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Effective assessment of individual student learning

There should be an emphasis and a need for curricular development towards learner attributes promoted by providers. Predicated upon preparation, learners for work place strategies aimed at the development of career competence and underpinning knowledge skills: that is, how an individual might personally manage the exigencies of life, learning and work throughout his/her lifetime.

The content of career development learning in essence represents learning about self and learning about the world of work. Process learning represents the development of the skills necessary to navigate a successful and satisfying life/career (McMahon, Patton, & Tatham, 2003, p. 6).

There are a number of career development learning frameworks which may usefully inform the conceptualisation and the delivery of work-integrated learning in higher education. The career development learning framework which clearly and simply captured student-related issues pertaining to the world of-work, self-reflection, and transferability across learning and employment settings was the DOTS model of career development (Watts, 2006). The dimensions and elements of the DOTS model (viz. Self-Awareness, Opportunity Awareness, Decision-Making Learning, and Transition Learning). Self-Awareness refers to an individual’s understanding of his/her career identity; Opportunity Awareness refers to an individual’s knowledge of opportunities within the world-of-work; Decision-Making Learning refers to the skills of making choices with regard to securing opportunities in the world-of-work; and Transitional Learning refers to the knowledge and skills considered necessary for entry into the workforce.

The evidence presented for the correspondence between work-integrated learning and the theoretical elements of career development learning may not surprise career development practitioners whose profession has been involved in the delivery of work-integrated learning under the aegis of career education.

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Learning environment- Health and Social Care

Learning is an individual process where new knowledge, skills and attitudes gives each individual a unique understanding of thinking and action. A good learning environment creates motivation, activity, context with reality, and provides an atmosphere for learning (Alvarstein & Johannesen, 2001). Delivery of learning was achieved by lessons in schools and lectures in universities, together with practical on-the-job work experience or apprenticeships to acquire skills and reading to acquire knowledge.


Employees in Health and Social Care settings; must now be able to identify problems, analyze and finally solve them. (Alvarstein & Johannesen, 2001) Change has also taken place in the educational sector at an accelerating rate. Many factors have contributed to this change but those primarily responsible are (Race, 1998):

  • A knowledge explosion.
  • A communications revolution.
  • Rapidly increasing awareness of the processes where effective learning is achieved.
  • The empowerment of learners.

With the changes taking place, teachers and tutors have been disempowered and many learners are now increasingly paying for their own training and with that comes an expectation of change from teachers and tutors in terms of what they should be delivering. This has resulted in the conceptualization of ‘student centred learning’. Race (1998) argues that learning has always been student centred, but that teaching, and training have not.


According to Race (1998) there are five factors that underpin successful learning:

  • wanting to learn (or intrinsic motivation);
  • needing to learn (or extrinsic motivation);
  • learning-by-doing (practice, trial and error, experiential learning);
  • learning through feedback (other people’s reactions, praise, criticism);

 making sense of what has been learned (‘digesting’, reflecting, getting one’s head around it)


PBL could be able to be applied across all industries and professions because in the application there is a diversification away from the pedagogical model toward an andragogical model that makes the student more responsible for the process of learning and the provision of a solution or solutions. Intrinsic in this model is the ability of the student to cooperate and learn in a group environment, as they would in the workplace, and together, apply creativity to formulate the solutions to designated problems. The student effectively changes from a passive to an active role (Chen-Jung, 2003)

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Work based learning – Learning needs

In order to meet the learning needs of adults, many of the fundamental assumptions of traditional education and delivery models have had to be rethought. These include assumptions about the nature of knowledge and the mechanisms for learning. In addition to these academic issues have come a series of institutional, administrative and cultural challenges. In this paper, the rationale for change and the means for achieving it are described. Many of the theories of learning discussed here are widely understood to provide the basis for alternative forms of provision (recent examples include theories by Malloch, Cairns, Evans & O’Connor [2011] and Illeris [2011]), but there has been less translation of these ideas into practical programs for delivery.

Work-based learning has been described as the linkage of learning to a work role. Levy et al. (1989, p. 4) identify three components to work-based learning which they claim provides an essential contribution to the learning, by:

● identifying and providing relevant off-the-job learning opportunities;

● structuring learning in the workplace;

● providing appropriate on-job training/learning opportunities.

The use of a structured model of reflective practice used with students from two different courses of study, each undertaking work-based learning in quite different contexts, with an aim to assess the usefulness of a structured model of reflection for general use in work-based learning. To promote deep learning; learning where change in fundamental ideas and attitudes could be effected through work-based activity. It was anticipated that the questions that underpin the model would enable such learning.

Finding appropriate assessment strategies is a significant factor in ensuring the sustainability of experience-based education in universities. Davidge-Johnston (2007) observes, however, that using traditional assessment models can be problematic because it is ‚difficult to validly measure learning in one learning model with tools designed for a completely different model‛ (p. 140). Many traditional methods do not address or adequately measure the new kinds of learning that this type of education seeks to engender, such as the so-called soft skills, graduate capabilities/attributes or personal development and transformation. These aspects of learning do not fit neatly into ‚proscribed and specific learning outcomes‛ (Hodges, 2008, p.11).

