Work placement learning: Journalism students’ perceptions of its value
Hazel Barrett, Liverpool John Moores University
Today’s journalism industry reflects a global society, and is characterised by relentless twenty-four hour news production to present the myriad of world events. Reporters wanting to enter the industry need to be multi-skilled, self-starters and able to work under the pressure of increasingly demanding deadlines. In this context, one way young journalism graduates may enhance their employment prospects is by gaining experience of professional working through work placements. The paper investigates the individual experience of work placements and learning of ten final-year undergraduate journalism students. It reveals surprising gender differences in the group following a range of work placements, in perceptions of self-efficacy and improvement in particular journalism and social skills.
Keywords: work placement learning, work related learning, professional identity, self-efficacy, and personal skills
Work placements can change lives, sometimes being the turning point when trainee journalists decide whether and where their future lies within the industry.
Placement learning is an essential bridge between higher education, vocational training and the world of work, which allows students to demonstrate acquired skills in a professional workplace environment, and to clarify future career aspirations. However, journalism is a competitive graduate field, where young journalists hoping to work within this industry face challenges and uncertainty. Today’s reporters have to be multi-skilled, self-starters, and able to work under the pressure of increasingly demanding deadlines and employment insecurity. This study explored a small group of undergraduate journalism students learning from work placements (and thereby their sense of skills development) to explore whether this could be sustained on return to university. The data gathered demonstrated indicate work placements play a transformative role in students’ personal sense of self-efficacy as journalists. However, the study also revealed an apparent gender difference in responses to these experiences, which may pose implications for future employment.
To date, research has seldom focused on the impact of undergraduate work placement learning on return to university. This study aims to explore student perceptions of placement learning; it does not involve any comparison or measurement of academic outcomes. Little and Harvey (2006: 2) argue studies of work placements cite skills development as an important feature of placement learning, but less is reported about the extent to which there is a positive transfer of learning from placement to subsequent stages of an individual’s learning. My project focused on the development of work-related learning as opposed to work-based learning. The former is more comprehensive, and prioritises the development of the individual, rather than the work-based location of that learning. There is an argument that evidence linking work placement experience with academic outcomes is weak (Bullock, 2009: 482). Duignan (2003) claims many of the benefits from placements cannot be measured by conventional methods. The research argument is that a relatively short exposure to work placement would be expressed in terms of development of personal/ transferable skills, rather than specific improvement in journalism competencies. Moreland (2004: 5) argues work-related learning promotes self-knowledge, and moves towards self-managed learning that students’ can build upon in their subsequent lives and careers.
The overarching research questions were: what are students’ perceptions and experiences of work-related learning, and was the learning from this sustained on return to university in the final semester of the undergraduate programme?
Work placements are a small but important part of creating the journalists of the future. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has produced student work experience guidelines. These argue students can benefit hugely from well-structured work experience placements that provide opportunities to practice newly learned skills, and experience journalism in a practical rather than theoretical environment. The guidelines suggest students get the best out of work experience by: being given a mix of roles and responsibilities; working on a range of jobs (i.e., court, political and news reporting, features, subbing and broadcast editing); by shadowing more experienced journalists; being able to work alone; and, by having their work supervised. The Union argues work placements should be a minimum of two weeks, in most cases; the firm offering the placement should identify a responsible individual to whom the student reports and feeds back; and that expectations of what the student will be able to do should not be set too high. However, with employment insecurity in the media industry, journalism work placements are competitive, and there is a perception that they may sometimes prove exploitative. Jeremy Dear, General Secretary of the NUJ, has argued would-be journalists are often required to do long stints of unpaid work experience at a variety of locations, incurring travel costs, without any promise of future employment. Despite this, journalism work experience can be seen as trade-off, offering free labour in exchange for an upgraded CV, enhanced job prospects, and contacts which could lead to employment. However, placement learning is complex. For example, some students’ self-knowledge could be enhanced in a professional setting, but confidence in skills could drop, with a greater awareness of professional requirements.
Since 2000, several government initiatives have promoted work-related learning as a legitimate focus of higher-level study. These initiatives were set out in a number of key reports: HEFCE, 2000; The Future of Higher Education (DfES, 2003); and the Leitch Review of Skills, 2006. Findings from the government appointed Work Experience Group (2002), cited in Dacre Pool and Sewell (2007), are relevant to this study’s post placement research. The group found that employers value people who have had work experience, reflected on that experience, and then articulated and applied what they have learnt. The Pedagogy for Employability Group (2004: 5) provided a list of the generic or transferable skills that employers are looking for in graduates. Many of these are embraced by the World of Work development scheme introduced by my institution, Liverpool John Moores University. The 1997 Dearing Report recommended that all institutions should identify opportunities to increase the extent to which programmes help students to become familiar with work, and help them to reflect on such experience.
