Two commonly cited definitions of internships are those from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) and the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS).  Since the term “internship” lacks a consistent definition across the academy and often across programs and departments within a particular college or university, these definitions, which transcend institutional and programmatic variations, are particularly helpful.

From the NACE (2011):

An internship is a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting. Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths; and give employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent (Definition of “Internship,” para. 2).

From CAS Professional Standards for Higher Education (2011):

The primary mission of Internship Programs (IP) is to engage students in planned, educationally related work and learning experiences that integrate knowledge and theory with practical application and skill development in a professional setting (p. 4).

These statements incorporate many of the common elements found in internship definitions, including the focus on work and/or professional contexts, the integration of knowledge and theory, and a focus on practical skills.  Likewise, differences between the two statements begin to illustrate the diverse perspectives on internships in the academy. For example, the NACE definition includes explicit references to considering career paths, making connections in the profession, and the role of the employer in educating the student, while the CAS definition includes a specific reference to “planned, educationally related work”.  These definitions begin to illustrate the variations found among internship definitions as each reflects the unique positions, perspectives, and values of the various stakeholders who create them. Schutte (2007) further illustrates this phenomenon as she, from a faculty perspective,  defines an internship as “an academically based experience for students in which the student integrates classroom theory with practical work experience”  (p. 120) (emphasis added).

O’Neill’s (2012) analysis of internship definitions reveals frequent commonalities among them such as “a reflection component, onsite supervision/guidance, and gaining exposure to a career…” (p. 6). She points out that across definitions there are occasional references to projects, assessment, and critical analysis.  Of particular interest in her discussion is the role of “the student’s academics” in these definitions, with some definitions asserting the importance of connections between the student’s academic program and the internship experience, others stating that the connection is optional, and still others not mentioning academics at all.   O’Neill concludes that internships “can vary before a student takes a step to become involved in one” and that whether an internship is high impact “may depends on the standard that the institution sets for those engaged in developing internships” (p.6).

Also noteworthy is the inconsistent use of the term “internship” itself to refer to these experiences across the academy.  Although internship is the most commonly used term in higher education in the United States today, alternative terminology such as “cooperative education,” “work-based learning,” and “work-integrated learning” are also used in some institutions and are commonly used terms internationally.

Students and instructors in physical therapy treat a patient.
Photo by Elon University

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What makes it a high-impact practice?

Internships provide rich, engaging, authentic, and contextualized learning opportunities for students (Freudenberg, B., Brimble, M., & Cameron, C., 2010) and provide ideal opportunities for creating environments consistent with the six traits of high-impact practice identified by Kuh (2008). According to Kuh, high-quality internships

