Posted by: Tom Ross | July 18, 2012

Work-Based Learning

I have been told I have an impeccable grasp of the obvious.

And sometimes so does research. “Distant objects appear to be far away, study concludes.” I’m sure that’s in an article in The Onion somewhere. But often research does confirm what seems obvious to us—which can be reassuring.

Career development through work-based learning would seem to be one of those obvious things. Isn’t it apparent that some of us can’t learn from a manual, that some—maybe most—of us need to do to learn? Or maybe that everyone learns better by doing? And even though some of us can work with and from a theory, eventually we must put it to practice.

But what can we say to show how well work-based learning really works—however obvious it may seem?  Does it motivate kids to stay in school and get better grades, as well as put them on a path to a career?

McClane High School students in the first California high school to host its own student-run bank branch.

What is work-based learning?

WestEd conducted a study of work-based learning and produced a seminal 2009 report called “Work-based Learning in California” that sums up what it is and how it works:

Work-based learning is an educational strategy that links school-based instruction with activity that has consequences and value beyond school. Work-based learning is informed by professional workplace standards. It uses the workplace, or in-depth experience that includes employer or community input, to engage high school students and intentionally promote learning and access to future educational and career opportunities. Work-based learning can include internships, apprenticeships, workplace simulations, student-led enterprises and other opportunities in the business or nonprofit arena.

Work-based learning has three levels:

  • Workplace tours and job shadowing
  • Internships and service or social learning
  • Career preparation and development: apprenticeships and professional training programs

In order to work it requires three things:

  • Direct employer or community involvement that provides students with important exposure to industry or professional standards and makes the experiences authentic. It requires the purposeful linking of education with the world outside the classroom and active mediation between the culture of school and the cultures of work and community so that students can bridge their roles as students to their roles as contributing members of society.
  • in-depth engagement–substantive experiences well beyond career exploration, and
  • It must be connected to curriculum, which may include academic and/or career technical education curricula. Learning in this context is intended to include academic and/or technical content knowledge as well as higher-order thinking skills and workplace interpersonal and other skills.

It’s about motivation.

So to work for the student, work-based learning must engage them in the workplace as well as connect what they are doing to what they are learning to the classroom. Standards aside, a student must learn in the classroom the skills that will help him in the workplace as well as connect the applications of these workplace skills to what he is learning in the classroom.

This research shows that the success of work-based learning is based upon the connections students see between the school and the workplace and what they are learning and how they can use it. And their own successes motivate them to stay in school and do better.

  • Roughly 75 percent of students polled agreed that the idea of a school that prepares them for college and employment is appealing. New Center Aims to Help Motivate California High Schoolers, Ed Week, April 12, 2006.
  • 89% of students believe that a school where they could take courses that they need for college but also have more opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge relevant to future careers would be more interesting to them. 91% say they would be more motivated to work hard and do well if they attended this kind of a school. Report findings: Based on a Survey Among Califorinia Ninth and Tenth Graders, by ConnectEd, The California Center for College and Career, 2006.

What do students say about it?

  • A survey of over one thousand American teenagers was entitled Getting By: What American Teenagers Really Think About Their Schools (Johnson, Farkas, & Bers, 1997). The title reflects the study’s findings: most students say they could do better in school if they tried, but they have minimal interest in academic subjects. Majorities of student respondents said that the best thing about school is that they get to be with their friends, and they do not think they will need to know in the real world the things their school is teaching. Yet, a majority of student respondents to the survey also said that doing a job internship for school credit would result in them learning “a lot more.”
  • Students told of changes in their attitude toward school as a result of their participation in the [work-place learning in a chosen field or Cluster]. A self-described average student explained the motivation she found: “I never excelled in science, I never excelled in English, I never excelled in math. . . . I never found my thing. But this, it really gave me a focus. I totally know what I want to do. . . . I’m not ignorant to the fact that I may change my mind because everyone changes their mind, but I think that I will stay in this general area and it really has given me assurance.” She went on to imagine what her high school experience would have been without the opportunity to participate in a Cluster: “I would probably go through the basic classes and just do the routine.” In actuality, she reported that before, “I was discouraged because I couldn’t do well. Now I’m doing okay in the business and I’m striving–it’s given me more self-esteem that I can do this, when I was falling behind in Chemistry and science.” Her grades have improved to all A’s and B’s.  Work-Based Learning for Students in High Schools and Community Colleges, 1998.
  • Work-Based Learning in Philadelphia Alumni Opinion Research Survey— In October 1998, Madonna Yost, an opinion research firm, conducted a telephone survey of June 1997 graduates which included 272 students who had participated in Work-Based Learning (WBL) while in high school and 302 alumni from the same schools who had not.  The results of the survey, which obtained a cooperation rate of 83%, indicated:

— Almost twice as many WBL alumni than non-WBL alumni said their high school education helped them “very well” or “more than adequately” to prepare them for employment.

— Nearly half (44%) of the program’s graduates reported receiving job offers from the organization in which they received their WBL training.

— Most WBL alumni rated the educational quality of their WBL experience as either “excellent” (39%) or “good” (48%).

— Of those who were currently employed, WBL alumni were more likely to be working in their chosen career area than non-WBL alumni (44% vs. 26%, respectively).

— Almost all (97%) WBL alumni would recommend the WBL program to others.

  • A 5-year study of 3.4 million Texas high school students (Brown 2000) found that Tech Prep students had higher attendance and on-time graduation rates and lower dropout rates than both non-Tech Prep CTE students and the general population of secondary students.
  • A national survey conducted in 2005 for Achieve, Inc. showed that among the high school graduates surveyed who joined the workforce without getting a college degree, 39 percent said that there are gaps in their preparation for what is expected of them in their current jobs. Ninety-seven percent of these graduates said that real-world learning opportunities and more relevant coursework during high school would have improved their preparation.  From“Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work? A Study of Recent High School Graduates, College Instructors, and Employers.”

What do employers think?

  •  More than four in five employers believe that completion of a supervised and evaluated internship or community-based project would be very or fairly effective in ensuring that recent college graduates possess the skills and knowledge needed for success at their company. With 69% of employers saying this type of assessment would be very effective, they clearly think that supervised and evaluated internships would have the greatest impact on student achievement. How Should Colleges Assess and Improve Student Learning? (a survey of employers), 2008.

What Work-Based Learning Can Do:

Lists of the benefits and the value of work-based learning are plentiful. And among other things, work-based learning will:

  • engage and motivate students in learning by connecting classroom work to students’ personal and career interests
  • reinforce and improve academic learning and engage students in new modes of thought (e.g., higher-order critical thinking and problem-solving)
  • advance students’ social and emotional development toward adulthood, including their identity formation and their sense of self-efficacy
  • enhance students’ general workplace competencies, such as communication, teamwork and project planning
  • enhance students’ understanding of particular careers through depth of experience.  “Work-based Learning in California,” WestEd, 2009.

Students with Career Development skills:

And North Carolina has put together an extensive list of the values of work-based learning for students, employers, schools, and the community. Some of the benefits they found for students include:

  • application of classroom learning (both academic and vocational) in real world setting
  • establishment of a clear connection between education and work
  • development and practice of positive work related habits and attitudes including the ability to think critically, solve problems, work in teams, and resolve issues that relate to possible careers
  • assessment and understanding the expectations of the workplace
  • expansion and refinement of their technical skills
  • development of an increased motivation/appreciation for staying in school and the importance of postsecondary education opportunities both at the community college level and at the university level

Career development is life-long learning. It’s never-ending. To be successful, today’s students must view it as a sequence of events that includes continuous training in and beyond school where they earn certifications, gain new skills, and make informed career choices.

Work-based learning has the potential to create better students and better-equipped people in the workforce and the community. For students who are looking down the road, this kind of schooling makes sense–and their future, however distant, doesn’t look so far away.


  1. […] more on work-based learning, have a look at one of our previous blog […]

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