Hodges et al. (2004) argue ‚the multiple variables that affect both the design and subsequent implementation of assessment practices, particularly in cooperative education, will inhibit attempts to produce absolute instrument validity and assessor impartiality‛ (p. 50). It is not, however, an impossible task and may require inventive thinking, which presents opportunities‚ that are not ‘boxed in’ by traditional assessment methods‛ (Woolf & Yorke, 2010, p. 35)

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Pre-COVID-19 Apprenticeships

The new apprenticeship regulations (ESFA, 2019a) and, in particular, the stipulation that all funded training must be off-the-job, was designed to address past abuses of the system, whereby on-the-job training amounted to no more than assessment of (existing) skills without necessarily constituting any learning or training. Instead, these regulations focus on off-the-job training as the only fundable (and thus regulated) element, whilst on-the-job training is defined as ‘practising’ in the work environment the knowledge and skills acquired through the off-thejob element. There is no requirement on employers to provide on-the-job training.

All employers provided (and focused first and foremost) on their own in-house training programmes, which was the training designed to prepare staff for certain job roles, regardless of any apprenticeship training. This included off-the-job training for all staff, through both, initial induction and staff development, in the form of in-house training events and/or access to external provision. As a result, there was little difference in the training provided for apprenticed and non-apprenticed new recruits. Indeed, the main difference was the underpinning knowledge gained through the off-the-job element of apprenticeship.

Drawing on Fuller and Unwin’s (2003) Expansive-Restrictive Framework, the ten employers in our sample fell into two groups: those adopting an expansive approach to apprenticeship and on-the-job training (Engineering, Construction and IT); and those whose approach was more restrictive (Retail and Social Care). Employers utilising an expansive approach provided their own comprehensive training programmes. Whilst these included off-the-job provision (both internal, and access to external training) the focus was on extensive on-the-job training. This was carefully planned and part of a strategy of workforce development. It was designed to develop occupational competence of iv rounded employees, who had an understanding of the organisations as a whole and their positions within them. Many employers had developed their own in-house training plans against which they monitored the apprentices’ progress in a range of skill areas. Whilst the apprenticeship criteria were covered by the companies’ on-the-job training, the latter was commonly far broader and in-depth than what was required by the frameworks or standards.

Nevertheless, these employers valued apprenticeship as a model of learning. The off-the-job element provided vital theoretical knowledge and understanding to underpin occupational practice. The frameworks or standards also constituted a useful structure, and employers sought to organise the apprentices’ on-the-job training in line with the off-the-job element of the apprenticeship (delivered in day-release classroom education) so as to facilitate the integration of theory and practice. In these organisations, mentoring and shadowing were crucial elements of on-the-job training, the aim of which was to develop apprentices’ expertise and to gradually initiate them into a community of practice. Apprentices would be working alongside a senior worker or trainer for much of the entire duration of the apprenticeship, whilst gradually taking on more responsibility. They therefore held the dual status of learner and employee throughout the apprenticeship. 8. In the case of the employers under the restrictive approach (Retail and Social Care), the main focus was also on the in-house training for specific job roles.

However, these were relatively narrow when compared with the occupational roles in the companies adopting an expansive approach. The training was delivered predominantly off-the-job and, whilst staff development programmes were in place, much training was front-loaded (delivered through an induction).

This was particularly critical in social care, where all staff attended training based on the Care Certificate before they started working with vulnerable adults. The apprenticeship closely matched this training. 9. In sharp contrast to employers in the expansive approach, apprentices in the retail and social care organisations of our sample were first and foremost productive workers (rather than learners), who completed an apprenticeship within the designated 20% of their working time. What is more, this time allocation was not always protected. Indeed, all four employers indicated that they perceived the 20% off-the-job rule as the greatest challenge they were facing, arguing they could scarcely afford ‘losing’ a member of staff from the production process.

The apprenticeship was therefore quite separate from, rather than an integral part of, the apprentices’ workplace practice (i.e. the job roles they carried out). In these organisations, responsibility for the apprenticeship was firmly with the training provider, while employers were generally passive. The employer role was primarily to ‘line-manage’ apprentices, for example, by ensuring apprentices were given time to complete the off-the-job element, and to provide a point of contact for general support and feedback. During the apprentices’ time on the shop floor (80% of their working time), there was little or no on-the-job training provided by the employer (beyond the initial training for all staff, which in any case was limited). Indeed, when asked about on-the-job training, managers and trainers of all four organisations highlighted the importance of workplace learning as occurring naturally as a result of day-to-day practice. Apprentices were encouraged to apply the knowledge and skills they had gained through the off-the-job element, but they did not receive any structured support.


‘’apprentices would definitely learn more. For example, legal and governance – with somebody that we’d just recruit into the business… we wouldn’t necessarily educate them on the ins and outs of [for example] trading standards. Because that’s just not necessarily in their role…. Whereas, somebody that we’re investing in, that we want to be a future store manager, we would want to expose them to as much of that that is relevant and at some point in their life they might need that information’’

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‘How do we assess’


Assessment is a critical endeavour with implications for students, universities, industry and the wider community. The measurement of student learning, however, presents many challenges, particularly in the context of cooperative education, work-integrated learning, work-based learning, service learning and other models of learning through participation (LTP).


Finding appropriate assessment strategies is a significant factor in ensuring the sustainability of experience-based education. Davidge-Johnston (2007) observes, however, that using traditional assessment models can be problematic because it is‚ difficult to validly measure learning in one learning model with tools designed for a completely different model‛ (p. 140). Many traditional methods do not address or adequately measure the new kinds of learning that this type of education seeks to engender, such as the so-called soft skills, graduate capabilities/attributes or personal development and transformation. These aspects of learning do not fit neatly into ‚proscribed and specific learning outcomes‛ (Hodges, 2008, p.11).


