Rethinking Internships to Maximize Student Learning

Elizabeth Bennion, Indiana University South Bend

This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s Summer 2016 issue.

I’ve been thinking a lot about internships lately. Internships provide a valuable opportunity to connect students to post-graduation service and work as alumni. Our College is redesigning our internship program to achieve more standardization of requirements, greater adherence to best practices, broader participation, and better learning outcomes for students. As good teacher-scholars do, I decided to consult academic journals, professional associations, and colleagues to learn more about best practices. As part of this work, Xander Laughlin and I compiled an annotated bibliography of recent articles about internships in Political Science (see here).

The topic of internships was also an important element of this year’s APSA-TLC civic engagement track. While valuable for the hands-on practice they provide, internships are most effective as learning experiences when students have an opportunity to reflect upon what they have learned. Jennifer Pahre described an innovative way to deepen student learning, while also benefiting future interns and strengthening program assessment of the internship program. As director of a legal externship program, Pahre sends students out into the field to work with legal professionals: judges, governmental attorneys, and attorneys working for non-profits. Students donate their time in exchange for course credit. While a strong experiential learning experience requires reflection, students may not have access to faculty-guided reflection at the right time. They may not feel that standard guided reflection formats are appropriate or interesting. They may resist completing “another class assignment” in an experiential course.

To  address  these  problems,  Pahre  requires students to complete a “letter to successor” that  describes  the  placement  mission,  and activities. Students must explain to future interns what was most interesting and challenging about the

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

internship and also tell their successor what they wish they had known before they began. The letter demands that the student reflect upon their experiences in order to inform others. Future students consult the letters to decide which placements would suit them best, to decide which particular placements they should reach for, to make their applications strong, and to educate themselves about their new placements before they start work. Letters are submitted as part of each student’s final paper (and therefore not subject to the Federal Freedom of Information Act). The letter is separated from the final paper and the student’s name is removed. The letter is stored in hard copy format in the Externship Office for five years. The document is available for in-office viewing only and is never copied or made available to the supervisors. Student reflections have greatly increased in depth and quality since taking a “letter to successor” approach and the letters provide valuable information to future interns and to the College.

John Berg seconded Pahre’s endorsement of the “letter to successor” as a powerful reflection tool for internship students, while considering a variety of best practices for fostering civic engagement, disciplinary education, and resume building through well-designed internships. Berg stressed the importance of avoiding low quality internships and discussed ways to assure quality (and learning) in credit-generating internships. Berg stressed that civic engagement and internships should be academically situated. They should start with a learning contract in which students work with their academic and site supervisors to set their own learning goals (based on a set of goals for all internships set by each department or college). To make internships worthwhile, Berg suggests a site supervisor contract, a learning contract, weekly or bi-weekly reflective journals (including links to readings or coursework), a required articulation of transferable skills, midterm and post-semester evaluations completed by the site supervisor, and a letter to successor written by the intern. Minimum and maximum number of hours, student evaluation of site placement/supervisor, and student reflections on the achievement of stated learning objectives are other important requirements. Asking students to submit their resume before and after the internship is another way to encourage students to reflect on the knowledge and skills developed through the internship experience.

I appreciate the advice I’ve received in reading colleagues’ work and attending the Teaching and Learning conference. I look forward to working with colleagues on campus to strengthen our internship program. I hope that you have found this advice useful when thinking about your own internship program and I look forward to seeing your advice in a future issue of The Political Science Educator.

Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List presents select PSE articles from the previous 15 years. APSA Educate is please to announce it will feature all future Political Science Educator‘s issues.


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