March 28, 2013

Internships – Employers As Educators

by Holly L. Tumlin, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, The Johns Hopkins Hospital

Over the past several decades, internships have become increasingly popular for college students and young professionals.  As students complete their final stages of training and prepare to enter an extremely competitive work force, internships have been marketed as a way for students to distinguish themselves from their peers. recently reported that in 2012 an estimated two-thirds of all college graduates completed some form of internship and 69% of companies offered full time positions to their interns.1 The National Association for College and Employers (NACE) defines an internship as:

“…a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting.  Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths; and give employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent.” 2

It is important to remember that internships are a form of experiential learning.  Other experiential learning experiences recognized by the NACE include volunteering, student organization leadership, campus involvement, faculty-led research projects, study abroad programs, student employment/work-study, and service learning.2 The internship is unique in that it is often run by professionals who have not been formally trained to be educators.  My goal is to provide current and future internship programs with a few tools and resources to expand and improve this important method of education.

It is not by happenstance that the pursuit of experiential learning experiences has increased among students.  Internships offer a variety of opportunities that are essentially impossible to replicate in the classroom.  A few examples include direct experience in an area of interest, working under the supervision of professionals or experts in the field, building on classroom knowledge through application, and learning through problem solving and creative thinking.2  Employers should remember that interns are adult learners and benefit from learning techniques and strategies that capitalize on these assumptions:3
1.    They are independent and self-directed
2.    They have accumulated experience, which is a rich resource for learning
3.    They value learning that integrates with the demands of their everyday life
4.    They are more interested in immediate, problem-centered approaches to learning than in subject-centered ones
5.    They are more motivated to learn by internal drives than by external ones

Interns benefit from projects and experiences that allow them to test their independence.  As with any other employee, interns still need to be held accountable for their work but be allowed to develop their own path to achieve the final goal.  Through this type of learning environment, the company will benefit from the innovative ideas that interns can bring from their past experiences.

When starting an internship, it is often difficult to know where to begin.  Organizations such as the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) provide programs with guidelines to help facilitate a quality experience for the intern.  Some of the recommended standards by NACE include:2
·       The experience must be an extension of the classroom: a learning experience that provides for applying the knowledge gained in the classroom.  It must not be simply to advance the operations of the employer or be the work that a regular employee would routinely perform.
·       The skills or knowledge learned must be transferable to other employment settings.
·       The experience has a defined beginning and end, and a job description with desired qualifications.
·       There are clearly defined learning objectives/goals related to the professional goals of the student’s academic coursework.
·       There is supervision by a professional with expertise and education and/or professional background in the field of the experience.
·       There is routine feedback by an experienced supervisor.
·       There are resources, equipment, and facilities provided by the host employer that support learning objectives/goals.

For the learner to achieve the full benefit from completing an internship there needs to be a process of self-evaluation and feedback.   During these assessments, the employer should access the intern’s progress as well as make necessary changes to the program to help the intern meet the program’s objectives.  A great model for this practice would be the ADDIE Model.  This model is a frame work that consists of five phases: Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation.4  Through these steps, the educator is able to constantly assess the learner and make necessary changes to improve outcomes.

Especially in this climate of economic uncertainty, graduates and qualified professionals need to expand their educational experience through programs like internships.  As more employers step into the educator role, it is important to provide these individuals with the tools to provide students with quality educational experiences that enable them to reach their full potential as well-qualified members in their field.

3.  Kaufman DM. Applying educational theory in practice. BMJ 2003; 326: 213-216.
4.  Allen WC.  Overview and Evolution of the ADDIE Training System.  Advances in Developing Human Resources 2006; 8: 430-41.

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