Work-based Learning

Posted by Natasa Brouwer, on Oct. 5, 2021, 3:04 p.m.


Work-based learning (often abbreviated to WBL) is a term used to describe a relationship between learning and work. Work-Based Learning can be interpreted in many ways and thus exactly what it means to an individual can vary to a considerable degree. Much depends on the context. In its broadest sense it means learning in a practical way, how knowledge is applied and utilised in the work place. How this is achieved and importantly at which stage in a person’s education defines terminology to a certain extent. Gray identified three work-based learning concepts; learning for work, learning through work and learning at work. To a certain extent these are all overlapping but they each put a different emphasis on how and for what purpose the learning occurs.

An example of the former might be a school leaver undertaking two weeks or so of work experience with a local company.
Learning through work might be an employee undertaking an ‘in-house’ training course.
Learning at work might simply be being taught by colleagues how to carry out certain procedures.
Thus for a university undergraduate chemist, learning in a university chemistry laboratory would not be considered to be work-based learning whereas if that same undergraduate spent some time away from the university working in a commercial company’s chemistry laboratory then it would. This at first site might seem a little perverse but there clearly must be a difference in the learning experience. We will return to this in a moment. This work-based learning could be achieved in a number of ways:

  • As a specially designed university course (sandwich course)
  • An industrial project carried out in conjunction with the university
  • Part-time or vacation work within a company

What is different to the university laboratory situation is that the student learns OTHER skills in addition to purely practical ones

  • Time management
  • Team working
  • Working relationships
  • Setting priorities
  • Professionalism

These are very difficult to teach and monitor in the academic environment.
However the above example is taking a too narrow and parochial view of work-based learning since the term can be applied to any subject discipline and operate in numerous ways.
WBL has been extensively discussed in the literature and some useful references can be found at the foot of this text. Several universities in the UK have established WBL departments and work-based learning activities also can be found under the headings of employability, entrepreneurship, small business etc when searching university web sites.
Not that WBL is confined to the UK, the European Commission has produced reports in this area, the most recent being in June 2013. The latter report highlights three main WBL models in Europe; these are apprenticeships, on-the-job training periods in companies and WBL integrated in a school-based programme.

Many types of Work-based learning programmes have been described in the Higher Education Sector but the best have TWO KEY INGREDIENTS:

  • A good day-to-day working relationship between an employer and the university
  • Provision for reflective practice by the student on the work based experience

One very positive feature of work-based learning is that it opens up a whole variety of assessment methods which can be used that lie outside of the traditional methods of examinations, standard coursework etc used by universities. Reflective diaries, the production of digital artefacts, critical reviews of working practice and portfolios of evidence are vehicles that can be used to teach and assess the development of generic and soft skills.
Work-based learning however must not solely be thought of something which provides university undergraduates with experience of the practical skills which business and industry needs. It is a two way process since people already in employment can gain knowledge of the theoretical concepts which underpin their working practices through day release and evening classes, which allow them to gain degree and sub-degree qualifications. These students then are bringing their working knowledge to the university and where combined classes exist they can share experiences with full-time undergraduates to the benefit of both.
Work-based learning provides industry and academia with the opportunity to interact with each other in a multifaceted process which is a ‘win-win’ situation for students, universities, employees and employers.

Further reading:

Original author: Ray Wallace
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