The Advantages of Experience-Based Learning
From sandwich courses to mentoring schemes, there are lots of ways to add value to your degree by participating in experience-based learning. The direct experience gained will help ensure that you are fully equipped to enter the profession of your choice after graduating.
Getting a job is certainly not the only (or for many students the main) reason for going to university. But with many countries reporting high rates of graduate unemployment and underemployment, higher education providers face mounting pressure to help students prepare for a challenging job market.
Universities are responding to this challenge in a variety of ways – internships, externships, experiential learning, sandwich courses, work placements, mentoring and shadowing schemes – and are increasingly recognizing the multiple benefits of opportunities to learn through experience.
If you’re keen to make sure your degree ends in a bright career, or even if you just like the idea of engaging with your subject in more practical and professional settings, here are some of the options available.
Undergraduate sandwich courses
Also known as degrees with a year in industry, these are courses in which students spend a year learning on the job – usually the penultimate year of the course.
Universities offering these degrees will have established contacts with relevant businesses, and help students find a placement to suit them. It may also be possible to arrange your own placement, if you have something specific in mind.
Sandwich courses are most commonly offered in science and technology subjects, fields relating to finance and business, and modern languages. Their appeal is fairly clear: the chance to put into practice what you’ve learned so far, get to know more about an industry you’re interested in, and boost your CV at the same time.
There can also be more immediate financial benefits. It’s usual for students to be paid a salary by the company they’re placed with, and to pay a reduced tuition fee during their placement year. For example, at Imperial College London in the UK, students (both domestic and international) pay half the usual annual fee for their year in industry.
University entrepreneurship schemes
A growing number of universities are providing support for students to launch their own businesses.
At the UK’s Nottingham Trent University, students can choose to spend their year in industry developing their own business ideas, with support from the university’s innovation centre, The Hive.
In the US, Brown University’s student-led Entrepreneurship Program organizes events and lectures throughout the year, as well as mentoring schemes and software support to help students get their ideas off the ground.
There are lots of other examples, of both student-led and more formal entrepreneurship programs, so if you’ve got a good idea for a new business or product, university could be your chance to give it a try.
Work placements while at university
If you’re not on a sandwich course, you may still undertake some shorter periods of work-based learning, either as a compulsory or optional part of your degree.
At the University of Bologna, Italy, all students in the School of Economics must complete at least one work placement. Professor Mauro Bernardini, director of the internship scheme, says placements are an essential part of students’ learning, and also good preparation for future careers, whether in academia or business.
He adds, “this contact with the business world helps students develop their professional and communicative skills, and also team working.”
Northeastern University in the US also places a strong emphasis on experiential learning (learning through experience). More than 2,000 businesses are involved in the university’s ‘cooperative learning’ program, which allows students to choose up to three work placements, with help and advice from a supervisor.
These ‘co-ops’ are optional, but 90% of undergraduates at the university choose to complete at least one.
Likewise, Osaka University in Japan encourages students to participate in student internship schemes – not just to get ahead in career terms, but as part of an all-round learning process.
“We hope that internships provide opportunities for students to explore their possibilities more concretely, that interacting with various members of society outside campus will lead to their personal growth, and that internships will help them lead their college life with a clearer sense of purpose,” says Kenji Kitagawa of the Department of Student Affairs at Osaka University.
Kitagawa adds, “It is not expected that students assimilate to company values excessively before graduation. More importantly, we expect students to nurture their critical spirit as a citizen while in university, so that they can think and act with a view to the general welfare of society as a whole.”
Service-learning at university
It is this focus on contributing to society that is the basis of service-learning – which is essentially work experience with a community focus. At Colorado State University in the US, service-learning has been a key part of university life since 1992.
The university now has partnerships with more than 100 local community-focused organizations, giving students the opportunity to gain work experience in sectors such as environmental work, youth work, micro-businesses and art therapy.
Participants in the scheme work towards a Community Engagement Leaders certification, and placements are designed to support academic studies, as well as providing opportunities for more general personal growth.
“Students learn how to be good local and global citizens, and are equipped with the professional tools to become leading candidates for a variety of job opportunities,” says Margit Hentschel, director of the Office of Service-Learning. “They learn and apply strategies for developing sustainable, solutions-oriented projects to meet diverse community needs.”
Other benefits, she adds, include cultural awareness, experience of different workplace settings, greater empathy, and an understanding of key community needs.
University mentoring schemes
Mentoring schemes at universities give students the chance to benefit from the advice and guidance of someone already working in their sector of interest, by recruiting professional volunteers and pairing them with students.
The Career Mentor Link program at the University of Western Australia gives a list of suggested activities for mentors and mentees, including practising for job interviews, workplace shadowing (observing), arranging meetings with other useful contacts and giving advice on useful next steps.
Jo Hocking, the program coordinator, says that while there are some structured events and evaluations, the scheme’s effectiveness is largely based on its flexibility.
“Students and their mentors have the ability to decide on their own goals and meeting schedules throughout the program. This is particularly important given that students are from a variety of disciplines and are at various stages of their degree.”
Rachel Lee, one of the students involved in the scheme, sums up its appeal: “You get one-on-one experience with professionals who are already successful in your area of interest. How could you not want to do this?"
University study-abroad placements
Even if you’re planning on choosing a university in your own country, you may want to consider a course that allows you to spend a year studying elsewhere – an increasingly popular kind of sandwich course, and one that could really boost your employment prospects.
According to the QS Global Employer Survey Report 2011, more than half (60%) of surveyed employers said they valued international study experience when assessing applicants.
Places for study exchanges with other universities are usually limited, meaning that if you want to get your first choice of location, you’ll probably need to earn it by getting good grades – perhaps a useful extra incentive to really work hard!
This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in January 2020