6 types of work-based learning and work-integrated learning

December 14, 2023
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In a world where 40% of college graduates find themselves underemployed, the desire for authentic, hands-on experiences that provide students with in-demand employability skills has never been greater. 

While work-based learning programs have been around for years, there's an exciting new interest in them, and it's easy to see why. These experiences are game-changers in how we recruit, engage, and retain students as we prepare them for careers and pursuits ahead

Amid this renewed enthusiasm, several work-based learning programs stand out as particularly impactful. In this article, we'll cover work-based learning programs that have the highest impact on higher education and show you the best way to integrate them into your curriculum. 


1. Internships 

Internships are a critical component of higher education, offering real-world experience that complements academic learning and significantly enhances a student's career readiness. 

While they have a profound impact on bridging the gap between theory and practice, recent trends show a decline in participation. Despite their integral role, securing an internship often falls on the shoulders of students. Those who don't have large, established networks or familial connections tend to miss out on these opportunities.


  • Provides students with the work experience they need, making them more attractive and competitive to potential employers.
  • Helps students develop and refine essential career-related skills like time management, communication, and problem-solving.
  • Offers opportunities for students to build a network of contacts in their chosen field.
  • Enables students to explore various career paths, assisting them in making informed choices about their future.

Challenges and drawbacks:

  • According to recent data, only about 21.5% of U.S. college students participated in internships in 2021, a significant drop from previous years.
  • Students often struggle to juggle the demands of internships with academic responsibilities.
  • Many internships are unpaid (roughly 40%) or low-paid, posing financial challenges, especially for self-supporting students.
  • The number of undergraduates who've completed internships has been steadily declining since the pandemic due to a lack of availability.

2. Apprenticeships 

Apprenticeships, traditionally linked to hands-on training in skilled trades outside of credit-bearing institutions, have evolved to play a crucial role in higher education, extending into realms like business and technology. In fact, such programs have been offered by 40% more occupations since 2010. 

These programs, designed in partnership between educational institutions and employers, present complex challenges for academics and administrators. Yet, they remain a critical pathway, offering students the unique opportunity to earn while they learn and acquire skills that align with labor market needs.


  • Merges hands-on training with classroom education, providing a holistic approach to career development.
  • Alleviates the burden of student debt since students typically earn wages during training.
  • Many apprenticeships offer college credits, and some can lead to associate or bachelor's degrees.
  • Known for high retention and advancement rates post-completion.
  • Participants receive regular wage increases and mentorship from industry professionals.

Challenges and drawbacks:

  • Developing and implementing these programs typically involves collaboration between educational institutions and employers, which can present academics and administrators with complex challenges.
  • It is not easy to find enough placements in the industry for the on-the-job training component for all students undergoing the vast range of courses available in universities.
  • Legal and practical standards can limit the range of activities apprentices can perform.
  • Apprenticeships require a significant commitment, lasting from one to four years.

3. Job shadowing (also known as externships)

Job shadowing is a form of experiential learning where students observe and learn from experienced professionals in their field of interest, gaining insights into different roles and responsibilities, and exploring potential career paths.

Oftentimes, these are one-time experiences, but can also be repeated experiences over time. Even though these valuable experiential learning opportunities can help students make informed decisions about their future careers, only 31.3% of employers offer job shadowing programs. 


  • Allows students to observe the day-to-day workings of a profession, providing clarity on various career paths.
  • Helps students forge valuable connections with industry professionals, potentially leading to future job or internship opportunities.
  • Offers a glimpse into practical aspects of a job, complementing academic learning.
  • Provides a certain level of career clarity.

Challenges and drawbacks:

  • The observer's role in job shadowing can limit the depth of practical understanding.
  • The value of job shadowing heavily depends on the mentor's skill and the student's engagement level.
  • Aligning the availability of professionals with student schedules can be challenging.
  • Finding opportunities may often be difficult, given the limited availability in some sectors.

4. Practicums

Practicums stand as another cornerstone in higher education, especially in fields such as education, nursing, medicine, psychology, and social work. Similar to internships, these highly structured experiences provide hands-on learning experiences that help bridge the gap between academic theory and real-world practice. 

Unlike internships, however, these experiences are not just an add-on; they are part of the curriculum and have stricter eligibility requirements. 


  • Allows students to apply theoretical knowledge in real-world environments, deepening their understanding and enhancing their skill set.
  • Provides an opportunity for students to develop crucial professional skills, including problem-solving, communication, and decision-making.
  • Establishes connections with professionals to improve future job prospects.
  • Prepares students for future career challenges.

Challenges and drawbacks:

5. Simulated workplace experiences

Simulated workplace experiences offer a safe and controlled environment for students to apply theoretical concepts to real-life scenarios. These simulated environments are especially crucial in providing workplace experiences for students who cannot participate in traditional work-based learning experiences due to various constraints. 

