The Pre-Service Practicum Within Three Professions: Students’ Perspectives



The Pre-Service Practicum: Perspectives of Students from Three Disciplines

Edwin G. Ralph and Keith Walker

University of Saskatchewan

Randy Wimmer

University of Alberta


Note. The authors acknowledge the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for funding the larger research project, of which this present report is a part.




supervised practical experience of on-the-job training is an essential part of the pre-service preparation of professionals in all disciplines. This article forms one segment of a larger interdisciplinary, pan-Canadian research project examining the future of the practicum/clinical phase of undergraduate professional preparation. For the present portion of the study, responses were solicited from 546 post-practicum students in three professional disciplines (Engineering, Nursing, and Teacher Education), concerning what they considered to be the most positive and the most negative aspects of their recently completed practicum or clinical field-experiences.

The data analysis demonstrated that although unique positive and negative themes characterized the respective disciplines, there were also common strengths and weaknesses evident across these practicum programs. Three of these positive themes were: (a) the supportive relationships that students developed with various participants in the practicum program; (b) students’ perceptions of their own successful technical and/or professional achievements; and (c) their feelings of self-efficacy in being able to positively contribute to the welfare of those clients or students they were serving.

Similarly, three common themes reflected students’ conceptions of negative elements of their practicum experiences: individual personal/professional challenges; site-based interpersonal concerns; and university-related policy/procedural problems.

Implications are discussed for practicum leaders interested in considering these data to help inform the enhancement-process of their respective programs.






here is an impending shortage of adequately trained professionals on a world-wide scale (Carnegie Foundation, 2006; Von Drehle, 2007; World Health Organization, 2006). Over the last number of years, educational institutions charged with the pre-service preparation of professional practitioners have been experiencing an ever-increasing pressure to meet this demand for skilled graduates, while at the same time being mindful to maintain the professional quality of their programs (Canadian Council on Learning, 2006; Stark, Lowther, Hagerty, & Orczyk, 1986).

The practical or clinical program has long been a key component of professional undergraduate education in such diverse disciplines as the Health Sciences, Engineering, Law, Education, Social Work, Forestry, Architecture, and Theology (Carnegie Foundation, 2006; Goodlad, 1984). The practical or clinical phase of pre-service education continues to be critical in preparing prospective practitioners to enter their respective professions (Ralph, Walker, & Wimmer, 2007b; Shulman, 1998).

Typically, in all of the professions, this practical component is offered by means of a complex, collaborative arrangement among four participating stakeholders: (a) personnel in the institutions of higher education who organize/administer the professional degree programs; (b) practitioners at the practicum-site who mentor the students as they engage in real-life practice; (c) the professional organizations that grant and regulate the certification /licensing processes after students complete the pre-service program; and (d) the students themselves, who in the final analysis are the major recipients of, and the raison d’etre for, the practicum or clinical phase of training (Brett, 2006; Linn, Howard, & Miller, 2004; Ralph, Walker, & Wimmer, 2007a).

The authors of this present paper believe that educators across the professional disciplines need to engage in collaborative conversations regarding their respective pre-service educational programs in order to learn from one another. Part of this collaboration should include the voice of post-practicum students, who have gained valuable insights with respect to the daily operation of the clinical phase of their pre-service education. To add to this professional conversation, the research team is presently concluding a three-year Canadian study of the practical learning component of undergraduate education for the professions (Ralph, Walker, & Wimmer, 2007c). In this present paper, which summarizes one part of that broader study, the authors examine the views of post-practicum students’ regarding their recently completed practicum/clinical programs.




he larger study on which this present article was based has some similarities to a project currently being conducted by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (2006), called the Preparation for the Professions Program (PPP). The PPP is investigating the undergraduate education of professionals in six fields (clergy, engineers, lawyers, nurses, physicians, and K-12 teachers). Two of these Carnegie reports have already been published: one for clergy education (Foster, Dahill, Golemon, & Wang Tolentino, 2005) and another for lawyer education (Sullivan, Colby, Welch Wegner, Bond, & Shulman, 2007).

