• August 29, 2015

Maybe Experience Really Can Be the Best Teacher

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College students work for different reasons. Many take jobs to pay tuition and related educational expenses. Others work to afford electronic gadgets (often ones that we, their professors, don't yet know exist). Regardless of the reasons, many professors and administrators consider students' working during college to be an unfortunate distraction from what should be their primary focus: their academic studies.

Nonetheless, next to going to class, work is by far the most common activity in which undergraduates take part. At least two-thirds of students at four-year colleges and four-fifths of their counterparts at two-year colleges work at some point during college, either on or off campus. And, contrary to long-held beliefs, findings from the 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement show that working is positively related to several dimensions of student engagement, especially for full-time students.

Given that policy makers and institutional leaders are looking for low- or no-cost ways to improve student success—especially for part-time and older students and from historically underrepresented groups—it's high time we look for ways to use the work experience to enrich rather than detract from learning and college completion.

Substantial research suggests that working during college is related to acquiring such employer-preferred skills as teamwork and time management. Employment also has the potential to deepen and enrich learning, as is the case when students participate in such "high impact" activities as learning communities, student-faculty research, study abroad, capstone seminars, and internships both paid and unpaid. When done well, those and other high-impact activities require students to connect, reflect on, and integrate what they are learning from their classes with other life experiences. Doing so helps students see firsthand the practical value of their classroom learning by applying it in real-life settings—which, additionally, often helps to clarify their career aspirations.

For more than a century, integrating learning and work along with service has been the mission of the seven federally recognized work colleges in the United States: the College of the Ozarks and Alice Lloyd, Berea, Blackburn, Ecclesia, Sterling, and Warren Wilson Colleges. These institutions meet the eligibility criteria for funds from the Work-Colleges Program administered by the U.S. Department of Education, including featuring work, learning, and service in their educational philosophy; requiring that all students work at least five hours a week (though most students at work colleges average between 10-15 hours); and making student performance on the job as well as the classroom part of the student record. The goal is to help students learn to balance study, service to others, and the demands of their jobs.

Other institutions are pursuing similar ends. The University of Maine at Farmington has created more on-campus jobs to help students see the connections between curriculum and work. Boston's Northeastern University and the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, offer large numbers of high-quality off-campus internships.

As part of a two-day visit to the University of Iowa in 2009, I encouraged staff members in the division of student services to teach their student employees to connect and apply what they were learning in class to their jobs, and vice versa. They subsequently started a small pilot program with students working in different kinds of jobs—clerking at the campus bookstore, assisting at the health center, and answering questions at the residence-hall information desk, to name just a few.

Supervisors met with their student employees twice during the semester. To focus those conversations, they provided students with a list of questions in advance:

  • How is this job fitting in with your academics?
  • What are you learning here at work that is helping you in class?
  • What are you learning in class that you can apply here at work?
  • Can you give a couple of examples of what you are learning here at work that you will use in your chosen profession?

Although only about half of the 33 students who had the structured meetings with their supervisors responded, the results of the survey comparing them with 373 co-workers who did not have such meetings were striking. On virtually every measure, the pilot-program group was much more positive. For example, about 70 percent of the students in the pilot program agreed that they had made connections between their work experience and their major-field course work, compared with only 29 percent of their co-workers. Sixty-nine percent of the pilot-program workers reported that their work had helped improve their written communication skills, compared with 17 percent of their peers. Seventy-seven percent of the pilot-program workers said their jobs had helped them use critical-thinking skills to solve problems, compared with 56 percent of the others.

Iowa is expanding the program this year, making an effort to include more students working in areas such as food service, where integrating academic learning with the work experience may be more challenging. Any college can adapt this generic, low-cost, potentially high-payoff approach.

For students in off-campus jobs, a classroom-based model can achieve similar ends. Professors can create assignments that encourage such students to make connections between course materials and their jobs, and can lead discussions that ask students to reflect on and integrate their learning. For example, in an upper-division writing course, a professor could ask students to analyze, in a genre appropriate for the field, the relevance of key concepts presented in class readings to one's workplace, or to dealing effectively with a low-performing co-worker.

Getting students to talk, in the company of their peers, about how they are applying their learning can be a significant challenge. One way to jump-start meaningful exchanges is to include in the class an upper-division student who is articulate in such matters. After a few sessions, students will very likely begin making and discussing connections themselves.