  1. Determine the aspect/s of learning to be assessed (e.g., application of theory to practice and discipline-specific soft skills) and what kind of evidence of learning can be used.
  2. Decide what students need to achieve and be clear about what will be measured, taking into account any accreditation or certification requirements.
  3. Agree on who is involved in the assessment process and clarify roles in terms of how stakeholders will be involved, whether this be in only some aspects of assessment (i.e., host supervisor involved in formative assessment only) or all of the assessment (i.e., the academic supervisor);
  4. Provide support and training for anyone involved in assessment as stakeholders may be unfamiliar with the aspect of learning, situation of learning and/or some of the methods used for assessment.
  5. Consider the situation/context of learning which will vary between students and ensure the assessment package is flexible and realistic enough to account for variations while also being equitable to all students.

We have to acknowledge Hodges et al. (2004) who suggests there are dangers in concentrating heavily on performance measurement and reliability that ‚lead assessment designers to focus on more tangible and identifiable technical skills and competencies at the expense of more difficult-to-measure soft generic skills and competencies‛ (p.53). Other authors warn that assessment of valuable professional skills such as ‚tacit knowing, intuition and artistry‛ (Zegwaard et al., 2003) or the ‚poorly defined but essential elements of the graduate attributes‛ (Hungerford, Gilbert, Kellett, McLaren, Molan, & Washington-King, 2010, p.199) can be overlooked by such a narrow focus. These skills fall into the list of ‚wicked competencies‛ defined by Knight (2007) who also identifies graduate attributes and complex achievements in this group. He further contends that a competency such as creativity or critical thinking ‚cannot be precisely defined, takes on different shapes in different contexts and is likely to keep on developing‛ (p.1)

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Adult Training

The adult training project monitors and reviews adult learning trends and policy developments. The focus is on how work-based learning help people develop the skills that give them greater chances of finding jobs and improving their careers.

  • Apprenticeships in work-based learning
  • In recent years the value of apprenticeships in combating youth unemployment has come to the fore. The Centre, in cooperation with the Commission, is helping to create apprenticeship alliances across Europe. It is also preparing country reviews on apprenticeships.

  • Assessing VET’s benefits
  • Cedefop is investigating the benefits of VET at micro (individual, enterprise), meso (sectors, social groups and communities) and macro (economy and society, country and European Union) levels.

  • Early leaving from education and training
  • Lifelong learning begins in youth, and early leaving from education and training has a negative effect on both education and employment. Cedefop is currently reviewing European and national strategies that aim to keep young people in education and training and lower the dropout rate.

  • Lifelong Guidance
  • Guidance and counselling should accompany learners and workers at every transition. The Lifelong guidance project reviews related policy and strategy developments in the Member States. It identifies successful initiatives and makes recommendations for future work in Europe and individual countries.

  • Teachers and Trainers’ professional development
  • The Teachers and Trainers’ professional development project monitors trends affecting the roles, skills and training of teachers and trainers who work in vocational education and training, including adult learning and work-based training. The project promotes knowledge-sharing between practitioners and decision-makers and makes proposals on the professional development of vocational teachers and trainers.

  • Validation of non-formal and informal learning
  • The project reviews trends in Validation of non-formal and informal learning – i.e. of learning that takes place outside formal education and training bodies – and supports the development and implementation of validation systems in Member States.
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    Evaluating COVID on learning

    Evaluation mapping activity, coupled with responses from a learner reflection review, provides the opportunity for training providers to explore the alignment of each apprenticeship intended purpose and learning outcomes within the evaluation objectives and methods to assess success during learning.

    This would enable a review/intervention to identify any gaps in either the way the intended purpose of study is being articulated or the evaluation questions or methods being used to assess whether that purpose (or intended learning / outcomes) were being met.

    Research towards several design shifts to individual apprenticeship learning may occur as a result of mapping activity. For example, an initial exploration of the intended outcomes of the Level 5 LACW reveals an intention to develop leadership skills in adult learners, however current research has suggested the mapping activity revealed there was no aspect of program delivery or evaluation specifically addressing this outcome. This may lead to a focused consideration of whether leadership was is in fact being developed through the apprenticeship standard, or if this was just an incidental development due work-based competence and experience.

    The mapping activity may reveal a substantial amount of qualitative, post program data has to be collected across apprenticeships, however a gap analysis may also provide a clearer picture of a lack of data being collected prior to engagement in IAG and career education interventions.

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    Learner Identity

    Students transitioning to the workforce must connect with their intended profession and ‘become’ professionals (Jackson 2016). They must feel confident and suitably equipped to consider themselves worthy of graduate-level employment (Holmes 2015). Jackson (2017) draws on Baxter Magolda’s (1998) self-authorship framework in describing the stages that students must transition through in their development of what she terms ‘pre-professional identity’. Others (Creamer and Laughlin 2005; Pizzolato 2005) have also used self-authorship as a framework to conceptualise PI in higher education (HE) students.

    At the first stage in the framework, students develop a basic understanding of the norms, expectations and values in order to frame their behaviour so it is appropriate for their chosen profession.

    They then progress through stages where they are no longer accepting that every way shown to them is correct but instead questioning existing knowledge and practice. They seek effective ways of doing things and start to develop the stance of a critical practitioner. Finally, they become ‘immersed’ in their profession, collaborating with others and actively contributing to change and new ways of working

    Project-based learning can be another effective approach for developing PI (see, for example, Tan et al. 2016; Wiele et al. 2017). Wiele and colleagues found Marketing student engagement with ‘real’ clients through project-based consultancy challenged students’ self-perception and encouraged them to think beyond grade achievement.

