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  • Internships as a Pedagogical Approach to Soft-Skill Development

    August 01, 2017 | By Kim Stack and Jacquelyn Fede

    Rows of paper folded into origami shapes.

    TAGS: internships, competencies, journal

    NACE Journal, August 2017

    Higher education is met with the challenge of preparing graduates for rapidly changing work environments and providing desirable skills. Markets that exist today were unheard of just a few years ago.1,2 Increasingly, globalization and diversity of the economy require educators to rethink the skills that are most essential for students to learn and how to prepare students to meet the emerging roles in new work environments. Workers without the transferrable skills (i.e., soft skills) and education to adapt to the changing work environment will be challenged to compete for employment.3,4,5

    Transferrable or soft skills are those skills necessary regardless of the field or sector of the work force. Five of the most important soft skills cited by employers as being valued in the work environment are the abilities to:

    • Verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization;
    • Work in a team structure;
    • Make decisions and solve problems;
    • Plan, organize, and prioritize work; and
    • Obtain and process information.6

    [Editor’s note: These skills align closely with the competencies NACE identified as relevant to career readiness. For details, see]

    Recognizing the value of soft skills and their impact on the workplace is the first step in addressing the needs of our global economy. Niche markets and businesses thrive because of individuals who possess the soft skills to initiate innovative and creative approaches to a global economy, resulting in positive social and economic outcomes.7,8 Employers expect students will be “employment ready” after college graduation, possessing the necessary hard skills (i.e., knowledge of business or trade) and soft skills to be effective in the workplace, although many students are not graduating from college with the essential soft skills to do so.9,10,11,12 Therefore, how students develop 21st-century soft skills is a most salient topic among educators and policy makers.13,14 Experiential learning—defined as any educational environment where students apply the analytical, oral, written, and other skills they obtained in the classroom in an external setting15 such as internships—is one pathway through which students may gain or improve upon soft skills.

    During the last decade, college campuses have predominately been home to the Millennial generation. Millennials are characterized as being team oriented, expecting open communication, avoiding risk-taking associated with independent thinking and decisions, being comfortable with technology, and desiring flexible working conditions.16 The reality of the economy has made it challenging for Millennials to work part-time jobs as teenagers, as these jobs were often occupied by more experienced individuals,17 especially during the economic recession following 2008. Recognizing that Millennials are characterized as lacking the necessary soft skills to be competitive in the work force, an exploration of soft-skill development through college internships is warranted.

    Developmental Stages of the Internship Model

    A powerful framework for student development during an internship is described in Sweitzer and King’s “Developmental Stages of an Internship” model. 18 Their four developmental stages of the internship (anticipation, exploration, competence, and culmination) provide a structure for examining development that occurs within the timeframe of an internship.

    While each of these four stages of the internship provides context for understanding student development during the internship, what prompts the transitions between the stages is given limited attention. It may be the case that soft-skill development is a necessary component of progression through the stages of the internship. While there are assessment methods used for measuring student learning and development, there is a gap in the literature involving student and supervisor perceptions, specific to student soft-skill development.19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 Therefore, the purpose of this research study was to understand the degree to which internships enhance student soft-skill development, specifically in the areas of communication, teamwork, initiative, and analytical thinking from the perspectives of the students who interned and their supervisors.


    To assess student and supervisor perceptions of soft-skill development, data were obtained from an ongoing programmatic evaluation of participation in an internship and concurrent seminar course (ITR) at the University of Rhode Island, a mid-size public university in the northeastern United States. In this model, students are placed at a site (i.e., business, organization, or firm) and with a supervisor. However, student interns also have an internship instructor associated with the ITR seminar course, in which students have the chance to reflect upon and discuss with other student interns their experiences, challenges, and growth. To enroll in the internship and ITR course, students must be juniors or seniors with a 2.50 GPA or higher.

    Since 2013, the university’s Center for Career and Experiential Education (CCEE) has assessed student and supervisor perceptions of soft-skill development throughout this process using a pre/post retrospective survey design (i.e., intern skill levels both prior to and at the end of the internship experience are evaluated at completion of the internship). Surveys are used both as a reflective opportunity for students and as a form of evaluating the student’s performance at the internship site. The CCEE now has more than three years of responses (nine semesters) from students and supervisors; the results presented here are based on those responses.

    The survey consists of four domains and captures 24 different soft skills rated by students and supervisors at the end of the student’s internship. The initial items were assessed using factor analysis; the four-factor structure was obtained and validated in the subsequent semester. The survey has demonstrated good internal consistency each semester (all Cronbach’s alphas >0.70). The domains are:

    • Communication skills—Represented by six items, such as “asserting your/their own opinions,” and “expressing ideas and concepts clearly.”
    • Initiative—Represented by six items, such as “approaching a problem independently.”
    • Teamwork—Represented by six items, such as “collaborating on projects with other people.”
    • Analytical skills—Represented by six items, such as “interpreting information.”

    Students and supervisors are asked to rate each skill from 1 (poor) to 4 (great) at both the beginning and completion of the internship.