Four students walk down the stairs in front of the Guilford County court house.
  1. Require considerable student effort. One of the more consistent findings of research on internships is the importance of effortful activities such as on-going guided reflection, analysis, and critical thinking (Eyler, 1993; Coll et. al., 2009; Daudelin,1996; Hayward, Blackmer, Raelin,2007; Murdock, Priddy, McChesney, Short, & Ward, 2005; Pecorella, 2007; Schutte, 2007; Stichman & Farcas, 2005; Sullivan & Rosen, 2008.), well-developed and carefully assessed student learning outcomes (Young, Stengel, Chaffe-Stengal, & Harper, 2010; Jaekel et. al., 2009), and appropriate and challenging work tasks with opportunities for learning transfer (D’Abate, Youndt, & Wenzel, 2009; Garraway, Volbrecht, Wicht, &Ximba, 2011; Murdock, 2005; Pecorella, 2007; Stichman & Farcas, 2005; Sullivan & Rosin, 2008).
  2. Help students build substantive relationships by placing them in situations that demand interaction with faculty and peers over a substantive amount of time. A number of sources assert the importance of interns interacting with faculty and peers through structures such as seminars, both on-site (Fernald & Goldstein, 2013; Goldstein and Fernald, 2008; Gruenert & Balch, 2004; MacAuliffe, 204; Moore, 2013; Piotrowski & Kim, 2007) and online (Hsu, 2004; Rundle-Schwark, 2007), through blogs (Chu, Chan, & Tiwari, 2012), and/or through faculty visits to the workplace (Coll et. al., 2009). High-quality faculty mentoring of internships emerges in the literature as a particularly important factor in effective internships (D’Abate, Youndt, & Wenzel, 2009; Narayanan, Olk, &Fukami, 2010; Stichman & Farcas, 2005; Young et. al., 2010).
  3. Place students in contexts in which they have direct contact with people who are different from themselves. Students in internship settings experience organizational and professional cultures that are new to them. Interpersonally, students work day to day with coworkers representing various ages, races, cultural backgrounds, professional roles, stages of career development, and more.  Research on internships suggests that from these experiences students increase their multicultural skills (Simon, 2012), improve their skills in getting along with others in the workplace (Cook, Parker, & Pettijohn, 2004), and improve their communication skills (Brown & Murphy, 2005; Knouse, Tanner, & Harris, 1999).
  4. Provide students with frequent feedback about their performance. High-quality internships are rich in feedback for students. The very structure of internships engages students with both a supervisor in the workplace and a faculty mentor, both of whom provide guidance, support, and feedback throughout the experience. Research supports the idea that internships that offer extensive feedback are perceived most positively by students and that strong mentoring and feedback from the workplace supervisor (D’Abate, Youndt, & Wenzel, 2008; Karlsson, 2010) and from the faculty mentor (Jaekel et. al., 2011; Narayanan et. al., 2010) are important components of internship effectiveness.  More finely-grained research further begins to clarify the effects of specific characteristics of internship supervisors, such as their understanding of the relationship between theory and practice (Karlsson, 2010) and their preferred  learning styles (Raschick, Maypole, & Day, 1998; Wolfsfeld & Haj-Yahia,  2010), on the supervision that they provide.
  5. Provide opportunities for students to see how what they are learning works in different settings. One of the most common assertions in the internship literature is the central importance of linking theory and practice and engaging in transfer of learning in these experiences. Scholars note this as a particularly complex aspect of the internship experience and one that requires careful course design, close mentoring, and on-going feedback and support from faculty (Eyler, 2009; Garraway, Volbrecht, Wicht, & Ximba,2011; Narayanan et. al., 2010). Studies have found that through internships students can achieve deeper understanding of pertinent subject matter and disciplinary concepts (Bay, 2006, Eyler, 2009; Parilla & Hesser, 1998, Simons et al, 2012, Hynie, Jensen, Johnny, Wedlock & Phipps, 2011) and grow in their ability to select, access, and apply relevant knowledge to ambiguous problems and circumstances (Eyler, 1993).  Some scholars too have examined various forms of learning transfer and analyzed the tasks involved in this complex work in internships (Garraway, Volbrecht, Wicht, & Ximba,2011; Narayann et. al., 2010).
  6. Help students gain a better understanding of self in relation to others. Internships place students in complex social situations in the workplace where they can experience themselves in new contexts and types of relationships. It is not surprising then that research suggests that internships can help students grow in self-understanding and self-confidence.  Among these findings are that students increase in self-concept crystallization (Brooks et al, 1995) and career choice clarification (DeLorenzo, 2000; Taylor, 1988), report enhanced self-esteem and positive self-perceptions (Fletcher, 1990), gain an increased sense of self-efficacy (Freudenberg, Brimble, & Cameron, 2010, Gainor, 2006; Pedro, 1984; Braswell, 2000), improve  their interpersonal and communication skills (Brown & Murphy, 2005; Knouse, et. al., 1999), feel better prepared to enter the workforce and/or graduate school (Simons, et al, 2012), grow in their confidence in their own skills and knowledge ( Gilbert, Banks, Houser, Rhodes, & Lee, 2014), and develop a more mature and realistic understanding of the world of work and how to work with others in the workplace (Brown & Murphy, 2005; Cook, et. al., 2004; Knouse & Fontenot, 2008, Hurst & Good, 2010).

(Kuh, 2008, pp. 14-17)

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Research-Informed Practices

Eyler (2009) synthesizes findings from numerous sources to identify best practices in internships:

  • Work related clearly to the academic goals of the program
  • Well-developed assessments that provide evidence of achievement of academic objectives
  • Important responsibility for the student
  • Site supervisors who understand the learning goals for the student and partner with the academic supervisor to provide continuous monitoring and feedback
  • An academic supervisor or instructor who pays close attention to the student’s work in the field and partners with the site supervisor to provide continuous monitoring and feedback
  • Attention paid to preparing students for both the practical challenges of their placement and for learning from experience
  • Continuous well-structured reflection opportunities for students to help them link experience and learning throughout the course of the placement (p. 20).

Common pedagogical features of high quality internships include:

  • Learning contracts that include clear, measureable, and challenging learning outcomes for the student and methods for assessing them.
  • Guided reflection on the experience before, during, and after the experience.
  • Guided reflective and analytical writing assignments throughout the experience; assignments designed to foster achievement of learning outcomes.
  • On-going, regularly scheduled seminars, providing opportunities for faculty and peer discussion that facilitates student reflection, growth, and learning.

O’Neill (2012) draws similar conclusions, suggesting that internships are more likely to be high-impact

  • When they are intentionally organized around learning outcomes
  • When students apply what they have learned in their courses to work experiences, reflect on those experiences, and receive feedback that helps them improve
  • When students build mentoring relationships with supervisors, faculty, and peers
  • When students are exposed to differences across people and in ways of thinking
  • When students are asked to use their experience to clarify their values, interests, and personal goals, including those related to careers

She also points out that both the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and CAS suggest that a lack of consistent intentionality on the part of institutions has much to do with variations in internship quality.  To produce high-impact internships she recommends that institutions

  • Strengthen how internships are defined, making clear the connection between an internship experience and the student’s undergraduate education.
  • Distinguish between learning goals and career development goals and include both.
  • Address departmental reluctance to do “vocational education.”
  • Improve collaboration and communication between career services professionals and faculty (p. 7-8).
A figure shows the co-requisite academic support structures for internships (facilitated reflections, goal-setting, academic supervision, and clear expectations) and the project outcomes of academic internships (sense of responsibility, vocational education, professional development, and application in the classroom).

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Embedded and Emerging Questions for Research, Practice, and Theory

Much of the scholarly literature on internships is largely descriptive. While most published studies discuss implications and future directions for practitioners, few discuss implications for future research. The two dominant themes in internship scholarship are internship outcomes for students and factors in internship design (Narayanan et. al., 2010).  Much deeper research in both of these areas is critical, particularly to identify more clearly the relationships between specific factors in internship design and student outcomes.  For example, research thus far documents the importance of student reflection, critical thinking, and analysis in student learning but more finely-grained questions remain largely unanswered, such as

  • What types of reflection and analysis are most effective to achieving learning outcomes in various domains (e.g., academic, cognitive, social, career) and in various disciplines?
  • How does transfer of learning occur in the internship? To what extent is transfer of learning bidirectional between the workplace and classroom? What particular pedagogies and workplace strategies facilitate, support, and scaffold these complex processes?
  • What are the respective roles and critical tasks of the faculty mentor and the workplace supervisor in achieving specific student outcomes?
  • What faculty (or university) mentor characteristics and behaviors lead to optimal student outcomes? How do internship design and student learning outcomes differ when students are mentored by career services professionals as compared to faculty?

While much more research is needed on the links between pedagogical methods and student outcomes, studies on the role of the university and workplace on internship effectiveness are even more scarce.   Narayanan, Olk, and Fukami (2010) point out that the literature thus far focuses surprisingly little on all three actors in the internship process – student, university, and host organization.  They call specifically for studies that examine all three of these elements simultaneously as an important step in building theoretical models for internships, pointing out that careful studies that examine even two of these actors simultaneously can be particularly valuable.  Potentially important research questions in this area might include, for example,

  • What workplace conditions are particularly effective in achieving student learning outcomes?
  • What site supervisor characteristics and behaviors lead to optimal student outcomes?
  • What are the most effective structures and methods for site supervisor and faculty mentor communication and orientation to one another’s goals, assumptions, and professional contexts?
  • What elements are most critical in vetting internship placements to ensure high-impact experiences?
  • What specific supports, resources, processes, and structures are needed in universities to foster the development of high-impact internships?
  • What types of faculty development and faculty incentives are needed?
  • What benefits and challenges emerge through university-host organization relationships in internships? How can these relationships be nurtured and maintained in the quest for high-impact internship experiences?

Divine, Miller, Wilson, and Linrud (2008) identify key decisions that must be considered in designing internship programs.  Although they do not explicitly identify these as research questions, high quality research is needed to enable faculty and administrators to make sound decisions about these program elements.  These elements and related research questions include, for example,

  • Required vs elective internships – How do required and elective internships differ in their processes, supports, and outcomes?
  • Managing/not managing the placement process – What are the comparative outcomes when students secure their own internship opportunities as compared to when faculty or staff assume responsibility for securing and vetting placements and matching them with student needs and interests?
  • Pass/fail vs graded internships –  How does the presence or absence of a grade for the internship influence student motivation? the quality of student work in the internship?  student learning? employer and faculty satisfaction with student performance?
  • Full-time vs part-time internships – While it is clear that high-impact internships require considerable student effort, what does this mean in terms of the amount of student time in the workplace?  How do learning outcomes differ according to the amount of time spent in the workplace each week?  Over what duration must the internship be sustained in order to see desired student outcomes?