    They assert, ‘the culture of the firm, the immersion in the business context and high autonomous interaction with the project stakeholders effectively allow the learners to find themselves as professionals’ (60). Continuing the theme of authenticity, Lucas and colleagues (2014) advocated the importance of real world problem-solving through – for example – competitions, projects, and entrepreneurial pitches to industry panels in helping to develop Engineering students to ‘think and act like’ Engineers. Vaughan (2017) asserted the importance of workplace learning in shaping identity and disposition. She argues that opportunities for capability and identity development are central to the workplace and learner – in this study, apprentices – exposure to significant learning experiences (termed ‘vocational thresholds’) helped to define their vocational identity.

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    Literature reviews

    Advice on literature reviews pretty well always say something like – the literature review should say what’s already been said about your topic – or – you need to bring together the particular literatures that your study is going to use.

    I say this kind of thing myself. But the trouble with this advice is that it ignores/overlooks/downplays the ways in which fields of knowledge have historically been constructed.

    Some writing advice, including mine, also often says situating your study in a field means understanding the development, key figures and key debates in the field. And there is a problem with this advice too. It doesn’t really explain what understanding the history of the field means, why it’s important and what you need to do and do about it. So let me have a go at an explanation.

    History helps us understand the way things are now. And right now many fields of knowledge are a problem. They didn’t get that way overnight. They have been produced, over time, in very particular ways. Put simply, the knowledges in a discipline or field are highly likely to represent quite particular world views.

    What do I mean by this? Well, many academic disciplines in the global North do not draw on knowledges from the global South. They pay no heed to Indigenous knowledges. They may also maintain highly restrictive conventions, lines of interpretation and modes of knowledge production which are classed, raced, gendered, heteronormative, neurotypical.

    These historically produced field/disciplinary blinkers aren’t necessarily a permanent fixture. They can be removed. Or at least the removal can start here and now, in the present. In your literatures review.

    Doing a literatures review which uncritically reports what’s already been said about your topic runs a serious risk of unthinkingly perpetuating skewed knowledge traditions. Just saying what your study builds on, without reflecting on its time, place, culture, is a recipe for reproducing a knowledge status quo.

    So why not take the opportunity presented in the literature review to educate yourself about the social life of knowledges. Understanding the development, key figures and key debates in a field is much more than accounting for how things are. It is also about asking evaluative questions such as

    • On what basis was the field established?
    • Who got to speak? who gets to speak?
    • What was written about what, when and for whom? How has this changed over time and in what ways?
    • In whose interests did this research and writing work? Does it still work this way? How is it changing?

    Now this kind of reading and questioning does not simply examine who is foregrounded and cited – but also who is not. So there are two other questions to ask:

    • What kind of knowledges, interpretations and authors are missing or marginalised?
    • Are there any patterns to these omissions and sidelining?

    If you undertake a critical evaluation of the literatures and it is clear that there are systematic omissions, then it is important to search to see if some of the missing materials are actually available somewhere. They may of not be in university libraries. They may be elsewhere in community archives, online and/or in the kinds of books that academics dont ask their libraries to buy.

    And if you do locate the knowledges made marginal in and by the field, it is then not a matter of just throwing in a few citations to give the appearance of inclusivity.

    No. If the result of your critical reading of your field results in finding literatures not often recognised and valued, it is important to read them – and to hear what they say. To see whether what they say challenges the status quo in the field, and if so how. And it is important to note how your understandings are changed through taking these new sources seriously.

    Reading against the grain of the field in such a way becomes the basis of a very bespoke literatures review. You take the historically skewed nature of knowledge and its various production processes to heart. You don’t produce a lit review that mindlessly reproduces what’s already there.

    Your critical evaluative reading of the literatures creates new possibilities of and for your project – and at the same time contributes towards producing a more equitable field and discipline.

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    Approaches to supervising work-based learning students’ workplace research

    In recent years there has been increasing emphasis in UK Higher Education on learning relevant to the workplace. Programmes which regard the workplace as the object of study in its own right are still a relatively new undertaking. Supplanting instruction in subject discipline with learning from work experience in order to enhance practice has led to the development of distinctive pedagogic practices which until recently have received little attention from researchers. The term ‘Work Based Learning’ (WBL) is used to describe such programmes and associated pedagogic practices but the term is often used generically to describe a wide variety or employer related programmes or parts of programmes. McIver Nottingham (2012) provides the most comprehensive survey of such programmes in the UK. The sense in which WBL is used here follows Boud and Solomon’s (2001 pp. 4-7) definition which emphasises a whole curriculum where the negotiation of learning follows the needs of the workplace rather than a professional body or subject discipline and learning occurs principally in the workplace and is concerned with the practice of work.

    A comprehensive review of ‘employee learning’ literature by Costley, Abukari and Little (2009) revealed a lack of empirical evidence on the varieties of pedagogical practice on WBL programmes. Subsequently the Higher Education Academy (HEA) funded a small research project to identify some of the varieties of practices which have developed in the field (Costley and Dikerdem 2011). The authors identify a number of programme and practices (such as in-house training, foundation degrees and work placements) commonly thought of as ‘work based’ but the emphasis in the research was consistent with the definition of WBL set out above. That is pedagogical approaches were studied where the curriculum is negotiated by the learner, who is in full time work, studying part time and where much of the learning occurs in the workplace. The research confirmed that a negotiated curriculum, tailored to learning needs does indeed create distinctive pedagogic practices. For example, tutors typically see themselves as trans-disciplinary facilitators of active, reflective learning rather than subject specialists and routinely use learning contracts and Recognition/ Accreditation

    of Prior Learning. Costley and Dickerdem also claim to have identified a distinctive approach to the facilitation of workplace research projects although the precise ways in which such facilitation was distinctive are not clearly articulated. The present small study aims to extend their work by revealing more detail about practices in this area.