The foundational premise upon which all of these practice-based programs is based is that authentic and deep learning occurs when students apply relevant knowledge and skills to solving real-life problems encountered by actual practitioners in the field (Renzulli, Gentry, & Reis, 2004). Historically, the experiential learning components of most professional programs (Kolb, 1984) allowed students to spend a period of time in an actual practice-setting under the joint mentorship/supervision of a practicing professional and a university or college advisor (Ehrich, Hansford, & Tennent, 2004; Rose & Best, 2005). This practicum-triad collaborates to assist the novice to learn how to integrate theory and practice and to become socialized into the profession (Baird, 2002; Brett, 2006; Ralph, 1998).


Engineering Education

            With respect to the Carnegie study of Engineering education, Silva and Sheppard (2001) identified innovative strategies in Engineering undergraduate preparation—such as the expansion of hands-on learning curricula, the provision of student-centered learning, and the increase of cooperative-education opportunities. In 2006 Sheppard further suggested that there needed to be a better connection between the academy and the professionals in the field (“negotiated agreements and partnerships between stakeholders on expectations and responsibilities”, p. 18). As a consequence, both stakeholder groups would collaborate in specific ways to assist all students to consistently experience more authentic Engineering practice by learning to apply academic/ theoretical principles to solve actual problems existing in the field.

Engineering faculties typically provide students with either required or optional practicum, internship, or cooperative education experiences, in which students earn a salary (Peura, Boyd, Shahnarian, Driscoll, & Brownell Wheeler, 1975; Ralph, Walker, & Wimmer, 2007c; Shuster, 2002). All of these researchers have identified several benefits for students arising from this type of Engineering internship, such as: (a) applying and broadening their personal, professional, and technical knowledge and skills; (b) developing “foresightedness, sophistication, self-confidence, analytical competence, creative imagination, perseverance, and managerial skills” (Peura et al. p. 139); (c) confirming their future career paths; and (d) building professional relationships with peers, faculty, and employers.

The research also indicated that potential problems with Engineering internships could largely be averted if program organizers would take certain precautions, which Peura et al. (1975) identified nearly four decades ago. They advised practicum administrators to: (a) align assigned tasks with student developmental levels; (b) have well-defined internship policies, procedures, expectations, and assessments; (c) employ a clear mentoring process delivered by adequately trained/prepared supervisory personnel; and (d) provide the necessary materials/equipment/resources to support students’ projects.


Nursing Education

Regarding the Nursing portion of Carnegie’s PPP, Benner and Sutphen (2007) have examined the integration of three apprenticeships (i.e., intellectual capacities, skill-based clinical practice, and ethical dimensions permeating professional responsibilities) in Nursing pre-service education. Benner and Sutphen identified specific characteristics of Nursing teachers noted for their demonstrated excellence in helping students to accomplish this integration process. Four of these instructor characteristics were: (a) treating clinical students as collaborators in the nursing role; (b) asking clinical students to participate in deciding the next steps in patients’ care; (c) engaging students in professional dialogue; and (d) exploring their thinking with respect to ethical issues related to actual medical cases. However, these authors also noted that not all instructional personnel and supervisors in Nursing education were skilled at helping new students accomplish this integration. Benner and Sutphen further suggested that improvement is required in assisting all supervisory personnel to enhance this integrative teaching function.

Two studies conducted more than a decade ago (Cahill, 1996; Spouse, 1998) emphasized the critical importance of effective mentorship for Nursing students during their clinical education placements. Pearcey and Elliott (2004) substantiated these findings in their UK study related to students’ views of their clinical nursing experiences. These researchers found that student nurses’ subsequent interest in continuing a full-time nursing career was directly influenced by their observations of: the way their mentors performed their own nursing duties (e.g., Did the mentors include patients and their families in the decision-making process?); and also the way these mentors treated the students during the practicum period (e.g., Did the mentors enthusiastically and genuinely support the student to learn as much as possible?).

In 2000, Robertson, Anderko, and Uscian found that nursing students’ high level of satisfaction with their clinical experiences was directly attributable to four conditions: (a) the assigned tasks were differentiated according to students’ developmental abilities; (b) students’ mentors were supportive; (c) students were provided with graduated steps leading toward professional autonomy; and (d) increased levels of independence were granted to students as they developed professionally. Two related studies (Berg & Lindseth, 2004; Robinson Wolf, Bender, Beitz, Wieland, & Vito, 2004) indicated that student nurses valued specific characteristics demonstrated by their clinical and classroom instructors/supervisors, namely: that the supervisors had positive personalities; that they provided clear presentations and feedback; that they showed high levels of professionalism, knowledge, and skills; and that they were available and approachable.