Internships are highly complex educational experiences that are largely uncharted territory in higher education scholarship.  Given the prevalence of internships in colleges and universities today, research on all of these questions and more is urgent.

Boundaries and Intersections with Other High Impact Practices

Internships have much in common with service-learning as both experiences are organized around student experiences in the community and seek pedagogies that will maximize student learning from out-of-classroom experiences. The two practices also have in common their engaging and authentic social contexts and the opportunities for situated-learning that immersion in dynamic workplaces invites.  In general, service-learning scholarship is far more developed than is internship scholarship, and there is greater consensus around best practices in service-learning as a result.  Both scholars and practitioners who are interested in internships likely will discover many fruitful ideas for their work in the service-learning literature.

Study abroad internships are growing in prevalence and are perceived as effective ways to engage students more deeply in the cultures and communities in which they are embedded.  Investigations of how high-impact internships can be best facilitated in these challenging contexts are particularly lacking in the literature and would be of great value to faculty and study abroad program administrators.

Learning communities on some campuses have also been linked with internships and other capstone engaged learning experiences in the senior year, encouraging students to reflect on the whole of their academic experience and the developmental shift from college to career.  Learning communities have the potential to enrich the student’s interactions with peers, faculty, and staff around these important issues, amplifying the high-impact nature of the experience.

Increasingly, undergraduate research and internships crossover in any number of ways.  For example, in some cases students secure internships in research settings in which their day-to-day work in the organization involves conducting research.  This scenario is perhaps most likely in the STEM areas and in the social sciences.  In other cases, students formulate research questions in the course of their internships that they cultivate into formal undergraduate research projects during and/or after their internships.  In yet another form of this crossover, interns are at times assigned a research project to conduct as a primary focus of their internship in an organization such as a business or human service agency.  All of these hybrid forms of internship and research experiences raise both pedagogical and program design questions that are thus far unexplored in the literature and of great potential interest to practitioners.

A group of communications students on the set of Good Morning America
Photo by Elon University


Higher education institutions and internship host organizations alike have come under harsh criticism for providing low quality internship experiences for students (Carey, 2013; Lipka, 2010; Perlin, 2012; Schonfeld, 2013).  These concerns are perhaps most compellingly and comprehensively presented in Perlin’s (2012) Intern Nation: How to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy. According to Perlin and others, employers seeking free labor and universities seeking to respond to parents’ and students’ demands for more career-related opportunities have fueled rapid growth in internships without commensurate attention to quality.  Higher education’s role in this controversy particularly comes under fire when students pay tuition for these experiences and receive little value-added from the university in terms of mentoring, teaching, oversight, and quality control.

Related to this controversy is the issue of paid versus unpaid internships.  As Westerber & Wickersham (2012) point out, well-designed and well-implemented internships have value whether or not they are paid.  Furthermore, pay for an internship is not an adequate substitute for student learning from the perspective of higher education’s role in providing internships as credit-bearing experiences.  All parties involved in internships are advised to read the NACE (2011) position statement on unpaid internships. Those in the United States are also advised to consult the US Department of Labor (2010) “Fact Sheet #71: Internships Under the Fair Labor Standards Act” to learn more about legal issues pertinent to paid and unpaid internships.  Practitioners in other countries are encouraged to seek out information about policies governing paid and unpaid internships in their respective localities as similar policies are in effect in many countries.

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Key Scholarship

  • Coll, Richard K., R. W. Eames, Levinia K. Paku, Dave Hodges, Ravi Bhat, Shiu Ram, Diana Ayling, Jenny Fleming, Lesley Ferkins, Cindy Wiersma, and Andrew Martin. 2009. “An exploration of the pedagogies employed to integrate knowledge in work-integrated learning.” Journal of Cooperative Education & Internships 43 (1): 14-35.

    About this Journal Article:

    In a national research project analyzing data from employers, students, and practitioners, the study finds a lack of consistent methods and pedagogies for ensuring integration of knowledge in New Zealand’s Work-Integrated Knowledge (WIL)/cooperative education program. Makes specific recommendations for practitioners based on these findings.

  • Divine, Richard, Robert Miller, J. H. Wilson, and JoAnn Linrud. 2008. “Key philosophical decisions to consider when designing an internship program.” Journal of Management and Marketing 12: 1-8.

    About this Journal Article:

    Discusses important decisions that practitioners must make when designing internship programs. Includes brief discussion of research finding relevant to these decisions. Includes topics such as required vs elective internships, graded vs ungraded experiences, full-time vs part-time experiences, and managed vs unmanaged placement of students.

