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Organisational aspects of the practicum

Introduction

In Module 2 you read about preparing for the personal practicalities of undertaking your practicum. This involved organising yourself to manage the demands of the placement, study, paid work and family life; to research transport, travel, accommodation and the community in which you will be working; and to prepare for any necessary requisites of the placement such as immunisations, medical certificates, security clearances, clothing etc.

This discussion looks at the more academic and industrial/professional organisational aspects of the practicum that can impact on your experience, and strategies to avoid or handle any problems. Lack of preparation, inadequate information, ineffective communication and ‘difference’ are factors that can create problems. Planning ahead is essential, as is getting a clear picture of what the workplace and University expect of you during the placement. It is also important that you clarify your own expectations of the placement. Problems tend to arise when your expectations and those of the workplace and University do not match up, for example in regard to the amount and type of supervision and work.

Five basic strategies for preventing problems and handling those that may arise are:

  1. Be prepared – plan ahead. If something unexpected happens that requires a change in plans, contact your workplace supervisor and practicum coordinator immediately.

  2. Ensure you are familiar with all necessary information (including relevant legislation) and keep up-to-date as you progress through the placement. Attend all University pre-placement and progress information sessions/seminars, and also any orientation to the workplace sessions held by the placement provider.

  3. Make sure you understand the expectations of the University, workplace and yourself.

  4. Seek help and support while undertaking your placement, especially if you encounter problems. Build up a support network of fellow students, family, friends and workplace staff.

  5. Speak up – ask questions and tell your practicum coordinator and workplace supervisor if you have any concerns. Keep them informed at all times – open lines of communication are essential.

Preparation – plan ahead

When undertaking a course that involves a practicum topic, find out about the timing and likely location of the work placement and assignments when you enrol. This will give you ample time to prepare for the personal and practical organisational issues that will arise, such as changing your paid work times, childcare, travel, transport, accommodation etc. (see Module 2). On the academic side, plan to have all assignments up to date before you go (other than those that need to be done as part of the practicum), and make arrangements to fit in any compulsory lectures/tutorials/exams with the placement. This will help ease the stress you might feel from trying to juggle too many things once you are on the placement.

Information – be fully informed

‘Forewarned is forearmed’. To enjoy your work placement you need to be well informed. You will need to know about the organisation in which you are doing your placement (see Module 1), the industry/profession in which you will be working, relevant University policies and procedures, any legal and/or ethical requirements, assessment requirements and remuneration (if any). Use the following checklist as a guide to the information you will need. Ask yourself:

  • Is there a code of conduct?
  • What are the Occupational Health and Safety regulations in the workplace and for the industry/profession? (see Module 5.1)
  • What are the legal/ethical requirements of the organisation, industry/profession and the University? (see Module 5.2 )
  • Is there a checklist of possible risks and management strategies?
  • Am I covered by insurance? University or workplace?
  • What are the University Policies and Procedures related to work placements?
  • What are the assessment requirements?
  • Is there any remuneration for students on placement? If so, on what terms?
  • Do I have the emergency contact details for the practicum coordinator and workplace supervisor?
  • Do I have information about who to contact for what?
  • Do I have enough information to survive the placement and enjoy it as a valuable learning experience?

Use this list as a guide to the information you will require. Check off each item as you get the information. Can you think of any other information you will need? If so, note your thoughts in your Portfolio and add any new items to your current list.

Expectations - clarify

Clarifying expectations is closely linked with gaining sufficient information for a successful placement. All parties to the practicum need to share the same understanding of the placement’s aims and intended outcomes. Understanding each party’s role and responsibilities in the placement is essential. Read about the student’s role and responsibilities as well as the coordinators’ and supervisors’ roles and responsibilities to get an idea of the whole picture.

Overall, it is the coordinator’s responsibility to inform the student, workplace provider and workplace supervisor of the placement’s aims and intended outcomes, and the University Policies and Procedures regarding student work placements. It is also the oordinator's responsibility to vet the workplace for risks, including cultural safety (acknowledgement and acceptance of difference). It is the employer’s duty (through the workplace supervisor) to make sure that the student is adequately informed about workplace Occupational Health and Safety, working conditions, clothing etc.

