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Work-based assessment

Assessing learning from a work-based setting

Work-based assessment, of course, follows work-based learning. The issue for this brief guide is that, over time, there have been several definitions of work-based learning [WBL] and even variations of the label itself [e.g. workplace-based learning].

Work-based learning: this involves learning through work, learning for work and / or learning at work. It consists of authentic structured opportunities for learning which are achieved in a workplace setting or are designed to meet an identified workplace need. This type of learning typically has a dual function of being designed to meet the learning needs of the employees, developing their knowledge, skills and professional behaviors, and also meeting the workforce development needs of the organisation.

Work-based learning is, therefore, learning which is distinguished from work-related or simulated learning activity that has not been formulated or commissioned by, or in partnership with, employers to address a current workforce need. (QAA, 2018)

Work-based learning - which is much more focused on learning in the workplace [than work-related learning], derived from work undertaken for or by an employer (i.e., in paid or unpaid work). It involves the gaining of competencies and knowledge in the workplace. It may include learning undertaken as part of workforce development. (Connor, 2005)

WBL is a learning process which focuses university level critical thinking upon work (paid or unpaid) in order to facilitate the recognition, acquisition and application of individual and collective knowledge, skills and abilities, to achieve specific outcomes of significance to the learner, their work and the university. (Garnett, 2005, p. 2).

Workplace-based learning might be under threat yet it has never been more important. By drawing on the sound traditions of apprenticeship and making the most of the opportunities to learn that arise in our day-to-day practice, we can ensure that trainees learn how to do the job by doing the job. (London Deanery, 2012).

The reasons for the differences are the various lenses that one might look through: the first two particularly focus on the development of the workforce and so may relate to part-time and vocational courses and degrees, the third centres on researching the workplace [professional doctorates] and the last is a disciplinary - medicinal sciences - view. The value here is to match your context as you may be thinking about assessing placements / internships, recognising and accrediting prior experiential learning [APEL], developing professional Masters or Doctoral degrees, offering short industry / commerce related courses, or reviewing the assessment strategy for a sandwich degree.

The definitions all have common threads which means that we need to ensure that students will know [Brodie and Irving, 2007, 14]:

  • what learning is (learning implies change)
  • how to do it best (the style, approach, fitness for purpose)
  • when they have learnt (description of and reflection about the learning)
  • what their learning is informed by (its validity; how it stands up to scrutiny against outside evidence)
  • what they need to learn (future learning)
  • what they have learnt, know more about, become more able at doing (analysis and evaluation of the learning).

And this will impact both how we prepare learners and how we assess them.

What can we assess from work-based learning?

The added value is that we can both asses the content of what has been learned but also how students think about their own learning and any applicable ‘employability skills’ that may be part of the intended learning outcomes. This includes, as appropriate:

  • knowledge and understanding of the concepts and principles of the area of study
  • ability to apply concepts and principles in both known and novel contexts
  • knowledge of the main methods of enquiry / problem solving in the subject
  • how they learn
  • an understanding of the limits of their knowledge; what is yet to learn
  • transferable skills (team, presentation, problem solving, etc.).

A range of different methods can be used to assess achievement as a result of work-based learning; the choice will link to the specific learning outcomes and whether the focus is on the content of learning, the process of learning or both.

Self assessment: often formative rather than summative and should promote reflection on the learning undertaken.

Assignments and projects: any task must be directly linked to the learner’s work content and context and, as with all assessment, include clear criteria.

Reports : these can relate to distinct aspects of the work-based learning and can be designed to develop the skills of writing as well as measure the veracity of the content.

Portfolios: portfolio assessment comprises a focussed collection of work and can be used to achieve two distinct purposes: a developmental portfolio if organised to show student learning or a showcase portfolio if based on samples of a student’s best work. Ideally the student will be involved both in selecting the work and deciding the criteria that are used to judge the work. In addition, the portfolio should include evidence of student self-reflection on the content and process.

