The characterisation of work-based learning by consideration of the theories of experiential learning

Colin Chisholm, Margaret Harris, Derek Northwood, Jennifer Johrendt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Over the past decade, the analysis of what occurs when learners are involved in ‘work’-based learning (WBL) has, at best, been superficial and simplistic, i.e. it has been accepted that individuals learn by being in a knowledge-based work-based environment. It does not follow, however, that they will acquire the knowledge they are seeking simply by being in a ‘real world’ workplace environment. What needs to be considered is how the learning processes take place in ‘work’-related environments and how, by understanding the mechanisms of learning, the work-based environment can be formalised as an authentic learning environment and thus accepted as comparable but nevertheless different from the traditional on-campus one. Academics in the work-based learning field recently explored its theoretical basis with a view to establishing the workplace environment by educators, policy-makers, government, industry and commerce as a formalised and accepted educational environment. It would appear that most practitioners have assumed that the experience of working in such an environment drives learning and, hence, the terminology ‘experiential or work-based learning’ has increasingly been used over past years to describe the learning mechanisms and processes in this environment. But the development of a conceptual theoretical base is inhibited by the ambiguous nature of what has, over the last decade, been described and considered as the practice of work-based learning. In this article, we examine how experiential learning theories can contribute to the development of a common theoretical framework which draws together lifelong learning practice to support the conceptualisation of work-based learning. We believe this approach is an important step which needs to be taken, as a common theoretical framework will underpin policy-making at institutional and systemic levels and encourage a common European strategy regarding the role of WBL in tertiary education. WBL supports the personalisation of learning, which is highly desirable, but for this to be effectively established will need a common theoretical framework taken forward as future policy by the higher and further education sectors. The establishment of such a framework would, of course, have major implications for tertiary education, as it would mean achieving a common approach across Europe. The authors have been involved over the past 20 years as researchers and in the development and teaching of WBL from diploma to professional doctorate levels. The characterisation of WBL by consideration of experiential theories is based on both practice over the past 10 years and consideration of relevant theories. While much of the practice was concerned with higher education, we have also been involved with developments at further education and non-formal education levels. We also believe from our studies to date that the conceptualisation of WBL should be applicable at all levels and this has been our experience from informal to professional doctorate levels.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)319-337
Number of pages19
JournalEuropean Journal of Education
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2009


  • work-based learning
  • experiential learning
  • theories


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