Unintegrated training? Exploring links between off- and on-the- job learning

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Unintegrated training? Exploring links between off

and on
job learning

Darryl Dymock, Rod Gerber



Darryl Dymock,
Darryl Dymock is based at the Centre for Lifelong Learning and Development,
Bedford Park, Australia.

Rod Gerber,
Rod Gerber
is based at the Centre for Lifelong Learning and Development,
Bedford Park, Australia.


Looks at the nature of workplace learning, stating that there is a concern about the link
between it and the classroom. Examines the transition from training t
o work by means of
research carried out among two cohorts of students from a private vocational training college
in Australia. Concludes that college
based and workplace training are different which is a
challenge that companies need to recognise and accom

Article type:



job training, Colleges, Learning.

Content Indicators:

Research Implications** Practice Implications* Originality** Readability*

Education + Training

Volume 44 Number 1 2002 pp. 23

Copyright © MCB Univer
sity Press ISSN 0040

As closer interest is devoted to the nature of workplace learning, there has developed a closer
concern for the link between classroom and workplace learning. Much of the focus has been
on structural arrangements for the integra
tion of institutional and workplace training.
Researchers such as Harris
et al.

(1997, p. 197) have suggested that the notion of integrated
training "calls for a unified collaborative approach by all sponsors which is publicly known by
all concerned", part
icularly in regard to apprenticeship training. Others, e.g. Boud and Garrick
(1999), have thought of the linkage as being one of linking theory and practice through fusing
the artificial boundaries between learning and work.

The idea of integrating institu
tional training with on
job training sounds appropriate from a
superficial level, but it may not be the solution to all workplace situations as the work
environment and the work context vary, even across the same industry. It focuses on the
extent to w
hich institutional or classroom learning is perceived to be and is actually different
from work
based learning. Raelin (2000) presents a strong case for work
based learning
being different from traditional classroom learning. Here, work
based learning: foc
uses on
reviewing and learning from experience; is centred on learning from action and problem
solving; knowledge is created in a shared, collective activity; and required learning to learn.
Classroom learning is based more on: acquiring a set of technical

skills; formal teaching
activities; providing students with knowledge, skills and concepts; and emphasis on the
development of cognitive skills (DfEE, 1996). Therefore, work
based learning places greater
emphasis on action learning rather than the develop
ment of technical competencies (Pedler,

Employers will always hope that the knowledge, skills and values that their employees bring
to their work will be appropriate for the particular job. They hope that the workers will bring
sufficient experienti
al learning in order for them to function effectively in their jobs. Kolb's
(1984) classification of experiential learning with emphases on action, reflection, theory and
practice, suggests that people bring a depth to their work experience when they enter

particular worksites. Such experiences, Jarvis (2000) argues, are important in the discussion
of workplace learning because the world is changing rapidly and people need these
experiences to equip them to deal with such a different life
world. Heller (198
4) extends this
view by arguing that all learning begins with the experiences that people have in everyday
action. The extent to which employees do so will depend on the comprehensive nature of the
institutional training and how well it relates to real
e jobs. This may seem elementary in a
specific work area such as the travel and hospitality industry, but different travel and
accommodation booking systems may be used. It is likely that any one training college will not
use all of these systems in their
training. Therefore, some form of transfer of learning will be
needed if the transition from training to work is to be successful.

The study

The research reported here was conducted with two cohorts of students from a private
vocational education and train
ing college in Australia, 14 of whom were students at the
College in 1997, and six of whom were "workers" who had graduated from the course within
the previous two years and had moved into employment. The respondents, 17 female and
three male, were from tw
o particular courses, Executive Secretarial Skills and Hospitality and
Tourism, which are at Certificate IV level in the Australian Qualifications Framework
introduced in 1995, and are studied for one year full
time. The college's curriculum for those
ses is based on national competency standards and utilises nationally accredited
based modules.

The workers were in full

or part
time employment, and were selected in consultation with the
principals of the college, first on the basis of hav
ing completed the college course within
the previous two years, and thus assumed to be reasonably able to recall their experience of
transfer to the workplace of competencies learned in the formal setting, and second on being
geographically accessible for
face interviews. The students were selected randomly
and on the basis of availability at the time of the interviews. With the interviewees' permission,
all interviews were recorded and transcribed.

