Maximizing the Effectiveness of Workplace Learning

Instructional Principles for Career and Technical Education

It seems like everyone who has ever gone to school is an expert in how to teach. And all of this “folk wisdom” seems based on two simple thoughts: “Well that’s the way I learned and look at me now!” if the results turned out positive, or “Boy did I hate school; it was all wrong!” if they were negative.

Perhaps this pervasive folk wisdom is why there are so many myths about teaching and learning, including the notion that 70 percent of our learning happens informally (via experiences), 20 percent happens socially (via others), and 10 percent happens formally (via school).1 While there is absolutely no evidence in the scientific literature to support that idea, it is of course true that informal learning and learning from and with others is very important, especially in the workplace.

As educators and cognitive scientists, we want to support excellent instruction and efficient learning in all contexts. So we’ve been considering how the 10 principles of instruction described by Barak Rosenshine (a high school teacher turned educational psychologist) apply to learning in career and technical education (CTE).2 These principles are based on three compelling lines of research: cognitive science, expert teachers and what they do, and cognitive strategy instruction. The major strength is that even though these are three very different bodies of research, there is no conflict whatsoever between the instructional suggestions that they provide.

Our vision of CTE aligns with the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), which describes CTE as

an education pathway that provides students with the academic, technical, and real-world knowledge, skills, and experience they need to be prepared for a variety of career options … [giving] students training and skills in many different types of careers in high growth industries.… CTE programs are personalized, hands-on, and let students explore different career fields … [during] middle school and high school … [preparing] students for the full range of post-secondary opportunities, including college and careers.3

As such, CTE is meant to “empower students to acquire the necessary academic, technical, and employability skills to enter, compete, and advance in their education and career in a global economy.”4 CTE tries to achieve this by combining regular coursework in school with mentored internships from potential employers in the community to give students extra preparation for their later careers. Local instructors take the role of workplace teachers.

CTE becomes more effective when the instructional content is placed in a context that mirrors real-life situations. The DoDEA suggests that creating authentic learning experiences that closely resemble the actual workplace scenarios where the knowledge will be applied can greatly enhance the transfer of skills. The more closely aligned the learning situation is to the ultimate workplace environment, the smoother the transition of knowledge will be. We need to note here that CTE is not meant as an updated version of vocational education. CTE programming is meant to link secondary and postsecondary education (including workplace learning) in a sequenced series of courses that aligns the educational curriculum with industry-validated standards. As such, one could see CTE not as a track, but rather as a pedagogy that contextualizes learning in real-world settings.5

Rosenshine’s 10 Principles in the CTE Context

In the Spring 2012 issue of American Educator, Barak Rosenshine shared his 10 principles of instruction and summed them up with this brief description:

The most effective teachers ensured that their students efficiently acquired, rehearsed, and connected background knowledge by providing a good deal of instructional support. They provided this support by teaching new material in manageable amounts, modeling, guiding student practice, helping students when they made errors, and providing for sufficient practice and review. Many of these teachers also went on to experiential, hands-on activities, but they always did the experiential activities after, not before, the basic material was learned.6

In a blog7 published in 2015, two of us (Mirjam Neelen and Paul Kirschner) explored to what extent Rosenshine’s instructional principles can be applied to the informal and nonformal ways of learning* in the workplace and to what extent they can enhance the work of learning professionals. Although Rosenshine’s principles were not initially intended for workplace learning, they have been demonstrated effective when applied and tested in the workplace context.9 In this article, we apply these same principles to workplace learning with students in CTE programs.

Principle 1: Begin a learning experience with a short review of previous learning.

Review at the workplace doesn’t mean glancing over an article that you read the day before (besides, rereading is a completely ineffective learning strategy that is likely to create vague familiarity with the content instead of a strong memory of the content10). Review could take place as an individual or collaborative exercise through reflecting on how newly learned content could be applied or curating recently learned content to better organize and more deeply understand it. It could also be a well-structured discussion with peers in which all involved can review and discuss a learning experience or moment experienced during working. In the CTE setting, this would involve a combination of (1) reviewing with the teacher how previous learning can be applied in the training situation and (2) discussing with the workplace mentor the relevance and importance of the previously acquired knowledge in the workplace.

Principle 2: Digest small amounts of new material, then practice that material.