Not every course needs to be so structured for students to derive benefits from connecting learning and work. If working students have just one or two such courses in the first year, and again a few more times in the major, they would begin to develop an enhanced, practiced capacity for reflection and integration that they can use in other classes and settings.

So how can colleges build on those successes? One way is for a consortium of colleges and universities to seek funds to develop course modules focused on connecting learning and employment. The challenges and rewards of using work to educational advantage could then be documented and adapted by colleges with large numbers of working students.

There are many good ideas for enhancing college achievement and helping more undergraduates succeed. Few promise to deliver as much bang for the buck as making work more relevant to learning, and vice versa.

George D. Kuh is director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, located at Indiana University at Bloomington and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a professor emeritus of higher education at Indiana University and author of High Impact Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (AAC&U, 2008).


1. ncl1968 - November 22, 2010 at 05:54 am

I am so pleased to see this getting more attention. I'm just about to submit my doctoral dissertation on this very topic! Giving students an opportunity for making even small connections between university and workplace through reflection or dialogue can make all the difference for students when they graduate and begin to navigate the world of work. This doesn't have to cost a lot, or take away time from academic work. I hope we will soon see more universities acknowledging the number of students who work, intern, and volunteer during study and realize that these activities can enhance the higher education experience.

2. erc38 - November 22, 2010 at 06:08 am

While we are at it, we should extend these insights into the preschool curriculum. Why not show Bob the Builder perpetually to all toddlers so that they learn how to exhaust all their energies serving the interests of industry while negelecting consider their own self-interests.

This curriculum might be appropriate if it is augmented with classes that study subjects such as labor relations or alternative economic systems. Otherwise, you are simply serving the interests of industry not society.

3. a_voice - November 22, 2010 at 09:56 am

erc38, the recommendation here for links between work and school serves the interests of students. You are probably more ideological than most folks who want to learn and make a decent living. Just because one studies and works doesn't mean one becomes a non-thinking robot victim of an ideological system. Let's get real here.

4. vintont - November 22, 2010 at 11:17 am

Praise to George Kuh for highlighting an important phenomenon. Many students do learn better when they integrate work with study, even when the combined time commitments are daunting. Since our founding, we at Metropolitan College of New York have been developing an educational model that blends off-site work experience with classroom instruction. We call it Purpose-Centered Education. It permits our predominantly adult, working students to demonstrate learning in real-life contexts and to bring the practical challenges of the workplace back to the classroom. We would be pleased to share the details of this model with any college contemplating a work and study program for commuter students.

Vinton Thompson, President, Metropolitan College of New York

5. hcorna - November 22, 2010 at 11:21 am

A long forgotten sense of hard work and personal responsibility is lacking in my generation and Mr. Kuh is right that this fundamental understand of real work experience is critical to anyone's success in the real world.

I've worked since I was fourteen and am confident that it played a role in my achievements so far. Having just returned from working overseas with Toyota, I am now speaking to university groups about eradicating entitlement and the tools I've used to get where I am today. Using my experience, I hope to help educate students interested in international business on the more hands-on pragmatics of working abroad. www.onewhiteface.com

6. jlewis827 - November 22, 2010 at 01:08 pm

This is a terrific article and an important reminder of how congruence between coursework and employment can heighten student learning outcomes in both arenas.

For more on a study I conducted a few years back at Northwestern University and its findings of specific workplace experiences that correlate with learning, see:

-- http://chronicle.com/article/Student-Workers-Can-Learn-More/31506/

-- Lewis, J.S. (2010). Job fare: Workplace experiences that help students learn. In L.W. Perna (Ed.) Understanding the Working College Student. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Jonathan Lewis, Associate Director for Student Success, Wheelock College (Boston)

7. pacifica888 - November 22, 2010 at 01:24 pm

I'm teaching an upper-division course this semester called worklife writing, in the tradition of life writing yet with an emphasis on the work that students are doing on and off campus to support themselves. We've read writers from Mayhew to Terkel, and over the Labor Day weekend they researched on- and offline sources of the labor movement, also making connections with Australia, where that movement, in contrast to the U.S., still thrives. We devoted a whole week to Erving
Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life in order to analyze the ways in which management deploys techniques that this sociologist identified a half century ago.

