Learning through work placements and beyond

Little, Brenda and Harvey, Lee (2006). Learning through work placements and beyond. CHERI, The Open University, London.


Recently reported studies of work placements within higher education programmes continue to cite personal skills development as an important feature but less is reported about the extent to which there is a positive transfer of learning from the placement to subsequent stages of an individual’s learning through the taught stages of the programme.

This study, commissioned by the Higher Education Academy’s Work Placements Organisation and funded by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit investigated students’ perceptions of learning from placements, and the extent to which students try to transfer and build on such learning in subsequent stages of their programme. It explores how values and ethical positions are developed on placement. Over eighty students, from seven different higher education institutions, undertaking a range of programmes were interviewed during the study. Additional interviews with key members of staff with responsibility for placements were also undertaken.

The report looks at students’ reasons for choosing to undertake work placements and their expectations of placements, before moving into an exploration of the type of work undertaken, and how that work evolves during the course of the placement.

Using students’ voices, the report explores aspects of personal development experienced by the students on placements, including their growing self awareness and establishment or revision of their own values. The transition ‘back’ to the final year of the programme, and adapting ‘back’ to student was a particular focus of the study. Many students spoke of how their approaches to learning had changed (for the better); how they now adopted more questioning
attitudes; how their experiences of work had enhanced their understanding. Such changes related both to issues of confidence and motivation to study generally, and to a sense of a more active
engagement with learning tasks. But not all the students interviewed had such positive views: a minority were ambivalent about the academic benefits (and focused solely on aspects of personal
development), and other drawbacks were mentioned (including the fact that their ‘peers’ who had chosen not to take a placement were no longer around).

The annex to the report contains a statistical analysis (undertaken by the Analytical Services Division of the Higher Education Funding Council for England) of student numbers of sandwich courses, and ‘out’ on placement years. The analysis (from 1999 onwards) shows there has been a steady decline in the numbers of first degree students taking-up placements.

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