In a recent guest blog post for Time2Track, Making Hours Yours, I reflected on how graduate students in psychology and related disciplines may begin to view logging clinical hours as a more meaningful endeavor. Building on that notion, this post explores the features of an effective practicum or internship plan.

The post is written based on the big idea that the development of a student’s professional skills should be treated as an integrated process, not a series of isolated activities. The content is adapted from my forthcoming book Demystifying the School Psychology Internship: A Dynamic Guide for Interns and Supervisors, due out in December of 2012.

Features of an Effective Plan

Every field-based experience (e.g., practicum, internship, post-doctoral fellowship) is in some ways different.

Variations relate to (a) the student’s prior training including coursework, work in the field, supervision, and interests; (b) unique opportunities available at the practicum or internship site; (c) field supervisor areas of expertise and preferences for professional practice; and (d) organizational structures and initiatives that inform practice at that site.

Although a practicum or internship plan should be designed to match with available opportunities and individualized needs, there are several common underlying features, or big ideas, that can guide students and supervisors in successful plan development.

An Effective Plan Does the Following:

  • Includes the student as an active contributor to plan development by incorporating the student’s self-identified needs, strengths, and goals.
  • Includes formative evaluation so that the field experience is adaptive to the student’s developing needs.
  • Includes summative evaluation to determine the student’s readiness to enter the next stage of training or practice at the end of the year.
  • Covers a breadth of training experiences in an integrated and practical manner.
  • Incorporates at least one area of professional focus or interest (i.e., depth of training) as determined by the student.
  • Promotes accountability with regard to (a) the student’s developing competencies, (b) the support provided by supervisors to promote skill development, and (c) professional standards.
  • Is useful for all parties involved in supporting the field experience including students, field supervisors, and university supervisors.

An overview of an effective plan structure is illustrated in the image below: 

Time 2 Track: The Practicum or Internship Plan

In a subsequent blog post, I will explore how supervisors and students can most effectively communicate about the practicum or internship plan, and clarify expectations for the year. For now, I will briefly explore each of the components of an effective plan in some more depth.

Students Should Actively Contribute to the Plan

Optimally, students are engaged as active planners, coordinators, and shapers of their own field-based experiences. The development of a practicum or internship plan presents an opportunity for students to meaningfully influence what they are doing from early on in the year.

First, students can use assessment data to think critically about their own needs and strengths. Assessment data may come from field and university supervisors, peers, clients served, or student self-assessment.

Since different types of assessment have limitations, it is helpful to triangulate various forms of data in consideration of entry-level skills and formative skill development. Readers interested in more information on methods to assess competence are referred to the American Psychological Association’s Competency Assessment Toolkit (Kaslow et al., 2009).

The assessment of skills can be directly linked to goals for the field experience. Goals may focus on building skills that are absent or deficient and are needed for the student to progress to the next step in their training or practice, or enhancing skills that are already strengths.

Further, goals should be considered formative; they develop throughout the year. Though students know themselves best and may take the lead in developing goals, supervisors are likely more familiar with various components of the field context (e.g., available opportunities), and may have their own perspectives on goals that would benefit the student.

Also, students do not always know what they do not know. Therefore, a collaborative discussion of goals between the student and his or her supervisors is likely to benefit all parties.

Evaluating Student Progress

Both formative and summative evaluation should be incorporated in practicum and internship plans.

Formative evaluation has been described as a “continuous loop in which evaluation information guides decision making, development of serviceable alternatives, implementation of treatments, and assessment of effectiveness” (Levitov and Fall, 2009, p. 45).

Summative evaluation is used to draw conclusions at the end of a period of time. For example, at the end of an internship experience, a summative evaluation may be used to determine a student’s readiness to enter professional practice. Since summative evaluations are often used to make high-stakes decisions, they should be linked to formative evaluations and clear outcomes. Summative evaluation data should not be surprising to students or supervisors.

Breadth of Training

Effective practicum and internship plans cover a breadth of experiences in an integrated manner without being impractical. Many field experiences such as yearlong internships are structured with the intention of providing students with exposure to a full spectrum of services to help them feel effective across all domains.

Broad-based training is important for a number of reasons, including the increased expectation for psychology practitioners to demonstrate competence across multiple domains (Fouad et al., 2009; Kaslow et al., 2009).

