Professional experience in teacher education

This literature review was originally published 04 April 2016.

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Professional experience in teacher education

There is clear evidence that enhancing the capability of teachers has an important role to play in improving student outcomes and raising the overall quality of Australia’s education system.

Teacher quality is now known to be the most important in-school influence on student achievement. This has focused attention on ways in which teacher quality can be improved in Australia – from recruiting high achieving graduates through to improving initial teacher education programs and providing support to teachers in their first years in the classroom.

Initial teacher education has been the subject of ongoing debate, both in Australia and internationally. Over the past thirty years, there have been a number of national and state government inquiries into the effectiveness of initial teacher education. There has also been significant discussion in the literature, with many suggesting that there is room to improve Australia’s current pre-service teacher education. Despite this, the evidence regarding pre-service teacher education is limited. Although there is a growing body of research about what highly effective teaching looks like, and what graduate teachers should know and be able to do, there is currently little empirical research regarding initial teacher education specifically.

This paper focuses on the professional experience1 component of initial teacher education. It reviews and summarises the research in this area, including how practice based learning is used in preparing teachers and professionals across other disciplines and the role of partnerships between schools and universities. The paper also identifies gaps in the existing literature, notably a lack of research into the impacts of professional experience on teachers’ long term effectiveness.

Professional experience requirements in teacher education

Initial teacher education in Australia combines theoretical coursework with professional experience. This includes subject-matter and pedagogical training undertaken at university, as well as practical placements in schools. Under the Accreditation of Initial Teacher Education Programs in Australia: Standards and Procedures (the Standards), set by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (2015), teachers are required to have a four-year or longer full- time equivalent higher education qualification.2 As a part of this, pre-service teachers are required to complete a practical placement, where they are placed in a school (or schools) under the supervision of a mentor teacher. Pre-service teachers completing four-year undergraduate programs are required to complete 80 days of professional experience; while those completing graduate entry two-year programs are required to complete 60 days (Standard 5.2).

Under the Standards, it is expected that higher education providers will work with schools to deliver their teacher education programs, particularly the professional experience component. The Standards state that, in order to be nationally accredited, providers must develop ‘Formal partnerships, agreed in facilitate the delivery of programs, particularly professional experience for pre-service teachers’ (Standard 5.1). These partnerships must ‘clearly specify components of placements and planned experiences, identified roles and responsibilities for both parties and responsible contacts for day-to-day administration of the arrangement’ (Standard 5.1) (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership 2015).

Higher education providers are given flexibility as to how practical placements are organised and as a result, the structure, duration and timing of practical placements tends to vary. y. Some placements are in blocks, usually two–six weeks in length, while others are structured over a longer period, one or two days a week. Some placements commence in the first year of the teacher education course, while other pre-service teachers do not start their professional experience until later. Providers must ensure, however, that students receive professional experience that is as diverse as possible and commences as early as practicable in the program (Standard 5.4).

The benefits of professional experience in teacher education

There is currently little empirical research into the effectiveness of different aspects of teacher education programs, including the practical component. Of the research that does exist, most is qualitative and focuses on the perceptions of pre-service teachers rather than student outcomes. This is complicated by the fact that pre-service teachers’ experience varies significantly across different courses and school contexts, making it difficult to isolate the effects of professional experience (Australian Council for Educational Research 2014; British Educational Research Association 2014). As Hattie concludes in his book Visible Learning, ‘So much more is needed on this topic’ (2009, p. 112).

Despite these evidence gaps, there is significant support for the integration of professional experience into teacher education programs (Department of Education and Early Childhood Development 2011; Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group 2014; National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education 2010). The Top of the Class: Report on the inquiry into teacher education report (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Vocational Training 2007) notes that the practicum is ‘critically important’ to teacher education. Similarly, the Action Now report states ‘Professional experience placements are crucial to the development of new teachers’ (p. 15).

There is growing recognition that teaching is a ‘clinical’ practice, which requires teachers to be able to design strategies to help students learn (Grossman 2010, Dinham 2012). Dinham suggests that, like doctors, teachers need to be able to ‘diagnose’ individual student’s learning needs and provide appropriate ‘prescriptions’ for improvement (Dinham 2012). It is thought that in order for pre-service teachers to develop these clinical skills, they require multiple opportunities to practise and gain feedback. While some of this can occur effectively in designed settings or simulations, it is widely acknowledged that pre-service teachers require significant opportunities to gain experience in authentic classroom settings (Grossman 2010). As Darling-Hammond (2010) comments ‘learning to practice in practice, with expert guidance, is essential to becoming a great teacher of students with a wide range of needs’ (p. 40).

One common finding across the literature is that professional experience can enhance graduate teachers’ feelings of preparedness (Deakin University 2013; Australian Council for Educational Research 2014a).

Some studies have attempted to examine the effect of teachers’ professional experience on their teaching quality. However, to date, such research has focussed on the effectiveness of teachers in their first few years of teaching, without examining how different training may impact teachers’ effectiveness long term.


Professional experience forms an integral part of many professional education programs both in Australia and internationally. While there is general agreement that professional experience is an important part of initial teacher education, there is currently little empirical research regarding the links between professional experience and long-term teacher quality. Surveys suggest that graduate teachers highly value the practical component of teacher education, yet evidence regarding how this actually impacts on their long-term effectiveness as teachers is limited. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the impact of professional experience on student learning outcomes. As a report by the Australian Institute for Teaching and Social Leadership (2015b) comments ‘The ultimate worth of any initial teacher education program must be judged on the basis of the collective impact of its graduates on student learning’ (p. 18).

Across the literature there are a number of common suggestions regarding what constitutes a high-quality professional placement. Common suggestions include: commencing professional experience early in initial teacher education programs, establishing clear links between university coursework and practice, genuine school-university partnerships and effective supervisors within schools. Although these suggestions are promising, more research is needed to establish the impact of these on the overall effectiveness of teacher education, and ultimately, teacher quality.

1 Across the literature, a number of terms are used to refer to the practical component of teacher education, including practicum, clinical placement and field placement. For the purposes of this review, the term professional experience will be used. It refers to the opportunities provided to pre-service teachers to practise and develop their skills in a school environment. This may involve observing and teaching in classrooms, as well as other school-based activities such as undertaking assessments or attending staff meetings.

2 This can be structured as either: a three-year undergraduate degree plus a two-year graduate entry professional qualification (e.g. an undergraduate Bachelor of Arts and then a Masters of Teaching), an integrated qualification of at least four years (e.g. a Bachelor of Education: Primary) or a combined degree (e.g. Bachelor of Education: Secondary and a Bachelor of Arts).


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