Teaching approaches can vary significantly from academic program to academic program. But one approach that seems to be universally valued across disciplines is that of the internship. Internship experiences help students “connect learning to life”, as they provide students with the opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills they’ve learned in the classroom to real-life situations. In “academic speak”, that means internships help to push students further up the pyramid of Bloom’s Taxonomy, into the deeper understanding found within the “application” level of learning.
But the extent to which learning takes place within an internship – as is the case with any teaching approach – can be variable, depending on a variety of factors (e.g., students’ prior knowledge and/or skills, their motivation, the appropriateness of the internship site). Thus, thorough assessment of internship experiences is important, not only for evaluating the performance of specific students and assigning grades, but also for determining whether the characteristics of a given internship (e.g., the experiences provided at a given site, or the timing of the internship within the context of the academic program) adequately address a program’s student learning outcomes.
Faculty at UW-Green Bay have taken a variety of approaches to gauge student learning during internship experiences. Some of these methods are indirect (namely, they rely on students’ perceptions of their learning, as relayed through journals, post-internship interviews, or reflection papers), while others are direct (namely, they involve direct observations of student learning within the context of the internship setting). Although both methods provide valuable information, most faculty agree that direct measures of student learning during the internship are critical for determining whether or not students’ experiences meet the learning outcomes for the program. Yet direct measures of student learning during internships often are not conducted, due to the time commitment required for faculty (who are most familiar with program learning outcomes) to travel off campus to internship sites.
A method for direct assessment of student learning that circumvents the need for off campus travel by faculty is the administration of a well-designed survey instrument that queries the off campus supervisor (namely, the person who observes the intern in situ) about the specific skills the student acquired during their field experience. In order for such an instrument to provide valuable information about student learning during the internship, it must meet two criteria: 1) completion of the survey must not place a burden on the supervisor (since the requirement of lengthy written responses may lower completion rates); and 2) the items contained within the survey must relate directly to the academic program’s learning outcomes.
Faculty in the Human Development Program at UW-Green Bay currently utilize an Internship Supervisor Evaluation Form that meets both of these criteria. The evaluation form contains 19 items, many of which relate directly to unit-level learning goals. For example, the evaluation item that asks supervisors to rate interns according to their “commitment to and application of ethical standards relevant to the profession, e.g., confidentiality” relates directly to Human Development’s learning outcome that students will “understand the ethical issues involved in the application [of their knowledge of human development]”. Furthermore, the evaluation form is very easy to use, and simply asks that supervisors rate interns, on a scale of 1 to 5, according to their demonstrated aptitude in each area. Some faculty ask that supervisors complete the form at two distinct time points: midway through the internship (after the supervisor has had time to become familiar with a student’s background and skills), and at the end of the internship. A comparison between scores at the two time points allows faculty to gain a perspective on students’ overall development during a given internship.
According to Chair Kristin Vespia, Human Development faculty – as well as internship supervisors – appreciate the ease of use of this assessment tool, which continues to provide valuable information about student learning during field experiences. Her program continues to work toward improving this direct assessment model, and is currently considering approaches to reducing the potential for response bias on the part of supervisors. One potential concern is that supervisors may identify an overall rating that they feel applies to a given student, and then assign that same score for all items contained in the evaluation form (which would mask any differences in a student’s performance in specific categories). According to Debbie Furlong, Director of Institutional Research, one approach that may reduce this risk is to include different rating scales for different response items.
Academic programs that are accredited are often required to conduct assessment within the context of a framework provided by their accrediting body. But for those programs that are not accredited (and thus are not provided with assessment strategies from an outside entity), starting with your program’s student learning outcomes to design a meaningful internship assessment tool (a la the Human Development model) is a great approach. If your program would like to further discuss ideas for measuring student learning during internships – or during any other course-related activities – please contact Angela Bauer, Special Assistant to the Provost (firstname.lastname@example.org).