An initial interview, early in the year, establish
ed for the researchers the level of
understanding by the respondents of such concepts as competencies and transfer of learning.
This provided the basis for a second interview undertaken later in the year which explored the
students' and graduates' percepti
ons about the learning strategies they adopted in the
classroom and in the workplace respectively, and about the extent to which they perceived
classroom learning was transferred to the workplace. Learning strategies were identified by
the researchers usin
g a "critical incident" approach (Stiegelbauer
et al.
, 1982). The findings
from that part of the study were reported in a paper presented at a conference in December
1999 (Dymock and Gerber, 1999).

The analysis conducted in this part of the study was compl
eted using some of the tactics that
Miles and Huberman (1994, pp. 245
62) proposed for generating meaning from a set of
qualitative data. Some of these tactics included: noting patterns in the data; clustering of
actions; making contrasts/comparisons; seei
ng plausibility in participants' statements relevant
to the aim of the study; noting relations between learning in the college and in the workplace;
and building a logical chain of evidence. The researchers examined the data separately and
then discussed t
heir initial results before reaching a consensus on each of the three concepts.
This enabled the researchers to maintain a consistency in their analyses. The results
presented in this article consist of three concepts

perceived transfer of learning; new
learning completed by the participants; and the preferred location for the learning

that were
perceived by the participants to be important in linking their college
based learning with their
based learning. The results from the study are summarised
in the following three


Transfer of learning

Variations occurred in the experiences of the workers and the current students on their
experience of transfer of learning from their classroom to their workplace.


When asked, "To what e
xtent were you able to apply what you learned in your course to the
workplace?", five of the six workers perceived that their college training had generally
prepared them for their jobs. For example, W2 said that "they do cover basically everything
you nee
d to enter the workplace but it's not until you are in the workplace that you begin to
build on what you have learnt". This was supported by W1:

... I pretty much learned everything I needed to learn [at the college], unless you go into
specialising and yo
u can't teach every form of specialising in every job so it gave me a good
sort of background ...

However, W3 also found that she could not utilise her hospitality training in the workplace
because despite her experience in customer service positions as a
casual at a resort for more
than a year, when she asked about a permanent position she was made switchboard
operator, which she found "extremely boring".

Another worker, W4, was disgruntled with her college training, claiming she knew "nothing"
when she we
nt to work in an office:

I didn't have much practical experience ... I don't think [the college] spends enough time on
typewriters, on computers, because that is mainly what it is. And it is also a good idea to put
people on the front desk but we only did
it for an hour out of the whole year and that doesn't
give you much of a go at it.

This worker also complained that less time could have been spent at the college on the study
of managing a business because "I came [to the college] thinking I am going to l
earn to be a
receptionist not a manager". This was in direct contrast to the response of W1. W4 said that
what she obtained from her college training were her typing speed, and "you learn how to
dress, you learn how to talk".

This range of perspectives ind
icates how the degree of correspondence between the
institutional training and the actual job will cause people to experience some transfer of
training or little at all. The situatedness of the work does indicate that transfer of learning will
be achieved
from college study, i.e. the students take what they have learned in college and
apply it or adapt it to their work tasks.


The 14 students were almost at the end of their one
year courses, and had either undertaken
work experience as part of their

training or had part
time jobs. Overwhelmingly, they
perceived their college training as highly relevant to the workplace. S11 said "You get a
background [at the college] of what to do and how to do it", and S12 said "If I didn't do this
course I would be

up the creek without a paddle".

S2 was quite clear about the perceived usefulness of the course for the workplace:

... a lot of things we have done [at the college] during the year I thought were just absolutely
stupid and a waste of time, but it ended up

they did use them. For example, petty cash
reconciliation every day and how they were telling us how we had to write letters in the book
before we posted them, and I thought as if anyone would waste their time with that, but they
actually did all these th

Two of the students identified the transfer of learning with tasks they had been set in their
workplace training. S5 said that she had been "really lucky" because in her work experience
she had been a "real" secretary for a week. S10, when asked if w
hat she had learned had
prepared her for an office, responded: "Yes, just by the letter typing, answering the phones
and just interacting with the public".