Teacher Education

The Teacher education practicum has also been consistently characterized by particular strengths and recurring weaknesses (Ralph, 1994-1995; Ralph, Walker, & Wimmer, 2007a, 2007b). Neville, Sherman, and Cohen (2005) compared the preparation of teachers to that of six other professional fields. They found that:

…the richness and value of the clinical experience vary depending on the quality of the supervisor and the amount of time she or he spends monitoring and coaching the student. In Education, clinical experiences are often reported to be limited, disconnected from university coursework, and inconsistent. (p. 13)

They also found that many practicum students in Education lacked skills in professional reflection and self-evaluation, which further reduced the ultimate benefit they received from the practicum experience.

In a related study that compared the mentoring process in pre-service professional Teacher Education with that in Medicine and Business/Management, Ehrich, Hansford, and Tennent (2004) analyzed over 300 research studies across those three disciplines. As was the case in the preceding studies, these researchers likewise identified positive and negative aspects of the supervisory/mentoring process, which affected either the protégés, or the mentors, or the institutions, or combinations thereof. Ehrich et al. further advocated that all stakeholders in the practicum program must collaborate to minimize these problematic areas, because “…mentoring has enormous potential to bring about learning, personal growth, and development for professionals” (p. 536).

This positive/negative image of the practicum in Teacher Education was also described by Levine (2006) and Whitcomb, Borko, and Liston (2007). Although they acknowledged that some institutions have been effective in adequately preparing new teachers for the 21st century, they decried the apparent confusion and disarray that has existed among many Teacher Education schools for the past 60 years (see Lortie, 1975). This chronic problem has hindered the integration of theory and practice ((Ralph, 1994, 1994-1995; Ralph, Walker, & Wimmer, 2007a). Many Teacher-education curricula are deficient in providing teacher candidates with appropriate practicum learning-experiences to prepare them to teach in difficult settings, such as high-need schools, multicultural/multilingual settings, and rural or remote schools.


A Mixed Image

A synthesis of these findings related to clinical pre-service education in the three professional disciplines suggested that although the educational preparation for each profession was unique in terms of its particular content and program format, a combination of positive and negative qualities seemed to be evident across the practicum component of pre-service preparation for these disciplines. On the one hand, the integration of the positive features provided students with realistic learning experiences in authentic settings, within which the students could develop their professional competence and confidence under the guidance of skilled mentors in a milieu of mutual respect. By contrast, the deficiencies identified by the post-practicum students described a flawed program characterized by manifestations of a theory/practice gap and human-relationship problems, such as practicum leaders failing to provide students with adequate mentorship.



ducational administrators who desire to improve their programs must consider students’ views in any effort toward practicum innovation (see Clift and Brady, 2005; Ralph, Walker, & Wimmer, 2007b, 2007c). Students enrolled in an educational program are among the most qualified persons to render judgment on how effectively the programs’ structure and processes meet their unique learning needs and interests, because ultimately the students are the only group who encounters all of facets of the program, en route to certification or graduation (Angelo, 2004; Ory, 2001).

In 2006 and 2007 the research team that conducted the larger SSHRC study (of which the present investigation formed one part) administered a print survey (either online or in a face-to-face classroom setting) to post-practicum students from three professional faculties (Engineering, Nursing, and Teacher Education) at one Canadian university. The respondents had just completed their respective practicum or internship programs, and had returned to campus to complete their coursework. The survey consisted of two questions: What for you was the most positive aspect of your practicum or internship experience? and What for you was the most negative aspect of your practicum or internship experience? The Engineering and Nursing students received an online version of the survey that was emailed to them by their respective internship/practicum offices, while the Education students completed print surveys in face-to-face classroom settings during the final term of their baccalaureate program at the university. All ethical procedures required by the university were followed, and the directions printed on both the online and hard-copy surveys ensured student anonymity and confidentiality. Students volunteering to respond and submit their surveys indicated their consent to participate in the study.

Thirty-three post-internship Engineering students responded to the on-line survey and two follow-up e-mail reminders, for an overall return-rate of 52%. These students were in their third or fourth year of their undergraduate program and represented all Engineering sub-disciplines offered by that faculty. Sixty-three senior-year Nursing students responded to the on-line survey and/or two email reminders, which yielded a total return-rate of 30%. There was a 98% return-rate for senior-year Teacher Education post-interns who completed the in-class surveys (n=450). The Teacher Education respondents were representative of the total undergraduate student population of their Faculty, in terms of gender, age, subject major/minor, elementary/middle years/secondary grade teaching-level, urban/rural placement, and Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal program streams. The online version did not record any demographic information of the respondents.

A possible explanation for the wide variation in response rates across the three discipline-groups may be that the Engineering and Nursing students in this study received an online invitation, while the Teacher-candidates’ invitations to participate were distributed by instructors in face-to-face classes held during the term following the practicum experience. The literature on social sciences research shows that face-to-face surveys typically elicit higher response rates than do online surveys (Ardalan, Ardalan, Coppage, & Crouch, 2007; Hmieleski, 2000).

An additional limitation to the representativeness of the Engineering and Nursing respondents in this study was that the voices of non-respondents were excluded. Consequently, as is the case with findings from all qualitative research, one cannot generalize from these results to other groups. However, as is also the case with qualitative research, one can seek what social sciences researchers have conceptualized as “transferability” or “fittingness” between two contexts (Donmoyer, 1990, p. 185; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Searching for this “comparability” or “translatability” of fit helps researchers to use findings from one case to further their understanding of another similar situation (Ward Schofield, 1990, p. 208).

In the present study, the authors used a mixed method of qualitative/quantitative data analysis. They first collated and categorized the students’ written responses, and searched these data for emerging patterns and themes, using the constant-comparison technique of analytic induction (Gay, Mills, & Airasian, 2005). During this analysis, the researchers continuously examined and re-examined the data, noting distinctions for each discipline, observing for similarities and differences within each discipline, and searching for regularities and/or common patterns across the disciplines (McMillan & Schumacher, 2005). They then summarized the findings by drawing the data together from across the disciplines and noting the patterns of similarity and differences among them. In this process, the researchers were not searching for universal generalizations, but rather they were seeking data drawn from one key source to be combined with additional information derived from other for the purpose of helping inform program-enhancement decisions (Ralph, Walker, & Wimmer, in press).




efore summarizing some of the discipline-specific findings, and addressing some generic implications that seemed common across the disciplines, the authors first highlight some general observations regarding the data they gathered. They readily recognized that almost every respondent identified not only the positive aspects of his/her practicum experience, but also the negative elements they experienced or observed. On the whole, the respondents’ views reflected the positive/negative duality that earlier research had identified.

            Second, these preliminary findings also endorsed what some educational researchers had previously advocated (Ralph, Walker, & Wimmer, 2007b, 2007c; Robinson Wolf et al., 2004), which was that students can, in fact, provide valid and reliable insights regarding the quality of their instructional and learning experiences. These results suggest that program organizers should welcome student input as a valuable contribution to ongoing program enhancement (Marsh & Roche, 1997; McKeachie, 1997; Ralph, Walker, & Wimmer, 2007a).

            Third, because the nature and context of each profession’s pre-service education program are unique, it follows that the strengths and weaknesses of each discipline’s practicum component were also distinct. For instance, the practicum/clinical phase of both Nursing education and Teacher education formed a mandatory portion of those baccalaureate programs, whereas the internship or co-operative education experience in Engineering was optional. Hence, Engineering students’ reflections of their respective practical experiences tended to emphasize different goals and to reflect varying viewpoints, compared to the impressions expressed by their Nursing and Teacher education counterparts.