Work placement learning needs to be made meaningful for the individual concerned (Wenger 1998: 51). Theoretical perspectives for this study encompass concepts of personal development planning, career development learning, and employability. Work experience learning is a key element of vocational training and has underpinned a number of employability models (Knight and Yorke, 2004; HiIlage and Pollard, 1998; Bennett et al, 1999; see also Dacre-Pool and Sewell, 2007).
Of direct relevance to this study is research that suggests perceptions of capabilities help to determine what individuals do with the knowledge and skills they possess. Knight and Yorke’s (2004) USEM model is based on an individual’s understanding, skilful practices, efficacy beliefs, and meta-cognition. The USEM model is defined by the belief that personal qualities, such as self-theories and efficacy beliefs, colour everything else the student and subsequent graduate does. Bandura (1997: 2) introduced the concept of self-efficacy, and suggests that it influences how people think, feel, motivate themselves, and act. In an earlier study, Bandura (1986) wrote that expectations of outcomes influence behaviour (see also Bandura, 1977). Individuals who expect success in a particular enterprise anticipate successful outcomes. A trainee journalists’ sense of their own abilities is therefore key to their career progression. A range of research studies has established the validity of self-efficacy as a predictor of student motivation and learning, and may regulate whether a person will initiate and maintain certain career behaviours. Put simply, the higher the sense of self-efficacy, the greater the effort, persistence and resilience (Pajares, 1996). Self-perception of capabilities help determine what individuals do with the knowledge and skills they have (Pajares, 1987). Lucas and Wenberg (1997: 433) argue it may be difficult for strong interests to develop where self-efficacy is weak or neutral, or where negative outcome are foreseen. The view of self-belief as an enabling construct in human behaviour is a key part of work by a number of other scholars, including Dewey (1933), Maslow (1943) Pajares (1996) and Zimmerman (2000). However, it is also important to recognise that all students are individuals and have different approaches to learning (Dweck, 1999).
Students’ motivation to pursue opportunities on placement is related to the proactive personality construct. This is grounded in social interactionist theory (Bandura, 1977), which argues that people are not only influenced by their environment, but are capable of creating or enacting their environment (Bateman and Crant, 1993). Non-proactive or passive people do not take action when opportunities arise. They are more likely to adapt to environmental change, rather than enact it.
There is recognition of the proactive role of individuals in the world of work (Fugate, Kinicki & Ashforth, 2004), personal initiative (Frese, Garst & Fay, 2007), and proactive personality (Thompson, 2005), which present individuals as active agents, who initiate improvement in their work situation. Students in this context will be defined as ‘adults and young people seeking to position themselves with regard to the labour markets in which they wish to participate’ (Moreland, 2004: 4). Universities need to reflect the challenging ‘super-complexity’ of the workplace, to allow individuals to live effectively in a chaotic world (Barnett, 2000). Mandilaras (2004) suggests placement students mature more rapidly in an often competitive and professional environment; their ambition is likely to be stimulated such that they return to university more focused and determined to do well. The same author argues workplace responsibilities may enhance students’ reliability, so they may take coursework and exams more seriously, and work more effectively to deadlines. The project was based on the assumption that work-related learning has practical intentions and outcomes for students, underpinned by self-perceptions of employability.
Gender differences may prove especially relevant in the graduate search for employment. A Higher Education Policy Institute report published in July 2010 says male graduates in 2009 were far more likely to be unemployed than their female counterparts. Occupational psychologist Dr Robert McHenry, commenting on the report, argued women tend to be more hard-working and conscientious (The Guardian, 4 July, 2010: 5).
For journalism students, it could be argued that work experience can provide an opportunity to learn about another context (i.e., the workplace, economic and technological changes, etc.), as well as what skills may support their future employability, such as freelance working. In addition, there is recognition that work experience is more than a context in which students learn about work, it is also a context through which students can learn and develop. Beach and Vyas (1998) suggest three pertinent forms of learning with which students need to engage: ‘learning on the fly’ (i.e., making requests for help); ‘learning by collaborating’ (i.e., working, talking and undertaking low risk activities), and ‘learning by observing.’ Crebert et al (2004) argued the most important factors for effective learning at university, on work placement and in employment, appeared to be teamwork, being given responsibility and collaborative learning.
