Internships in Higher Education

views updated


Internships, along with cooperative education, field studies, service-learning, and practica, are part of the field of experiential education. Internships require students to apply classroom learning, theories, and experiences to professional settings. Internships or other forms of practical learning for undergraduate, as well as graduate, students have been part of American higher education since its beginning. The most influential ideas about experiential education are from John Dewey's educational philosophy of Pragmatism, particularly his 1938 book Experience and Education.


All internships have the general goal of having students apply learning. Academic internships, which are characterized by being linked to the undergraduate curriculum in one or more ways, have more specific learning goals and broader outcomes than just career exploration or learning the basics of professional practice. Nonacademic internships for which students do not receive credit are usually limited to work experience for the student; there are no measurable learning outcomes. Part-time internships offer less time at the work site and thus the learning outcomes are limited. Full-time internships, usually defined as thirty-two hours per week, significantly increase the students' learning and enhance intellectual and skill development. Credit-bearing internships are very distinctive because they share common goals and elements with on-campus study. These include reading, writing, critical thinking, and problem solving. While many goals are specific to each internship program or course, the list below is of intended benefits or goals for students that are most commonly found:

  • Engaging the intern in the discipline or major
  • Causing interaction with a variety of individuals, systems, and organizations
  • Improving self confidence
  • Using a variety of learning styles and frequently challenging participants to use new ways of learning and thinking
  • Improving skills in research, communication in groups, interpersonal communication, and observation
  • Improving critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Personalizing learning, giving it relevance and meaning
  • Putting learning into context to improve understanding and retention of concepts
  • Providing networking and mentoring opportunities
  • Conditioning the participant to adapt to change
  • Frequently challenging attitudes and beliefs, which often change
  • Helping a participant grow emotionally and learn from failure and success
  • Helping an intern become a more motivated life-long learner


While administrative structures vary across successful internship programs, educational and instructional structures are very important. The crucial structural components include participating in an experiential education seminar, writing a learning plan, engaging in reflection, completing reading and writing assignments, undergoing assessment, and creating a learning portfolio. These structures are rooted in Dewey's argument that for experience to be educative it has to be purposefully structured; these structures include the field part of the experience as well as the reflective learning activities that are part of the curriculum.

A credit-bearing internship seminar is a hallmark of a serious internship program. This seminar assists the student in understanding the process of learning and encourages self-directed learning. The academic components of a seminar include assignments such as preparing a thoughtful learning plan; writing reflective journal entries that include analysis of on-site issues and critical incidents; understanding the stages of the internship; completing an analysis of the organization; writing a reflective essay which serves as part of the final learning portfolio; articulating the learning; and giving a final, formal presentation of the learning portfolio or capstone project associated with the internship.

Special attention should be given to the student's learning plan, which is a tool that allows the student to plan personal learning objectives for the internship. It should include content, activities, and methods of evaluation. The learning plan may have different categories of learning, such as knowledge goals, professional goals, technical goals, and cultural goals. The learning plan provides a framework for the student to use throughout the internship and to use when evaluating the learning at the end of the period. The learning plan has been adopted for internships from the practice of adult education by Malcolm Knowles.

Reflection is an essential element of experiential education and therefore of an internship program. Reflection, or critical reflection as it is sometimes called, is the process of deriving meaning from experience through questioning what is experienced or observed. Typical reflection questions are "What is happening? Why? How could this be so? So what?" Reflection can be done in a variety of ways, including classroom discussion, presentations, journal writing, or structured assignments. The point is to provide students an environment and the tools with which to think about what they are doing and what they are learning. Experience without reflection is just experience. However, experiential learning occurs when there is a fusion of theory, practice, and reflection. Reflection allows students to integrate what they are learning and doing at the internship site with what they have learned in the classroom.

Assessment is another important component of an internship program. Someone with academic credentials who can accurately assess student learning should conduct assessment of the student. In addition, the agency sponsor (site supervisor) should be asked to write an evaluation of the student. A learning portfolio often serves as the culmination of the internship and as the major product for assessment.

Internship program goals will determine which structures are used and at what stages of a student's curriculum. Freshman or sophomore internships may be exploratory in nature and include few project elements. A capstone internship course, like the one required for students in the Human and Organizational Development major at Vanderbilt University, will emphasize cumulative learning. This internship is done in one of the last semesters before graduation and includes a senior project that is assessed for mastery of the content and skills of the major. Other internships are tied to a specific course topic or to mastering the skills of a profession, such as social work. Education majors often do an internship or practicum before they do student teaching at the end of their teacher-training curriculum.


Like other educational processes, internships have identifiable stages or phases. In their very practical manual, The Experienced Hand: A Student Manual for Making the Most of an Internship, Timothy Stanton and Kamil Ali outline ten steps to obtaining an internship, beginning with self-assessment of goals and ending with the first day of starting an internship. They argue that students who pay attention to each of the ten steps are more likely to obtain a quality and interesting internship. Preparing students thoroughly for an internship is a key element of the process.

Another view of the internship process comes from a developmental theory perspective where predictable stages can be identified and the challenges and tasks of each stage can be addressed. One model by Marijean Suelzle and Lenore Borzak uses the stages of entry, initiation, competence, and completion. Interns have found it helpful to view the semester-long process through this framework so they can be aware of what they should be learning and how they are doing at each stage. Another model developed by H. Frederick Sweitzer and Mary A. King has five stages of an internship: anticipation, disillusionment, confrontation, competence, and culmination. Sweitzer and King's five stages provide a very useful way for interns to anticipate and understand their journeys to deal with problems that often arise after the excitement of the initial stages has passed. Whichever model one uses, it is important for interns to be aware of their increasing levels of competence and the learning challenges they are mastering.


There is no set of "Principles of Good Practice" for internships but there is some general agreement in the field that "The Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education" offered by Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson are relevant. Educational research supports the need for structure so that learning takes place and is assessed. Because internships lack a standard definition and have few recognized norms for evaluating and comparing different types of internships that students pursue, Mary Ryan, executive director of the Institute for Experiential Learning, in Washington, DC, compiled a list of standards of excellence that gives a succinct statement of what is known about undergraduate education as applied to internships. These principles, summarized below, illustrate the goals, processes, and structures that are discussed above.

Enhancing On-Campus Excellence. The internship program should be integrated with and enhance the college's mission and curriculum.

Institutional Excellence and Integrity. For internships away from campus, the organization offering the internship program should have an appropriate management structure, staff, and policies to support the provision of a sound and high quality internship program that includes concurrent curricula, support services, and housing.

Academic Excellence and Rigor. The internship incorporates a defined project(s) resulting in outcomes and products of benefit to the organization and involving college-level learning on the student's part.

Individual Attention and Involvement. The internship program should provide individualized attention and support for the students and should provide for active involvement of students in their education.

Appropriate Internships. Internships should be designed to support the student's educational program.

Appropriate Course Work. The internship program should provide course work that facilitates the experiential learning process and that supports each student's academic program.

Diversity. The program should introduce the student to participants in the larger world of all ages and nationalities and to a variety of opinions, ideas, and philosophies.

Assessment and Evaluation. The student's progress and learning should be assessed based on learning outcomes, in other words, students should be able to articulate and apply what they have learned. The assessment process should be ongoing throughout the semester.

See also: Academic Major, The; Experiental Education; Service Learning, subentry on Higher Education.


Chickering, Arthur, and Gamson, Zelda. 1987. "The Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education." Special insert in The Wingspread Journal. 9 (2).

Dewey, John. 1938. Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books.

Eyler, Janet. 1995. "Graduates' Assessment of the Impact of a Full-time College Internship on Their Personal and Professional Lives." College Student Journal 29 (2):186194.

Eyler, Janet; Giles, Dwight E., Jr.; and Schmiede, Angela. 1996. A Practitioner's Guide to Reflection in Service-Learning. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University.

Giles, Dwight E., Jr. 1986. "Getting Students Ready for the Field." Experiential Education 11 (5):1, 6.

Knowles, Malcolm. 1986. Using Learning Contracts. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Moore, David T. 1999. "Behind the Wizard's Curtain: A Challenge to the True Believer." Experiential Education Quarterly 25 (1):1, 8.

Ryan, Mary, and Cassidy, John. 1996. "Internships and Excellence." Liberal Education 82 (3):1623.

Stanton, Timothy, and Ali, Kamil. 1994. The Experienced Hand: A Student Manual for Making the Most of an Internship, 2nd edition. New York: Caroll Press.

Suelzle, Marijean, and Borzak, Lenore. 1981. "Stages of Fieldwork." In Field Study: A Sourcebook for Experiential Learning, ed. Lenore Borzak. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Sweitzer, H. Frederick, and King, Mary A. 1999. The Successful Internship: Transformation and Empowerment. New York: Brooks/Cole.

Dwight E. Giles Jr.

Mary Ryan

About this article

Internships in Higher Education

Updated About content Print Article