Work-based learning in higher education

Work-based learning is a distinctive feature of Foundation degrees and an important element of many of the programmes that are available to employed people.

What is work-based learning?

Quite simply, learning which takes as its starting point the learner and their activities at work in their company or organisation. The expectation is that the work-based learner has experience and expertise as a worker. They are able to take their work activities and use them as a starting point for their studies.

Work-based learning involves actively using the workplace as a learning environment. It is therefore more than just 'being at work' or 'work experience'. Learning outcomes will be specified that can be met through activity in the workplace.

Higher level work-based learning

At higher levels work-based learning will include the development and demonstration of critical and analytical skills, as well as more job-specific skills and competencies such as team working, communication and problem solving.

Higher-level work-based learning is at the same level and standard as traditional higher education and the learner will develop the same higher-level skills. In work-based learning, the focus is on the many different kinds of knowledge that are used in work and their application to work practice. It can involve, for example, thinking critically about changes in the workplace, and being supported in undertaking and reporting on a work-based project.

Case study 1

Shirley, deputy manager of a retail pharmacy

"Your studies relate to your work and provide you and your employer with tangible results as you proceed… the content arises directly from the work I do and directly feeds back into it. Currently, every proactive decision I make for the business is a result of research that is being used in my studies."

Case study 2

Paul, studying for a BA degree in Public Services Management

As Paul’s studies are based on his place of work, he feels he hasn’t had to segregate his studies away from his work. Much of the project investigation he has carried out for his studies are part of his regular responsibilities at work.

"I believe that this module has started me thinking in a more strategic manner, given me the confidence to challenge the accepted way of approaching things and made me realise that I have important contributions to make."

Case study 3

Louise, linen supervisor for a hospital trust

Louise became interested in infection control in the hospital.

Louise observed that her work-based study "offered me flexibility and it gave me the opportunity to take stock of what I had been doing on a regular basis".

Through the work-based module, she sought to investigate the policies, procedures and evidence for the storage and transportation of linen around the hospital. Her resulting proposals were considered by the senior management group and the trust invested a significant sum to implement her recommendations.

Case studies taken from Getting Started with University-Level Work Based Learning by Durrant, Rhodes & Young (2009).

How is work-based learning assessed?

Work-based learners need to provide evidence to demonstrate they have met the learning outcomes of their programme. They can have an input into designing and agreeing the evidence they will present arising out of their work activity.

Evidence may derive from:

  • Practical projects focussed on work
  • Problem solving
  • Reflective logs and journals
  • Personal and professional development planning.
  • action learning sets – where small groups of learners work together to support each other in their learning and development on a task or area of interest/expertise
  • Research investigations and their outcomes
  • Management and technical reports
  • Presentations
  • Exhibitions
  • Portfolios

The tutor marking the work will check that evidence meets the learning outcomes and assessment criteria and that it is at the appropriate level.

Resources for workplace learners

Workplace Support for your Studies cover

Workplace Support for your Studies

Workplace Support for Your Studies is a guide for learners to help identify the support needed and when and how to ask for it.