Little and Harvey (2006) found the majority of students interviewed following work placements reported improvements in their inter-personal skills, particularly oral communication and networking skills. Most reported improvements in personal skills, and centred around increased confidence, team-working, personal organisation, and, time management. Moreland (2004: 5) argues it is the degree-level processes of reflection that promote a critical stance, which are important for employability. Moon’s (2004) research supports the crucial role of reflection in the context of employability, namely to develop ‘the three S’s’ – self-efficacy, self-confidence, and self-esteem. Moon further suggests these provide a crucial link between knowledge, understanding, skills, experience, and personal attributes and employability.
Professional identity: what is a journalist?
Professional identity is a multi-layered construct. Journalism students’ perception and understanding of their skills, self-efficacy and professional identity, enhanced through work placements, is an equally complex matter. Willis (2010: 15) argues journalists’ learn what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour from other journalists’, who have themselves learnt it from other journalists’. Deuze (2005) suggests that journalists’ occupational identity and ideology should be understood in the context of fast changing technology and society, which higher education journalism students are likely to experience for the first time on work placement. Duignan (2003) argues that the placement student is transient in the workplace, suspended between two worlds with distinctly different value and rewards systems, which can be manifested as de-motivation on return to studies, with a subsequent loss of learning transfer.
This indicative, interpretative study was aligned to the research aims to explore the relationship between work experience and learning, in the light of individual student experience. The aim was to explore student perceptions of placement learning, and so does not involve any comparison or measurement of academic outcomes. The focus was to explore journalism undergraduate perceptions of a month of unpaid work placements in the media industry, and the impact of these on return to university. Twenty-eight undergraduates out of a potential research sample of sixty-one in the final year of the B.A. (Hons) Journalism and International Journalism programmes at Liverpool John Moores University volunteered to share their reflections on their placement experiences. The research aim was to explore the impact of placement on students’ sense of self-efficacy and interpersonal skills, and whether this was sustained to the end of their undergraduate programme. Students’ self-assessment and interviews was conducted at three stages: specifically, before placement, immediately after placement, and three months later, at the end of their degree. Ten were eventually selected from the volunteers to reflect a fifty/fifty gender split, and those who had decided to specialise in one of four journalism media (i.e., print, radio, television and online journalism) and two others, who were undecided about whether to pursue a career in journalism.
Participants were treated as one population in order to narrow the research focus. No distinction was made between placement experiences in Britain and those outside the UK. The work placements were predominantly with regional, national and international news organisations. These included newspapers (such as the Liverpool Echo, Yorkshire Evening Post, the Independent on Sunday, Sunday People), broadcast outlets (such as BBC Radio Merseyside, BBC Radio Shropshire, Radio Four’s You and Yours programme, a CNN office based in Munich, ITV’s Tonight with Trevor MacDonald) as well as marketing and public relations companies.
Cognitivist learning theory is relevant here, where a person perceives stimuli and consciously interprets them in relation to his or her own mental frameworks (Dewey, 1934). Work-related learning takes many forms, occurs in many contexts and can have widely differing relationships to higher education (Brennan et al, 2006). It’s important to note sites offering work placements differ in terms of their complexity, insularity, power relations, and the nature of boundaries. There’s also a recognition that the length of the placements may determine the range and scope of activities that students will undertake, and the development of knowledge, skills and attributes that might be gained. As the work placements undertaken by the research participants were with a range of professional media outlets, some of the findings may be of interest to journalism and media educators in higher education, though not in a strictly ‘scientific’ way. Previous studies, as we have seen in our discussion above, suggest work-related learning is a complex, multi-faceted construct with both internal and external dimensions (Rothwell et al, 2007).
Pertinent research themes for this study include: What is the knowledge emanating from work-related learning? What are the complex characteristics and outcomes of work placement learning? Is the reality of work placement experiences a spur to further personal and professional learning?
The predominant research method was qualitative and involved face-to-face interviews to gain insight into the mind of the learner. A social constructivist approach was followed, enabling students to articulate their employability skills and experience (see also Nixon and Walker, 2009). Interviews were supported by students numerical grading of their own journalism and interpersonal skills at the three research stages using a 10 point Likert scale, with ten being the highest and zero, the lowest. Before their placement, students assessed their skills and completed a questionnaire to identify placement goals. Postplacement, they took part in face-to-face interviews and further skills assessment, and this was repeated at the end of their final semester, three months later. The intention was to reflect the complexity of work placement learning around the development of selfefficacy beliefs, because of the range of contributing factors to placement learning.
