What Is Work-Based Learning? Definition, Examples, and How to Start

What Is Work-Based Learning? Definition, Examples, and How to Start was originally published on Forage.

The journey from classroom to career can be mystifying, especially if your educational journey doesn’t fit perfectly into a career track. For example, while it might seem easier to major in software engineering and become a software engineer, those of us who majored in English might need help figuring out where to apply our skills. That’s where work-based learning comes in.

So, what is work-based learning, and who does it benefit? If you’re trying to make the jump from school to career, here’s what you need to know.

What Is Work-Based Learning?

Work-based learning is a term that includes all of the activities educators and employers can offer to help bridge the gap between classroom and career. Regardless of what you’re majoring in, work-based learning can help you build the job skills you need to thrive in the workplace, including soft skills and transferable skills.

There are three main aspects of work-based learning:

  • Aligning the classroom and workplace: helping students learn in-demand workplace skills 
  • Applying skills to the workplace: on-site or virtual workplace learning experiences
  • Support: giving students mentorship from classroom advisors and workplace professionals

Work-based learning is federally recognized by three different laws:

Types of Work-Based Learning

Work-based learning encompasses various experiential learning experiences (learning through experiences), each with its own requirements, involvements, and benefits.

The type of work-based learning available to you through your school may depend on state regulations and frameworks.


Internships are work experiences where you perform entry-level tasks at a company, usually for a few months. During an internship, you’ll gain practical work experience by doing real work that professionals do — just at an entry level. The type of work tends to depend on the kind of internship, including the industry, company size, and your year in school. For example, some internships focus on more basic administrative tasks, while others involve working directly on company projects. 

In addition to work experience, you’ll build job skills and get to work directly with professionals at the company. Some companies also include specific mentorship opportunities for their interns.

>>MORE: How to Apply for an Internship: A Beginner’s Guide


Externships are work experiences where you work alongside a specific person at a company. During an externship, you’ll follow one professional through their daily tasks, meetings, and any other responsibilities — depending on the externship, you’ll also help them complete some of their work. 

The goal of an externship is to understand a person’s day-to-day role, with the potential opportunity to do some work as well. Externships are typically shorter than internships, lasting from a day to a few weeks.

>>MORE: Internship vs. Externship: What’s the Difference?

Job Simulations

A job simulation is a program where you complete some tasks relevant to a specific role, typically online. These are usually short programs where you can quickly get a sense of what a job is like by doing some of the daily work, getting feedback, and building job skills along the way.

Interest(s) or Skills(s)IndustryJob SimulationCreative thinkingConsultingBCG Introduction to Strategy ConsultingDesignUX designbp Digital Design & UXData analysis, strategySalesRed Bull On-Premise SalesProgrammingSoftware engineeringJP Morgan Software EngineeringFinancial analysisInvestment bankingCiti Investment BankingData analysisDataAccenture Data Analytics & VisualizationAnalysis, problem-solvingAccountingKPMG Career Catalyst Program: AuditOrganization, communicationProject managementAccenture Project Management

>>MORE: Unsure what job simulation is right for you? Take our quiz to get a recommendation based on your interests, level of career knowledge, and skills you want to learn.

Job Shadowing

Similar to externships, job shadowing focuses on following a specific person through a day at work. Unlike externships, however, this work-based learning experience is less about actual work and more about understanding a particular job and company. 

There are typically no work tasks involved in job shadowing experiences. These experiences tend to last a very short time — about a day — and, therefore, are a smaller commitment.


Co-ops are “cooperative education experiences” where you alternate between working at a company and attending school. These are full-time, paid positions with a specific company. For example, you may work for a company full-time for a few months, then attend school full-time for a few months.