In the workplace, it is very common to encounter learning tasks that involve practicing the entire task (such as removing an engine from a car or checking a patient’s vital signs), which means using all or nearly all of the skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed to complete the task. In the context of CTE, it is advisable to begin with easier whole tasks to learn and gradually move to more challenging ones.11 For nursing students, low-risk tasks like taking vital signs can be practiced on peers, while higher-risk tasks like drawing blood or inserting an intravenous line can be practiced on medical manikins. To support this whole-task approach, instructors can provide simple just-in-time procedural information to students about how they will be expected to do certain things.12 Microlearning is hot in many different learning settings, including workplace learning. When we search the literature on microlearning, we find many definitions; the one we find most useful in a workplace learning context is that “microlearning is an instructional unit that provides a short engagement in an activity intentionally designed to elicit a specific outcome.”13 For example, employers often provide point-of-need performance support tools in systems that employees use on the job (e.g., a help function that provides bite-sized pieces of just-in-time information to help employees learn how to use the system). In CTE, using the system itself is the practice.

Principle 3: Ask a large number of questions to support connections between new material and prior learning.

In every phase of the CTE learning process, it’s necessary to ask questions. Between demonstration and independent practice of the tasks, instructors ask questions to ensure that everyone understands the steps involved. Even while students are practicing, the instructors move around to offer assistance, demonstrating more complex steps in slow motion, asking questions, providing explanations, and offering help whenever it is requested or needed. Who will determine what the critical questions are to ask? Experts often find it hard to put themselves in novices’ shoes and truly understand what novices need to learn and how they can get there. Peer learning, where individuals have the same level of expertise, might work better because peers often have the same problems. It is also the case that in a CTE setting, one would expect the mentor to understand the needs of the CTE student as a novice employee better than a traditional senior employee. However, knowing what questions to ask to support learning is a skill that requires learning and practice. And being open and secure enough to admit that you don’t know something requires a strong person and a psychologically safe environment. As a result, we believe this principle should be applied to CTE by instructors and mentors constantly asking questions of students and encouraging students to ask each other questions.

Principle 4: Provide models to support learners for solving problems.

In CTE, instructors demonstrate the approaches and activities needed to solve problems in the workplace, while offering suitable supports (which we describe in principle 8) to assist the students’ own endeavors. In other words, they model the behaviors that the students need to carry out. This principle works particularly well for recurrent tasks that are rule-based processes performed in just about the same way from one problem or situation to the next.14 There is no difference here between traditional workplace learning and CTE. Some workplaces even have traditional classrooms, where instructors can use real-life situations to explain theoretical ideas. They might tell stories, provide hands-on examples, and show pictures or videos to guide students’ learning. Another option is simulations, where the vocational context and tasks are recreated. Simulations can be live, hands-on, or virtual, using VR (virtual reality) or AR (augmented reality) technology. Finally, students can also learn from each other’s experiences (so called vicarious learning) through discussion, observation, challenge, support, storytelling, and scaffolding from a more competent peer.15

Principle 5: Guide practice of new material.

Nowadays, we assume that people are capable of self-directing and self-regulating their own learning. This, however, disregards the fact that both require content-specific knowledge and that acquiring that knowledge is the goal in most learning situations. Simply put, novices are not very good at directing their own learning.16 Although there are many advantages to less-formal learning, good guided practice is particularly effective—especially when first learning something new. Guided practice usually involves the teacher working through problems with students at the same time, modeling what they are doing in a step-by-step way, while checking that they execute each step correctly.17 A specific example is what is known as I do, we do, you do. It’s helpful to think of this as the assistant looking over your shoulder.18 While in the traditional workplace learning situation, a manager or coach could provide guided practice, in a CTE setting this is part of the pedagogy. And it is, or at least it should be, a requirement for all mentors. In the workplace, part of this guidance is offered within a more controlled and monitored environment (for example, carefully selected work tasks) compared to an unmonitored work area.

Principle 6: Check learner understanding at each point.

