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Learning and Teaching Conference 2021- What Happens when Placement Cant Happen?

29 June 2021

The Disruption

Work placements were an essential element of profession-based provision significantly disrupted by the covid pandemic over the summer of 2020.  The cancellation of workplace experience created anxiety for many students and staff about students’ ability to develop practical skills development and employability. This was the case for students studying for Cardiff’s conservation degrees (School of History Archaeology and Religion). Training for a career in the heritage sector normally involves spending the summers gaining experience in historic cultural heritage building technical capability, cross cutting skills and networks. With the country in lockdown and our sector furloughed it was immediately apparent that traditional placements could not go ahead.

Back to Basics

It was clear that an alternative approach would be required with hands on work out of the question and the majority of the sector on furlough limiting the potential for research, record and policy review opportunities we had to think differently. Jane (Professor) and Charlotte (alumni) went back to basics. What were the aims of the current placement scheme, how did they align with the literature and what other models available in a remote world could meet some, if not all, of those ambitions. The alignment (below) between the pre-covid placements programme and the literature is not surprising but does not necessarily reflect student expectations. Practical experience is often the element most highly prized and was the one element digital provision could not compete with.  

Cardiff University AdviceAdvice from the literature
Work on the subject away from the stresses of student life building technical skills.  Improve their skills and knowledge including ‘specific technical skills and competencies.
Experience different contexts  To increase their understanding and awareness of the world of work.
Test out ideas from their degrees in real life.  To practise their learning and evaluate their ability to deliver.  
Gain a better understanding of the sector and the professional context in which they may one day work.As a trial run for a possible career.
Start to build a network of professional contacts for their career.To improve their employability.
Build their confidence in delivering on many of the key learning outcomes for the module such as understanding the ethical basis of their practice.Achieve intellectual growth around subject knowledge.
Develop interpersonal skills communication and networking.Develop interpersonal skills communication and networking.
Take responsibility for their work.Accelerated personal maturity, self-awareness and ability to articulate skills and achievements.
Manage complex projects and organise their work schedule to meet agreed deadlines.To build their own self identity as a professional.  
   Develop personal attributes such as confidence time management and adaptability.

table one opportunities created by work placements.

Find the possibilities

Charlotte was confident that alumni in the heritage sector, now furloughed, would be keen to support current students with many having more time to do this than in an average year. Reviewing what was needed and accepting that hands on technical opportunities could not be replicated it became clear that other forms of professional development could meet or partially meet the needs placements are designed to fill.  Charlotte devised a mentoring scheme tapping into a pool of successful and committed graduates, now in senior technical or management positions, many of whom had made it through the 2007 credit crunch forming the bedrock of Cardiff University Lockdown Conservation Mentoring.

The mentoring scheme ran across the summer and supported participating students to develop their skills, networking, understanding, professional awareness and next steps. It was also designed to give back to mentors providing opportunities to practise and develop their own skills and expand their networks into the next generation of heritage professionals, whilst providing professional connection during a disconnected time.

How did it work?

The scheme was informal, additional to existing provision and focussed on developing participants as professionals and individuals.  Boundaries and expectations were set out clearly, with mentors and mentees empowered from the start to discontinue mentoring at any time.

Matching mentors and mentees well was an important first step so Charlotte gathered information about important skills, expertise and the ambitions for the mentoring from mentors and mentees.  Mentees were asked to complete an outline and discuss their goals for mentoring with their mentor at an introductory call. Both parties then independently shaped how they would use the three remaining mentoring sessions to best benefit. Not everyone who expressed an interest in participating went ahead with mentoring, deciding before or after the introductory call that it was not for them. For mentoring to be successful it must be driven by the mentee, it must be voluntary, and mentees must be committed to following through.

What were the benefits?

In the spirit of giving back to the profession, academic robustness and understanding what works, evaluation was built into the programme with the aim of considering the impact on skills, networking, understanding, professional awareness and mentees next steps.

The feedback in these areas showed that:-

  • Skills development was effectively supported by the programme with both mentees and mentors consistently reporting significant positive impacts.

Really enjoyed having a chance to feel more connected to the students, and seeing where I can be useful in the future to them. Was a highlight of lockdown for me!’ Mentor

  • Networking and connection building is the area where the programme had least impact from the perspective of the mentees. This resonates with wider evidence from the move to ‘online’ provision and is a gap that needs to be bridged in a different way.

‘Initially I wasn’t sure about joining, it felt like another thing to be conducted via video call and I was missing practical work and was in a bit of sulk about it all, and then my thinking switched, and I was really grateful that other people had chosen to give their time, effort and knowledge and experience into helping and so I focused on the positives of speaking with a mentor such as setting goals that weren’t academic which helped me look beyond the assessments and dissertation changes.’ Mentee

  • Developing further understanding was effectively supported by the programme, with both mentees and mentors consistently reporting significant positive impacts.

I think this was a very successful programme for me and my mentee and would love to see it continue’. Mentor

  • Professional awareness was effectively supported with participants consistently reporting significant positive impacts including in areas of higher ability such as self-awareness.

It is a great scheme, having a one-to-one virtual mentor scheme has helped me gain confidence to apply for job roles, some of which I may not have applied for before.’ Mentee

  • Next steps was reported as effectively supported by the programme with both mentees and mentors consistently reporting significant positive impacts. Free text responses highlighted this as an area for further development which we believe can be addressed through a more structured briefing on the driving role of the mentee.

I wish I had a more structured “next steps” plan or some lead to further engagement through the mentor relationship, but I think in my case that felt superfluous to the more immediate need to focus on producing a dissertation for the MSc’  Mentee

Benefits were felt beyond the core measures with mentees valuing academic and pastoral support, including the insider view on the transition to employment. The benefits to mentors were also significant, including connecting to the community, exposure to the energy and enthusiasm of an emerging professional and the satisfaction associated with supporting others to develop and grown in confidence.

Lessons learnt and next steps

Mentoring was able to provide support in a time when we were all feeling disconnected and uncertain. It can fill some of the gaps for those in training that lockdown and distance learning create and it can equally give back to mentors.  Nonetheless students reported it did not replace practical experience although it augmented their experiences as students.

Due to the schemes clear additional value, we worked with ICON our  professional body to support and develop a UK wide scheme for student mentoring funded by the professional body through a crowdfunder ( ) . It is now being rolled out nationally.

As a school that will continue to deliver placements in conservation we will work differently with our students. It is clear from the student’s initial lack of awareness of the wider purposes of placements and the clear benefit they derived from mentoring that our measures of success and communication for this type of provision need to capture these benefits more explicitly. Our pedagogy needs to drive technical capability whilst ensuring engagement with wider personal development.   


Inceoglu Ilke, Eva Selenko, Almuth McDowall, Svenja Schlachter, (How) Do work placements work? Scrutinizing the quantitative evidence for a theory-driven future research agenda, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Volume 110, Part B, 2019, Pages 317-337,

National Centre for Universities and Business, nd What are the benefits of a quality placement?

Little, Brenda and Lee Harvey LEARNING THROUGH WORK PLACEMENTS AND BEYOND August, 2006 A report for HECSU and the Higher Education Academy’s Work Placements Organisation Forum


Katherine List on a previous work placement at Rhondda Heritage Park, May – June 2019, Katherine is working in the gallery consolidating flaking paint on a medical bath.  

Fig 2 Charlotte Lester  Alumni and project coordinator

Fig 3

Jane Henderson teaching conservation

This work will be presented at 12:15pm on Friday 2 July during the Learning and Teaching Conference 2021. Register for the conference

By Charlotte Lester Jane Henderson and Katherine List