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Emotional challenges and pre-placement preparations: a cross-disciplinary, longitudinal study of “learner-worker” undergraduates (in an Irish HEI)

Gerard Diver (Liverpool John Moore University, Liverpool, UK)

Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning

ISSN: 2042-3896

Article publication date: 11 June 2020

Issue publication date: 27 April 2021




The aim of this cross-disciplinary, year-long, longitudinal qualitative study was to gain useful insights into the experiences of undergraduates undertaking work placements, focussing particularly upon their emotional responses to the challenges facing them. The research involved a small group of students from an HEI in northwest Ireland, drawn from four very different programmes. They were interviewed at length both before and after their placement, and also made available their reflective learning journals, kept over the course of their placements. A critical examination of the data looks to the psychological and emotional demands of undergraduate work placement and argues the need for rigorous preparation pre-placement and good pastoral support before, during and after the exercise. Although based in Ireland, the findings pose generic dilemmas: the issues encountered (and the solutions suggested) are by no means exclusive to Irish HE, as the literature review indicates.


As a means to capturing the thoughts, feelings, fears, and hopes of the participants’ pre and post-placement, the core research questions were: “How effectively do work placements bridge the gap between HE institutions and the workplace?” and “Do placements prepare students emotionally for the workplace and /or lead to improved academic performance?” By answering from the perspective of their own experiences, several key themes emerged, namely: Expectations and preparation pre-placement; Contexts, remits and roles during placement; Learning gain (as enhanced employability and/or improved academic ability).


The findings suggest that a wide range of employer-valued transferable key skills (together with improved self-confidence, psychological resilience, and emotional maturity) may be gained via informal modes of workplace learning, but that some of the activities carried out by worker-learners during placement may vary widely. It is, therefore, important to prepare students thoroughly pre-placement, support them throughout the process, and act promptly upon their feedback. A draft checklist aimed at placement mentors, academic tutors and course leaders is offered here based upon the study’s findings: its generic nature means that it looks beyond HE in Ireland, and could be of use in crafting meaningful work-based learning opportunities and tangible employability outcomes irrespective of jurisdiction or discipline.

Research limitations/implications

Although small in scale (eight participants) and based in Ireland this two-year study is cross-disciplinary and deals with generic issues of interest to those involved in Higher Education, namely, under-graduate employability, emotional maturity, learning gain, reflective learning, and the pastoral care of placement students (as learner-workers).

Practical implications

Having undergraduate students complete some form of bespoke, enhanced pre-placement training (modular or extra-mural) could also potentially avoid: Misperceptions or misunderstandings over placement terms (structure, content, duration) between placement provider, student and college Concerns on the part of placement providers that they might not be taking on high-calibre undergraduate students, thereby risking their own practice or reputation

Social implications

Such “pre-employability” training could increase the likelihood of placement students being willing or able to take on extra-mural voluntary roles in profession-relevant organisations, e.g. charities, NGOs, with the associated benefits in terms of CV-building, maturity, personal development and reputation. Pre-placement preparation could include role-play, to help accustom students to the likely (or indeed unlikely) events and scenarios often associated with their future careers, and to thus embed a greater sense of self-confidence, and limit or prevent anxiety. Ensuring that students have had a good grounding in both the norms and potential demands of their chosen profession is key: this, in turn, would ensure that they are also keenly aware, pre-placement, of their own abilities, limitations and any knowledge gaps.


The work offers “front-row” insights into the student experience across four very different disciplines: it provides a useful platform for “the student voice” in terms of a pre and post-placement “snap shot” of their hopes, expectations, and not least, their emotional responses to the challenges of placement. It highlights the importance of robust preparation and comprehensive pastoral care.



The author wishes to acknowledge the insightful comments provided by the peer reviewers; Thanks are also due to the supervisors of his MRes thesis (upon which this article is based) whose names and affiliations have been redacted to preserve the anonymity of the research participants. Funding for the MRes thesis (2015-2017) was provided by the Irish Govt., Dept of Education.


Diver, G. (2021), "Emotional challenges and pre-placement preparations: a cross-disciplinary, longitudinal study of “learner-worker” undergraduates (in an Irish HEI)", Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, Vol. 11 No. 2, pp. 386-405.



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