Race (2009) provides advice on the use and assessment of portfolios:

  • specify or negotiate intended learning outcomes clearly
  • propose a general format for the portfolio
  • specify or negotiate the nature of the evidence which students should collect.

Dissertations and theses: these are traditional academic methods to assess understanding and capability of learners, in addition to their ability to conduct research, analyse and present findings.

Oral presentations : the use of oral presentations allows the learner to demonstrate communication skills as well as presenting their findings and their understanding of a project.

Poster  displays: see the section on posters.

Learning contracts: the contract is drafted by the university tutor and / or workplace supervisor and the learner and provides an ideal opportunity for differentiating learning as the contract is specific to the individual whilst focused on the intended learning outcomes. As Gray (2001) notes, the contract should include:

  • the learner’s personal objectives
  • their professional objectives
  • any potential work-based projects or initiatives they wish to deal with
  • any potential APL or APEL claims
  • specification of an academically coherent set of modules or learning opportunities addressing the learning objectives
  • an agreed timetable
  • evidence of support and resources that can be accessed at work and in the university
  • evidence of support as a learner within an organisational context (e.g. supervisor, mentor).

Learning journal / learning log : as an aid to monitoring and evaluating progress towards achieving learning outcomes should be an integral aspect of this process, and affords opportunities for both formative and summative self assessment. Aspects of the journal could be submitted within a portfolio for assessment also.

Typically, workplace-based learning uses a standard set of assessment tools [Royal College of Pathologist, 2018]:

  • case-based discussion
  • directly observed practical skills
  • mini clinical evaluation exercise
  • evaluation of clinical events
  • multi-source feedback.

That brief Royal College paper and London Deanery (2012) provide full details of these approaches and Miller’s pyramid of competence (Miller, 1990) the underpinning paradigm and so reduce the need for detailing here. However, the ideas of multi-source feedback [a variation of 3600 feedback]

Diversity & inclusion

Students may have different experience of working life and this needs to be taken into account when drafting learning contracts / assessment tasks.

Academic integrity

Each placement is likely to be different, unique even. This means that the opportunity for plagiarism is reduced. In addition, assessment methods like logs, journals and portfolios track learning over time and this help ensure that it is the student’s own work. (Click for further guidance on promoting academic integrity.)

Student and staff experience

As noted above, the learning gain possible from work-based learning is considerable and spans not only the cognitive and skill domains but can also include attitudes and approaches [affective].


The students are away from the university and that requires health and safety to be assured, finding a supervisor and ensuring effective monitoring of the students.

It is likely that the work-based supervisor will be involved in assessing and this means that discussion and moderation of expectations and standards is necessary.


Depending on the choice of assessment methods, workload for both the student and the staff member can be regulated. Whilst self assessment loads the learner, as Lemanski et al (2011) note “Assessment burden for assignments and projects [and dissertations and thesis] is high, with considerable assessor time required in the development of the assignment and agreement of outcomes with the learner; the assessment level would be even greater if individualised projects were undertaken by each learner enrolled on the course.”


Useful resources

Brennan, J. and Little, B. (2006) Towards a Strategy for Workplace Learning: Report of a study to assist HEFCE in the development of a strategy for workplace learning. London: Centre for Higher Education Research & Information.

Nixon, I., Smith, K., Rob Stafford, R. and Camm, S. (2006). Work-based learning: illuminating the higher education landscape. The Higher Education Academy.

Work-based learning: assessment and evaluation in higher education (2007). Special edition of Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. 32 (7).

Norcini, J. and Burch, V. (2007). Workplace-based assessment as an educational tool: AMEE Guide No. 31

Medical Teacher, 29, 9-10).

How might we use technology (and what are the benefits?) see the advice and guidance from JISC:

Crossley J. and Jolly, B. (2012). Making sense of work‐based assessment: ask the right questions, in the right way, about the right things, of the right people. Medical Education, 46, 28-37.