However, at least two major barriers to incorporating breadth into a plan exist: (a) Sometimes attainment of breadth is emphasized without considering the student’s goals, creating a field-based plan that resembles a laundry list and is devoid of context; and (b) it is not realistic to expect that a practicum student or intern will engage in every activity in every domain of practice that a psychologist may encounter in his or her career.

Nonetheless, it is critical for students and supervisors to incorporate a variety of activities and roles into the field experience. Too narrow an experience may create a practitioner with too narrow a perspective on practice. To paraphrase Abraham Maslow, if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail.

To incorporate breadth into the plan, activities can be treated as integrated and cutting across domains. Discussion and planning should move beyond what activities are occurring to a consideration of why and how.

Depth of Training

Although having a wide range of experiences during the field experience is important, it may also be considered important for students to pursue one or more areas in greater depth.

The concept of depth is expansive and can mean gaining conceptual and applied knowledge with a specific population, in a particular domain of practice, in one or more competencies subsuming a domain of practice, or an integrated combination of all of these. To achieve depth in a given area, students require sufficient content knowledge and multiple and differential opportunities for practice.

The development of practicum or internship goals and a plan provide an ideal opportunity for students to determine a specialized area of interest to pursue in greater depth than other areas. Students and supervisors should bear in mind that breadth and depth are not mutually exclusive; students can participate in a number and variety of experiences and simultaneously seek out one or more areas more extensively than others.

Accountability

A practicum or internship plan should promote accountability for students and supervisors. The plan documents what the student has done during the year, and how supervisors have formatively responded to the student’s needs.

The notion of accountability integrates other ideas in this blog post such as regular documentation of activities, and formative and summative evaluation of the student’s developmental progress. Clear documentation of the field experience is beneficial to the professional development of students, and demonstrates the impact of field sites and graduate training programs on students’ skill development.

Further, in instances where there are any concerns such as a student exhibiting problems of professional competence, an ineffective field-based training program, or insufficient university support, the student and/or supervisors can respond pragmatically using informational evidence from the written plan.

Useful for Students and Supervisors

A final big idea is that an effective plan provides a roadmap for all navigators, not only students. The plan should be a catalyst for dialogue between the student and his or her supervisors during supervision sessions, site visits, university course discussions, and other points during the year.

All parties can use the plan to evaluate the student’s development, and to determine whether opportunities provided are meeting the student’s needs.

If not, supervisors should work with the student to adapt the experience. In order for a plan to be useful to all parties, it must be accessible. Accessibility requires a succinct plan rather than a laundry list of activities, and a plan that is readily available to retrieve for discussion, for instance in an electronic format.

A useful plan is an organic and dynamic document, not an archived document to be autopsied at year’s end.

Conclusion

A practicum or internship plan provides a guide to navigate the field experience from beginning to end.

Like a driver traveling in a new city without a map or GPS, students and supervisors who do not plan for the field experience risk driving along aimlessly and getting lost along the way.

It is my hope that the features described in this post will help students and supervisors to engage in practicum and internship planning that is integrated, pragmatic and developmentally driven.

References

Fouad, N. A., Grus, C. L., Hatcher, R. L., Kaslow, N. J., Hutchings, P. S., Madson, M.,…Crossman, R.E. (2009). Competency benchmarks: A model for the understanding and measuring of competence in professional psychology across training levels. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 3, S5–S26.

Kaslow, N. J., Grus, C. L., Campbell, L., Fouad, N. A., Hatcher, R. L., & Rodolfa, E. R. (2009). Competency assessment toolkit for professional psychology. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 3, S27 –S45.

Levitov, J.E., & Fall, K.A. (2009). Translating theory into practice: A student guide to counseling practicum and internship. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

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Daniel S. Newman, Ph.D., NCSP

Daniel S. Newman, Ph.D., NCSP

Daniel S. Newman, Ph.D., NCSP, received his doctorate from the University of Maryland, College Park and is currently an assistant professor at National Louis University in Illinois. He currently teaches and supervises courses in school consultation, clinical supervision, and a school psychology internship seminar, and is co-chair of the National Association of School Psychologists Early Career Workgroup. His book, Demystifying the School Psychology Internship: A Dynamic Guide for Interns and Supervisors, was released this December by Routledge.
Daniel S. Newman, Ph.D., NCSP