Tabular Data from the Three Disciplines

            Tables 1, 2, and 3, summarize in descending order the key positive and negative categories that reflected the perspectives of the three sub-groups of post-practicum students. Following the tables, a synthesis of the key categories of the thematically analyzed data is presented with illustrative comments submitted by respondents from the three disciplines













Table 1


Engineering Students’ Views of Key Positive and Negative Aspects of their Internship Experiences


Category Percent of respondents



Positive aspects (n=33)

1. Developed conceptual and technical knowledge and skills 64

2. Received practical work experience 48

3. Helped secure permanent employment 21

4. Developed personal/professional self-confidence 18

5. Made valuable contacts (networking) 15

6. Earned money while learning 9



Negative aspects (n=32)


1. Received inadequate/Insufficient mentorship 25

2. Had un-motivating work-assignments 22

3. Had to prolong the program by several months 16

4. Required to return to campus for classes after internship 13

5. Encountered unprofessional conduct/relationships 6

6. Received unsatisfactory placement/location 6


Note. Nearly all respondents reported two or more positive and negative aspects; hence, the values reflect these multiple responses and therefore they total more than 100%.


Table 2


Nursing Students’ Views of Key Positive and Negative Aspects of their Internship Experiences


Category Percent of respondents



Positive aspects (n=63)

1. Applied theory in actual practice 57

2. Received effective mentoring/supervision 27

3. Worked with supportive, helpful staff-members 21

4. Felt like a contributing team-member 16

5. Developed self-confidence and professional independence 13

6. Accomplished personal goals 3



Negative aspects (n=61)


1. Received inadequate/insufficient mentorship 33

2. Assigned unproductive tasks by faculty (excessive journaling) 20

3. Encountered unrealistic time constraints 20

4. Experienced unsatisfactory placement procedures 11

5. Dealt with unfair/inadequate evaluation process 8

6. Experienced personal financial limitations 6


Note. Nearly all respondents reported two or more positive and negative aspects; hence, the values reflect these multiple responses and therefore they total more than 100%.


Table 3


Teacher Education Students’ Views of Key Positive and Negative Aspects of their Internship Experiences


Category Percent of respondents



Positive aspects (n=450)

1. Had supportive relationships with the school staff 36

2. Had supportive relationships with the cooperating teachers 28

3. Applied theory to actual practice 27

4. Positively influenced student learning and development 24

5. Mastered instructional skills/completed full-time teaching 19

6. Confirmed teaching “calling” 16

7. Had supportive relationships with college supervisors 8

8. Co-planned/co-conducted extracurricular activities 6



Negative aspects (n=443)


1. Received inadequate mentorship/supervisory assistance 48

2. Experienced personal financial problems 26

3. Dealt with heavy workload issues 22

4. Was dissatisfied with the post-practicum academic term 21

5. Encountered program/organizational inequities 17

6. Overloaded with irrelevant practicum tasks 14

7. Experienced feelings of non-acceptance (not appreciated) 13

8. Received insufficient preparation in pre-practicum coursework 9

9. Faced unprofessional treatment by practicum-office staff 8

10. Experienced time-management issues 7


Note. Nearly all respondents reported two or more positive and negative aspects; hence, the values reflect these multiple responses and therefore they total more than 100%.


Common Positive Themes

            Although the number and order of the thematic categories for each practicum program were unique, there were three common themes across the disciplines that the researchers derived from the respondents’ statements regarding the most positive aspects of the practicum experiences. These themes are summarized below:


Agreeable human relationship: A predominant, positive theme that students identified across the three professions was the affirming manner in which they were treated by field-based personnel, whether mentors/supervisors or staff-members. For example, an Engineering student stated, “I was able to create a good network of engineers and potential employers;” and three Nursing students shared, “It was positive working with facilitators who saw students as positive on the ward, and wanted to impart their knowledge to us. They were excited about being teachers and realistic about the workloads we were assigned, and not bogging us down with material that was being covered elsewhere;” “I loved being in a supportive environment where there was always someone to help you out;” and “The positive part was how open and willing the preceptors were to have me with them, and their willingness to share their knowledge with me.” Three typical Teacher Candidate comments that also exemplified this supportive theme were: “The school staff was welcoming, encouraging, and helpful, which made for great learning for me and the student;” “I had a very well organized and supportive cooperating teacher. She taught me a lot, and how to be a successful teacher;” and “I was able to gradually become the teacher, and take over all duties with my co-op as my mentor.”

This experience reported by students of being treated courteously and professionally by their mentors and colleagues was consistent not only across the three programs, but these findings corroborated what the literature review revealed concerning the power of positive human interaction that bolsters learning (Rose & Best, 2005).


