Work-Based Learning Essay

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Work-based learning (WBL) is part of planned programs where students are able to experience the workplace without having to commit to their employers for an extended period of time. Students learn about different aspects of an industry, an industry cluster, or a particular business and simultaneously acquire general workplace and employability skills. WBL employs situated cognition because it allows students to recognize the usefulness of what they are learning in school. To facilitate the transition from school to work for students, WBL includes work-based, school-based, and connecting activities that develop a link between vocational and academic knowledge and skills, between teachers and employers, and between high schools and various postsecondary institutions. Many different forms of work-based learning exist, and all have multiple benefits for both students and employers.

Cooperative Education And Apprenticeships

Cooperative education involves school-related, paid work experience for high school or college students whose main objectives are career exploration; the development of employability skills like decision making, problem solving, and teamwork; and the mastery of specific job skills. Its most common form is cooperative work experience, which combines classroom instruction with employment. Students usually work part-time during the semester or full-time during their vacations. To make sure that the link with school-based learning is maintained, students, employers, and instructors sign an agreement, and instructors monitor and record skills development carefully.

Depending on agreements between states, industry groups, and schools, some programs offer a cooperative skills certificate or certificate of proficiency, which allows students to enter the job market as skilled workers. A less common form of cooperative education is youth jobs, which is work experience not connected to a specific industry or to vocational courses and mainly designed to develop transferable employability skills.

Youth apprenticeship, also known as school-to apprenticeship, is a two-year program for high school juniors and seniors to enhance their classroom knowledge while participating in registered apprenticeships and completing their high school graduation requirements at the same time. The programs usually follow state curricula and are designed to meet applicable state standards. At the completion of the program, students receive their high school diplomas as well as an occupational proficiency certificate. These credentials then give them the option of entering the workforce, a traditional apprenticeship, or a postsecondary institution. Hours earned during youth apprenticeships are often transferable to other programs.

Registered apprenticeships are part of a government credentialing system for developing occupation-specific skills and competencies. Apprentices, who are usually high school graduates, receive on-the-job training from a skilled worker and mentor along with theoretical instruction. Under the National Apprenticeship Act, all formal apprenticeships are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship Training to ensure that programs provide high-quality training and meet federal and state admission and certification standards. Apprenticeships last from one to six years depending on industry needs, and apprentices are paid a wage that increases with experience. After the successful completion of their programs, apprentices are given a nationally recognized certificate of completion.

Service Learning And Internships

Service learning combines community service with academic learning for high school or college students. It is closely related to classroom objectives and is designed to enhance students’ knowledge and skills, apply a real-world context to academic skills, and develop civic responsibility and personal growth. In service learning projects, students typically identify and analyze a community need and plan, implement, and evaluate a project addressing this need. True service learning differs from volunteerism because it seeks to meet a predetermined set of learning objectives; students benefit academically as well as socially; and students have the opportunity to reflect on and develop a better understanding of their experiences through journal writing, discussions, or classroom presentation.

Internships are structured workplace experiences, mostly for postsecondary students, that take place over a number of weeks or months to help students gain experience in a specific occupation. In an internship, a mentor, usually an experienced worker, helps students apply their classroom knowledge to the workplace and develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. During an internship, students complete a number of preplanned activities to achieve a set of competencies related to acquiring a better understanding of an occupation. Internships are supervised by instructors at the student’s educational institution, who also visit the student on site. Students generally have to submit periodic reports that include lists of tasks completed, reflections on their experiences, and mentor evaluations. Internships often conclude with summative evaluations from the mentor and the student’s supervisor.

Other Approaches

School-based enterprises, also known as youth entrepreneurships, youth-run enterprises, or school-sponsored enterprises, involve groups of high school or college students who produce goods or services for sale. Students establish a business from the ground up. They develop a business plan, conduct market research, set up ties with the community and the local Chamber of Commerce, design advertising, and eventually function as owners of the business. The role of the school district or college is to underwrite and support such experiences.

School-based enterprises are especially helpful to demonstrate the need for integration of academic and vocational skills. Students learn time management, problem solving, and teamwork. Running a real business increases their understanding of how the economy functions and how organizations respond to challenges. A major advantage is that since no one’s livelihood is linked to this enterprise, students are free to experiment and also to make mistakes that would not be possible in an out-of-school setting.

Other forms of WBL include career mentorships, job shadowing, practica or clinical internships, and work-site field trips. Career mentorships are long-term relationships between a student and an older person with similar career interests. The older mentor is meant to be someone who offers support and advice as the student engages in career development activities. Job shadowing requires a student to follow an experienced worker at his or her workplace for a day or two to gain insight into an occupation or industry. Job shadowing does not teach any job-specific skills but allows students to explore occupations and assists in making a career choice. Practica or clinical internships are short-term activities, often in the medical field, designed to let students complete a project or apply and practice a specific skill in a work environment. Performance-based measures are used to ascertain that students are indeed able to perform the designated skill. Work-site field trips are employer-led tours of work sites and provide information of job requirements and work processes. Such visits allow students to explore occupational clusters and help with their career development.


As part of WBL, students can experience learning in a realistic environment. They can gain insight into their job preferences, develop career interests, explore possible future careers, and develop greater responsibility for their own learning once they see how academic knowledge relates to workplace skills. The transition from school to work is also made smoother through work-based learning. For one, students experience firsthand which knowledge, skills, and attitudes are needed to be successful in the workplace. They also learn to see themselves in the role of an employee and become more confident in their abilities, including human relations skills and social competence in general. Work-based learning also strengthens academic skills. The ability to apply knowledge in real-life settings leads to better retention, and the integration of academic and technical knowledge helps students develop problem-solving abilities, self-regulated learning techniques, and higher-order thinking skills.

WBL can help employers recruit qualified employees. It not only creates a pool of qualified workers but also allows employers to observe future employees in action. The integration of academic and technical learning can help employers train employees for exactly the tasks for which they will be needed, and applicants familiar with the inner workings of a company or an industry tend to have higher initial productivity and lower turnover rates. Furthermore, agreements with schools give employers a voice in curriculum development to ensure that industry standards are given consideration when WBL programs are developed.

Another benefit is realized for companies that are interested in good relations with the community where they are located. WBL affords employers the opportunity to be seen as a part of the community by raising the skill and employability levels of its young people and, along with that, the economic viability of the area. Finally, WBL can help companies increase workforce diversity, which in turn helps future generations of students become acquainted with the cultural diversity they will likely encounter in the workplace.


  1. Bremer, C. D., & Madzar, S. (1995). Encouraging employer involvement in youth apprenticeship and other work-based learning experiences for high school students. Journal of Vocation and Technical Education, 12(1). Retrieved August 31, 2006, from JVTE/v12n1/ bremer.html
  2. Cunningham, I., Dawes, G., & Bennett, B. (2004). The handbook of work-based learning. Burlington, VT: Gower.
  3. Harnish, D., & Wilke-Schnaufer, J. (1998). Work-based learning in occupational education and training. Journal of Technology Studies, 24(2), 21–30.
  4. Sargent, C. (2001). Workplace companion: A student work-based learning notebook. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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