If the learning objective is clear and the steps to success are clear, the critical “learning points” could be identified as well. These wouldn’t be traditional ways of checking for understanding, but they could be pre-identified tasks to complete that show mastery of certain standards. Objectivity is key here. CTE has an advantage above both traditional classroom learning and workplace learning in that it provides two settings in which to check for understanding. In traditional workplace learning, this check needs to be informal (employees are not tested), and it is often based on proxies for actual understanding. In CTE, the workplace is complemented by the classroom, where testing is possible. This, however, requires good communication between the teacher and the mentor. In addition, development assessment portfolios play an important role in a CTE setting.19 These portfolios are formative and summative assessment instruments used to gather evidence of learning over time. At each moment in time, the portfolio gives information on the learner’s overall level of performance (i.e., task-centered assessment) and quality of performance on particular aspects of the task (i.e., standards-centered assessment).

Principle 7: Obtain a high success rate during practice.

This principle refers back to principle 5 and again, the guided practice piece is currently a gaping hole in the less formal approaches to learning, especially in the workplace. A high success rate cannot be obtained without a well-structured training/learning approach. This can be achieved through, for instance, overlearning: continued repeated practice of a task after some initial mastery of that task has been achieved. However, there is evidence that this has a greater effect on cognitive activity than on motor activity.20 Furthermore, constructive feedback that identifies and corrects inaccurate (or missing) skills and misconceptions further refines knowledge and skills. There is no difference here between CTE and workplace learning.

Principle 8: Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.

This principle requires carefully designed processes. However, workplaces should be able to successfully implement such scaffolds. A more experienced peer or colleague looking over your shoulder is a good example. Also, performance support tools such as checklists, short instructional videos, and repositories of background information and how-to guides can be scaffolds. One challenge is that it’s hard to know the exact level of scaffolding that each learner needs. How do you know when to remove a scaffold to enable the learner to move toward mastery? Maybe the assistant looking over your shoulder is the best scaffold to be found. In this respect, CTE offers the opportunity of taking a time-out and making use of the classroom environment to provide training prior to when deeper or different knowledge or skills are required. It also offers the opportunity of reviewing more difficult tasks after the fact to refine and hone the necessary knowledge and skills.

Principle 9: Require and monitor independent practice.

To implement this principle, you need to establish the standards that need to be met. This is probably easy for some tasks but very difficult for others. Take the case of critical parts of a process where making a mistake during independent practice could cost a lot of time, money, or even lives. The CTE setting is the ideal place for putting this principle into practice. After all, monitoring one’s performance is an essential workplace skill that all employees are expected to be able (and willing) to do.

Principle 10: Engage learners in weekly and monthly review.

Review is very important. Effective forms of review require learners to recall what they have learned from their long-term memories, which reinforces and consolidates what they have learned. In addition, increasing the time between learning and review strengthens what has been learned—which is why these 10 principles call for daily, weekly, and monthly review. In the traditional workplace setting, this can be done through well-structured discussion groups, either face-to-face or in an online community of practice format using often-not-available predefined outcomes (such as complex problems to be solved or novel tasks, for which employees are collaboratively figuring out the best solution or approach, learning together as they go). In CTE, these outcomes are predefined and the classroom setting is an effective and efficient place to do these reviews.


So, where does this leave us? In considering how to apply these principles in a workplace and/or a CTE learning context, we need to state the obvious first: as usual, the whole learning journey should start with a learning need and a learning objective. Then, there needs to be a careful analysis of the required steps to successfully achieve the learning objective. One thing to keep in mind is that in workplace learning, the instructor is often missing. It is important to acknowledge that this is a major challenge. It is not about control or about being rigid. It’s about acknowledging how critical it is that a competent individual (or system) who knows the learner’s skill or knowledge gaps offers appropriate (point-of-need) instruction, guidance, support, learning content, and constructive feedback. In CTE, mentors and managers play an instructor role. While this is expected of the mentor, managers need to take off their boss “hat” and truly support professional development (and have those just mentioned skills and/or competencies).

Given the importance of structure and review in Rosenshine’s 10 principles, here’s our summary of how they can maximize the effectiveness of CTE.