S1 said that she felt she would have been able to transfer the learning if she had been given
a chan
ce to, but her work experience comprised "menial little jobs that nobody else wanted to

The extent of transfer of learning is certainly related to participants' experience in workplaces
during their practical placements and their capacity to reflect o
n the value of these
experiences for workplaces. They anticipated that transfer of learning would occur in their
jobs. However, it was only a generalised hope because they had not yet achieved full
employment. This contrasted nicely with the people in

work who were more variable in their
experience of transfer of learning. Their work situation was influencing the extent of the

New learning

The two groups of people experienced variations in the extent to which new learning was
required after t
raining in the college.


When asked, "What did you need to learn for the job which you felt you had not learned in the
classroom training, and how did you go about learning those things?", the workers generally
felt that there was nothing specific t
hat they needed to learn on the job which they had not
learned at the college. Rather, they felt that they needed to learn to adapt to the needs and
expectations of the organisations for which they worked. As W5 explained:

Once you get there you are fittin
g in with the office and you are learning how they do things
so you have to modify what you have learnt [at the college] to suit the office ...

W5 also commented on the need to adapt to the specialised tasks of the office, but added:
"They do sort of get t
hrown at you, though". She said that the "scariest" thing was using the
phone because they had not used telephones much in their college training. However, in her
first job the staff seemed to expect that she would know how to use the telephone. But, she
as always cutting people off and then other staff showed her what to do, and she also
watched other people to see how they used the telephone (a form of guided participation). It
was more than a matter of confidence building. It was more like being require
d to adapt
previous competencies to those orientations in their current workplace.

W3, the switchboard operator at a resort, had a more organised introduction to using the
telephone system, with the executive secretary sitting with her and showing her how
to do so
for two four
hour shifts to "basically show me what I needed to know, but there are a few
things that I have learned as time goes by ..." this was a hands
on method for situating these
previously learning skills in another workplace.

W6 thought th
at the college course might have covered a bit more "face
face stuff" such as
dealing with clients and telephone manner because "once you get thrown into the job there, it
is not the easiest thing really". He also felt that working to deadlines was diff
erent on the job
to in the classroom because "in a class situation you have an assessment and you may be
able to get an extension and lose marks but you can't just lose a mark in the workplace
because it is real people and if you are not prepared to get th
e job done then they are going
to lose some money". He thought therefore that time management was important in his office
and that he had "probably not" learned that at the college.

The graduate who felt that she was not well prepared for the workforce, W4
, said that she had
learned how to handle pressure, such as when three phones rang at once, being nice to
people when they are rude to you ("you just have to bite your tongue"), and to use a
"newfangled" computer package that had been set up for this parti
cular company. Asked
whether there had been formal training with the new system, W4 replied:

No, me and [another employee] just stayed back one night ... We just played around with it
and worked it out for ourselves ... we are still just figuring out thing
s on it.

However, a senior employee did show W4 the ways the organisation dealt with standard
forms on the computer, and the changes she had to make to the standard form for each
client. W4 also observed that although 5 p.m. was the official finishing time
, "no one leaves at
5" because the perception was that "you have got nothing to do if you leave at 5".


Of the 14 students interviewed 12 were able to identify something that they needed to learn
on the job which they had not come across in their c
ollege training, but the ways in which they
learned these new things in the workplace varied considerably.

Two of the students mentioned airport procedures that they had not practised in their course,
but which were demonstrated for them at the workplace,
and a third was initially anxious
when confronted with an "unfriendly computer" whilst attending to airport passengers. S2 was
shown computerised accounting during his work experience, which he had not been trained
in. However, he said that he had not lear
ned much from that because it was only a
demonstration and he did not do it himself.

S3 worked in a bar and was told what things to look out for when she was not serving
customers, and she also "watched other people sometimes, but mostly used commonsense".

Working in a resort restaurant, S4 said she had learnt at the college how to set up a table for
two or four, but was unprepared for the bulk setting up of tables at the resort:

I was thrown in. It was expected that I knew how to do it and when it wasn't d
one properly one
of the supervisors came in and said, "You haven't done this right, it's not right, this is the way
you have to do it", in a gruff voice.