    Despite the more flexible approach to curriculum design on WBL degree programmes most, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, contain the same a taught Research Methods module and a research project as might be found on a conventional degree. The terms on WBL programmes vary so that for example ‘Research Methods’ may become ‘Designing Practitioner Research’ and the term ‘Workplace Project’ substituted for ‘Dissertation’. Unlike a conventional dissertation WBL research projects usually require the student to carry out an investigation of immediate need in relation to workplace practice as the basis for action in the real world rather than an exploration within a defined subject boundary or theoretical framework. This can be an issue related to personal practice and behaviours, organisational issues or group practices. Such a project is likely to be theory aware rather than driven by formal theory.

    Costley, Akubari and Little (2009 ibid) noted the relative lack of supporting texts for carrying out such projects so that WBL tutors have had to rely on texts such as Bell (2010), Jarvis (1999) and McNiff and Whitehead (2002) which although useful are clearly aimed at students on more conventional academic programmes completing dissertations. More recently academic practitioners in the field such as Fox, Martin and Green (2007), Costley, Elliott and Gibbs (2010) and Workman (2010) have produced texts specifically designed to meet the needs of WBL students conducting workplace enquiries as part of their formal study. In addition papers have appeared discussing some of the academic issues raised by such enquiries, notably the consequences of being an ‘insider researcher’ (Armsby and Costley 2000; Costley and Armsby 2007). Walsh (2011) has attempted to identify the distinctiveness of WBL research projects by contrasting differences from ethnographic studies- which might be regarded by some as similar to such work based practitioner enquiries. Walsh argues that not only are the two fundamentally different types of investigation since the former is concerned with the generation of formal social theory but there is also a difference with respect of methodology. Whereas an ethnographic study implies a certain methodology no such assumptions can be made in respect of appropriate methodology for WBL practitioner enquiries. Walsh argues that the choice of method is determined by the nature of the research question rather than any particular relationship with theory and drawing on the work of Berry (2006) and Steinberg (2006) uses the term ‘bricolage’ to describe the heterogeneous approach to using a wide variety of methods. Others such as Creswell (2003) and Plowright (2011) advocate the use of ‘mixed methods’ which despite the difference in terminology is similar in spirit.

    The research on tutor practices to support research projects on WBL was initiated in part to help answer practical problems the authors were experiencing themselves and also to shed light on more general practices in the field. Although we were aware there are similarities in broad approach between different tutor teams we also knew there are points of difference as each WBL programme has evolved within a different organisational and cultural context to create a series of specific communities of practice (Leonard and Talbot 2009). Although the intention was to both describe practice and discuss problematic issues there was also an intention to create dialogue between overlapping communities of practice as a means for increasing learning about practice for participants. This paper therefore paints a picture of practice as it exists in a point of time and a formal mechanism for dialogue between communities of tutors, with the aim of sharing and improving practice.


    Research objectives

    The motivation to conduct the research arose from practical concerns by the authors who are both responsible for facilitating research projects for WBL students. Informal discussion with tutors in other institutions indicated an interest in this area of practice and a willingness to participate in a small project. A small research project was therefore set up to shed light on the varieties of practice and approach in leading WBL institutions to better inform practice therein and ultimately to facilitate student learning and performance.

    The first research objective was simply to describe established practice in respect of the facilitation of research projects in the workplace on WBL programmes. The focus was therefore on how Research Methods is taught- mode of delivery, use of ICT, content (qualitative and quantitative), delivery at different levels, support for learning, resources available for analysis and so on.

    A second objective was to discover whether the teaching of research methods for WBL students is distinct from conventional approaches, requiring separate delivery. A key difference between pedagogical approaches in WBL to traditional academic programmes is the emphasis upon pragmatic problem based enquiries designed to produce findings as the basis for practical actions, an approach which can be likened to Aristotle’s notion of praxis (Aristotle 1976). Elsewhere one of the authors has argued that the production of knowledge at the point of consumption as occurs on WBL programmes involves a different conception of knowledge from that underpinning more conventional academic programmes (Talbot 2012).

    A third objective was to explore experiences in respect of the tutor-student relationship in practice based enquiries.  As previously noted WBL students are situated within the workplace not the University. They are described as ‘embedded’ and therefore subject to different opportunities and pressures from conventional students. There is an imbalance in knowledge between the student and tutor as it is the former who greater knowledge of the situation in which the investigation will occur (Workman 2007). Underpinning WBL programmes is a belief that knowledge is distributed beyond subject discipline and the academy. By their very nature WBL programmes transfer power to learners so that the relationship between tutor and student is different from that on conventional programmes (Talbot 2010). While this is usually unproblematic there are occasions when there are ideological differences between tutors and students such as rarely occur on conventional programmes where the authority of tutors is less likely to be challenged. The authors have experienced this kind of conflict where for example a student insists on using a ‘non-scientific’ framework for analysis such as Nuero-Linguistic-Programming (NLP).

