Sue Morron-Garcia

  • Working to learn – valuing placements

    Sue Morón-García, Abigail Powell
    Loughborough University

    Session 4c

    Tuesday 4 September 2007, 16.00-17.00

    Research paper

    Themes: Employability, Skills development

    At the Engineering Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (engCETL), Loughborough University, we want to improve student learning because recent reports criticising engineering education suggest that a skills shortage has been created by among other things “poor experiences of science and engineering education among students generally, coupled with a negative image of, and inadequate information about, careers arising from the study of science and engineering;” (Roberts, 2002, p. 2). It is also noted that “science and engineering graduates’ and postgraduates’ education does not lead them to develop the transferable skills and knowledge required by R&D employers.” (op. cit.).

    Skills identified as being in short supply include: project management, commercial awareness, people management skills, problem solving, communication and team working (IFF RESEARCH LTD, 2005; Roberts, 2002). One of the main reported reasons for this is lack of experience (IFF RESEARCH LTD, 2005). Lambert emphasised the importance of workplace experience for students:

    a large proportion of the initial skill-deficiencies reported by employers relate to skills and knowledge that are best acquired on the job. So it is important to increase the opportunities for students to gain experience of working in businesses. (Lambert, 2003, p. 111)

    At Loughborough a large proportion of our engineering-related students undertake a work placement which can be a valuable experience (Knight & Yorke, 2003; Lowe 2006) and also a key transitional period in students’ careers. However the placement is often optional and although students can work for a certificate it does not count towards their degree (with one exception). We do not know if students actually understand the value of the placement or how it complements their academic work; little is know about student perceptions of their actual experiences or how we can help them get more from the placement by integrating the experience into their learning before and after the placement.

    This research begins to explore these issues, the aim being to fill the “engineering” gap in other studies (Little & Harvey, 2006) , inform the perceived need to formally assess work-based learning, capture good practice and demonstrate how the work placement experience aids learning. The following questions were used to frame our investigation:

    • How do students think the work placement enhances their learning experience?
    • What do students say they expect to gain from a placement experience?
    • How do students say departments prepare them for a work placement?
    • What kind of work placement experience do students report they have?
    • How could the work placement experience be improved according to students?

    We adopted a qualitative approach that sought to explore student understanding of their experience. A semi-structured interview schedule, based on key issues identified by the researchers, was used to guide the conversation, but to allow the emergence of issues identified by the students. The interviews (21 students from four of the seven engineering-related departments working with engCETL) were conducted face-to-face, in the workplace, tape-recorded and transcribed. The data was analysed with the aid of NVivo software, to generate meaning from the rich data collected. We began by using themes, based on issues explored in the interview schedule, to code the transcripts, allowing for the development of new explanatory categories generated from “free nodes”. These categories were later revised and resorted to reflect the guiding questions. The data analysis techniques used are consistent with the ‘Constant Comparison Method’ associated with grounded theorising (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1998) and the ‘Continuous Refinement’ of categories associated with a naturalistic approach (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) to research.

    Preliminary findings suggest that students generally value the work placement experience, even if negative, and see it as complementary, but different to their learning at university. While they were unsure how realistic it was to be “prepared” for the workplace, they did suggest a number of ways in which they could be supported before and during the placement.


    • Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory. London: Weidenfield and Nicholson.
    • IFF RESEARCH LTD. (2005). National Employers Skills Survey 2004: key findings. Coventry: Learning and Skills Council.
    • Knight, P., & Yorke, M. (2003). Assessment, Learning and Employability. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press & McGraw-HIll.
    • Lambert, R. (2003). Lambert Review of Business-University Collaboration London: HM Treasury / HMSO.
    • Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic Inquiry. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.
    • Little, B., & Harvey, L. (2006). Learning through placements and beyond. York: Higher Education Academy.
    • Lowe , D. J. (2006). Supervised Work Experience. Architectural Engineering and Design Management, 2(1-2), 49-60.
    • Roberts, G. (2002). SET for Success. London: HM Treasury.
    • Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory. London: Sage Publications Ltd.