The student accounts are fascinating. They trace many ways in which they are obliged to "perform" disingenuously because their job requires it. Because they are almost invariably working in entry-level jobs, and in several cases at the familiar large volume retail places where we all buy food and household items, they feel like they are in some kind of holding pattern. Job structures are predicated on outmodes Taylorized models of workplace organization, and the "knowledge work" that we claim we are preparing them for in the university is nowhere to be found. They see managers one rung above them performing disingenuously, too, and they definitely do not aspire to move in that direction, yet they are hard pressed to figure out what they will do once their degree is in hand. Given the state of the world economy that globalized capitalism has produced, their futures do not look too rosy. It's too bad, because they are terrific students.

8. more_cowbell - November 22, 2010 at 04:09 pm

Good article - but I think that professors really are the least qualified people to help students prepare for the workplace. Many faculty were hired fresh out of grad school, and have little to no experience themselves in such matters.

It seems to me that a major attitude shift is needed first at the dept level where non-academic work is celebrated and respected, and not seen as some kind of sell-out to industry, govt, etc. Then, real relationship building with the outside world can take place, something which sorely missing at this point.

9. davidong - November 22, 2010 at 09:08 pm

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10. 12088329 - November 22, 2010 at 09:18 pm

May I suggest - once again - it depends upon the quality and compassion of the student's advisor first and foremost. Yes, faculty can and should encourage students to bring any and all experience into their academic problem solving. Yes, work absolutely requires honing of such skills as time management and effective learning, etc. that are absolute pluses in subsequent skills.

BUT the advisor-student relationship is the key. If the advisor is an "in name only" advisor, the lack of advising is bad. If the advisor is an idealistic advisor seeing anything other than pure academic activities as comprimising potential, that's bad - maybe even worse than no advising. BUT if the advisor is interested, is compassionant, is engaged, she / he can help the student navigate a tough situation AND can use the work to help the student make a complication increase the intrinsic motivation to succeed academically. Advisors need to work with the student as she / he are.

11. pihettich - November 22, 2010 at 09:36 pm

I applaud George Kuh's insightful and timely comments and those above that support his position. The NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers)survey Job Outlook 2010 reports(p 22) that76.6% of employers prefer to hire candidates with relevant work experience and another 15.9% prefer candidates with any type of work experience. With 93% preferring work experience we should be telling students about the importance of part-time jobs and finding ways to help them connect college to career. In the same report (p. 23) employers rate the importance of candidate skills/qualities (from higher to lower): Communications skills, strong work ethic, initiative, interpersonal skills, problem solving skills, teamwork skills, analytical skills, flexibility/adaptability, computer skills, detail-oriented, leadership skills, technical skills. Don't these qualities sound familiar? We do students a great favor when we indicate in course syllabi and assignments(or have them figure out)the opportunities to develop specific skills (in addition to learning course content) if they work at it. Such steps can help students connect coursework with possible situations they may encounter in a job and they could increase motivation. When I taught Organiational Behavior, Communications in Small Groups, and Social Psychology I required students to complete two journal entries each week (about a page each) that demonstrated they could connect the often abstract course concepts to their life and work experiences. Not only did journal writing help most students immensely, it gave me a glimpse of their working lives and helped me ground course concepts not just in research but in reality.
We should remember that not only are the organizational cultures of college and corporate worlds very different, they can be at serious odds with each other. Students with minimal work experience enter the world of work conditioned to expect frequent concrete feedback, a focus on their personal development, choosing their level of performance, high structure, mostly intellectual challenges, passive participation, mostly individual effort, and other dimenions of work which for the most part they do not encounter outside of an academic setting.
During this economic crisis, teachers should strive to enable students to create meaning, to the extent their courses permit, between their academic and co-curricular activities and the world of work where students expect to use their highly expensive and time-consuming education. Why can't we do that?

12. director19 - November 23, 2010 at 10:18 am

Duh! Two comments.

1. There is very little correlation between what's learned in college and the application on old theory to everyday problems.

2. It would be difficult, if not impossible, in my opinion, for someone who has always worked in academia to understand or assist someone who is working in the real world trying to gain the necessary skills to enter the job market. While theory is nice, it won't survive 'first contact" with the work place where real solutions are necessary, not a bunch of hocus-pocus!

13. danew13 - November 23, 2010 at 11:06 am

Funny, doing a piece on work experience for students, yet ignoring the fact that the historic method of teaching trades by masters has been discarded by much of academia.

In the old days, tradesmen and some professionals would, during their declining years, devote their time to training new people. Trade guilds were formed and the process was formalized.