Theory-Practice Connection: Another strength of the practicum programs that was identified by students was the opportunity granted them to narrow the theory-practice gap in their own learning. For example, three Engineering students commented, “I got a better idea of real-world applications of theory used in class;” “I received practical experience and a taste of what I would be doing as an engineer after graduation;” and “I gained experience with a company who hires graduates and often hires past interns.” Similarly, a Nursing student said, “It gave me the opportunity to apply the theory I learned, but in a different learning environment: to learn by doing;” and an Education student volunteered, “It was applying the skills and techniques that we learned. To actually do it with an actual group of kids was awesome.” These illustrative responses substantiate previous research regarding a key dimension of clinical/practical experience that provides hands-on learning, reflecting the apprenticeship model that traces its roots to the craft guilds of the middle ages, even back to the ancient Greeks (Carnegie, 2006; Washington State, n.d.).


Enhanced Professional Competence and Confidence: Another key positive theme that emerged from the survey data was the opportunity provided for practicum students to develop their professional skills and knowledge and their personal confidence. Both the related literature and the responses from students across the three programs supported this finding. Typical comments demonstrating this theme were expressed by students from: Engineering (e.g., “I had a lot of experience and responsibility, both at the office and on site. I was able to deal with contractors, which helped to develop my interpersonal skills;” from Nursing (e.g., “The most positive thing was gaining more confidence in myself through my practice of clinical skills and my increased independence;” and from Teacher Education (e.g., “I loved spending time helping my students. We had our own routines, and my students began to actively participate and I saw dramatic changes in their behavior and assignment quality;” and “Meeting the students and understanding their learning needs, and having great faculty advisors and staff members for support in the profession”.

            What the researchers particularly noted was not the revelation of these findings (they had already been documented in the research literature), but the fact that undergraduate students across the disciplines reported these views concerning their practicum/clinical experiences. This cross-disciplinary phenomenon has not as yet been widely reported in the literature (Neville, Sherman, & Cohen, 2005). . The authors of the present study hope that further research will be conducted regarding this student voice across the professional disciplines.


Common Negative Themes

            Although all of the respondents identified positive aspects of their clinical/practical education, they also readily expressed their perspectives on program deficiencies. Three major categories emerged from the survey data from the three professions, as summarized below.


Poor mentorship: As shown in Tables 1, 2, and 3, a substantial number of students from all three sub-groups expressed their discontent with the quality of one or more components of the mentoring process they experienced—a finding also identified in the previous literature. For example, Engineering respondents wrote, “I had to change mentors part way through because the first one was not prepared to take the time to teach me. He left part way through my internship for a month-long trip,” and “I was not given very much responsibility on my internship, so I feel I did not learn as much as I could have.” Similarly, a Nursing post-intern commented, “My preceptor made it clear that she never wanted to be a preceptor, and that she was not comfortable teaching a student. She just expected me to do everything and she would do the paperwork. I never felt welcome with her, or comfortable asking her questions.” This same sentiment was expressed by Teacher candidates, who wrote: “The worst was having a co-operating teacher who didn’t benefit my learning;” and “The support and input I was given was not consistent. I struggled to understand what was being asked of me. There were lots of times when communication was gone or unclear.”


Irrelevant practicum assignments: Students from all three cohorts expressed dismay with being assigned what they deemed as unprofitable tasks during their clinical placements. For instance, an Engineering student remarked, “I had to do a lot of photocopying and secretarial work the first while, but I didn’t feel it was wise to complain to anyone;” and a Nursing student reported, “Honestly, I hated ‘care planning’. The detail that some facilitators required was excessive, to the point that we would just throw in diagnoses that were redundant or standard, because we had to provide five to eight diagnoses for each patient.” Teacher candidates reported similar feelings: “I wished they would have let me teach different subjects, and go to some different classrooms to extend my experience.” These comments suggested that there is a need for more comprehensive mentorship training that should address the issue of establishing optimum practice-tasks that match the developmental levels of each student.


Program inadequacies: Several students from the three disciplines complained about certain program procedures that they perceived as being inappropriate, unfair, or inadequate. For instance, students identified the placement process as being flawed: “I hated being stuck in a small town for 12 months” (Engineering); and “The placement procedures and scheduling difficulties poorly match students and preceptor. I also felt lack of support from my faculty placement person” (Nursing).