S13 also had a functions supervisor at a resort who was "intimidating and he didn't like you
ng him", so that S13 tended to take a lot of notice of what the other staff did, and
ask them questions about how to do things, rather than to approach the supervisor. S13
thought the only "training" provided at the resort was at an orientation day, which
he had not
been available to attend. On the other hand, when S5 was asked to archive and shred files at
a lawyer's office, a task she had never done before, another girl from the company stayed
with her for half a day, showing her what to do, and checking
that it was done properly. After
that S5 was left alone and was confident of the results.

Several students commented on differences they perceived between the classroom and the
workplace. For example, S11 believed that typewriters and some of the computer
used at the college were obsolete compared to those used in her office. S12 commented:

In the office you have more people coming in, you have more interruptions, you have things
you have to do, you prioritise, whereas [at the college] you are in a

set routine, ... so it's good
they gave us the work experience.

Originally placed at a resort for a week's work experience in her hospitality course, S14 was
subsequently invited to fill the human resources role while the occupant was on leave. She
said t
hat they had covered only basic human resource topics at the college, but that she
coped with the workplace responsibility because she had covered a lot of the role during her
week's work experience, and, before the human resource person went on leave, "we

had a 20
minute talk, she told me the main things to do and that was that". During the four weeks, S14
also sought advice from an indirect supervisor, and commented that "they are really nice
people to work with there so they help you out".

By and large,
both groups of participants recognised the need to learn new things and did so
when the opportunities arose. The act of learning varied a little depending on the
circumstances and the extent of the support that they received in their learning experiences i
the workplace. These experiences were made easier when a fellow worker acted as some
form of a mentor. The mentor role acted as a bridge between what the person had learned in
college and what the new situation demanded.

Location for learning


views were expressed when the location for the learning was mentioned. Here,
some contrasts were presented concerning the preference for learning in the college as
opposed to the workplace.


As noted in the responses to the first question, above, t
he workers felt that the college
generally prepared them for the workplace and they then had to adapt to the particular
requirements of the offices in which they worked. They were therefore mostly unable to
suggest particular elements that were better lear
ned in the workplace. For them, there was a
progression in the nature and depth of learning that they achieved both in the college and in
their jobs. W1 suggested, however, that if she were to do any more training, she would prefer
it to be in the workplac
e because "it is the way they like it to be done". She recognised that
specialist training, for example in accountancy, would need to be studied outside. W5 also
commented that if she did any further training at that stage she expected it would be specific

training within her workplace. These people were recognising the extent of the need for them
to learn skills and knowledge within a specific context rather than outside of a work

W6 commented on one difference he had noted between the classro
om and the workplace: if
there is something you don't understand, "in the classroom you usually want to know straight
away so you go and ask the teacher; when you are in the workforce you tend to work it out
more for yourself", particularly because "you do
n't want to be seen as not knowing what you
are doing and asking questions every five minutes or so", especially as the other staff are
usually occupied with another client. Therefore, the demands on workers in learning situations
are more complex than for

based training.


None of the students favoured a complete workplace learning approach, but several spoke of
the need for a "balance" between the learning in the classroom and on
job. A number
reiterated the points made in response to t
he first question above: that the college training
provided the basic knowledge to build on, although there were different opinions on whether
this should be basic skills training or theory. For example, two of the respondents advocated
learning more diffi
cult aspects which took time, such as accounting, and fares and ticketing, at
college, while another said that if he had not learned how to carry plates at the training course
he would not have been able to do it in the workplace.

Other topics suggested in
dividually for learning on the job included computers and phones
"because you can have a fiddle around and more or less just work it out for yourself", hands
on activities such as stocking shelves, mailing and banking because they were
straightforward, and

attitudes towards customers.

From these results, the college students, even with considerable work experience, do not
appreciate the complexity of learning in the worksite as the workers do. They still place a high
value on their learning in college. Alte
rnatively, the people in employment have grown beyond
their college competencies to more complex learning tasks. They recognise that the college
skills were the basis for their current competencies.


There was a strong perception from five of the

six workers that they had engaged in a direct
transfer of learning from their college course to the workplace. The concept of "building on"
the initial foundation was a common theme. This reflects the understanding by college
graduates in work that there
is a clear connection between college
based learning and work
based learning. They are not the same thing. Rather, college
based learning provides the
basic blocks of competence for intending workers. Once these people obtain work, their basic

are adapted to the specific work contexts in which each person operates.
Because of changes in the different occupations due to improvements in technology,
executive decisions and legislative requirements, the work
based learning may extend into
the learn
ing of new skills and knowledge beyond that learned in college. However, the people
involved in this study still felt that they drew on their basic college competencies to undertake
this additional learning in their workplaces.

