On experiential learning: Professional tips for students *and* employers

Professional experience – from practicums to internships, co-op jobs and classroom-based community projects – is not just a line or two on a resume to help students and recent grads stand out in a sea of educated candidates. Experiential learning opportunities are part and parcel for library education now, enhancing traditional academics by connecting the dots between the theory and concepts discussed in the classroom with the practical realities of executing that education in real-world environments. These professional experiences result in networking and references for job applications, situations to draw from in interviews, and a better understanding of library communities to inform career development goals. 

We know that experiential learning should be a great opportunity – not only for educating students but also for improving the productivity of employers – so we asked the following experienced supervisors to share some of their perspectives on what makes experiential learning a success:

> Anna Jubilo is the Graduate Programs Coordinator for the UBC Arts Co-op Program.

> Robyn Biggar is the Records and FOIPPA Administrator at the City of Port Coquitlam.

> Krisztina Laszlo is the Archivist for Rare Books and Special Collections at UBC.


What makes a student successful on the job during experiential learning?  

Anna: One of the most significant things a student can do to have a successful experience is to learn to respond constructively to situations presented to them, especially when things don’t go as they’ve expected. These experiences can often be jarring; however, the more we can learn from these experiences and develop strategies to respond to these situations in a constructive way, the better we can likely handle future experiences of these kinds.

Robyn: I find that the students that ask the most questions do the best, don’t worry about looking foolish – often the question you ask allows for the supervisor to better understand the perspective of others regarding information governance. Having a student that is eager, curious, friendly, and professional means success for us because that suggests they want to be here and are ready to apply the theory of their skills to a real life scenario.

Krisztina: A willingness to learn. It sounds trite, but successful students take advice and question what they’re doing. Those who do the best don’t assume they know everything. Also, having taken the required and/or related courses help a student be prepared to work.

What can students do to get the best education out of their placement? 

Robyn: Know what you want and need out of the experience so that you can fill in the gaps. I generally try to give students work that will expose them to the knowledge they want: Freedom of Information? Content Management Systems? Metadata Management? Training? There is a lot of choice in information management, both practical and theoretical – so knowing what you want will help you and your supervisor narrow the kind of work that will be assigned. Now is also the time to practice what you want to improve, because once you’re out of school, you’re expected to be the expert in your organization.

Krisztina: Get as broad a range of experience as possible while you’re a student, from different types of institutions to different aspects of your field. Also, be conscious of your community and the fact that this is more than a student job or placement—these are the people you will one day be working with and may be providing references for you. It’s not just about getting the experience but also demonstrating your work ethic and how you interact with others. 


What makes the experience of hosting a student successful for the employer? 

Anna: This depends on their objectives. Some employers have a clear project they’d like the student to complete, others will customize the work to the strengths of the student. Experiential learning is a way to meet and mentor students and see whether the students they hire will be a good fit for a more permanent role within their organization.

Krisztina: Take mentoring seriously. If the student can do more—and do it better and more confidently—at the end of their term, I feel the experience was a success for us, too. Helping them transfer classroom theory into practice and investing in their future feels good. Plus, it reflects well on me and the graduate program to produce successful, employable students. 

How can employers get the best work out of their students? 

Anna: Be clear about your plans and expectations from the application process, and talk to the student to find out about their expectations within the scope of the work being offered. Make sure there are plans for the student to receive adequate guidance and regular, constructive feedback throughout their work term. 

Robyn: Two things come to mind. First, choose work the student is interested in, because they will be that much more passionate and invested in the work they do. Second, keep the experiential learning project to a minimum, such as one mini project. I have a tendency to underestimate the time it will take a student to complete a project. There is a steep learning curve and it takes time to familiarize oneself with the context of the system, ergo one (smaller) project is often more than enough.

Krisztina: Find out what method of supervision works for your student: Is it routine meetings? Checking in as needed? I try to cater my management style to them, and I’m more hands-on in the beginning to make sure they’re getting a grasp on the project. Also, communication is key.


Why do you support experiential learning?  

Anna: Benefits from professional experiences increase a student’s confidence, help them find work after graduation, and allow them to more quickly make valuable contributions to their future workplaces.

Robyn: One reason I host experiential learning students is because I would have loved such an experience myself. I went to McGill for my MLIS and I don’t speak French, so there were no opportunities like this available for me. Because of the variety of jobs available for information managers, getting exposure to the kind of work available is essential before jumping into a job where you are fully responsible for a system’s implementation and management. 

Krisztina: It’s good to start thinking about the long game when you’re still in school: where you want to end up and how you want to get there? Student experience is best place to start.

Kristina McGuirk is in the second year of a dual master’s degree in archival studies and library studies at the iSchool@UBC. She is also the guest editor for this issue of BCLA Perspectives.