Learning and teaching in initial vocational education and training

By Tony Anderson Research report 11 June 2000 ISBN 0 87397 593 6


This report looks at students' and teachers' perceptions of initial vocational education and training. It also reveals how students engage in learning in education and training, provides a description of current teaching practices, and shows the influences which shape learning and teaching in initial VET.


Executive summary


This study was carried out by the New South Wales Department of Education and Training in collaboration with the Victorian and South Australian technical and further education (TAFE) and school sectors. The aim was to study students' and teachers' perceptions of initial vocational education and training including:

  • how students engage in learning in education and training;
  • current teaching practices;
  • the influences which shape learning and teaching in initial vocational education.

The study included secondary school students (Year 11 and 12) undertaking school-delivered accredited vocational courses or participating in vocational courses delivered through TAFE, and students in TAFE undertaking TAFE Higher School Certificate (HSC) Pathway courses or entry-level vocational courses. A total of 113 initial vocational education students in TAFE (52 students) and secondary schools (61 students) were interviewed from 48 educational delivery sites in three Australian States: NSW (16 TAFE and 15 school sites), Victoria (five TAFE and four school sites) and South Australia (four TAFE and four school sites). The data include interviews with 48 teachers and observations of 37 teaching and learning episodes.


How students engage in learning in education and training

  • The majority of TAFE and senior secondary school students (95%) liked their vocational course with approval stronger among school students in all States. Students liked the vocational courses/subjects because they gained work skills; they also liked the practical side of the course; the good classroom atmosphere; or the variety of the courses/subjects. Females wanted to get or have a specific job and saw gaining vocational skills as an investment for the future.
  • Examination of students' learning preferences showed that a sizeable group of students, 28 per cent, preferred to work mainly with their hands (19% of these were school students) but that most students (67%) preferred to work with both head and hands.
  • Students liked teachers who were able to relate to them as an equal and to be friendly (29%); be knowledgeable and have industry experience (27%); have good communication skills; be fair, patient, tolerant and accepting (18%); be able to involve students and make sure they understand; be caring and understanding; and treat students with respect, and as adults.
  • Fifteen per cent of students wanted more or better equipment, and seven per cent wanted more or better materials.
  • Only half of the students used a library.

Current teaching practices

  • The majority of teachers (52%) believe that initial vocational education students learn best by hands-on learning. Teachers identified the importance of teaching vocational content by practical means and finding and adapting to student needs.
  • Teachers rated student motivation as follows: high (40%), medium (25%) and low (8%) with 20 per cent of teachers noting that student motivation covers the whole range (low to high).
  • Teachers' underlying strategies, based on their accounts of their classroom actions, reveal they were concerned to: keep theory short; use practical approaches; give students something they were interested in; let students choose projects in a fairly free classroom atmosphere, set up activities with the student (competency-based training [CBT]); approach students carefully to gain their confidence; and keep instruction basic. The observations of teaching and learning in the classroom showed that vocational teachers used mixed forms of teaching, of which the main forms were practical work, lecture, demonstration, group work and individual self-paced learning.
  • The observations of teaching and learning in the classroom showed that teachers engaged in classroom practices consistent with teaching students who were making the transition into adult life and acquiring elements of vocational skills. The observers classified teachers as: approachable; informal; non-authoritarian; and teacher-directed (mentioned most by the observers); student-centred, friendly and reserved (receiving less mentions); and mainly formal (receiving least mentions).
  • There were indications that teaching styles classified as approachable, informal or non-authoritarian, were associated with a higher rating of the course by students (that is, 'very satisfactory', or 'satisfactory').
  • Teachers cater for students with learning difficulties by simplifying teaching using step-by-step procedures (23%); providing individual attention and making sure that students understand (19%); giving demonstration and explanation, especially if there are language difficulties (16%).

Influences which shape learning and teaching in initial vocational education

Work placements

  • Most students (51%) said they were currently in paid employment and included the following coding categories: general paid work, not retail or food (21%), retail (16%) and food (12%). One-quarter of the students said the course was assisting them in the workplace. Nineteen per cent said that the course was not assisting them in the workplace, of these ten per cent were school students. It is not known if the part-time work of these students was related to their course/subject.
  • Forty-nine per cent of students had undertaken work placements. Benefits gained from the workplace were: the acquisition of people skills (35%); vocational skills (32%); and confidence and self-esteem (27%). Students found the workplace more 'hands-on' (11%); 'in the real world' (5%); 'more pressured' (4%); giving more responsibility and variety (3% each). Students noted that the main form of learning in the workplace was through explanation or demonstration accompanied by watching that the work was done correctly (16%).

Classroom teaching

  • The classroom observers noted that teacher -student interactions were framed in a master -novice relationship. Observers also characterised 41 per cent of the teaching and learning episodes as 'bi-directional' (meaning that students and teachers shaped each other's behaviour). There were indications that students gave a higher rating of their course when the teacher-student interactions were classified by the observers as 'bi-directional'. These observations suggest that students expect to be in a master-novice relationship and that teaching is most effective when teachers have mastery of the subject while at the same time being approachable, informal, understanding, and treat students respectfully in an adult way.
  • Problems with course design reported by teachers were: lack of information on the desired outcomes of the course; the theory on occupational health and safety (OH&S); difficulty in devising activities to meet learning outcomes and lack of time or physical resources, facilities or tools. About half of the teachers mentioned difficulties with how the syllabus was delivered, including the impracticality of many assessments; difficulty with time and free periods; and the need to make work experience longer. Slightly more than half of the teachers said the equipment was not sufficient for the course. The resources which teachers required included equipment (in some cases new equipment), space, resources/materials, increased computer access and more support with equipment.
  • Most teachers (75%) have changed their vocational teaching approach in recent years, as follows: 21 per cent have noted the need to be more practical but to teach theory as well; 12 per cent of teachers now regard themselves as a facilitator; eight per cent note that their approach is different due to the introduction of competency-based training and assessment which was approved by 58 per cent of teachers. (The approval of CBT, deleting missing responses, was 82%).

1. The study identified the importance of further improving the practical learning component of vocational courses, particularly through carefully selected practical experiences which impart the important concepts from which vocational competence is formed. There is a need to improve the level of resources to support curriculum development of this kind, to provide the necessary support for equipment and materials and to ensure that teachers have technical competence and relevant industry experience.

2. Initial and in-service education for teachers of vocational education and training has the potential to assist the development of skills which will facilitate the processes of learning in initial vocational contexts. Among these skills are the ability to develop and use practical forms of learning; the ability to be flexible in catering for a variety of learning needs and preferences; and the adoption of informality of style and respectful classroom relationships. This is the approach most likely to coincide with expressed student needs.

3. If further research in this area is undertaken, consideration should be given to ways of linking classroom/workshop practical learning experiences to the practices and outcomes of workplace learning.


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