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Career and Technical Education (CTE) | Work-Based Learning

What Is Work-Based Learning?

June 4th, 2024 | 10 min. read

Brad Hummel

Brad Hummel

Coming from a family of educators, Brad knows both the joys and challenges of teaching well. Through his own teaching background, he’s experienced both firsthand. As a writer for iCEV, Brad’s goal is to help teachers empower their students by listening to educators’ concerns and creating content that answers their most pressing questions about career and technical education.

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Work-based learning (WBL) is a federally-supported program in career and technical education (CTE) that connects workplaces to the classroom to prepare students for real-world careers.

While every state has its own variations of work-based learning and what it entails, the goal of every program is the same — to prepare the next generation of the American workforce.

It’s an ambitious project, and one that derives its momentum, impact, and success from its alliance of teachers, administrators, and industry partners. These three groups of stakeholders work together to create systems and scenarios that help students thrive and develop professionally.

Through work-based learning, states are prepping their CTE students to enter the workforce with actual career experience under their belts!

While the full impact of WBL will take years to completely understand, the US Department of Education has plenty of data on student success, communications, participation, and more.

So how can you define a federal program that has so much participation and variation throughout the United States?

In this article, we'll seek to define work-based learning, its qualities, and its applications. When you've finished reading, you should better understand how WBL contributes to learning so you can use it in your CTE program!

Defining Work-Based Learning

As a broad definition, work-based learning is any program that places students both in the classroom and the workplace. However, because WBL receives support from state and federal government, it has stringent requirements to ensure it is run effectively and to the maximal benefit of those who participate.

Here, you'll find a closer look at the specific attributes of an effective work-based learning program that complies with the federal requirements for WBL.


The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) places a strong emphasis on WBL activities, among other concepts.

A successful work-based learning program has to include activities that meet individual states’ definitions of appropriate instruction.

For example, the Commonwealth of Virginia has seven “types” of work-based learning strategies that are grouped into career exploration, pre-professional development, and career preparation. A compliant program must demonstrate how instruction falls into these categories.

Other states use similar models for defining WBL activities, but these categories often vary from state to state. It's best to check the individual requirements before your state before building a work-based learning partnership or program.


In addition to activities, work-based learning requires states to develop a unique framework for WBL along with an accompanying implementation guide.

The WBL framework helps ensure all programs are set up in a similar fashion so that they're effective in teaching key concepts regardless of the individual experiences of the participants. Meanwhile, the implementation guide works to create consistency across all programs by making it easier for schools to integrate work-based learning into their CTE programs.

A great example of using a framework and implementation guide in the state of Tennessee. Tennessee goes above and beyond in this area by providing resources that tell educators what they need to know before, during, and after students get placed in work-based learning programs.


Third, all work-based learning programs must receive input from local employers. That means the state is responsible for coordinating meetings with local employers and educators to verify the quality of work-based learning.

These meetings are run by separate organizations, like Colorado’s Workforce Development Council.

Meetings can cover student experiences in a work-based learning program, employer ideas for future changes, and even credentials that participants may earn for their time! This continual feedback helps improve and optimize individual programs to make work-based learning even more effective in the future.

Professional Development

Finally, all states must provide professional development to teachers, administrators, and other participants involved in work-based learning. Essentially, that means states have to give educators the tools and knowledge they need to make work-based learning programs successful.

States accomplish this in different ways. Once again, Tennessee is a great example of ongoing professional development because it offers credits and certifications for its educators. Virginia, on the other hand, makes it possible for teachers to visit specific employers throughout the state.

Your state may also have an entirely different system in place. Yet every state must offer professional development opportunities to ensure teachers, administrators, and employers are all on the same page for work-based learning! 

However, all the variations between different states' work-based learning programs leads to another important question: If work-based learning is a federally-sanctioned activity, but every state can customize its own programs, then what types of work-based learning systems exist? 

Qualities of Work-Based Learning

The type, scope, and funding of work-based learning programs varies throughout the United States. Work-based learning is supported at the federal level through Perkins funding, the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

However, that support from the federal level doesn’t make every single state’s work-based learning programs the same. States have distinct economies and occupational needs. As a result, the work-based learning program in Georgia will look different from the one in Alaska.

Still, you’ll find three primary qualities in all work-based learning programs, regardless of the state. 

According to the US Department of Education, any work-based learning program must exhibit these three qualities to be successful:

  • Alignment between classroom and the workplace
  • Application of academic, technical, and employability skills
  • Support from classroom and workplace mentors

Let’s take a look at all of these qualities in-depth.


Alignment is all about correlating industry demands, state standards, student training, and skills-based experience.

That means students who enter work-based learning programs can’t get paired with some random company that’s looking to farm out cheap labor. Similarly, employers have indicated that they’re willing to train and develop students’ professional skills, meaning they’re not interested in students looking to “coast” through an education program. 