  1. Offer daily review: Recap practical skills, safety procedures, and hands-on tasks completed in the last learning session.
  2. Present new material in small steps: Break down new complex technical skills or processes into smaller, manageable parts, demonstrating each step, while making sure that the student doesn’t lose sight of the whole task.
  3. Ask questions: Ask questions about practical application, problem-solving, and decision-making in real-world scenarios, and create an environment in which students feel safe asking questions.
  4. Provide models: Demonstrate tasks or techniques, modeling best practices and procedures during simulations and while executing real-life tasks.
  5. Guide practice: Closely monitor hands-on practice, offering immediate feedback and correction.
  6. Check for understanding: Conduct practical assessments or observe task execution to evaluate skill mastery.
  7. Obtain a high success rate: Ensure students master each skill or technique at a high level of proficiency before progressing.
  8. Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks: Provide step-by-step guides, checklists, or mentor support for challenging tasks.
  9. Create time for independent practice: Give students opportunities to work on projects or tasks independently, applying their skills (make sure to choose the appropriate task level for the student).
  10. Engage in weekly and monthly review: Conduct reviews of practical skills, including cumulative hands-on tasks or portfolio assessments.

Paul A. Kirschner is an emeritus professor of educational psychology at the Open University of the Netherlands and a guest professor at the Thomas More University of Applied Sciences in Antwerp, Belgium. He is a research fellow of the American Educational Research Association whose books include How Learning Happens and How Teaching Happens. Mirjam Neelen is the global learning experience design lead at Novartis and has over 15 years of experience with companies such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Google, Learnovate Centre, and Accenture. Together, Kirschner and Neelen write the blog 3-Star Learning Experiences, and they recently published the book Evidence-Informed Learning Design. Tim Surma is the director of the Expertise Centre for Education and Learning at the Thomas More University of Applied Sciences in Antwerp, Belgium. A former teacher in secondary education and teacher education, he turned to research on effective teaching and learning strategies and has published four books to date.

*Formal learning in the workplace is an extension of formal schooling and includes credentialing programs to certify learners’ competencies. Nonformal learning does not result in certification but still contains important learning elements in planned activities, and it can be seen as a form of tacit learning.8 (return to article)


1. See myth 3 in P. De Bruyckere, P. Kirschner, and C. Hulshof, Urban Myths About Learning and Education (Cambridge, MA: Academic Press, 2015).

2. For Rosenshine’s principles, see B. Rosenshine, Principles of Instruction, Educational Practices Series–21 (Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, and International Academy of Education, 2010),; and B. Rosenshine, “Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know,” American Educator 36, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 12–19, 39,

3. Department of Defense Education Activity, “Career Technical Education; Learning That Works for DoDEA: CTE,” US Department of Defense,

4. Department of Defense Education Activity, “Career Technical Education.”

5. E. Flynn, “What Is Career and Technical Education, and Why Does It Matter?,” Education Northwest, February 2021,

6. Rosenshine, “Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies,” 12

7. M. Neelen and P. Kirschner, “Research-Based Principles of Instruction Applied to Workplace Learning,” 3-Star Learning Experiences, August 18, 2015,

8. J. van Merriënboer et al., “Towards an Integrated Approach for Research on Lifelong Learning,” Educational Technology Magazine 49, no. 3 (2009): 3–14.

9. K. Kraiger and J. Ford, “The Science of Workplace Instruction: Learning and Development Applied to Work,” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior 8 (2021): 45–72.

10. J. Dunlosky et al., “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14, no. 1 (January 2013): 4–58.

11. J. van Merriënboer, P. Kirschner, and L. Kester, “Taking the Load Off a Learner’s Mind: Instructional Design for Complex Learning,” Educational Psychologist 38, no. 1 (2003): 5–13.

12. J. van Merriënboer and P. Kirschner, Ten Steps to Complex Learning: A Systematic Approach to Four-Component Instructional Design, 3rd ed. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2018).

13. K. Kapp and R. Defelice, Microlearning: Short and Sweet (Alexandria, VA: Association for Talent Development, 2019), 19.

14. Van Merriënboer and Kirschner, Ten Steps to Complex Learning.

15. C. Myers, “Coactive Vicarious Learning: Toward a Relational Theory of Vicarious Learning in Organizations,” Academy of Management Review 43, no. 4 (2018): 610–34.

16. Kraiger and Ford, “The Science of Workplace Instruction.”

17. Kraiger and Ford, “The Science of Workplace Instruction.”

18. Van Merriënboer and Kirschner, Ten Steps to Complex Learning.

19. Van Merriënboer and Kirschner, Ten Steps to Complex Learning.

20. J. Driskell, R. Willis, and C. Cooper, “Effect of Overlearning on Retention,” Journal of Applied Psychology 77, no. 5 (1992): 615–22.

[Illustrations by Mike Austin]

American Educator, Spring 2024