Practice-based learning


Researchers talked to construction apprentices, engineering cadets and general practice registrars for Knowing Practice – a research project on practice-based learning. Regardless of their individual backgrounds in the construction, engineering or medical sectors, participants made similar comments about significant learning experiences in the workplace and making the connection between theory and practice.

Chief Researcher Karen Vaughan, NZCER (New Zealand Council for Educational Research) leads the Knowing Practice project. She explains that it was designed to reflect that careers don’t follow a linear secondary-to-tertiary-to employment progression. “Practice-based learning has long been an accepted approach in fields such as teaching, midwifery, medicine and the trades. It is now a worldwide trend extending to other areas; some universities, for example, are building work experience into a wider range of their courses. They’re recognising that some kind of integration is necessary to help make what people are learning in the classroom meaningful to them.”

Significant learning experiences

The project researchers observed interactions between 42 learners and their mentors, interviewed both about on-the-job learning, and then followed up with a learner-only interview. Asked what they considered their most significant learning experience, participants gave similar comments relative to their work in engineering, carpentry or general medicine. They talked about experiences that made their work ‘authentic’ or ‘real’, such as when a team member, client or member of the public recognised their work. This helped them appreciate the value of the tasks they were doing as part of a bigger whole. Other comments included gaining the respect of industry peers, taking fuller responsibility for a piece of work, or seeing a job through to completion as contributing to their awareness of their place in a project.

The participants also discussed the significance of doing work that was meaningful for the client. Building apprentices, for example, talked about taking pride in their workmanship and learning to identify and correct mistakes as part of a gradual achievement of responsibility and autonomy. For registrars, experience in a general practice setting helped them realise that their job wasn’t just to apply clinical knowledge, but to fully listen to patients and negotiate a treatment plan.

Engineers didn’t necessarily work on a job from beginning to end, so for them it was important to understand how their specific tasks were part of a wider context. If, for example, someone had to get correct cornering speed measurements, it was made more meaningful once they could see the wider benefit of the project and the public safety aspects.

Engineering-specific research findings

Most of the engineering cadets said that although they had been interested in their field of work while still at school, they hadn’t realised that one pathway to get there was through cadetships offered by companies. The project found that they arrived at their destination through serendipity or because their school seemed to find out about cadetships at the last minute. “…there was no awareness of it,” Karen says, “students often weren’t aware of the possibility until they were in the midst of leaving school.”

While it’s vital that students have easy access to information about engineering careers, Karen cautions that information alone is not enough. “The problem is that young people often don’t know what to do with the information. They might find out about cadetships but don’t know what it means for them. ‘Am I the right sort of person to be an engineer?’ And that’s the part we don’t prepare them for – they don’t necessarily have good capabilities around making this sort of decision. Providing information isn’t sufficient, it’s just the first step.”

[Karen notes that in a previous study of youth pathways young people talked about who they wanted to be, rather than what they wanted to be. An interesting point to consider for anyone involved in shaping or advising on engineering pathways.]

Some of the cadets were interested in studying towards a Bachelor of Engineering Technology or Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) at some stage. They had decided, however, to get work experience while studying towards the New Zealand Diploma in Engineering, on the grounds that practical experience would make them more valuable to an employer and they could find out what the job really involved first.

Linking theory and practice

Some cadets struggled to connect what they learnt in the classroom with their work on site. It’s important, Karen says, that employers realise there is often a gap between theory and practice, especially as their own knowledge is based on years of experience.  “You forget what it was like; it’s really hard for an expert to put themselves in the position of a novice and remember how it was starting out. You need a lot of patience, and you need to help them bring the theory and practice together.”

How employers can support their learners

Karen points out that the distinction between theory and practice is slightly artificial, that people are always learning at work anyway. However, with their cadets involved in formal education, employers can support them by staying interested in what they are learning. “The more you can tweak their day-to-day work to align it with their classroom learning, the more meaning it will have. If they are learning about trigonometry in a classroom but working on a roading project in their job, cadets may need help to see any relationship between the two. There’s usually a connection you can find, some theoretical principal that joins them, but the person learning won’t always be able to see that because they are learning.” She adds that although it isn’t always easy, given the nature of a particular workplace or current workflow, it is a reasonably simple thing which can have a huge impact.

Another simple way to link what cadets are learning and what they’re doing in the workplace is to provide an opportunity for reflective thinking.  “Reflecting on what they’re doing helps people create meaning in their work and inspires them to do a better job because they start to really understand the purpose, what it’s for.” 

The project researchers found that interviews with people in all three groups served as a place for them to come to a better understanding of their work because they were talking with someone who was interested. Karen suggests that employers encourage reflection through conversations, whether they’re with a senior manager or a cadet’s peer, emphasising that it should be a time put aside purely for that reason.

A bonus for employers supporting learners is that they can gain too. Someone asking a particularly interesting question might lead an employer, mentor or teacher to think differently about something or prompt them to keep up with new developments in their field or industry.

The Knowing Practice research finishes in July and the report will be available, along with summaries, on the NZCER and Ako Aotearoa websites.

Knowing Practice: vocational thresholds for GPs, carpenters, and engineering technicians - summary report

Knowing Practice: vocational thresholds for GPs, carpenters, and engineering technicians - final report

Our thanks to Karen for her time and advice. If you have any questions or comments, please get in touch

May 2015