    The current sample used for analyses consisted of 1,144 students who had enrolled in an internship and ITR course between 2013 and 2016. The student sample is representative of more than 40 majors from all academic disciplines. In addition, the sample includes 1,062 supervisors who worked with student interns between 2013 and 2016, and who work within a wide array of fields and industries.

    A multivariate, repeated measures analysis of variance (RMANOVA) was conducted to test whether pre- and post- differences in soft skills were apparent among the four domains (communication skills, initiative, teamwork, and analytical skills) according to students and supervisors, and to determine if it was appropriate to test for differences for each of the 24 soft skills. Finally, 24 dependent sample t-tests were employed to test for pre-internship and post-internship differences using a Bonferroni correction (critical alpha = .002) to account for an increased likelihood of Type I error associated with multiple comparisons. The Institutional Review Board at the University of Rhode Island approved of this study.

    Students, Supervisors See Gains Across Domains and Skills

    Preliminary statistics revealed that data were normally distributed at the item level and at the factor level. Assessment of the four major domains (communication, initiative, teamwork, and analytical skills) revealed that kurtosis was high on all post-internship measures among students and supervisors. However, this was not a concern as it was expected that ratings would converge after the internship to be more similar as students improved. Internal consistency among student and supervisor responses was also found to be acceptable (i.e., >0.70).

    The initial RMANOVAs demonstrated that students rated their soft-skill ability significantly higher on all four domains at the end of the internship compared to the beginning of the internship. Results were replicated for supervisors. (See Table 1.)

    Results also revealed that not only did students and supervisors rate overall domains significantly higher at the end of the internship, but they also rated each individual soft skill significantly higher at the end of the internship compared to the beginning of the internship. (See Tables 2 and 3.) The largest differences between pre-internship and post-internship soft skills for students were “communicating with a person in charge”and “asserting my own opinion.” The largest differences between pre-internship and post-internship ratings of soft skills provided by supervisors were “asserting their own opinions” and “expressing ideas and concepts clearly.”

    Results of the analysis of all soft-skill development items suggest that there are consistent patterns among student and supervisor responses. Both groups reported gains across all soft-skill development scales at the conclusion of the internship.

    Table 1: RMANOVAs

    Table 2: Student soft-skills ratings pre- and post-internship

    Table 3: Supervisor soft-skills ratings pre- and post-internship

    Three of the top five items with the highest gains for students were on the communication scale, including “communicating with a person in charge,” “asserting my own opinions,” and “expressing ideas and concepts clearly.” Supervisors agreed with “asserting my own opinion” and “expressing ideas and concepts clearly,” which were also in their top five items with the highest reported mean gains. The lack of opportunities to be in work environments prior to an internship may contribute to this being the scale with the highest mean gains. As students enter the internship, it is clear they have an interest in the field. However, they may experience an inability to express unique thoughts independently, as this has never been asked of them before. The role of the supervisor in an internship is to support the student by providing opportunities to communicate with colleagues and offering consistent feedback on progress. This feedback loop provides the student with context for opportunities to improve communication techniques.

    Three of the top five items with the highest mean gains for supervisors were on the initiative scale, including “logically approaching a problem,” “approaching a problem independently,” and “requesting increased responsibility.” Students and supervisors agreed that initiative improved over the course of the internship semester, specifically with the item “requesting increased responsibility.” A student is considered a novice when entering an internship. The internship is often the first educational experience in which a student is asked to drive the learning with the mentorship of a supervisor. This one item has multiple facets connecting all four scales. For example, requesting increased responsibility can only come when students are comfortable communicating with a person in charge and feel as though they can approach problems independently.

    Teamwork had the lowest mean gains as ranked both by students and supervisors. Students and supervisors agreed that students entered the internship with a more developed adeptness for teamwork, which may be related to characteristics associated with the Millennial generation. Millennials have an expectation in the work environment that they will have close relationships with colleagues, enjoy social interaction through engaging in teams, and avoid individual risk of failure through equal contributions within a team structure.26 It is not surprising that teamwork had the least amount of soft-skill development when considering the comfort level of Millennials working on teams, likely due to ample previous experience working in groups with their peers.

    Analytical Thinking
    One of the top five items with the highest gains for students was “recommending solutions,” on the analytical thinking scale. The expectation for work is that a student will leave college with the necessary hard and soft skills to perform the job. The reality could be that the student learns how to think analytically with a more experienced individual, such as a supervisor, through training associated with an internship. During an internship, the supervisor challenges the student to think and act independently despite the preference and security of working on a team to avoid the possibility of making a mistake.

    Internships Bridge Education to Employment

    Employers are expressing a desire for entry-level employees to possess the soft skills necessary to successfully move into the work environment.27 Prioritizing workplace-ready skill development through work force education for adults requires aligning higher education, adult education, and economic development.28 Internships are an educational approach to collaborating with community partners, connecting class concepts to real-world practice, and solving problems with innovative results, allowing students to develop professional skills and use academic knowledge in a practical setting.29 Evidence from the current study suggests work-based learning opportunities like internships have the potential to serve as a bridge from education to employment, allowing students to use both hard and soft skills with guidance and mentorship from a more knowledgeable other, such as a supervisor.