Today, however, where in America there is degree offered for most skilled work, the old masters are told they need a masters or doctorate to teach even at the community college level.

When I received my BA it was at a time when such honors were worth what many MAs are worth today. In my case it was journalism, which until the mid 20th Century was looked upon as a skilled trade.

Now, I have 40 years of wide ranging experience and I would like to mentor young people. But, I have been told that my experience means very little without a post grad degree.

On the other hand, in the UK I have a better shot at what is being denied me in my own country.
dan ehrlich www.hard-truths.blogspot.com

14. dboyles - November 23, 2010 at 07:16 pm

What's so new about this? Engineering programs have long had students who take summer or year-long coop positions in industry. Fact is, however, that while a year-long coop augments the academic experience, it prolongs the time to a degree. When the economy isn't hiring, coops are eminently appealing as full-time engineering jobs are scarce. When the economy is booming and demanding engineers, students obviously prefer an entry level job to a coop. Is the economy the tail wagging the dog? Clearly. Hopefully this is NOT the case in other disciplines.

15. terrypruettsaid - November 23, 2010 at 10:21 pm

This sounds fine for typical part-time college jobs, or for professionals returning to school. But in my community college teaching, I do find work significantly and negatively impacts my students. My students are often working in minimum wage jobs that require them to work 40-60 hours a week. This leaves little time for studying, or even thinking as one student put it. My students depend on these jobs to support their family, and sometimes even extended families. If their boss changes their schedule, asks them to work overtime, or even double shifts, they cannot say sorry but I have school at that time. They want desperately to have a better life, but are caught in a vicious cycle of having to work more and more hours causing them to do poorly in school which prevents them from getting a better job or promotion.

16. chevyman - November 25, 2010 at 11:18 am

Excellent article. It's wonderful to see someone draw attention to this area. Thanks for looking!

17. quidditas - November 29, 2010 at 08:08 am

Yeah, I especially love it when U Admin refuses to hire actual staff, preferring federally funded "work study" students. And then the tenured welfare queens tell them the same thing they tell their grad student TAs--who are supposed to be teaching the federally funded work student students--that their "own work" comes first, a thing they would never tell them with regard to "class."

Not that U Admin should be pawning off xeroxing and such on federally funded work study students. Technically, the work they do is supposed to be tied to their degrees.

Not that their careers will be tied to their degrees...

18. drfunz - December 02, 2010 at 08:48 am

It is true that some students absolutely need to work to get a college education. Most of the ones that are in that condition work as hard at their studies as they do work. However, I see altogether too many students on fed workstudy who toss away $200 a month for a fancy phone service, $50/week for lattes and expressos,and $170 for the best athletic footwear (they're not athletes BTW). Workstudy is not the answer for the truly poor because the pay is too low. Seniors can make more in a night bartending than they can working 10 hr/ week the allowed maximum) in Fed Workstudy.

19. seo_admin - December 03, 2010 at 02:51 pm

Just FYI...work study does not limit students to working 10 hr/week, nor does it dictate the wage (other than it must be at least minimum wage). The policies you mention are institutional.

20. francishamit - December 08, 2010 at 08:49 pm

I recommend to your attention a book entitled "Shop Class as Soulcraft" by Mathew B. Crawford. Dr. Crawford is a reformed academic who owns a motorcycle repair shop. One of the better and most intellectually challenging works I've read lately.

21. bashleyew - December 12, 2010 at 04:52 am

yeah! expirence is must for every profession.I like this post and this is informative also.
AiR Electronic Cigarette

22. yacheexy - December 13, 2010 at 03:17 am

this a very informative and useful for me. thanks!!!
Glamorous Smile

23. dr_pdg - December 17, 2010 at 05:27 am

@Dan Erhlich,
I too am coming from a background in the trades and apply those same principles to our graduate level, blended learning courses in project and program management.

There is no way you can learn the requisite soft skills, much less the technical skills required by reading and analyzing case studies. The only way to really learn how to manage anything is to jump into the pool and swim (or drown).

Unfortunately, it means that a certain percentage of people simply are not cut out to be tradesmen or managers or doctors or pilots or whatever. In today's schools where no one is allowed to fail, lest it damage their precious egos, this has resulted in a large percentage of people passing academic courses who while smart, are incompetent practitioners.

George, we need MORE experiential learning, and with it, professors who are willing to explain to some students that they just don't have what it takes to be in their chosen field of study.

Keep up the good work!!

Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia

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