants responded to my request to share their respective experiences through three posed questions as part of the development of this article. The following themes emerged from the respondents.
Reasons for Selecting the Assessment Practicum/Internship
Participants noted the importance of facilitating assessment in our student affairs field, as well as the perceived value placed on developing an assessment skillset. One respondent stated
Assessment is a ‘buzz’ word we use in higher education but is something critical in positions. I knew that in these tough economic times professionals were being asked to do more with less, and what we are doing needs to be backed by facts and numbers to give validity to how and why we help students.
Another respondent noted his interest emerged “because assessment is a hot-button topic. I had some limited experience, but they [previous supervisors] assured me that this skillset would help as an emerging leader in student affairs.”
Skills Gained Carried into Professional Career
When asked about the skills gained through the experience, respondents described specific technical skills that continue to support their professional role. For example, one respondent developed “a strong respect for writing learning outcomes as probably the strongest asset.” A respondent provided an example of a learned skill that continues to resonate: “My ability to create an executive summary is spectacular-and I often am tasked with making data ‘pretty’ and ‘presentable’ to various constituencies.” From an analysis standpoint, one participant found it “a benefit to learn about equations, filters, everything. I use it with ease now and watch as many professional struggle just how to organize properly in an Excel sheet.”
Approaches to Ensure a Successful Experience
Emerging themes centered on the use of informed strategies focused on meaningful outcomes and realistic expectations:
Something foundational for me was the usage of the NASPA/ACPA Competencies for Student Affairs Practitioners. This seems something so practical in terms of developing goals and outcomes for a position, yet is something overlooked … This is something that I can and definitely will use with future student affairs practitioners that I supervise!
Furthermore, the idea of a project-based practicum, as opposed to limited exposure office elements, proved to be beneficial:
The most valuable part of this practicum was taking ownership over a project and gaining the hands-on experience while I completed it…The practicum should extend beyond “shadowing” and general office work, because neither of those tasks are helpful beyond the practicum experience.
In addition, the availability of the supervisor was deemed valuable. One respondent noted a positive experience was associated with “consistent meetings and an open door. I constantly had questions and wanted to clarify things – eventually I learned this is how the data/process works, but it was intimidating at first.”
Supervising Experiential Learning Opportunities
While learning student affairs assessment is the focus of my field experience, please note the following practices can be included across many varied student affairs professional areas and implementation methods. For example, 10 competency-based areas exist as part of the Professional Competency Areas for Student Affairs Practitioners (ACPA & NASPA, 2010). Your department might not fit easily into one area as mine focuses mainly on Assessment, Evaluation, and Research (AER); however, there is opportunity to focus on multiple criteria across numerous competencies. I have framed the potential advantages of this experience into two categories: supportive practices and supervisor gains.
Many practices support a positive experience for the student. I present three specific areas here.
- Competency-based education. The Professional Competency Areas for Student Affairs Practitioners (ACPA & NASPA, 2010) guide the experiences I provide; however, there is potential with the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS), the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International (ACUHO-I) competencies, and other professional guidelines to provide direction for the skillset or goals achieved by completing the practicum experience. The focus becomes less on the time-on-task requirement, (i.e., “butt in chair” thinking), but more so on the proficiencies gained through the practicum. Participating students will rise to the challenge of project development and completion once foundational knowledge is provided. Furthermore, because they are using common terminology and competencies likely to be well-known across multiple institutions and programs, they walk away with a familiar language in which to articulate their work to future employers.
- Syllabus “roadmap” to guide the experience. A very important discussion should occur very early on in the practicum, ideally even before its initiation. This conversation should focus on an overview of the unit functions, as well as exploring what the student wants to learn from the experience. A supervisor should also review expectations, usually specific to individual supervision style, communication expectations, overview of anticipated project ideas, etc. The follow-up meeting should include a review of the competencies, or guiding professional framework. Furthermore, an explanation for how these activities will align with the expected competencies should be included. Timelines are important; however, be sure the syllabus is flexible enough to allow for a change of course based upon project completion or individual student interest. The mid-experience “check-in” is designed to provide updates regarding student progress and also creates an opportunity to inquire about ongoing uncertainties or anticipated future roadblocks. Lastly, it is essential to require a culminating project for students to demonstrate what was learned via the practicum experience. This capstone event is significant so the learned skillset can be utilized as part of a job interview or as means of articulating what was gained through the experience. For example, how would the student articulate this experience on his/her resume? What tangible evidence could they present to describe what was gained?