The approach to considering post-placement interview reflections was underpinned by previous research (Kolb, 1984; Little and Harvey, 2006; Schon, 1983, 1987). The interviews were arranged around three themes: placement learning in relation to personal development, enhanced understanding, and approaches to learning. Placement experiences may have shaped students’ future intentions, previous ideas and plans could be confirmed, new areas of interest within the broad subject area might have been opened up, specific areas of work rejected, and, future career plans changed accordingly. Selfperceptions of skills and employability associated with work placements should be seen in the context of the ‘widening participation’ agenda (HEFCE, 2007a: Bennett, Eagle, Mousley, and Ali-Choudhury, 2008) because of the range of ethnicity, nationality and social class among the student sample.
The interviews were semi-structured (Drever, 1995) to add depth to the research; that is, to gain some ‘thick’ description in order to identify themes arising from the actual placement learning. At the end of the final semester, the same students were re-interviewed, to assess any longer term impact of placement learning. The volunteers were selected according to gender, male (M1–5) and female (F1–5) specialising in the four media of print, radio, television and online journalism. Questions explored personal and professional learning from work placement experiences, as well as suggestions as to how that learning could be sustained in the final semester of the degree programme. There is recognition of the impact of power relations on the student-lecturer relationship, and its potential to distort questionnaire and interview findings. Care has been taken with the interpretation of their reflections. While not every student interviewed for this study presented experiences in the same way, their skills assessments were used to explore the value added by the placements, and to provide data to support findings from the subsequent face-to-face interviews. Participants were given the same skills assessment sheets at the three research stages regardless of their final undergraduate year journalism specialism and gender.
Findings: The journalism student experience of work placement
The pre-placement questionnaire revealed the reasons behind the choice of particular placements, ranging from gaining insight into the media industry; how acquired skills were applicable in the workplace; to supplement university learning with practical experience; and, to enhance their employability. However, there appeared to be wide variation in levels of participants’ confidence in relation to workplace engagement.
Participants were asked questions to explore personal and professional placement learning; their expectations versus placement reality; how students were received, what they were more or less confident about; any effect on career aspirations, semester goals on return to university, and, whether and how they intended to sustain that professional edge. In practice, there was a range of work students were asked to do on their placements. Many were used in supportive roles to help existing news teams. Just under half provided assistance to functional teams and carried out research for television programmes, newspaper articles and marketing and public relations campaigns. A smaller share, about one in five, were required to produce up to five news stories on a daily basis for regional newspapers; others had their articles published in national newspapers and lifestyle magazines. Others covered industrial tribunals, door-stepped celebrities, and one was in a photo-shoot that led to coverage in a national newspaper.
Personal development –reception and feedback
Encouragement, or lack of it, had more weight than might be expected on the placement experience as a whole. How students were received appeared vital to the students’ emotional state and engagement, and whether the students had negative or positive work placement experiences. About one in five decided not to pursue a career in journalism following their placement, but had discovered new strengths and personal skills they didn’t know they had, which left them feeling, they said, ‘liberated and empowered’ by the confirmation that journalism was not for them.
Feedback about the quality of work the students produced on placement appeared to be of major importance to their sense of professional identity, motivation to pursue a career in journalism, and, being able to succeed as a professional journalist.
‘For professionals say you’re really good, and have got the talent to succeed, it blew me away. It was like thanks, I can do the job.’ (F3)
Personal development – Team working
Participants worked in a range of teams on placement, which ranged from a small group of foreign correspondents, with reporters in regional newsrooms, small editorial groups in national and regional newspapers, magazines, an online entertainment website, police press office, and, working for clients in marketing and public relations companies.
Personal development –self-knowledge
Participants were asked what they had learnt about themselves on placement. Responses tended to revolve around a sense of gaining confidence, self-knowledge and confirmation of future career direction. Female 1 said she wanted to gain confidence in her abilities as a journalist. Post-placement, the same student said she had learnt she was a much better journalist than she thought she was. Placements appeared to make research participants more self-aware and self-critical, better able to take criticism, more aware of others, and how to work effectively in teams.
