Getting Real About Real-World Experience

Teaching Trends
Student Success

Article Summary

  • Being ready for a career is a top reason for students to pursue education, but classroom experience doesn't always translate into the real world.|Internships and service-learning are opportunities for students to get workplace experience that they need to succeed after college.|One institution is trying an innovative approach even earlier, by working directly with employers to fill a skills gap.
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Katie Montgomery is the former executive manager of Marketing Content at Cengage. She’s got a passion for animal rescue and loves providing content to help make teaching life a little easier for faculty.


According to research, only 41% of traditional degree graduates believe their college degree signals that they have the skills employers need, and 49% felt underqualified for entry-level jobs.

To get students the preparation they need, real-word experience is key. According to Education Dive, “giving students a chance to test their abilities before leaving school is optimum.” How can you give students these experiences in your classroom before they enter the real world? Read on for ways you can incorporate this vital career-prep component into your courses.

Internships make a difference for real-world experience

What’s taught in schools and what students need to learn to succeed in the workplace doesn’t always align. 58% of employers say that colleges need to make improvements to ensure graduates have the skills to succeed at the entry level. One thing that consistently impacted student satisfaction with their college experience and readiness for careers: the availability of internship opportunities.

With a NACE survey showing that internship experience (especially within their organization or industry) is one of the most influential factors for employers, it’s no wonder students want internships available to them. Internships are a great way for students to build crucial skills for life and the workplace, all while helping them determine if a particular field is right for them. Plus, they expose students to job openings they might not otherwise know about and give employers the chance to see how they’d contribute in a full-time role. Other benefits include hands-on experience, networking opportunities and more.

Interestingly enough, fewer than 13% of students from our study say they participated in an internship during college—clearly there’s a gap. One reason for the low participation rate may be accessibility, particularly when it comes to pursuing unpaid opportunities. For example, economically disadvantaged students may opt out of an unpaid internship in order to work part-time instead. So, while encouraging internships is important, equally important is finding experiences that make sense for a student’s unique circumstances.

Service learning also serves students

A lot can be achieved in 15 to 30 hours a semester, which is the typical time commitment for a service-learning program. Where internships primarily benefit the student and recipient organization, service learning offers perks to the community, the student and even faculty. Aside from helping students build skills that will serve them in careers, service-learning programs are completely integrated into the curriculum and bring classroom learning to life—literally.

Several studies have shown that service learning boosts students’ academic outcomes, enhances learning and motivation and improves their “ability to apply what they’ve learned in the real world.”

School-industry partnerships

Some educators are investing in real-world experience even earlier. Duncan Polytechnical High School launched an $11 million-dollar program to do just that, while helping fill the technician shortage in the transportation industry.

When local companies approached him about tackling the heavy truck technician gap, Eric Rubio, medium/heavy duty truck technology instructor at Duncan, knew that a new training facility and tools alone wouldn’t be enough. Employers would need to be heavily involved. “Employers do a great job coming to the school, promoting their companies and telling the students that they could have a lifelong career in the heavy truck industry.…we meet on a regular basis to discuss curriculum, job internships, and student supports.” Rubio credits the advisory board’s input and internships as the most crucial tool in preparing his students for the field.

Rubio has found different ways to integrate real-world experience into his lessons, from bringing in industry professionals as guest speakers to modeling shop practices and norms in his class. “I have a shop supervisor who leads the class by taking attendance… the equipment supervisor issues tools to students, verifies proper inventories prior to use and inspects all equipment weekly… the safety supervisor signs off fire extinguishers and eye wash stations, identifies shop hazards and PPE violations and holds weekly safety briefings.”

The new program is already showing results. Graduating students from the class of 2019 have already acquired entry-level jobs in local industry. Rubio attributes it to the real-world experience: “I believe the senior intern program, where students work in a shop once a week, has played a vital role with student job placement post-graduation. That’s why this program was implemented—to give the students the skills needed to fulfill a workforce defect… the skills they learn can and will change their lives when they obtain jobs in the industry.”

Want to learn more about the importance of real-world experience in preparing students for careers? Download our career readiness eBook.