    A fourth objective was to identify the variety of research methods used in WBL research projects and their relationship with the object of study. In the authors’ experience many students exhibit a strong preference for qualitative methods, something which appears to be true on other WBL programmes (Costley and Armsby 2007). Beyond that there was little empirical evidence although we had reason to believe that there is extensive use of more traditional academic methods- case studies, questionnaires, semi- structured interviews and focus groups- rather than the myriad of other techniques potentially available. In particular methods such as options appraisal, quantitative methods, deliberative methods, forecasting methods and observation studies we thought might be under-used. The study therefore examined whether this is indeed the case.

    The final objective was to explore the student experience, albeit as reported by participating tutors. This included specific issues such as the adequacy of tutor support, ability to access knowledge sources, ethical dilemmas in workplace research (such as confidentiality), and the relevance of textbooks.


    Research design and findings

    The research design was a simple two stage process with a questionnaire designed to establish base data and a follow up one day seminar to explore more qualitative issues in depth. The workshop was a day event attended by the respondents to the original questionnaire. The results of the questionnaire were presented as the basis to explore in greater depth the various identified themes in an informal setting. The event was videoed as the basis for later analysis. The analysis itself has not been conducted in any formal sense but comprises contemporaneous notes taken during and immediately after the workshop combined with viewing of the recording of the day with a separate set of notes taken. The results presented here combine the findings from the questionnaire with the subsequent Workshop discussion. The research can be described as collaborative in the sense that the originators of the research, the current authors, also participated in the questionnaire and workshop (Reason and Rowan 1981).

    The first task was to try and identify every HE institution where the authors believed WBL is occurring and where therefore there is the potential for the teaching of Research Methods for WBL. At the time we did not have access to McIver Nottingham’s (2012) work and the only published survey of WBL practice (Nixon et al 2006) made no claims to being comprehensive. WBL programmes are not identified as a distinct category by the UK Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) so it is difficult to know exactly who is doing what. As a result an intelligence gathering exercise was conducted which involved drawing on tacit knowledge, scouring web sites and asking practitioners. There are difficulties in this because WBL does not always go under that name; very often it exists as a module on a conventional programme and is mostly confined to a single Faculty or School. Even though some of the identified institutions did not deliver WBL in the fullest sense the sample was defined as widely as possible in order to capture all potential programmes. In all twenty nine institutions where WBL is occurring in some form in the UK and Irish Republic were identified as potential participants.

    In each case an academic tutor was identified who is either responsible for the overall leadership of the programme or has specific responsibilities for research within the programme. A questionnaire was sent electronically and followed up. Eight individuals responded out of 31 approached¹.  This is quite a disappointing response especially given the potential for participants to learn more about practice.  It is noticeable that respondents were all individuals known to the authors through regular informal contact at seminars, conferences and academic groupings. What the study inadvertently highlighted is that although WBL practice is probably more widespread than thought, it exists for the large part in quite isolated pockets. On the positive side those who responded included representatives from what we believe are the largest providers of WBL. It would seem that despite the widespread currency of the term, Work Based Learning is quite a small world.

    The results are presented below, beginning in each case with those from the questionnaire survey, supplemented by findings from the Workshop. The numbers are small so there is no attempt to represent the findings graphically. The main outcome of the Workshop was to confirm the impression gained from the questionnaire- namely that WBL tutors recognise the distinctive academic challenges they face and that the similarities in approach developed by each institution outweighs the differences. WBL tutors believe strongly that student research projects should have the potential for practical application as far as is possible. Beyond that the Workshop suggested that any pedagogical differences between WBL tutors may be related to whether programmes are negotiated with individual learners or whether delivery is in cohorts.

    ¹ The discrepancy between the number of institutions (29) and the number of individuals (31) is because in some universities WBL operates independently in different Faculties

    A distinctive approach to teaching Research methods?

    The survey revealed that the majority of WBL tutors believe that the teaching of research methods demands a distinctive approach for WBL programmes. Six of the respondents deliver a Research Methods module specifically designed for WBL students.

    The Workshop clearly demonstrated that WBL tutors accept the distinction between Mode 1 and Mode 2 knowledge (after Gibbons et al 1994). WBL projects broadly fall into the Mode 2 category while conventional student research projects/ dissertations are more likely to be Mode 1. This gives a different perspective from conventional student research projects not just in respect of the purpose of the research but in a number of other respects. For example any conventional research project, constructed within a Mode 1 paradigm is likely to conclude that the study is small scale, exploratory and more research is needed. Where students are conducting research projects in the workplace and the purpose is therefore to guide actions, saying more research is needed is not usually an option.

    Working within a Mode 2 framework also implies a fundamentally different relationship with formal theory. Whereas a Mode 1 investigation is likely to occur within a formal theoretical framework or is an attempt to create building blocks in the creation of formal theory a Mode 2 investigation operates within a practitioner context which is best understood in terms of informal or espoused theories (Argyris and Schon 1974).  Focussing on practical problems does not mean the abandonment of formal theory but it is not the purpose of the investigation to contribute towards its development. Instead the purpose is provide the basis for solutions to practical problems.

    The Workshop enabled those institutions delivering a generic rather than WBL oriented Research Methods module to explain why. It would appear they are not doing so out of choice. An important constraint is the ability of WBL tutors to deliver a tailored module as only five institutions did so using someone who normally works as a WBL tutor. So it seems likely that where resources permit, WBL tutors will attempt to tailor Research Methods.