The eventual placement of a
graduate in a position which apparently called on little of his or
her training or talents suggests that some employers give little thought to matching skills to
positions, but simply to "fill the vacancy", a situation likely to result in dissatisfaction f
rom the
employee and ultimately probably the employer. What is unclear from these "workers" was
whether the transfer of learning was horizontal, i.e. at a similar level of complexity, or vertical,
i.e. used in a level of higher complexity. Certainly, it in
dicates that the employers of some
people are basically focused on the competencies that they require for a particular job. They
are less concerned with the exact nature of the pre
work college training that the students
have done. If they are graduates of

a college
based program, e.g. travel or hospitality, then
the employers assume that the students have completed certain key competencies, even
though these may have been completed using different equipment or technologies than are
found in their workplace
. Therefore, there is a possibility of some mismatch occurring
between the college training and the workplace learning. Many employees would see this as
a natural progression in workplace learning from pre
employment to in
employment contexts.

As with the
majority of workers, the students were unanimously positive about the applicability
to the workplace of what they had learned in their college courses. The experience of the
student who only discovered the relevance of some aspects of the course when she
ndertook work experience, reiterates the principle advocated by Knowles (1990) among
others, that adults need to know why they need to know. Perhaps earlier exposure to
workplace practices would assist that process, but that is not always easy to arrange.
Similarly, the complaint of the disgruntled worker that the course covered "irrelevant" areas
such as management, raises questions about when in a person's career such topics are best
addressed. The answer to this challenge depends on the nature of the wor
k and the
experience of the employee. It is unlikely that all of the college training is going to be relevant
immediately to a selected job. If the college program aims to focus on the development of
competencies, new knowledge and values, then some of wha
t is learned is for the personal
development of the learner and some is for the actual occupation. Also, some of what is
learned is for immediate application, e.g. selected by competencies, and some is for the near
future. If students and beginning employe
es realise this, they may reflect on their college
based and their work
based training differently, and value both for their intrinsic worth.

It is clear from the students' responses that there was a variety of work experiences to which
they were exposed i
n the week or two they had for that activity: the extent to which they were
able to transfer their college learning appears to have been greatly influenced by the degree
to which they were given meaningful tasks where they were employed and they were
raged to use their college experiences in these work tasks. Implications for work
employment training, thus, appear to be quite important. The first is that work
based pre
employment is only useful when it is meaningful and purposeful for all stu
dents. This occurs
when the college students are taken seriously by employers and they are engaged in serious
based training. They are given real tasks to perform under supervision. The second
implication from such training is that if the students enj
oy a positive work placement
experience they are more likely to be attracted to their chosen occupational field and want to
contribute to it in their later employment.

In general, the workers did not identify significant "new" learning they needed to acqui
re on
the job, but generally emphasised the need to adapt what they learned in their courses to the
particular requirements of their employers. The capacity for these people to adapt their
college learning to their specific job depends on what latitude exi
sts in the workplace to do
things differently to what they normally did in their work. The extent to which "structured"
training was offered varied considerably, with most workers seemingly left to observe or ask
or experiment in order to learn particular
skills or responses in the office. Workers also
commented on other factors where they observed there were differences between the
classroom and work environment, such as the different pressures on working to deadlines
and therefore the need for good time m
anagement in the workplace, and the need to observe
unwritten office expectations, for example in relation to finishing times.

A number of the students also observed the differences in office routines compared with the
college routines they had been used t
o, for example the number of interruptions to their office
work. Most students identified an occasion where they had to undertake new learning on the
job, sometimes because the employer had expectations that the student would be able to do
it without furth
er instruction. When these expectations were not met, the employer (or at least
the immediate supervisor) did not always respond well in terms of supporting the employee,
sometimes because of a supervisor's attitude, and sometimes apparently by default. Th
comments, again, reflect our contention that people are quite able to discriminate between
based and work
based training. They recognise that these two types of experience
are different, but related. Because of their lack of extensive work
d experience some
people will not be able to articulate the differences fully. However, this situation becomes
more explicit once they spend a year or two in their preferred occupation. Then, they are able
to articulate the variations between college

and work
based learning quite explicitly.