    1 Cappelli, Peter. “Why focusing too narrowly in college could backfire.” The Wall Street Journal. November 15, 2013.

    2 Reich, Robert B. (2007). Supercapitalism: The transformation of business, democracy, and everyday life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

    3 Andrews, J., & Higson, H. (2008). “Graduate employability, ‘soft skills’ versus ‘hard’ business knowledge: A European study.” Higher education in Europe, 33(4), 411-422.

    4 Cappelli, Peter. “The skills gap myth: Why companies can’t find good people.” Time Magazine. June 4, 2012.

    5 Wirth, Arthur G. (1992). Education and Work for the Year 2000: Choices We Face. The Jossey-Bass Education Series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    6 National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2013). “Employers Rate Candidate Skills/Qualities.” Retrieved from

    7 OECD (2013). OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Publishing.

    8 Reich, Robert B. (2007). Supercapitalism: The transformation of business, democracy, and everyday life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

    9 Andrews, J., & Higson, H. (2008). “Graduate employability, ‘soft skills’ versus ‘hard’ business knowledge: A European study.” Higher education in Europe, 33(4), 411-422.

    10 Calway, B.A., & Murphy, G.A. (2007). “The educational imperatives for a work-integrated learning philosophy.” Journal of Cooperative Education and Internships 41(2), 12-22.

    11 Fischer, Karin. “The Employment Mismatch.” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 4, 2013.

    12 National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2013). Job Outlook 2013.

    13 Foster, M., Huang, J. (2013). “U.S. workers lagging behind on basic skills.” Retrieved from

    14 Van Rooijen, M. (2011). “Transforming 21st century corporate-university engagement: From work-integrated learning (WIL) to learning-integrated work (LIW).” Journal of Cooperative Education and Internships, 45(1), 5-10.

    15 (n.d.) National Association of Colleges and Employers website. Retrieved from

    16 Myers, K., & Sadaghiani, K. (2010). “Millennials in the workplace: A communication perspective on millennials’ organizational relationships and performance.” Journal of Business and Psychology, 25(2), 225-238.

    17 Kotkin, Joel. (2012). “Are Millennials the Screwed Generation?” Retrieved from

    18 Sweitzer, H. F., & King, M.A. (2013). The successful internship (4th ed.). CA: Brooks/Cole.

    19 Cedercreutz, K., Hoey, J.J., Cates, C., Miller, R., & Maltbie, C. (2008). “Internal consistency and factor analysis of a work performance measurement instrument.” Journal of Cooperative Education and Internships, 42 (1), 59-75.

    20 Dochy, F., Segers, M. & Dominique Sluijsmans. (1999). “The use of self-, peer and co-assessment in higher education: A review.” Studies in Higher Education, 24(3), 331-350.

    21 Griffin, J.E. Jr., Lorenz, G.F., & Mitchell, D. (2010) “A study of outcomes-oriented student reflection during internship: The integrated, coordinated, and reflection based model of learning and experiential education.” Journal of Cooperative Education and Internships, 44(1), 42-50.

    22 Jaekel, A., Hector, S., Northwood, D., Benzinger, K., Salinitri, G., Johrendt, J., & Watters, M. (2011). “Development of learning outcomes assessment methods for co-operative education programs.” Journal of Cooperative Education and Internships, 45(1), 11-23.

    23 Nasr, K., Pennington, J., & Andres, C. (2004). “A study of students’ assessment of cooperative education outcomes.” Journal of Cooperative Education and Internships, 38(1), 13-21.

    24 Sturre, V., Von Treuer, K., Keele, S.M., & Moss, S.A. (2012). “Overcoming inconsistencies in placement assessment: The case for developmental assessment centers.” Asia Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education, 13(2), 65-76.

    25 Winchester-Seeto, T., Mackaway, J., Coulson, D., & Marina Harvey, M. (2010). “But how do we assess it? An analysis of assessment strategies for learning through participation (LTP).” Asia Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education, 11(3), 67-91.

    26 Vygotsky, Lev S. (1978). Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. MA: Harvard University Press.

    27 Rainsbury, E., Hodges, D.L., Burchell, N., & Lay, M.C. (2002).“Ranking workplace competencies: Student and graduate perceptions.” Asia Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education, 2(3), 8-18.

    28 Workforce and Education Strategies for Achieving National Economic Priorities. Recommendations for the U.S. Department of Labor. (2009). Retrieved from

    29 Sweitzer, H.F., & King, M.A. (2013). The Successful Internship (4th ed.). CA: Brooks/Cole.

    Kimberly StackKimberly Stack, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for Career and Experiential Education (CCEE) at the University of Rhode Island (URI). She received her Ph.D. in education from URI; her research focuses on student outcomes associated with experiential learning.

    Jacquelyn H. FedeJacquelyn H. Fede, M.A., is a graduate student in the behavioral science program at URI. She received her master’s in psychology from Southern Connecticut State University and does assessment work for CCEE at URI.