    As to the nature of projects which students are encouraged to participate in there is a variety of practice in respect of focus. Four institutions insist upon projects being ‘work based’- that is directly related to practice whereas another four also allow ‘work related’ projects where there is some relevance to practice which does not directly feed into practice. One institution allows projects which are unrelated to the workplace. All institutions will allow students to carry out projects which relate either to their personal learning needs or those of the organisation, while five require some sort of statement on the relevance of the project to workplace practice. One important finding, which demonstrates part of the distinctiveness of WBL learning is that no institution encourages students to conduct projects which are of purely personal interest (as opposed to personal learning need) so in this sense it can be said that whatever the differences in approach all recognise the centrality of application over the pursuit of personal curiosity- perhaps in contrast to the approach on conventional academic programmes.


    Use of technology?

    Some parts of the questionnaire related to the use of supporting technology. All of the participating universities use some form of face to face delivery mechanisms, whether it be lectures, workshops and tutorials. But as WBL students are by definition part time and their learning is situated within the workplace, the question arose as to how technology is used to supplement more traditional methods. The use of technology to support WBL is a topic worthy of wider investigation in its own right but suffice to say WBL research tutors appear to be active users of technology to support learning. The wider literature on the use of e-learning in UK universities supports the view that its use is heavily concentrated on part time, distance learning programmes for adults (White et al 2010). Unsurprisingly the most popular technologies are phone and online text based materials designed to supplement face to face delivery (both seven of the nine). Six of the nine use online learning in a different way- to provide comprehensive underpinning knowledge rather than as a supplementary resource. This suggests e-learning is used extensively both as part of a blended approach incorporating more traditional means of delivery and an essentially distance based mode where the principal delivery mechanism is electronic.

    Other technologies appear less frequently used. Three of the nine use Skype or similar software which enable sound and vision in real time. There were also three users of podcasting but only two use multimedia materials such as short video clips, recordings of lectures and TV programmes and only one has used a social networking site. All of this suggests that where technology is used it is very much Web 1.0 technology rather than Web 2.0.


    Exposure of range of methods to students?

    Another set of questions asked respondents to list the research methods they ‘exposed’ to rather than ‘taught’ their students. Not everyone responded to this set of questions so there were only eight responses. One respondent said they determined the focus first and then the method- and the workshop confirmed the emphasis on problem definition prior to identification of method among other tutors.

    There are some techniques all respondents expose their students to such as Case Studies and Systematic Review. The next most popular methods (seven out of eight) are Questionnaire Surveys whether descriptive, explanatory or evaluative, In-depth Interviews and critically reflective methods such as Triangulation and Quadrangulation. This was something of a surprise because these are extremely resource intensive methods and might be beyond the scope of a student to undertake them.

    The next most popular method, mentioned by six respondents is Observation Studies. Five respondents mentioned methods associated with organisational performance such as Monitoring, Review, Evaluation and Impact Assessment. Five also mentioned personal learning methods such as Dialogue Journals, Learning Journals and Personal Action Logs. Five also reported exposing their students to Discourse Analysis and Problem Solving- using techniques such as Dilemma Analysis, Document Analysis, Brainstorming and so on.

    Less popular are methods associated with establishing public preferences such as Opinion Polls, Contingent Valuation and Conjoint Analysis (four respondents); Deliberative and Participatory Methods and Forecasting Methods- both three out of eight. Least popular of all are the variety of methods associated with financial performance and Knowledge Management which were only mentioned by two respondents.

    The Workshop revealed something important about the way Research Methods is taught on WBL programmes, missed by the questionnaire. That is such modules are typically used as the basis for a research project proposal rather than didactic instruction in methods, divorced from problem formulation and that while tutors have preferences for particular methods or perspectives they are open to the idea of students using a very wide range of methods. The practical nature of investigations appears to enable projects to use investigative methods drawn from a wide variety of epistemological traditions- and confirms Walsh’s (2011 ibid) observation of the appropriateness of bricolage.


    Sources of information and analytic frameworks

    Respondents were asked to identify where formal facilitation to specified sources of information occurs when preparing students for research projects. Again there were only eight respondents to this question. All refer their students to ‘academic books and journals’ and ‘internet search engines’ such as Google. In addition all respondents refer students to ‘Official statistics and government sources’. Fewer (six) refer students to educational Information Gateways such as Intute, Biz/ed and the specialised databases in education, health and many other fields. Five of the eight refer students to ‘Organisational data’- that is information held by employing organisations and other bodies such as professional associations, think tanks, trade bodies, Qangos and so on. This is slightly surprising since for many students engaged in WBL, the first port of call in respect of information might be expected to be within their own organisation. Additionally, only two respondents refer students to the possibility of ‘grey literature’- that is literature which is some way copyrighted, is not published for commercial gain but which is held to be of such value that it is likely to be held within library stocks (Schöpfel  and Farace 2010).

    Respondents were also asked about formal facilitation in the use of various software packages to analyse data. As might be expected positive responses were lower here: four indicated they instruct students in the use of SPSS for quantitative data, whilst three mentioned Nu*dist, two Nvivo, one each for Atals/ti and a bespoke in-house programme for the analysis of qualitative data.

    Discussion at the Workshop revealed differences as some tutors clearly feel these methods more appropriate for advanced levels of study, as part of doctoral study for example.


    Validity, ethical and application issues

    The final set of questions asked respondents to describe how they introduce students to notions of validity and ethics in research projects. Given the potential for ethical conflict in ‘insider research’ it is not surprising that all respondents said their students are required to formally consider ethical issues in carrying out workplace research. Subsequent discussion at the Workshop revealed it is common practice for proposals to be formally vetted to identify any potential ethical issues, often through a formally constituted Ethics Committee. Some institutions, wary of the ability of ethics committees to delay and frustrate projects, actively seek to avoid using them. Instead they rely upon tutors to identify any potential ethical issues by asking students to complete a short form. Although ethical dilemmas were discussed at the Workshop no tutor had experienced a project which involved a serious breach of ethics although there was some discussion of instances where tutors had identified the potential for an ethical breach and advised the student accordingly.