The result was that much of the students' intentional learning in the workplace was what
Marsick and Watkins (1990, p. 12) called "informal learning", which they defined as "not
typically classroom
based or highly

structured, and control of learning rests in the hands of
the learners". The learning undertaken by one student when she was unexpectedly invited to
fill the human resources position for a month appears to have been mostly informal learning,
but with some

training and a supportive colleagues. The student's apparent ability to rise to
the occasion raises research issues in relation to the extent to which this was an outcome of
her college preparation compared with the influence of her own abilities and self
The fact that most of the learning in workplace placements was deemed to be informal by the
researchers is an issue. This is because the expectation from the college is that the
employers who offer work placements do more than "go through the
motions" during such
placements. They could offer explicit training and application using particular computing
systems during such training so that college students learn more. Maybe, closer negotiation
needs to occur between these employers and the colleg
e staff on transparent expectations for
such work placements.

In general, the workers felt that their college training prepared them for the workplace, and
that any further training was seen as being for specific in
house purposes. It seemed also that
workers accepted responsibility for their own learning in the workplace. If this is the case,
then it would be appropriate to focus on the different models of learning that can be promoted
for maximising learning in the colleges and in the workplaces. No d
oubt, the focus on self
paced, autonomous, experiential, team
based learning is to be considered seriously in such
models of learning.

The students had a variety of views about where particular training was best placed, some
believing that theory or harder
grasp topics should be covered at the college, and more
straightforward work
related practices taught on the job, others suggesting that basic skills
were best taught at the college and then developed in the workplace to suit particular
requirements. S
ince the students and workers have varying views on what should be learned
in college and what should be developed in the workplace, there is a need for further
reflection on the learning that occurs on and off the job, and before and during employment.
at learning should occur before people take up positions in certain occupations? What
learning should occur on the job? How experiential should this learning be?

The study findings suggest that employers are not offering sufficient support to their new
loyees in terms of preparing them for particular workplaces or of helping them develop.
This may relate, also, to the extent to which training colleges are in close proximity to the
changing world of work. It may also relate to the extent to which trainees

are permitted to
think for themselves while they do their work. One of the limitations of this research, however,
is that it does not include the employers' perceptions, and they may have quite different views
about the extent of their responsibility for
training, particularly for employees or work
experience students who are undertaking or who have completed a formal course of study. It
would also be useful to seek the college teachers' responses to the students' and employees'
views to their responses as


Given the range of responses uncovered by the research, perhaps there should be some
mechanism by which the graduates of this and similar vocational education and training
courses and employers can provide feedback to the educational institutions. P
erhaps they
should be an integral part of the group that advises the institutions on their training programs?
Whilst there are competencies to which the institutions teach, the findings here raise
questions about the extent to which employers are familiar
with those competencies, as well
as what limitations those competencies might have in relation to what might be described as
an organisation's culture. Perhaps the education institutions need to engage in their
marketing campaigns to inform the wider commu
nity about their approaches and orientations
to workplace training.


This exploratory study has demonstrated how college
based workplace training is different
from the learning that occurs in worksites. It draws our attention to further investiga
tion in the
wider issue of career
long workplace education and learning. It is obvious that this gamut of
learning changes across the working careers of people and that it changes in form as workers
move from trainees or novices to expert employees. A chal
lenge in this regard is for leaders
in organisations, companies and institutions to recognise these variations in learning and to
accommodate them in the working careers of their employees. Some of these leaders may
wish to achieve these learning experienc
es wholly in their workplaces. However, it would be
normal if some of the learning occurred outside the workplace prior to the employment of
staff. Reaching an agreement on what learning should occur where is a 64,000 dollar
question in workplace learning.

It is a challenge for all stakeholders in the workplace
education process from formal and informal learning perspectives.


Boud, D., Garrick, J., 1999, Understanding Learning at Work, Routlege, London.

DfEE, 1996, Work
based Learning, The Stat
ionery Office, Norwich.

Dymock, D., Gerber, R., 1999, "
Learning in the classroom and in the workplace: an
", Changing Practice through Research:

Changing Research through Practice,
Papers from 7th Annual Conference on Post
compulsory Education and Training, Centre for
Learning and Work Research, Griffith University, 4, 84

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