            Similarly, other respondents were dissatisfied with university program-organization and scheduling difficulties, as exemplified by these statements “I didn’t like having to add an extra year onto my degree;” and “I disliked coming back to classes after the internship and forgetting everything” (from Engineering); “The experience is too short and rushed to do justice to the goals expected” (from Nursing); and “I didn’t feel the pre-internship classes prepared me enough for the tasks I was to take on upon entering internship” (from Teacher Education). A third university-based limitation that Nursing and Teacher Education post-practicum students identified was related to financial hardships they faced during the practicum (e.g., “I found it hard to have to pay tuition on top of completing the practicum, and not having any time to work elsewhere to actually make some money to live on” (Nursing); and “I had to rent accommodation for my rural placement, plus keep paying for my apartment in the city when I returned to campus for Term 2, and also have to pay tuition to work in the school. Can’t the university give us a break?”(Teacher Education)

            Students seemed quick to place, directly or indirectly, the full responsibility upon the university program-organizers to enact policy changes in order to remedy these inequities and imbalances they observed. This assertion was articulated by one Teacher-candidate who wrote: “I was essentially working full time; so there should be either a stipend or sort of bursary given by the university, or else tuition should be waived for that semester. Plus, the timing is way off: Internship should be the last thing you should do in the program. This present semester, coming back to the College is a waste of time and money; and also the College should give us more choice for getting our placement.”


Findings across the Three Disciplines

            A synthesis of the findings drawn from the three disciplines shows patterns of similarities and differences. The obvious differences relate to the nature of each professional education program and its respective goals, and to the fact that Engineering students, compared to their Nursing and Education counterparts: (a) receive monetary compensation for being employed during their internships and co-operative education programs; and (b) must temporarily suspend their entire academic program, while they engage in their practicum experiences.

            Key similarities in practicum programs across the three disciplines related both to common strengths (e.g., students are able to reduce the theory/practice gap; they gain professional competence/confidence in real-world settings; and they develop positive and productive professional and personal relationships); and to correctible deficiencies (e.g., they encounter poor mentorship; they experience unproductive practicum tasks, and they encounter unsound practicum program-policies/-procedures).


Discussion and Implications


he authors of the present study acknowledge the limitation of these findings, in that the data reflected views of only one segment of the program, namely the students. The student voice is not externally validated by other sources, such as the perspectives of university-based and/or field-based supervisors/mentors.

Nevertheless, the authors also note that the responses of the post-practicum students reported here were congruent with many of the preliminary findings from the larger study, which the researchers conducted on the future of the clinical/practicum phase of education for the professions, and which the authors have recently reported elsewhere (Ralph, Walker, & Wimmer, 2007a, 2007b, 2007c). Nevertheless, these students’ views corresponded generally with what the researchers derived from the literature review summarized earlier in this article. Regarding the value of the findings of the present study investigating the student voice, the researchers also agreed with reputable evaluation experts, such as Cashin (1992), Marsh and Roche (1997), McKeachie (1997), and Scriven (1995). These experts concluded, on the basis of their extensive research related to post-secondary students’ ratings of instructional programs and personnel, that students do, in fact, offer valid and useful information about their course and clinical work. That is, students offer important feedback based on their intimate immersion-experience of being novices exposed to the routines and vagaries of daily professional life. This information must not be ignored or demoded by educational administrators in their quest to improve practicum offerings. The present researchers believe that the students in this study have provided candid insights regarding the quality of the practice-based element of their pre-service preparation.


Maintain the Strengths and Eliminate the Weaknesses

            It would be prudent for practicum organizers to seek to maintain and bolster the assets identified by students concerning their practicum experiences, as well as to attempt to eliminate or reduce the identified weaknesses. With respect to maintaining the positive aspects of the practicum, program leaders could implement several specific strategies as summarized below.

