How to work effectively with your placement students
These resources will model the most effective way to work with placement students. In putting these materials together, close attention has been paid to insights from law students and their supervisors about what factors help to make placements as rewarding as possible.
The materials focus on:
- assisting students to prepare for their placement;
- how to provide feedback on student performance;
- effective supervision in busy contexts;
- helping students to reflect on their experiences
Supervisors need to be
- Able – as a practitioner and as a teacher
- Adaptable – flexible enough to work well with a range of people
- Available – need to be accessible to students
- model constructive work relationships
- provide feedback & constructive criticism
- communicate effectively
- self-evaluate & accept evaluation from colleagues & peers
Placement Principles for Supervisors
Every placement is distinctive and will depend on the location, the supervisor and the student. Even so, there are common threads that run through most placements. There is substantial variation in the nature of the placement experiences law students encounter. Some involve the supervision of a sole student whereas other programs may have students working in groups on tasks that emphasise collaboration.
Insights From Students
A key part of this project involved surveys of supervisors and students involved in clinics and external placement programs. Working constructively with students involves understanding what they are seeking to learn from their placement.
How supervision helps students learn
Students said they value receiving feedback
- Receiving encouragement and confirmation – the reassurance of knowing you are on the right track,
- Understanding alternatives - including appreciating different avenues and approaches that might usefully be taken
Guidance helps students understand their role and their work. This includes the supervisor
- providing explanations;
- directing the work
- clarifying the tasks and timelines involved in their placement work.
What students find challenging in supervision
Students identified a range of challenges they face generated by uncertainty around how they can best work with their supervisor, their lack of familiarity with practical legal work and also a lack of personal confidence. These categories can overlap, for example, a student may perceive a supervisor as being too busy because the student is unfamiliar with tasks set and may feel they need more time and direction than has been given and do not feel confident to proceed without further direction.
Some students talked about challenges they experienced in being given too much or too little responsibility. Some felt thrown in ‘at the deep end’ without support and were concerned about having to deal with difficult clients.
Students can find the transition from University to a legal workplace to be difficult. Lack of personal confidence can generate significant challenges. Several students also referred to their own lack of expertise to create challenges when faced with placement tasks and situations.
Helping Students Plan Their Placement
It can be very helpful for you as a placement supervisor to help students to think about what they hope to learn from their placement experience. Some students have clear ideas about particular things they want to gain from their experience. Others are more interested in being part of a workplace and engaging in what is sometimes called ‘ecological learning’.
Many supervisors who responded to the Effective Law Student Supervision survey explained that they talk with placement students to develop clear understandings and expectations. In large workplaces and in organisations with large student placement programs, an induction process is recognised as valuable for students as well as for the workplace.
Students who responded to the Effective Law Student Supervision survey were generally very positive about the value of developing a placement plan. 75% of those who had developed such a plan said that they had found the process to be useful for structuring their learning activities.
Other terms that might be used to describe this process of preparing for your placement include:
It can be useful to encourage students to set goals for their placement. What do they want from their placement? What are they seeking from their involvement and from you as their supervisor?
It may help to have students ask the following preliminary questions:
- How clear are you about what you would like to learn?
- Can you identify what experiences you want to have?
- What skills do you want to develop and refine?
- What research do you want to conduct?
- What knowledge do you want to use?
- What laws and policies do you want to better understand?
Reviewing a Placement Plan
Using a placement plan can usefully be a 2-step process. It helps for you to think through these preliminary questions about what you’d like to learn from your placement. Depending on the length of the placement, it can be useful to review the placement plan with each student a few weeks into their placement once they have a clearer sense of your placement site and your supervisor.
Advice to New Supervisors in Legal Practice
You should be offered support and advice by the law school
- Think about what you were like as a student.
- You can’t expect a novice to do something quickly and in detail in the way you would do it.
- Prepare supervisees for the relationship. They may not know what to expect
- Reciprocity is a key concept
- Effective supervision relies on good skills and clear structures
- Find out how other disciplines do it
- De-briefing with students is very valuable for them
- Provide clear messages about required tasks – length, time frame, referencing of sources
- Provide manageable, discrete tasks – students value being given responsibility for specific tasks, even where those tasks especially early on
Providing Feedback to Students
- Be prepared – organise your critique before delivering it
- Start with a positive comment
- Ask the student to offer their own view of their performance
- Be specific – address specific events
- Be constructive – suggest alternatives of what the student could have done
- And honest – Tell it like it is while being supportive
Effective Supervision in a Busy Practice
Supervision is a time-consuming process. Supervisors who responded to the Effective Law Student Supervision survey highlighted time constraints as the main challenge they faced in their work with students. The following framework is suggested:
Set things up
- develop shared expectations
- client contact
- advice to clients
- establish clear ground rules
- the value of explanation
Skills & judgement
- Foster supported autonomy
- Model the qualities you believe are important
- You need resources – nobody can spin gold from straw
You also need to keep in mind
- Be realistic about what the student can achieve
- Students need to be prepared for the supervision relationship
- When you have time, make the most of it
- Building relationships with your student(s) saves time later
- Explanation is a key. Students are likely to respond better when they understand what is expected of them.
Supervising a Group of Students
The Effective Law Student Supervision Survey revealed a fairly even split between those supervisors working with one or two students and those supervising a larger student group. These guidelines are suggested for supervisors working with a group of students.
Encourage prior preparation
- students need to clarify in their mind what they need to:
- explain to you
- ask you about
- how to make it easy for you to support them
Look for opportunities for students to work together
- they may not like it but students will find that teamwork skills are very important in professional life
Identify what needs to be done
- by the end of the day
Identify what issues are best kept for discussion in group de-brief
- sharing insights
Reflecting on your Experiences
One of the great strengths of learning through experience is that you can easily incorporate processes to assist you to reflect on those experiences. Timothy Casey has suggested the following framework for reflecting on your performance:
|Stage of Reflection||Questions to ask Yourself|
|1. Competence||Did you meet the competence expected for the work you were doing?|
|2. Difference and choice||Were there other ways in which you could have approached and performed the task?|
|3. Internal factors||How was your decision-making influenced by your personal experiences, characteristics, preferences and biases?|
|4. External factors||How did your perceptions of others influence your actions and decision-making?|
|5. Societal factors||How did your understanding of societal and institutional structures influence your actions and decision-making?|
|6. Metacognition - Thinking about Thinking||How has your thinking process developed as a result of your past reflection?|
See Timothy Casey, 'Reflective Practice in Legal Education: The Stages of Reflection' (2014) 20 Clinical Law Review 317.
1 Paul S. Ferber, 'Adult Learning Theory and Simulations - Designing Simulations to Educate Lawyers' (2002) 9 Clinical Law Review 417, p. 457-459.
Supported by the Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching