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What is Work-Based Learning?

The term ‘work-based learning’ (WBL) is often used interchangeably with work-integrated learning, practice-based learning, work-related learning, vocational learning, experiential learning, co-operative education, clinical education, internship, practicum, and field education.

In general, work-based learning involves learning technical, academic, and employability skills by working in a real work environment.

Students learn first-hand how to succeed in the workforce, learning what it takes to be successful while gaining both an education and valuable technical skills in their chosen pathway.

Why Is It Important?

There are numerous research papers and educational reports showing the value of WBL as an instructional strategy to better prepare students for college and the workforce. Example findings are given below.

Classroom Learning is Not Enough

Often coordinated with school-based learning, WBL offers project- and problem-focused teaching and learning rather than the more abstract and theoretical teaching and learning that often takes place in classrooms

  • Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century – academic classroom-based approach does not work for the majority of youth, and the authors propose a network of multiple pathways that connect both work and learning (Symonds, Schwartz, & Ferguson, 2011, p. 8).
  • The authors of Learning for Jobs (OECD, 2010) assert that maintaining economic competitiveness requires a good vocational education and training (VET) system, and that a high-quality WBL component is the best way to prepare young people for careers.
  • Other countries’ systems do a much better job than the United States of educating all students for careers, regardless of the educational level they achieve (Hoffman, 2011).

Overall, the research literature suggests that integration of high-quality WBL more systematically into CTE programs in the United States is a promising way to increase students’ educational engagement and their career readiness and attainment.

The U.S. is Falling Behind

Other developed countries’ systems have been found to do a much better job than the United States of educating all students for careers, regardless of the educational level they achieve.

  • In Schooling in the Workplace, Hoffman (2011) examines vocational education and training (VET) systems in other countries and finds a very different approach than that of the United States. Specifically, strong VET systems include public-private partnerships between states, schools, employers, and labor unions; allow a major role for employers in setting curriculum; and have a national agency responsible for quality control.
  • Compared to 12 other countries, students in the United States spend the least amount of time learning in a work setting (Hoffman, 2011).
  • WBL opportunities for American students are not available to all who want them, and they vary widely in quality. Schools in the United States do not have systematized connections with employers, nor do employers see it in their self-interest to provide work-based learning. The result of the relative lack of investment in high-quality workplace learning for students is that U.S. youth have very few of the applied skills or credentials that employers are seeking (Casner-Lotto & Barrington, 2006).

WBL Works!

Research on WBL as it has been implemented in the United States offers many significant, positive impacts for participants.

WBL in Colorado: The Work-based Learning Continuum

The Colorado Workforce Development Council has created the Work-based Learning Continuum to help illustrate the variety of work-based learning activities that can be pursued. Work-based learning is a continuum of activities that occur, in part or in whole, in the workplace, providing the learner with hands-on, real-world experience. It combines skill development with training opportunities and is a key strategy in Colorado for developing talent and preparing Coloradans for the workforce and evolving labor market.

The Right Way to WBL

For all the research indicating significant, positive impacts for WBL participants, there are other findings suggesting the lack of impact. The reason for this disparity? Only well-structured, high-quality WBL experiences can help students take control of their own learning. These qualities include:

  • Whether long or short, paid or unpaid, a crucial WBL element is the link to the school curriculum. It is this connection that can help motivate students or see how the skills they learn in class are needed in the workplace. Integration of school and work activities can lead to a more complex or sound grasp of key information, core principles, or critical thinking skills (Stasz, 1998; Brown, 2003; Darche et al., 2009)
  • Participating employers must share the learning goals of instructors and students (Hughes & Moore, 1999)
  • WBL programs must have strong links to the labor market to meet employer needs (OECD, 2010).

Relationships with adults are critical to work-based learning but are not usually treated as such

Ross et al., 2020

Creating a high-quality WBL program is challenging and requires extensive resources to implement, but it can be done!

Additional Resources

If you work at Colorado State University and want to offer a work-based learning opportunity for an area high schooler the school districts of Northern Colorado have an established WBL program you can join. Please see the PSD WBL @ CSU page for more information specific to CSU employees. For more information about WBL in the state of Colorado, please visit the Colorado Department of Education WBL website.

If you want to explore more about WBL programs there are numerous resources you can check out. Below are some major ones:

Work-Based Learning Tool Kit

Produced by a U.S. Department of Education contract and administered by the Department of Education’s National Center for Innovation in Career and Technical Education. This tool kit provides state and local program administrators with information regarding the key components of work-based learning (WBL), an instructional strategy that enhances classroom learning by connecting it to the workplace. It offers guidelines and resources related to creating a state WBL strategy, engaging employers, collecting data, and scaling effective programs.

AIR – College and Career Readiness

The content was created by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance to solve urgent challenges in the U.S. and around the world.

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