- Goal-setting: Early stages through “Closing the loop”. Revisit the competencies as part of the final evaluation. As homework, I ask students to review the AER competency criteria (ACPA & NASPA, 2010) prior to the last meeting. Students should determine if they gained expertise across the list of criteria and be able to describe what activities shaped this decision (see Figure 1). Examples are key! As supervisors, our job is to ensure the review is comprehensive (e.g., did they see that web-based training or oral report contributing to their competency development as much as you did?), but also realistic. For example, I sometimes have to remind the students that I am not at the level of “expert” on every assessment skill, so it is more likely they are not either. The competency self-evaluation helps to remind the supervisor of the key projects and skills gained, which will then inform the documented practicum evaluation the student (and likely graduate program or affiliated course) will receive for academic credit. Best of all, this exercise requires students to reflect on their experiential learning and presents a visible understanding of the practicum’s cumulative effect leading to their growing professional skillset. As a supervisor, I find this to be a highlight as the students articulate what they learned as part of the collaborative effort.
|ACPA Assessment, Evaluation and Research (AER) Rubric
*NOTE: throughout this rubric AER is used to refer to Assessment, Evaluation and Research. Institutions and individuals are encouraged to choose the term that best fits their situation/focus.
|Define Terms and Concepts||Has trouble differentiating among assessment, program review, evaluation, planning and research in methodologies and approach||Utilizes the appropriate assessment, program review, evaluation, planning and research methodology/approach in data collection and review.
Completed online exercise matching examples with definitions
|Teaches others the differences between assessment, program review, evaluation, planning and research.|
|Value||May see value in AER, but has difficulty translating into action through active participation, use and practice.||Actively participates in AER activities and effectively uses AER in daily practice.
Utilization of Assessment Practices, including SPSS usage for RM Survey, EBI Analysis, and Excel Usage for year-end-reports
|Creates the climate at the unit level that AER is central to the unit’s work and encourages others to use AER in daily practice through training and allocation of resources.
Presentations in RLC Training & during RM Focus Group about Assessment strategies/techniques.
Example of Matching Exercise from Professional Competency Areas for Student Affairs Practitioners
Now, what do you get out of it? There can be much for you to gain so the experience can be mutually beneficial.
- Work efficiency and new skills. In terms of my office, the practicum student’s development of an assessment skillset likely means one less report, or summary for me to complete—a lighter workload, but more noticeably a significant contribution from the student, not just an “add on” component. Ideally, this is what a practicum experience should entail. Ask yourself and your office, “what meaningful opportunities for work contributions can be made available for a practicum student? Program facilitation? Meeting with students? Executive summary of findings from a focus group?”
Furthermore, listening to the comments from this “external consultant” lens is a continuous reminder of whether I am articulating concepts in a clear manner, or if certain procedures should be revisited for practical consideration. If they have questions about the initiative I am describing, chances are so would the outside audience. In addition, the supervisor will learn new skills. Students show me new tricks with software, or varied formats of sharing data across social media. I am continually looking for new ways to advance my work and often innovation originates with the practicum students. Lastly, I know they are walking away “giving assessment a good name”. The better our new professionals are with designing and facilitating strong assessment, the better our student affairs profession will be. Imagine how a quality experience in your office will continue to resonate across the participant, his/her peers, graduate program, and ongoing development within the profession. Who knows—these students may be your colleagues one day, or even someone you hire. The time invested early will pay off dividends later.
- Can the practicum and internship supervisors in your unit articulate what skills or knowledge the field students will be gaining from your personalized experience? For example, how would the student articulate this experience on his/her resume? What tangible evidence could they present to describe what was gained?
- Ask yourself and your office, what meaningful opportunities for work contributions can be made available for a practicum student?
- How would the supervisor describe the experience of managing the practicum student and experience? What components would you maintain and what elements would you change based upon what was gleaned through participating students’ reflections?
ACPA & NASPA. (2010). Professional competency areas for student affairs practitioners. Washington,
DC: Author. Retrieved from
About the Author
Amber Fallucca leads assessment and research efforts for six functional units across the University Housing department and provides support for student affairs and institutional assessment initiatives. She has published on student affairs assessment and directs the program receiving a 2014 National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Excellence Bronze Award on the topic of developing a culture of assessment in student affairs. She also received the Outstanding Experienced Professional, 4-9 Years by ACPA – College Student Educators International and the Commission for Housing & Residence Life in 2014. Amber currently serves as a member of the editorial board for the Journal of College and University Student Housing, provides practicum and internship opportunities as part of the Higher Education & Student Affairs (HESA) graduate program at the University of South Carolina, and regularly serves as a thesis committee member. Related research interests include: student affairs assessment, intercollegiate athletics and student-athletes, professional training programs. She has a bachelor of science degree in psychology from the College of Charleston, a master’s degree in exercise and sport psychology from the University of Florida, and holds a Ph.D. in higher education administration from the University of South Carolina.
Please e-mail inquiries to Amber Fallucca.
The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.