Enhanced understanding – mentoring and feedback
Having a workplace mentor and being given feedback on the quality of work produced appeared essential to the overall placement experience (see also Lent et al, 1994:16; Lucas and Wanberg, 1997: 433). Regular feedback appeared to contribute to the depth of students learning, sense of self-worth, and, journalistic identity. In most cases, participants said this led to developing relationships with staff, good placement references and offers to maintain contact beyond the placement period.
‘I was looking forward to working for a hard task master, wanting to get hard feedback so I know what to do in the future. At the end of each week I had a meeting to be told what I had done well and what I needed to improve on.’ M3)
‘The deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday was always giving me feedback. He was quite strict…. I was making ridiculous mistakes. From the feedback I got on work experience made me feel sure I’m capable’ (F2)
Enhanced Understanding- the media industry
Participants appeared to be unanimous about the positive benefits of work placements, whether they had had good or bad experiences. Most believed in the benefits of professional working, which had a motivating effect and made them more self-critical of the journalism they produced.
Approaches to learning: returning to university
The majority of participants said they had noticed a different attitude to their studies, and found greater confidence and motivation to work hard to get a good degree, to enhance their employment prospects. Others described how placement had given them greater clarity about their future career paths, and wanted to complete their studies as quickly as possible. One female (F1) student gained enormous confidence from her placement at a regional weekly newspaper. She said she was like a ‘sheep’ prior to placement, but work experience had changed that, giving her the confidence to work hard to achieve her career ambitions.
However, between the two worlds of university and work, most of the participants said they found coming back to university from placement disorientating, even de-motivating. They seemed disenchanted with the prospect of further time at university, with its accompanying academic and social pressures (see also Bullock et al, 2009: 488). About three-quarters of them felt returning to university was a step back, which took them away from ‘real world’ working, and the valuable contacts they had made. Placements increased female participants’ work ethic in particular, making them more pro-active, driven, and organised.
‘I think it’s up to the individual now. It’s about driving yourself. Now is the time to do it yourself. It’s about pushing to the finishing line.’ (F3)
All of the participants said their journalism skills were improved on placement, but particularly newsgathering, demonstration of professional values, speed of working, idea generation, subject knowledge, writing and personal initiative.
Comparisons with the male group are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Journalism Skills: Males and females average point scores, before and after placement
Personal skills ‘development’
The third stage of the research process was designed to explore any longer term impact of placement learning, three months after the placement period. Final interviews were
Personal development appears to be a major element of the placement experience
Gender differences were apparent in perceptions of the most marked skills improvements. To clarify, post-placement males sensed notable improvements in what could be loosely described as ‘assertive’ journalism skills: speed of working, critical awareness of reporting practice, newsgathering, news writing, demonstration of professional values, ideas generation, news judgement, and working under pressure. Lesser improvements were perceived in initiative, storytelling, subject knowledge and creative thinking and innovation. Females as a group sensed improvements in what could be described loosely as mainly ‘less assertive’ journalism skills’: preparation, demonstration of professional values, subject knowledge, initiative, and ideas generation. There was less improvement reported in relation to news judgement, speed of working, finding relevant interviewees, writing, storytelling, interviewing, working pressure and creative thinking and innovation. (see also Little and Harvey, 2006). Participants expressed improved interpersonal, organisational and time management skills. Increased confidence seemed to derive from a range of experiences, including having sought and taken on more reporting tasks, acquitting themselves well, realisation that communication skills had developed to a level where they felt comfortable communicating with a range of people more effectively, and, through a more informed sense of how their skills could be employed in a variety of situations in the workplace.
This learning was sustained on return to university, as many recognised that they had developed their capacity to plan and manage their university workload (Figure 2). There was a comparable sense of improvement in personal skills between the sexes, but again in different areas. Males believed there had been improvements in all attributes and especially organisation, communication, persistence, responsibility, team-working and confidence. Female participants meanwhile believed they had also improved in almost all of the assessed personal skills: organisation, work ethic, responsibility, speed of learning, team-working, timekeeping, communication, confidence and persistence.
Figure 2: Personal Skills: males & females average point scores before and after placement
Figure 3: Personal Skills: males and females, change in average point score between before and after placement, three months later
again organised around any sense of personal development, any enhanced understanding and approaches to learning. The de-briefing and reflection sessions appeared to help participants realise the full benefits of the placements, and provided a boost to morale, in the post-placement slump on return to university (Wallace, Murray, and Overton, 2009). Participants were asked what the university could do to keep them professionally sharp in the final semester. About one third of them spontaneously suggested post-placement reflection, as experienced in this study, claiming it had helped them to realise what they had learnt on placement.