By creating a simulated work environment within the school setting, these simulations effectively enhance programs of study with real-world experiences, ensuring students are better equipped for their future professional lives.


  • Provides students with realistic business and system scenarios in which to apply their knowledge and solve problems.
  • One of the most effective means to facilitate the learning of complex skills across domains.
  • Reduces the risk of error since students are working with a simulation.
  • More accessible to a wider range of students.

Challenges and drawbacks:

  • Designing and developing simulations can be a time-consuming and costly endeavor.
  • Effective simulations require extensive pre-simulation preparation, active facilitation, and post-simulation reflection, which can be resource-intensive.
  • Measuring and validating the learning outcomes from simulations can be complex, especially when assessing their impact on actual performance and behavior.
  • The initial investment and ongoing updates to keep simulations relevant can be significant.

6. Co-ops

Cooperative education, commonly referred to as co-ops, plays a pivotal role in higher education by providing students with immersive, hands-on learning experiences directly relevant to their field of study. Co-op programs are designed as a partnership between educational institutions and employers, offering academic credit for these structured work experiences.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the trend in co-op hiring is on a positive trajectory, with an expected increase of 1.1% for the 2021-22 academic year. 


  • Has a positive impact on students' employment and earnings.
  • Helps students assess their career choices and gives them a competitive edge in the job market post-graduation.
  • Promotes the development of highly in-demand interpersonal skills.
  • As many are paid positions, they provide students with a source of income.

Challenges and drawbacks:

  • There might not be much flexibility in co-op programs because they usually have a set schedule.
  • Students who participate in a co-op program alternate between studying and working semesters, which can delay their graduation.
  • Co-op programs may come with recurring fees and strict by-laws, which can impact the overall student experience.
  • There may be a limited number of job openings available in co-op programs, so students may have to compete for desirable placements.

How these experiences shape higher education

The collective impact of work-based learning methods like internships, apprenticeships, co-ops, and career readiness programs is substantial in redefining student engagement, curriculum relevance, and academic outcomes. Let's explore their impact in more detail:

  • Enhanced student engagement: Work-based learning methods like internships and co-ops increase student motivation by connecting classroom theory to real-world applications. 
  • Increased retention rates: Programs that combine academic and career advising, such as the "success coach" model at Bunker Hill Community College, have shown effectiveness in increasing student retention and involvement.
  • Improved academic outcomes: Programs like Year Up have demonstrated that combining various interventions, including career readiness content and internships, can lead to significant improvements in academic outcomes. Additionally, participants saw a 30% wage increase six years post-graduation.
  • Closes equity gaps: Comprehensive support programs like CUNY's ASAP, which provides wraparound support to low-income students, nearly doubled graduation rates 

If you would like to read more about how learning models are redefining higher education, check out this comprehensive College-to-Career Initiative report.

Time to adapt: Integrating work-based learning into your curriculum

As we've explored, work-based learning programs are an excellent way to make your course offerings more attractive to potential students and boost employability outcomes. 

While many institutions have successfully built up a decent network of employers for work-based learning opportunities, scaling these programs remains a significant challenge. This is often due to the reliance on a local network of employers, whose availability can be inconsistent and whose opportunities may not cover the diverse range of student interests and course requirements. 

To truly integrate work-based learning at scale, a more expansive and flexible approach is needed—like Riipen. Riipen's innovative platform revolutionizes the way work-based learning is integrated into higher education. 

Jamie Noakes, of Thompson Rivers University, had this to say about the platform, “Riipen has opened the door for TRU Business Co-op students to access new and unique opportunities that otherwise wouldn't have been available to them as work terms.”

With access to over 31,000 industry partners from across the world and a broad range of opportunities, including work-based learning projects, virtual internships, and more, Riipen makes it easy for educators to match with the right projects. 

And if educators can't find an existing project, they create their own, and Riipen's smart-matching technology will help them find the right industry partner for them. 

This mutually beneficial ecosystem paves the way for more relevant, up-to-date, and impactful learning experiences. 

Ruth McKay, of Carleton University, had this to say, “I have worked with Riipen over three semesters and it has made my course content come to life. It is an awesome teaching tool/platform. Because of Riipen I am now very excited to teach the material. It makes it possible to bring a wide range of outstanding companies, both in Canada and outside, into the class.”



Jump ahead:

Key takeaways

  • Work-based learning programs address the gap between academic learning and practical skills, improving students' career readiness and employability.
  • By connecting classroom theory to real-world applications, these programs increase student motivation, retention rates, and academic performance. 
  • Innovative platforms like Riipen help facilitate easier integration of work-based learning into higher education.

To start scaling your work-based learning opportunities, connect with Riipen today

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