The Ideal Versus the Reality of Experiential Learning

By Sarah Alspaw posted 05-29-2018 08:08


As the spring semester wraps up and campuses celebrate graduations, many students head off campus to gain experiential learning in the fields in which they hope to find employment in the future. Recently, the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) posted several articles in their online resources about effectively managing student interns and how to make a great experience for interns. As stated in the article “5 Must-Dos for First-Time Intern Managers” managing interns is just like managing company employees. Best practices include: having an orientation, getting to know the new hire, including their goals, skills, and learning style, and writing down a task list. The best tip, they say, is to maximize communication. Albeit, this should again apply to every employee, but communication continues to be a skill employers are seeking and a skill students need more practice to develop.

Taking on an intern requires a commitment from the company and supervisor, as expressed in the first line of the article “How to Be an Awesome Intern Manager.” It is great to provide interns with meaningful projects, feedback and a good manager. Over the past several years there has been an increase of companies who report that the internship program within their company is a strategic piece of the company’s talent pipeline. The employers benefit even more when the student views the internship as an extended interview.  

These articles serve as good reminders for managers as interns begin the on-boarding process. It is important for managers to be good role-models, but more importantly, to  serve as a supportive boss and team player. In addition, managers need to communicate clearly with their interns, for example, when the intern is not meeting expectations. Some interns do not have a lot of work experience or the confidence to proactively communicate. These are great opportunities to help them grow and develop the skills necessary for future work, regardless if it is a position within your organization or not. Clear goals and scheduled benchmarks will help the students stay on track, but also help the managers evaluate an intern’s progress. As difficult as it can seem for new managers, it is much kinder to provide constructive criticism early in the process, so the intern has the chance to improve, instead of waiting to provide that feedback at the end of the internship period. If the student is earning school credit for this experience, there should be specific objectives outlined with outcomes identified to help ensure the academic benefit for the students. In the reflective article “6 Ways to Be a Great Boss to Your Intern,” the intern experience hopefully provides students with ample opportunities to grow professionally, through experience within the industry and the specific company, but they may need gentle nudges to network with other professionals both inside and outside of the company. Good managers help young people build the communication skills to be successful in their future.

Student Survey: Internship Experiences

For this blog, students were invited to respond to a survey regarding their internship experiences as a way to gather insights that may be helpful to both employers and career center staff. As part of the STEM Coalition group several institutions shared the survey with their student body. There were 228 responses received with feedback about their most recent experiential learning experiences. Although this group has a special focus population and students self-selected to respond to the survey, there are some commonalities worth highlighting.

Survey Trends

First, many of the position titles were very specific, not just "trainee" or "intern." Some titles included were Biomedical Engineering Summer Associate, Control and Firmware Engineering Intern, and Aviation Management Intern. Some of the largest represented industries in the survey population were automotive, paper, engineering, defense, medical or biomedical, and manufacturing. The responses reflected the following data:

  • 84.1 percent of the respondents felt that their opportunities were formalized programs (defined as the company having a history hosting interns and had a detailed job description)
  • 96.1 percent of internships were paid, 2.6 percent had some other non-paying benefit, and only 1.3 percent had no compensation whatsoever
  • 45 percent of these internships took place at very large companies

STEM interns

As for the specifics of the student’s experience, 97.8 percent  of respondents were satisfied overall with their internship; 93.3 percent felt that it was related to their future career goals; 99.1 percent felt they developed as a professional and 96.5 percent felt they were exposed to the day-to-day realities of their industry. As a result of completing the internship, 98.2 percent felt they were more confident in their own abilities.

This survey also evaluated how well student’s felt that they grew in the eight Career Competencies defined by NACE. The following chart highlights the percentage of how students felt their internship helped them grow in each of the following competency areas:

The data that most stands out from these responses is the large number of students who did not feel that they learned about diverse cultures, races, ages, genders, sexual orientations, and religions within their internship. STEM fields have a history of underrepresentation from marginalized groups, and this may be a byproduct of the lack of diversity in the field. Employers should take an intentional look to increase their emphasis and training on working with diverse co-workers and clients and how their work may have a global impact. (Note: A series of blogs on diversity in STEM occupations will begin in June.)

Much of the students’ feedback was positive, stating that they enjoyed their internships and had no suggestions for improvements. For those that did have feedback, it is as follows:

  • Hire more interns to allow for teamwork.
  • More explanations of the big picture of why you are doing a task
  • More training
  • Shared housing for all co-op students and to be able to make friends
  • Provide a bit more diverse experience.
  • To have a developed intern program with planned activities (weekly or monthly). Have interns work as part of a team and individually.
  • Closer super-vision to direct the interns towards achievable short-term goals
  • More intern networking events
  • Give interns more freedom to choose which projects they work on.
  • Find more work for us to do. There were many times when I was just sitting around doing nothing.
  • Make sure co-ops are treated like full-time employees and not looked down on.
  • More cross functionality between different teams
  • Train interns for diverse skills instead of just allotting work pertaining to existing skillset.
  • Encourage co-op-to-co-op collaboration on projects where we would work together to design something or develop a new process in groups of three to four students—could make for an interesting activity
  • Have a more stream-lined onboarding process.
  • More shadowing of employees to fully understand the whole business
  • Give the interns more work to do in groups.
  • Terminology here is complex, maybe a lingo dictionary?
  • Have experienced employees as mentors. They can give more valuable advice than younger employees.

This conversation is only the beginning. We’d like to invite you to participate in a Discussion Board on the NACE Community, where we can collaborate to discuss ideas for sharing and increasing the impact of the experiences for students in their internships. Employers can share some things that have worked in the past, and colleges can share ideas and more details about the types of skills we’d like students to walk away with at the end of their experiences.

Join the Discussion

We invite you to discuss ideas for sharing and increasing the impact of the experiences for students in their internships. Employers can share some things that have worked in the past, and colleges can share ideas and more details about the types of skills we'd like students to walk away with at the end of their experiences. 
You can join the discussion in the NACE Community.

 Participating Colleges & Universities

Carnegie Mellon University, Florida Institute of Technology, Michigan Technological University, Montana Tech , Western Michigan University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute


5 Must-Dos for First-Time Intern Managers - The Muse
How to Be an Awesome Intern Manager - Huffington Post
6 Ways to Be a Great Boss to Your Intern - The Muse


Sarah Alspaw – Capitol Technology University –

Sarah Raymond – Montana Tech –

Jolie Woodson (Editor) – Cooper Union-



05-29-2018 12:07

Great article. There is so much value to these real, professional experiences (not just for the students, but for school and companies as well). We need to provide more opportunities for ALL students to have MANY of these professional experiences throughout their college experience, not just in the summer and not just after junior year as it enhances professional opportunities, drives improved academic performance, facilitates career exploration, and provides so many other benefits.