Participants said they felt more confident, improved in their journalism competence, self-knowledge, personal organisation, motivation, and maturity. Females, in particular, expressed the need to excel, because of the difficulties associated with getting the first staff job. They understood they had to work hard to achieve their career goals.
‘It was the turning point, I think. I’ve been more enthusiastic, more confident, more outgoing. I’m more decisive, more assertive in getting stories….I just believed in myself more. I think work placements turned us from students into adults in a really short space of time.’ (F1)
‘It’s made me more focused. I knew before where I wanted to go. Now I know where I want to be.’ (F5)
‘It comes back to my drive and it makes you realise you do have a place in the world, and there is somewhere you slot in. You have to find a way to fit into it full time, which can be the tricky bit.’ (F3)
Questions were designed to explore the relative depth of placement understanding for the students themselves. Responses ranged from greater commitment, persistence, focus, awareness of professional practice standards, and, clarity about future career aspirations. However, a number of male participants had developed a negative outlook.
‘To be honest, I’ve found it really hard to be motivated. I realised early on that my confidence was going….When you’re not in control of your own work, it’s kind of hard having confidence, so one of my goals was to rise above this (M5)
‘I’ve learnt that it’s really tough out there. It’s a lot more tough than it was a few years ago. On placements be pro-active, not reactive. If you want to be a good journalist you have got to have lots of ideas. It’s not easy. There are not many opportunities out there.’’(M4).
‘‘I knew work experience would be a real test. Everything you think about yourself will be tested because you’ll be playing in a much bigger pool with much bigger fish.’ (M1)
Approaches to Learning: returning to university
Again, participants said work experience appeared to lead to a stronger motivation for university studies, and increased work ethic. Many highlighted improved time-management, determination, organisation, routines, work ethic, goal setting, and confidence in personal capabilities. Students were asked whether they had been able to sustain their professional edge on return to university, with its academic and social pressures. Responses ranged from having a different approach to their university studies, greater maturity, motivation, determination, time management and responsible attitude, to ‘being more relaxed.’ However, some said being able to maintain a professional edge following placement was up to the individual’s personal motivation. Almost half of female participants and about one in five of the men said they were more professional, better in their journalism, and working more quickly and efficiently.
‘Because I believe more in my capabilities that is making me more determined. That probably drives me a bit more. I know I can do it now (F2)
‘I feel like a journalist now and it’s not a practice anymore. I’m working a lot faster and now want to get the story online by tonight.’ (M5)
‘I came back from work placement a lot more efficient. A lot more grounded, more positive. My news sense was also better. Work experience motivated me so much…I thought this is what I want, this is what I’m doing, and I was meant to do this course.’ (F1)
Journalism skills ‘development’
Three months after the placements, both sexes felt there had been considerable improvement in their journalism skills, particularly with regard to finding relevant interviewees, generating ideas, preparation, and interviewing. However, compared to preplacement, males felt there had been a dramatic drop in their subject knowledge, creative thinking and innovation, and working under pressure. There were smaller ‘improvements’ in their sense of their news-judgement, newsgathering, storytelling, and interviewing, compared to female participants. In a pattern of continuing perceptions of journalism improvements, the ‘changes’ appear to have provided motivation that was sustained for three months to the end of the degree, to nearly double that for males. The female group showed more ‘improvements’ than males in the key journalism skills of newsgathering and news judgement. Seven areas seemed to improve: interview technique, idea generation, working under pressure, finding relevant interviewees, writing, storytelling, critical awareness of reporting practice. However, there was little or no improvement in three categories: preparation, subject knowledge, and initiative. There was a perceived drop in news judgement, speed of working and creative thinking and innovation. The complex pattern of gender differences in perceived personal skills in the final semester is shown in Figure 4
Figure 4: Journalism Skills: males and females change in average point scores afterplacement, and three months later
Perceptions of personal attributes had declined markedly by the end of the final semester for the entire research group, apart from work ethic and speed of learning. The same chart shows a drop in confidence and enthusiasm, particularly for male participants, although the assessments relate to individual research participants rather than specific gender characteristics. For females, it was a different picture, with a marked increase in their enthusiasm and speed of learning. However, there was a perceived drop in eight personal attributes: organisation, responsibility, confidence, communication, work ethic, timekeeping, team-working and persistence.