    The responses in respect of validity were a little more surprising. Respondents were asked whether they sensitise students to issues in respect of construct validity, internal validity, external validity and reliability (Denscombe 2003). It might be expected that of these the most important are construct and internal validity. Construct validity is another way of ensuring the focus of the investigation is correctly framed by being fully informed by the state of existing knowledge. In other words the focus of the investigation should be cognisant of the state of knowledge in respect of the problem both in terms of what might be called ‘near knowledge’ such as is held within the organisation or among colleagues and more general knowledge- that which exists in the broader occupational grouping and other published sources. However three of the respondents do not formally address the issue of construct validity at all with students.

    Similarly internal validity- the extent to which it is reasonable to infer particular variables cause particular outcomes, is also likely to be relevant and was reported as a matter discussed with students by seven of the eight. External validity- the extent to which findings are generaliseable is addressed by six out of eight and reliability – the extent to which findings are consistently replicable was addressed by all. This is surprising since internal validity and reliability are both less likely to be relevant in practice based enquiries.  By their nature such enquiries are heavily situated in place and time so the question of replication and generalisation are unlikely to be major considerations.

    The final issue addressed was that of application of knowledge.  Seven of the nine respondents allow the submission of workplace artefacts as part fulfilment of the requirements for research projects. Four allow them to be used for the whole submission. Five of the nine require some sort of formal statement about the application of knowledge generated from the project and all expect there to be some kind of discussion about application.

    To summarise: the questionnaire highlighted some differences in emphasis and approach but overall there is a broadly consistent approach which recognises that student research projects on work based learning programmes are different from those on conventional programmes. The most notable feature in comparison with convention academic programmes is the desire to see projects capable of generating change in working practices. These responses were amplified in the Workshop.


    Further findings

    The Workshop provided an opportunity to explore some of the issues which had instigated this project. Some variations in practice emerged between those institutions where WBL is tailored to individuals and those where cohorts are taught a set curriculum. Unsurprisingly the latter were more likely to use a more traditional, didactic, classroom based approach to teaching research methods, the former more likely to encourage autonomous learning and a less didactic approach.

    The more individualised approach would also appear to result in a greater transfer of power from tutor to learner, as evidenced by the greater willingness of learners on such programmes to challenge the ideological assumptions of the tutor as to what constitutes legitimate knowledge. This is not a common occurrence but it appears not to happen at all on any of the cohort based, more didactically led programmes. It would also appear that individualised WBL programmes make more extensive use of the Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL- also known as Recognition of Prior Experiential Learning) so that reported difficulties on such programmes – where students who have made large APEL claims find great difficulty in completing research methods modules and work based research projects- are not evident on cohort/ didactic/ curriculum approaches.

    The workshop also enabled the articulation of particular institutional issues. For example one University has a large number of students working in a health context for whom the Faculty Ethics Committee has proved a major obstacle. As a result they have had to find creative ways of facilitating projects which do not attract the interest of the Ethics Committee, including some unusual module names. It is also clear that at some universities there is some resistance to the idea that knowledge should be defined by purpose rather than subject discipline and the attendant need to locate research within a formal theoretical framework rather than be entirely defined by the context of the workplace. This does not necessarily reflect the views of WBL tutors but rather their nervousness about perceptions elsewhere in the University where such an approach may be viewed as ‘dumbing down’.

    The perceived lack of understanding in the rest of the university also affected the conduct of the workshop. Because WBL tutors feel distanced form the dominant frame of reference within universities whenever they get together in an informal setting there is both a palpable sense of relief and the opportunity to let off steam. Like Goffman’s ‘tricky, harassed little devils’ (Gouldner 1970) some WBL tutors feel obliged to pay lip service to dominant organisational norms while secretly engaging in something slightly different.



    In keeping with the ethos of Work Based Learning the project was designed to deepen and enhance practice knowledge. Although small in scope the research has made a number of interesting findings and suggests future avenues for further investigation. The first finding is that there is a great deal of unanimity of purpose among tutors attempting to facilitate WBL research projects even if the approaches are slightly different. The study also highlights aspects of practice where there is the potential for improvement, such as the greater use of Web 2.0 technologies. One tutor at the Workshop reported a very positive experience in the use of the social networking site Ning, indicating the potential for wider application with WBL students, who by definition are also distance learners.

    Some issues discussed in the literature and elsewhere did not figure highly in discussions and were not raised as issues by participants. These include ethical issues, which it seems are less of a problem than Ethics Committees and the potential conflict of interest for ‘embedded researchers’ – who may be compromised by commercial confidentiality or other conflicts of interest. Nor was the preference of students for qualitative research seen as problematic although this is a concern for the authors. One of the weaknesses of student investigations is how rarely they focus on costs- a key indicator in any workplace setting. It would appear student research projects elsewhere are similarly focussed on soft rather than hard data.

    Beyond our concerns the study also highlights the gaps in knowledge about the nature and extent of practices in relation to the facilitation of learning in WBL. The present study has highlighted the potential difference between WBL programmes where students negotiate an individualised curriculum and those where learning is based around cohorts learning a set curriculum negotiated by an employer. It would also appear that some programmes are more focussed upon achieving practical outcomes than others and that the distinction between work based and work related learning may be blurred in practice.



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