A coaching-like approach to support internships

A successful learning experience rewards both the student and their instructor

For many university students, the summer also involves an internship or summer job. Workplaces welcome students in various roles: as mentors, colleagues or even internship instructors.

The start of an internship is an important stage during which people get to know each other, prepare policies and reconcile their expectations. Often, scheduling your own work is a challenge during an internship and when starting work, in general. The entity has not yet taken shape, the details are unknown, and the conception of the time the various tasks require is still developing.

“It is difficult for interns to conceptualise the timeframe within which they are expected to complete tasks. Often, they put too much pressure on themselves. For our, the employers’, part, this is sadly a common shortcoming during the orientation phase. Tasks and work stages should be scheduled better for the interns. This is particularly evident with interns who do not have previous education in a specialist field.” (Instructor, internship feedback for the University of Turku 2020)

This indicates that the development of expertise does not only involve knowledge of the content and methods of the work, but also a more extensive understanding of the organisation’s operations and processes. During an internship, a student gets to test their own working methods in a new environment, and often in a slightly more significant role than before. For an instructor, it is good to remember that many things that more experienced employees take for granted are brand new to the intern, and putting them into words or bringing them up is not always easy. Open dialogue and checkpoints agreed on in advance, in addition to free-form discussions, may set a nice rhythm for the internship and allow you to stop and think about more difficult or complex questions.

“We held an initial orientation and had regular guidance discussions and follow-up meetings on work. The intern also participated in the training sessions held during their internship period, which they liked very much. We also held a final discussion.” (Instructor, internship feedback for the University of Turku 2020)

If you are joining an organisation as a new employee, preparing in advance helps you get into the organisation quicker and lays the foundation for the learning experience during the internship. Making the most of the orientation period at the workplace is recommended. You can also think about what you would like to learn or know. An internship included in your studies may also involve preparing an internship plan, but even if it does not, you can still make your own plan! The employer can also participate in the goal planning. During remote work, in particular, there may be fewer opportunities for spontaneous interaction, which is why you should also focus on taking the initiative yourself. Your interests, suggestions and questions may open up new views of the internship’s content.

“The intern was truly interested in the field and wanted to know why things were done; they did not want to do things only because they were told to, but to know the reasons for working in specific ways. They also offered suggestions and improvements since the atmosphere favoured new and different ideas.” (Instructor, internship feedback for the University of Turku 2020)

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In working life, coaching is used to support personal growth and supervisory work, for example. One approach to coaching is a focus on solutions, in which you try to pay attention to your wishes, goals and dreams and build a path towards them through small and practical steps. Could you also approach your internship through some solution-focused questions?

What should have happened for the internship to have been beneficial or successful for me?

Whether you are a student or an instructor, you can ask yourself in advance: what should have happened for the internship to have been beneficial or successful for me? This question can clarify what you wish to achieve through the upcoming internship; what the goals of the internship are.

What would be a sign indicating that you have moved towards your goals?

Goals can be big or small, but to see your progress, you should think about what reaching your goals would look like in practice. Once you have clarified and set goals for your internship, you should also make them more concrete. For example, if your goal as an instructor is to learn more about instructing, or as a student about the competencies needed in the field, ask yourself what would indicate that you have moved towards your goal. This way, it will be easier for you to observe your progress during the internship. You may also notice that a larger goal can be split into smaller portions: for example, if your goal is learning instruction skills, you can divide it into learning the skills of active listening, diving into surprising situations and the ability to withstand unpleasant emotions.

Think about your situation on a scale of 1 to 10

You can use a scale to help with instructing the internship and observing your development. Think about your situation on a scale of 1 to 10 where 10 is the ideal situation regarding your goal and 1 is the opposite of ideal. Before the internship, at which level of the scale do you think you are regarding your goal? Why are you there? Why not lower? And what would be a realistic level to reach during the internship? A full ten, or something else? When you find the ideal level, what would the actual situation be like if you reached this level? And what could be a small step forward on the scale? What would be a sign of progress?

What will make you believe that you will succeed in your internship / instruction of internship?

This question is intended to illustrate your resources and motivation. We often focus on the aspects that are difficult for us or that we are insecure about; by reframing your situation through success, you can find elements that make you stronger.

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When internship instructors (Internship feedback for the University of Turku 2020) were asked about which factors had affected the success of the internship, many responses were related to the initiative and activity of the intern. In responses related to organising and instructing the internship, respondents highlighted varying and meaningful tasks that support the learning goals of the intern, systematic meetings and the intern’s ability to question the prevailing practices.

“Offering sufficiently concrete, varying and meaningful tasks that supported the intern’s learning goals and that they could also carry out independently. Also, being able to assign an instructor who was interested in the task and who had time for it for the student. The timing of the internship was perfect, as a whole.” (Instructor, internship feedback for the University of Turku 2020)

Small actions may have a great impact. Curiosity, friendliness and a will to learn are a good foundation for a successful internship for both parties. Often, the intern’s greatest realisation during their internship may be ‘I already know how to do this!’. Students have gathered information and skills during their studies that become more meaningful once they get to apply them into practice. Observing a student’s development is also a rewarding experience for the instructor.

Susanna Ahteensuu, University of Turku & Reeta Lehmusoksa, Tampere University