The overall motivating effect of work placement is revealed in Figures 5 and 6, in descending order. Placements appeared to sharpen both sexes’ sense of their key reporting skills, including idea generation of story ideas, newsgathering, preparation, finding relevant interviewees, and writing. Enthusiasm, creative thinking and innovation seemed to fall dramatically over this period.
Discussion and research outcomes
The study has highlighted the complexities surrounding student motivation to engage with the range of learning experiences typically made available via work placements (see also Maslow (1943) on self-actualisation theory). This could be interpreted as motivation to be a journalist, or, motivation to gain employment. Two participants’, one male, one female, who could be described as lacking motivation to be news journalists, appeared to demonstrate strong motivation when on placement, namely to display their transferable skills to enhance their employability. Both found work experience highly motivating, which subsequently drove a new career focus and their commitment to their academic studies in the final semester. In addition, it may have been highly motivated students who volunteered to take part in this study. It has provided a deeper understanding of the benefits and challenges associated with work placements, and the complexity surrounding the acquisition of professional knowledge and skills. There is a realisation that perceptions surrounding self-efficacy and work placement learning, explored in post-placement interviews, are highly individualised, with both internal and external dimensions (Rothwell et al, 2008; Bandura, 1995: 2, cited in Pajares, 1996).
Gender-related differences were apparent in the participants’ responses, but this study’s sample was too small to sustain generalisations. That said, it uncovered evidence to suggest male and female students often experienced work placement learning in different ways, particularly with regard to their perceptions of their own development of journalism and personal skills, and changes to these on return to university. More specifically, the women in the study group came back motivated, hungry to apply their new found sense of confidence for news days and individual projects. The males meanwhile appeared to be more reluctant to be back at university, wanted to be back in industry, and their confidence and own self-perception of their skills had definitely taken a nosedive when back at university in the final semester of their undergraduate programme. This lack of confidence could then go on to have a knock on effect on males’ motivation to apply for jobs to be a journalist, or a completely different job, to pay their way and pay off their debts.
This study has provided evidence that short workplace experiences can be hugely motivating for vocational students, in their perceptions of sense of self-belief and selfefficacy (as a journalist), transferable skills, and understanding of employment options. This research finding supports Bandura’s (1977) self-efficacy concept and Knight and Yorke’s (2004) USEM model, based on an individual’s understanding, skilful practices, efficacy beliefs, and meta-cognition. Skills-assessment sheets post-placement support these views, and show this led to subsequent improvements in students’ professional identity, time keeping and confidence, organisation, independence. Where the female participants were concerned, it appears to have led to increased motivation for their academic studies on return to university (see also Bandura, 1977; Bateman and Crant, 1993).
My overriding perception from the interviews conducted following this short period of work experience was that participants tended to focus on the benefits of their placement, rather than concentrating on specific skills development. Three months after the placement period, participants continued to express a holistic sense of development, rather than improvement in specific journalism and personal skills. This supports a previous studies (Duignan, 2003 and Little and Harvey, 2006: 1) where it has been argued that many of the benefits from placements cannot be measured by conventional academic methods. However, the data highlighted surprising gender differences in the research group, in perceptions of improvement of particular journalism and personal skills. Only females over the length of the research period sensed a marked increase in their journalism skills, greater than the males as a group. This supports previous research (Mandilaras, 2004), which showed female students in competitive environments often outperform their male counterparts, and go on to achieve higher degree classifications. Male participants anonymously sensed stronger interpersonal skills three month after placement compared to their female counterparts. It was therefore fascinating to discover females, as a group, sensed stronger development and confidence in their journalism skills, which were sustained on return to university. Female participants felt the greatest improvement in their perception of their own journalism skills. This challenges earlier research (Betz & Hackett, 1981) which suggested women lack strong expectations of personal efficacy in relation to many career related behaviours, and therefore fail to realise their capabilities and talents in career pursuits. Skills assessment data confirms a number of studies that the benefits of placements tend to be improvements in personal transferable skills valued by employers, such as team-working, communication and learning skills (Bullock et al, 2009; Little and Harvey, 2006; Lucas and Tang, 2007 and Bennett, 2008). Supporting Little and Harvey’s (2006) study, in particular, the majority of students interviewed also reported improved confidence, motivation and personal organisation. However, differences between placement organisations and length of placements activities make comparisons between gender difficult. Measurements are unreliable because of the brevity of the placement period, number of placements within that time, and variety of placement tasks undertaken by both sexes. In addition, each research participant and their placement organisations would have had particular priorities in terms of the placement learning outcomes, and these would have been met differently in the contexts provided (see also Guile and Griffiths, 2001).
