What support students need to succeed in work placements

Students in work-based learning placements need support before, through and when returning from their experience. Here is advice for universities and academic tutors to maximise the benefits of the opportunity for all


De Montfort University
17 Jan 2024
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Placements and work-based learning are a driving factor in graduate employability. Studies suggest that work-placement opportunities positively influence employment outcomes for students as they drive the acquisition of technical, social and professional skills.

A study exploring the positive influences on graduate employment outcomes following completion of undergraduate work placements indicates that compared with peers who had not completed a work placement, 50 per cent of placement students were more likely to secure a graduate-level job with a higher starting salary. Also, after placement, students show more motivation towards their final-year studies, as it links their practical experiences with academic work and enhances their understanding and learning. A 2023 study demonstrated an increase in academic performance of 5.7 per cent among bachelor of engineering students compared with their peers who did not undertake a placement; it allowed students to better manage year-long projects and independent learning, resulting in higher grades in independent research assessments.

What does an academic placement tutor do?

But what support do students need to embrace and succeed in a placement? What is the role of the academic placement tutor? And what are the key elements for supporting students on placement?

Collaboration and cooperation among the university, employer and student are key elements for a successful experience before, during and after the placement. The university plays a pivotal part in helping students secure a placement. It provides information, advice and guidance about the benefits of placements, explains the requirements of the placement, facilitates subject-specific opportunities and delivers workshops to increase the chances of gaining a placement (to develop skills such as CV writing, applications and interview preparation).

The university also builds and nurtures relationships with employers long before students are placed, ensuring consistency of communication, providing clear support structures and outlining the responsibilities of each party.

Academic placement tutors act as the link and ambassador between workplace and university, enabling students to connect theory with practice and overseeing the progress of placement so it supports learning outcomes and enhances self-efficacy. They deliver pre-placement and onboarding sessions to prepare students for the experience and associated assessment. These explain how placement tasks can be aligned with academic knowledge and make clear what support is available to students while on placement.

Support for students during work placements

Placement tutors mentor students throughout their placement journey, maintaining communication between the student and university, providing pastoral and academic support, and delivering interactive online taught sessions that enable placement students to stay connected with peers, and share experiences and best practice.

Placement tutors play an active role in enhancing students’ career interests, encouraging self-exploration and providing guidance and emotional support. The career self-management model acknowledges how support influences a person’s career-related behaviours. Students do not always recognise the importance of work-based learning and sometimes underestimate the importance of professional skills such as communication, organisation, self-efficacy, critical thinking and reasoning. Placement tutors provide formative feedback on critical reflections of work-related activity through monthly journals, maintaining the link between employment and academic development.

A strong relationship with the employer and recognising the triangle of student, employer and placement tutor is fundamental in shaping the overall placement experience. The expectation of the host organisation is that students are given clear objectives, guidance and structured support from a dedicated workplace supervisor/manager. The placement tutor and employer facilitate student engagement with tasks and development against a range of workplace goals.

Ruth Brooks and Paul Youngson of the University of Huddersfield have recognised, however, that not all students benefit or are satisfied with placement; some may face difficulty “fitting into the workplace”, lack understanding or be unable to cope with challenging tasks and employer expectations. Therefore, understanding each stakeholders’ role and commitment to supporting the experience, combined with frequent, open communication contributes to effective placements, ensuring placement retention and the development of work-based and academic skills. Placement tutors help to support this understanding during pre-departure sessions that set the scene around expectations, and further explore the student’s understanding of this during placement meetings involving the employer.

How to support the whole student in their placement experience

Alongside their academic role, the placement tutor also provides pastoral care. Co-author Saheda Begum, acting as a placement tutor over the past year, is cognisant of the diverse needs of students that influence engagement and success of placement year. A trusting and empathic relationship with students is achieved through open dialogue as well as signposting and support intervention through compassionate approaches and active listening.

Students often display a range of emotions combined with uncertainty and anxiety when entering the world of professional work, which affects how well they settle into their placement. The placement tutor can best support them by initiating early contact and providing a communication route to address and reduce concerns. Students are reminded of the support services available at university and with their employer, including options to engage with workshops around budgeting, accommodation advice, finances, welfare and well-being. Early contact and frequent communication create familiarity and increase students’ confidence, providing a sense of belonging and connection with the university, allowing a smoother reintegration to studies upon return.

In summary, students embracing placement need support into, through and when returning from their work-based experience. Stakeholders (student, employer, placement tutor/university) must work together to support the student in achieving their full potential in the placement opportunity.

Saheda Begum is a placement tutor and Zoë Allman is associate dean (academic) in the Faculty of Computing, Engineering and Media at De Montfort University.

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