  • Eyler, Janet. 2009. “The power of experiential education.” Liberal Education: 24-31.

    About this Journal Article:

    Elucidates the possibilities and challenges of internships and service-learning, emphasizing the unique roles these experiences can play in bidirectional transfer of learning between classroom and the workplace and other higher level intellectual skills and learning outcomes. Summarizes succinctly guidelines for creating high quality programs.

  • Garraway, James, Terence Volbrecht, Merrill Wicht, and Bhekumusa Ximba. 2011. “Transfer of knowledge between university and work.” Teaching in HIgher Education 16 (5): 529-540.

    About this Journal Article:

    Focuses on internship experiences of students in the sciences, examining student perceptions of transfer of learning in their work along with additional data collected from site supervisors.  Identifies various forms of learning transfer described by students and concludes that faculty have a key role in ensuring knowledge transfer in internships. The article also provides an excellent summary of the transfer of knowledge literature.

  • Hayward, Lorna, Betsey Blackmer, and Joseph Raelin. 2007. “Teaching students a process of reflection: A model for increasing practice-based learning outcomes during cooperative education.” Journal of Cooperative Education and Internships 41: 35-47.

    About this Journal Article:

    Using an experimental design, the study examines the impact of teaching physical therapy students a specific reflection model (i.e., Model of Effective Practice) as a tool for deepening student reflection during a cooperative education experience.  Students in the test group demonstrated significant benefits, indicating the importance and value of teaching internship students skills of reflection prior to the experience.

  • Linn, Patricia I., Adam Howard, and Eric Miller. 2004. Handbook for research in cooperative education and internship. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    About this Book:

    A guide for designing and implementing high quality research on internships.  Includes examples of studies illustrating a range of methodological approaches, discusses the role of theory in research design, explains program assessment as it relates to research, and considers relevant ethical issues.

  • O’Neill, Nancy. 2010. “Internships as high impact practice: Some reflections on quality.” Peer Review 12 (4): 4-8.

    About this Journal Article:

    Describes the opportunities and challenges in developing high-impact internships.  Offers an excellent discussion of definitional issues in the field and provides suggested guidelines for developing high-impact experiences.  Emphasizes the role of institutions in developing high quality experiences.

  • Schutte, Kelli J. 2007. “Journey or destination: A study of experiential education, reflection, and cognitive development.” Journal of Cooperative Education and Internships 41 (1): 118-129.

    About this Journal Article:

    Using an experimental design, the study examines the role of reflection in the cognitive development of students in internship. Defines “internship” and “reflection” and describes the structure of the internship experience focused on in the study. Concludes that critical reflection is not a natural skill for most students and must be taught and guided by faculty. Implications for practitioners and scholars are discussed.

  • Simons, Lori, Lawrence Fehr, Nancy Blank, Heather Connell, Denise Georganas, David Fernandex, and Verda Peterson. 2012. “Lessons learned from experiential learning: What do students learn from a practicum/internship?” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 24 (3): 325-334.

    About this Journal Article:

    Employs a multi-method approach to identify student learning outcomes in psychology internships.  Employs pre-test/post-test surveys and perspectives of students, field supervisors, and faculty.  Findings include that students increased in multicultural skills and grew in personal, civic, and career development.

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Model Programs

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Internship as Research and Research as Career Readiness: Blurring the Lines

As I come to the close of my work as the Faculty Fellow for Internships in Elon’s College of Arts and Sciences, I am transitioning into a role in our Undergraduate Research Program. In part due to fortuitous timing in…

Facilitating Integration of and Reflection on Engaged and Experiential Learning

Since 2019, I’ve been working with my colleague Paul Miller to create an institutional toolkit for fostering both students’ self-reflection and their mentoring conversations with peers, staff, and faculty in order to deepen students’ educational experiences. Our institution, Elon University,…

A Global Perspective: Interning While Studying Abroad 

In my previous blog post, “Interning Abroad: Work-Integrated Learning in a Global Context,” I discussed the positive impact of having an internship while studying abroad as an undergraduate student. In this post, I would like to delve deeper into my…

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Mentoring Internships Online or in Hybrid/Flex Models

In response to shifts to online learning due to COVID-19 in spring 2020 and in anticipation of alternate models for higher education in fall 2020 and beyond, we have curated publications and online resources that can help inform programmatic and…

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The Center thanks Pam Kiser for contributing the initial content for this resource.