The degree to which any one placement will provide opportunities for a student to further develop a full range of personal and/or journalism attributes is questionable (Little, 2000: 124). However, the explicit identification of certain skills for this study could have served as a useful prompt to foster student reflection on placement learning. Analysis of how and whether placement learning was sustained was complex, because of varying student motivation for journalism as a career, and the variety and length of placements, which make simple comparisons unsafe. However, many participants said their placement
TABLE 1: males average skills scores and changes by placement stage
experiences largely depended on what they were prepared to put into them. At the same time, the research has shown that a month of work placements can have a marked effect on journalism students’ sense of self and professional efficacy. Face-to -face interviews revealed the complexity surrounding the development of self- identity and self-efficacy beliefs (Bandura, 1997) and that students’ have different learning needs on their various
paths to employment. The research argument that a short period of placement would reveal improvements to personal rather than journalism skills signalled a more complex pattern of change. Figures for females as a group in Table 2 reveal a range of improvements in a number of journalism skills, and that they had become better organised. Post-placement interviews showed placements have strong potential to enhance
Table 2: Female average skill scores and changes in placement stage
students’ professional identity and career aspirations, alongside their sense journalism and personal competencies.
‘After Christmas, I thought I couldn’t be a journalist, At work experience, I went out and really did it, and learnt I’m much better than I thought I was (F1).
‘The placements have made me more confident about my news-writing, newsgathering, being able to conduct interesting interviews, and getting information out of people’ (M4)
The findings appear to strongly support previous studies on the benefits of work placements for students in higher education (Little & Harvey, 2006; Lucas & Tang, 2007, Blackwell et al, 2001). Irrespective of whether participants had positive or negative work placement experiences, all participants believed time on placement had been personally significant. Overall, the study has provided evidence that short work placements can provide intense, complex and multidimensional learning experiences for individuals, aligned to social constructivist theory, in relation to the background and culture of the learner, and, sustaining the motivation to learn (Wertsch, 1997). However, there is awareness that any assessment and measurement of related self-efficacy beliefs is fraught with problems, not least their complex nature and range of contributing factors making accurate measurement difficult. Pajares (1996) argues that judgements of capability may vary across realms of activity, different levels of task demands within a given activity domain, and under different situational circumstances.
No clear conclusions can be drawn from these data because of the complexity surrounding the formation of self-identity and self-efficacy constructs. The findings relate to individual perceptions, and do not provide evidence of the development of specific skills per se. The research revealed the importance of pre- and post-placement preparation and reflection, to challenge and support students on undergraduate journalism programmes, to maximise their work related learning and employability regardless of their apparent confidence in relation to these.
The findings do not in any way identify, differentiate or describe the varying personalities or career motivations of the participants. Participants varied in the length and number of placements they experienced during the month long period (ranging from a month, a fortnight, and a week). For example, one spent an entire placement month with CNN in Munich. Gender comparisons are also unreliable, because of the internal and external dimensions associated with individualised self-identity and self-efficacy beliefs. As a footnote, almost one half of the research sample secured full-time paid employment during graduation month, which may have been a result of the newfound confidence and experiences gained from work placements. However, female research participants, it should be added, secured three-quarters of the new appointments. There could be another gender dynamic at play. Many gender differences in cognition, motivation, emotion, and social behaviour may be explained in terms of men’s and women’s different thinking, feeling, and behaving. (see also Cross, S.E. & Madson, L, 1997). Females tend to be more self-critical, more honest about their need to improve, kept working hard and pushing on until they get the job they want. Is it this critical honesty about their perception of skills that drives women to get the jobs?
It must also be remembered the findings are specific to the research individuals, and reflect the small sample size of ten participants, so comparisons are unsafe. They are suggestive, rather than definitive. With the placement period just a month, the consistency of these observations would need to be tested over a longer period of time, ideally in a longitudinal study with a larger group of journalism students a year after graduation. However, findings from this study will be used to prepare journalism students for work placements, and to explore ways to consolidate placement learning on return to the university. Ultimately, the value of work placements may be beyond measurement, marks and grades, but interesting questions are raised regarding the research participants’ motivation for their academic and practical studies on return to university, which highlight the relative advantages and disadvantages of applied placement learning. However, for the individuals concerned, differences in skills perceptions may well be of greater significance.
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