InternshipExternshipJob simulationJob shadowingCo-opWhat it isHands-on learning experience where you do entry-level tasks for a company.Observing someone’s job and helping them with basic tasksVirtual learning experience doing sample work tasks Observing a day in the life of a specific roleFull-time work experience where you alternate between work and schoolDurationWeeks to monthsDays to weeksFew hoursDaysSemesters to yearsPayA majority (60%) of internships are paid.Unpaid, but often offers school creditUnpaidUnpaidPaidWork environmentRemote, hybrid, or in-personIn-personRemoteIn-personRemote, hybrid, or in-personApplication processFull competitive application process, especially in specific fields (investment banking, consulting)Light application process, or found through networkingNoneTypically found through networkingFull competitive application processChance of getting hiredMedium to high; some companies, like PwC, give job offers to 90% of their internsUnlikely; likely to get an offer through networkingHigh; Foragers who do job simulations are 2x more likely to get hiredUnlikely; likely to get an offer through networkingHigh

Who Does Work-Based Learning Benefit?

Regardless of what kind of work-based learning you do, these experiences can benefit you in your journey to entering the workforce:

  • Build job skills: learn critical skills you need to do the roles you’re interested in
  • Build soft skills: learn crucial interpersonal skills you need to work well with others in the workplace
  • Understand different roles: get an inside, firsthand view of what specific roles are like
  • Understand company culture: get a preview of what working for a specific company is like, including their values, practices, and attitude
  • Networking: connect with workplace professionals who can help give you guidance and advice

Matt Rogers, CMO at Code Ninjas, shares the benefits he’s seen for students of his work-based learning program. 

“Work-based learning fosters better problem-solving skills, technical proficiency, and critical thinking,” he says. “At Code Ninjas, these skills, along with soft skills like teamwork, creativity, and communication, are cultivated to prepare children for various careers in an increasingly digital landscape. This work-based approach ensures that children are not just consumers of technology but are empowered to be creators and innovators, making them well-prepared for the challenges and opportunities of the future workplace.”

Starting with work-based learning in elementary school is ideal, as Rogers does with his organization, but continuing throughout high school and college as you get closer to a full-time career can set you up for career success

Overall, work-based learning experiences are a great way to understand how your learning in the classroom translates to the professional world. Not only will you learn more about what the workplace is like, but you’ll also learn what you like and don’t like — which is invaluable in the job search process.

How to Start Work-Based Learning

Ready to try work-based learning? While some opportunities will come from your professors and other educators, there are some ways to get started on your own.

Check Out What Your School Has to Offer

The work-based learning experiences available to you through your school depend on your state and school’s regulations, resources, and connections to different employers. 

To figure out what options are available to you through your school, you should:

  • Do your research on your school’s website: When I was in college, I found out about internship and externship programs by googling my school’s name, “internship,” and “externship.” It’s that simple! Some schools have dedicated pages to share more details about what they have to offer.
  • Go to the career center: If your school has a dedicated career center, these professionals are great resources to ask about what’s available. Even if they don’t have what you’re looking for through the school, they can support finding these opportunities independently.
  • Talk to professors: Professors can be a great resource to find out what’s available, even if they don’t offer work-based learning experiences connected to the particular course you’re taking. Like career centers, they may also have connections or advice on how to find these opportunities outside of school.


While some work-based learning opportunities require applications (particularly internships, although networking can help you land the role!), other opportunities, like job shadowing, require networking to find and ask a specific professional to follow their day.

Start with who you already know. Asking friends, peers, and professors for advice can help you find leads of other people to reach out to and get career advice. Start with informational interviews, which can help you learn more about a person’s background and establish a foundational connection. 

Work-Based Learning: The Bottom Line

Work-based learning opportunities help bridge the gap between what you learn at school and career opportunities. Depending on the type of involvement you’re looking for, each opportunity can offer you a way to learn more about the workplace, specific roles, and job opportunities, all while building crucial skills and connections. 

Rogers sums up the benefits of work-based learning:

“Work-based learning is about more than just preparing for future careers; it’s about developing life skills.”

Ready to start work-based learning? Try a Forage job simulation

Image credit: Canva

The post What Is Work-Based Learning? Definition, Examples, and How to Start appeared first on Forage.