To avoid any confusion, all parties should negotiate and sign a placement agreement/contract detailing start and finish dates, aims and intended outcomes, general expectations and the roles and responsibilities of all parties.

Supervision

Workplace supervision is a key part of the practicum’s success, but this may suffer due to inadequate structure and the supervisor’s lack of time or feedback. Difficulties can arise due to confusion about what is expected. A student might expect, or need more or better quality supervision than is provided. A supervisor may have too high a workload to spend adequate, quality supervision time with the student or to provide constructive feedback. Some work can be isolationist (e.g. computer programming) and the student may be left on their own for long periods of time. This can create problems where the student needs to seek advice but has no one to ask.

To avoid these problems, students, practicum coordinators and workplace supervisors can negotiate a suitably structured supervision program prior to the start of the placement so that everyone knows what to expect in relation to supervision. This also indicates to the employer how much time needs to be designated away from normal duties for the supervisor to concentrate on helping the student.

It is important for you to ask the supervisor questions. If you are not satisfied with the supervision, contact the coordinator as soon as possible.

Work

Like supervision expectations, workload expectations can vary greatly between the student and workplace supervisor. Again, this mismatch has the potential to create tension. You may feel you are being given too much work, not enough work, or work that is unskilled or unsuitable. In some industries/professions, a ‘culture of overwork’ may be prevalent, where you are expected to work overly long hours.

As with supervision, having the student, practicum coordinator and workplace supervisor negotiate and sign an agreed work plan prior to the placement commencing is an effective strategy to ensure that the workload and type of work are suitable. In conjunction with this agreement, the student and coordinator could also sign a clearly written assessment agreement. Here is an example of a workplan and an assessment agreement used at Flinders University.

Support

It is important that the practicum coordinator, academic staff, workplace staff and fellow students, as well as the workplace supervisor, provide support for the student during the placement. If you feel you need more support, speak to the supervisor and practicum coordinator. Try to create a support network of workplace staff and fellow students for discussing experiences, and family and friends for practical, social and moral support. Also, if you are in a remote location, seek access to the internet and tele/videoconferencing to enable you to have 3-way discussions amongst yourself, your supervisor and the practicum coordinator.

Communication – be open and stay in touch

Keeping open lines of communication to the workplace supervisor and practicum coordinator is the best way to avoid any problems. If they know what you are thinking and feeling, they can help sort things out early. If you find yourself in a situation where communication between yourself and your supervisor has broken down, ensure you maintain contact with the practicum coordinator. Keep her/him up-to-date with what is happening. If you are going to a geographically isolated area, ensure there is some form of communication available so you can contact the coordinator, academics and fellow students. Look into country wide mobile access (CDMA country wide mobile phone service), and Internet (email) and tele/videoconferencing, as regular contact is needed to gain the most value from your placement experience. If not, ask your supervisor about other forms of communication access.

Difference

Special circumstances or ‘difference’ in relation to students in the workplace may involve special consideration in areas such as disability, race, language, gender, sexual preferences, age or religion.

Physical restrictions, discrimination, harassment and reduced safety at work can affect any student but are especially problematic for students with special needs. Physical disability may mean the student does not have easy access to the workplace. Language issues may mean students cannot read or understand warning signs or instructions. Racial and sexual issues may result in harassment and/or bullying. Students who are shy, or who have mental health issues may also be bullied or harassed.

If you feel that cultural inclusiveness is compromised in the placement, draw the workplace supervisor’s attention to the issues that are problematic and seek solutions together. Suggest the following resources and discuss them with him/her: relevant information from the Your Work Your Rights resource for RMIT students (note particularly About Work and Rights) and Racism no way. Also discuss language and cultural issues in the workplace, such as the languages spoken and read by employees; any communication problems due to language difficulties - where this may lead to a risk of injury, it should be treated like any other hazard; and any cultural problems experienced by employees (especially those that may be hazardous or may cut employees off from communication processes). Suggest encouraging employees with bilingual and bi-cultural skills to be actively involved in developing communication strategies and hazard identification, if this is not already being done (information adapted from Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care). It may help for the coordinator to participate in these discussions so she/he understands how these issues affect you.

Now it is time to reflect on the information provided in this discussion. Can you think of any other strategies that might be effective in avoiding or handling problems should they arise? Note your thoughts in your Portfolio.

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