Alignment also means that workplaces have to create a map of tasks and show how they relate to academic information and classroom instruction. Students who enter those programs need time to reflect on their learning and experiences, as well.

Finally, teachers can track a student’s progress by going through a training program that helps them match work-based learning experiences to a curriculum. 


Application brings academic, technical, and employability skills into the same area.

A full-fledged work-based learning program will have “rigorous academic and employability skill requirements,” meaning that students have to qualify to participate in such a program.

In addition, work-based learning must also include hands-on experiences with additional activities around career awareness, exploration, preparation, and readiness. This ensures that each learner receives a holistic experience through WBL activities.


Support means that both instructors and workplaces keep students as their top priority.

This requires work-based learning programs to provide mentorship for students through instructors, supervisors, and coordinators.

On top of that, students must be allowed to develop relationships within a company, throughout their program, and in their local communities. Every student must also be monitored to ensure that they’re truly participating in the work-based learning program to the best of their abilities.

Finally, every company participant in work-based learning programs receives training on how to train students, foster their professional growth, and help them thrive professionally.

Where Does Work-Based Learning Apply?

Work-based learning (WBL) applies to students across the United States.

However, each state has its own system for WBL, and these systems work independently from one another. This means that the specific opportunities available to students will vary from state to state.

To understand the specific opportunities for work-based learning in your area, you'll need to find out more about how your state WBL program works.

You can research information on your state by using the Department of Education’s website and scrolling to the bottom of the page.

There, you’ll see a section of the page entitled Resources. By using the drop-down menus, you can navigate to relevant information that corresponds with each state.

How Do You Start Work-Based Learning?

Finally, if there isn't already a program established in your state or school district, you may be looking to start a work-based learning program.

To create a new work-based learning program, you can choose to work at one of three separate levels to create instructional opportunities.

Below, we'll consider what it takes to initiate a work-based learning program at the state, local, and student levels.


Setting up a new work-based learning program at the state level can be challenging because states differ so wildly when it comes to education funding, priorities, and applications.

The best way to jumpstart work-based learning in your state is to get in touch with your state’s department of education. Then, you can use the federal DOE’s work-based learning toolkit to guide your actions and discussions with other key individuals.

In general, you’ll have to look into five main areas of interest to create a program:

  • Define work-based learning for the state
  • Identify activities that fit the state’s definition
  • Develop the work-based learning framework
  • Obtain employer input for components and quality in work-based learning
  • Establish professional development for administrators and teachers

That may seem like a lot of work, but it’s possible! Many states in the US have already created successful work-based learning programs, some of which dovetail with other career readiness priorities that the state set years ago.

The good news is that many states already have WBL programs established, which means you can move on to setting up a program in your school district!


When you start creating a work-based learning program in your local area, you don’t have to worry quite so much about the major parts of the system or how it works.

Instead, it’s more important that you look into the details, such as:

  • Addressing employer liability concerns
  • Vouching for your students to participating employers
  • Offering different levels of participation for different companies
  • Networking with companies, managers, and employees

These finer details are concerned with getting employers on the same page as your school for a work-based learning program.

It also requires you to vouch for the character of your participating students, which places you on the line for their behavior in the workplace. That’s why it’s important for you to be clear, conscientious, and selective with your students.


The student level is the area where you have the most discretion as a teacher or administrator in work-based learning. You get to decide how you present the program to your students and what you'll need to do to get them on board.

There are many options for presenting work-based learning to your students, but here are some ideas you can use to start:

  • Appeal to a student’s desire to get out of the classroom
  • Emphasize that students can earn money and experience at the same time
  • Bring previous students into the classroom to talk about work-based learning, if available
  • Bring employers into the classroom to talk about their companies
  • Incentivize non-traditional students with grades based on their workplace performance instead of traditional classroom performance

These five ideas are just starting points, and you may have some ideas that completely differ.

Using your knowledge of your students will help drive you to the perfect way to present work-based learning to your classes.

Track Work-Based Learning Performance with Eduthings

Now that you know more about work-based learning (WBL), you're in a better spot to implement these valuable learning experiences in your CTE program!

But with work-based learning becoming an increasingly essential part of career and technical education, teachers and administrators need to track work-based learning performance in order to demonstrate the success of their programs and plan for future opportunities.

With students involved in a variety of work-based learning opportunities, it's critical that administrators and teachers have a CTE-specific data management solution to track their program's performance, such as Eduthings.

Eduthings integrates with your student information systems (SIS) to track vital information specific to your CTE program, including work-based learning hours and journaling. You can use this information to create custom reports that are simple to analyze and understand, so you can confidently grow your WBL program and build for tomorrow.

Want to learn more about Eduthings and if it's right for you? Discover Eduthings to learn how an integrated data management solution can help your CTE program:

Discover Eduthings: Your CTE Command Center