Promote positive human relationships. Practicum organizers could provide incentives to recruit, reward, and retain effective clinical supervisory-personnel. For example, university collective-bargaining agreements might have to be modified to formally recognize faculty work in clinical/practicum situations; and graduate-school fee policies could be amended to provide free tuition and/or graduate course credit for field-based personnel who were assigned mentoring duties. Alternatively, mentors could be paid a salary for undertaking supervisory responsibilities. Such rewards would enhance the image and status of clinical work for faculty-members and field-based personnel, alike

Enhance the theory-practice connection. Program administrators could bolster the integration of theory and practice by continuing to make early incremental adjustments to their overall pre-service academic programs and coursework, in order to provide learners with additional targeted clinical-experiences that would begin in the first term, and continue during each term thereafter. Incorporating these types of experiential learning experiences earlier in the program would not only better prepare students for real-world situations they will encounter during their extended clinical placements, but these experiences could help reduce student frustration with their post-practicum courses by assigning capstone projects and reflective-practice research during their final term (Schon, 1987); and by incorporating collaborative tasks (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998) that engage post-practicum students in authentic synthesis of their recent experiences.

Develop competence and confidence. To maximize the professional growth of each practicum student, program organizers should continue to incorporate research-based educational models and principles within the clinical setting. Instructional strategies incorporating the following methods would need to be maintained: deep rather than shallow learning (Ramsden, 1992); active learning (Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Prince, 2004); adult education (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005); social constructivism (Cole, 1996; Vygotsky, 1978); experiential learning (Kolb, 1984); cooperative/collaborative learning (Johnson et al., 1998); problem-based learning (Woods, 1994); pragmatic experience/thinking (Bruner, 1960; Dewey, 1938); situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991); and professional self-reflection (Schon, 1987). Each of these processes has direct connection to effective teaching and learning within the practicum/clinical setting.

Provide effective mentorship. Practicum leaders should provide all supervisory personnel with formal training related to the mentoring/coaching process. One promising mentorship model that has shown potential for clarifying the supervisory process is Contextual Supervision (Ralph, 1993, 1998, 2005). This mentorship model has been successfully applied in a variety of practicum settings, and has been shown to reduce some of the mentoring difficulties that students identified both in the present study and in previous research (Ralph, 1996, 2004; Ralph, & Konchak, 1996).

Ensure relevancy. Practicum/clinical educators and administrators should modify weak program policies and procedures, so that the assigned tasks (and the supervisory behavior of the mentors who guide the students in engaging in these tasks) are appropriately matched with the unique developmental level of protégé. This matching of supervisory style with learner readiness is a key element of effective mentoring and Contextual Supervision mentioned above (Ralph, 1998, 2004, 2005).

Ameliorate program deficiencies. Program administrators must remedy obvious flaws in order that inadequacies and inequities (either real or perceived) are addressed. For example, practicum planners should collaborate with all stakeholder-organizations involved in the clinical program to help alleviate the financial stress reported by some Nursing and Teacher Education students. Possible solutions could be: (a) to provide practicum students with monthly stipends, honoraria, or bursaries to help them defray moving/travel/accommodation expenses typically associated with rural or remote placements; (b) to provide practicum students with full or partial remuneration in exchange for the professional services they render to the clients/institutions they serve during the practicum, as is the case with Engineering internships; or (c) to remove, reduce, or subsidize the tuition fees that Nursing and Education students must pay for their field-based practica.


Concluding Comment


t is clear that student practical experience is vital to the preparation of qualified professional practitioners. The effectiveness of professional education programs is closely linked to the quality of this practicum component. It is also clear that the practicum/clinical experience must be supportive of students, and be perceived as such. In this light, the researchers in this study concur with what Pearcey and Elliott. (2004) asserted: “Student views are necessary…but more importantly these views need to be acted upon” (p. 387).

The limited findings of the present investigation point to several areas calling for further study, such as:

1.     To what extent do/should educational planners in professional-preparation institutions heed the student voice in their program decisions? Are students knowledgeable/experienced enough to see the “big picture” as administrators are able to see it?

2.     If the mentoring process is indeed as important as the students claim, what mentorship/supervisory models have proven most effective in practicum programs?

3.     How can planners in professional disciplines learn from their cross-disciplinary colleagues to maintain the strengths and reduce the weaknesses of their own clinical initiatives?

4.     What is being done on an international scale to promote similar inter- and cross-disciplinary research on enhancing the clinical phase of pre-service professional education?

5.     What are current best practices and promising innovations in the various types of “experiential learning” efforts across the professions? In apprenticeships in the trades? In training for the so called semi-professions? In coaching in professional sports and athletics?




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