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U of T researchers create first Canadian guidelines for optimal internships

Undergraduate student Darrin Wijeyaratnam with Assistant Professor Ashley Stirling

Undergraduate student Darrin Wijeyaratnam with Assistant Professor Ashley Stirling (Photo by Joel Jackson)

In today’s ruthless job market internships often give students a competitive edge. But what makes for a valuable experience? And how do you measure success? Researchers from U of T’s Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education are addressing these long overdue questions with Canada’s first post-secondary internship guidelines.

It’s a development that could help thousands of students get the most out of their experience – an estimated 300,000 interns hit Canada’s job market each year.

Under the Employment Standards Act, 2000, the Ontario Ministry of Labour provides legal guidance for placements, but the quality can vary dramatically. Students could learn valuable lessons each day, or they could learn how everyone takes their coffee. 

“In the past there has been a great deal of attention focused on the length of internships and the amount of pay, but the more critical question that we should be asking is whether students’ experiences are educational,” says Assistant Professor Ashley Stirling, who is the Faculty’s director of experiential education and the project lead. “Now we have clear, universal recommendations to most effectively enhance student learning and development.”

The recommendations are set out in A Practical Guide for Work-integrated Learning, are based on the most current research and could be applied to any type of internship around the world, including placements, co-op programs, field experiences and work study.

To create the guidelines the team consulted with the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario and a 22-member advisory committee with representatives from colleges and universities across Ontario. They conducted focus groups at 11 post-secondary institutions with more than 100 faculty and staff.

They also drew upon expertise from across U of T, including the Faculties of Social Work, Applied Science & Engineering and Medicine, as well as U of T’s Career Centre, and the University of Toronto’s other two campuses in Scarborough and Mississauga.

What makes for an optimal internship? The guide outlines a concrete structure featuring explicit learning outcomes, hands-on practice, analysis and the opportunity to test new skills and ideas.

“Ideally, an internship should let students participate in real-world work activities and contribute to the organization in a meaningful way,” says Stirling. “They also need appropriate opportunities to practice, be challenged and receive constructive feedback. It’s important to integrate practice with theory to get the best results.”

This integrated learning model has been a key part of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education’s professional placement program. For over 15 years, students from the Faculty have taken lessons learned in the classroom and applied them to their professional placements. Last year more than 200 students completed their designated 100 hours of practice at organizations including the Canadian Sport Institute of Ontario, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Toronto, Upper Canada College and the Hospital for Sick Children.

“Theory from my courses helped me to create programming for gym classes at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health,” says alumna Kaylee Heyens, who completed a placement as a clinical sport volunteer. “The structured, hands-on experience was really valuable because it helped me discover what I enjoy doing. I’m now going to pursue my Master of Education in Counselling Psychology.”

In the future, Stirling and her team plan to conduct further research on optimizing the quality of student internships and hope that others will follow.

Education at Work Ontario will distribute the guide and provide training sessions to those who run internship programs. As a first step, Stirling and her colleagues will host a workshop during the organization’s annual professional development day on June 13. 

“The saying ‘every experience is educational’ is inaccurate. While there may be something to be learned from every experience, it doesn’t mean that each experience provides the optimal conditions for learning,” says Stirling. “We hope these guidelines will provide higher education leaders with the tools to enhance how they deliver internship programs – the end goal is to provide students with the best educational experience possible.”

A Practical Guide for Work-integrated Learning is available at: