Sonia Ferns, Matthew Campbell, and Karsten Zegwaard describe work-integrated learning (WIL) as “internationally recognized . . . as a strategy for ensuring students are exposed to authentic learning experiences with the opportunity to apply theoretical concepts to practice-based tasks, ultimately enhancing graduate employability” (2014, 1).

In the second post of this series, we will look at potential risks that students in the WIL environment face and how they are managed. WIL is designed to create an environment that builds mutually beneficial partnerships for the student and the host, pushes student participants to accept discomforts, and offers students a new lens to explore unique learning experiences (Mercer-Mapstone and Abbot 2020). Despite these valuable benefits, WIL may also include risks such as readiness and suitability of the student, the learning environment, and student safety (Fleming and Hay 2021). These risks can complicate the WIL experience for the student. The way that risk is addressed in the workplace is critical to the student experience.

Readiness and Suitability of the Student

Students are considered to be the most important stakeholders when it comes to WIL (Fleming and Hay 2021). Because of this, they should be prioritized, as they are the ones who are affected most by the consequences and risks of WIL. It is important to recognize the many different difficult situations that may stem from WIL.

It is important to recognize that each student comes into these experiences with unique characteristics. A student’s readiness and suitability for WIL may play a role in increasing risk. For instance, if student limitations (i.e. physical limitations) are not identified in pre-screening and those skills are necessary to be successful in the internship, the WIL experience may not go well for the student. Language barriers for international students or students with limited real-world experience may also increase the risk that they may not have a successful WIL opportunity. Personality differences are another example of why a student may not have a positive WIL experience. Having a difficult relationship with your mentor may weaken a student’s ability to perform at their highest level. Discomfort may arise as well if the student does not feel supported or the student and the mentor do not get along. This is not to say that conflict should be avoided in these environments; healthy conflict can be beneficial. Respectfully disagreeing on topics should be welcomed and supported. However, if these conflicts become consistent and communication becomes non-existent, it can have a big impact on the success of the student. Pre-placement screening for the student and the host organization can help reduce these risks (Fleming and Hay 2021). 

The Learning Environment

The learning environment for a student plays an important role in the overall success of a WIL experience. Students should be provided with a structured learning environment, which has been found to be beneficial to the student (West and Stirling 2021) The host supervisor is crucial in a structured learning environment. If the host supervisor is not providing a welcoming environment for the student, it can make all the difference. An unwelcoming environment can create immediate challenges for the student, as they might become timid in asking questions, inquiring about additional tasks, or feeling like they cannot develop good working relationships. If the environment does not improve, these shortcomings can become more pronounced, creating additional stress for the student. Being a part of a good, strong learning environment helps with the overall professional development and workplace performance of a student (West and Stirling 2021). It is important to feel, as the student, that you are gaining the experience and knowledge that you entered the learning environment seeking. Unfortunately, some host organizations may use a student’s WIL experience as their opportunity to take advantage of them by having them do tasks that are not relevant to the goals of WIL. For example, if the student finds that they are constantly going to get their supervisor coffee, this is not considered a beneficial learning environment. Another example of respect in the learning environment is if the student is completing a paid or an unpaid internship. The difference between paid and unpaid can fluctuate the level of respect the student is receiving. So how can we manage this? Most importantly, encouraging the building of strong relationships between the student and the host organization early on, as well as having students and the organizations understand each other’s responsibilities will help reduce the chances of this risk (Fleming and Hay 2021).

Student Safety from the Student Perspective

In addition to readiness and suitability and the learning environment, student safety, such as harm, is also a concern. Physical and emotional harm are possible risks linked to failed WIL experiences for students. Student safety, although important, is not always guaranteed (Fleming and Hay 2021). The effects of physical and emotional harm can be detrimental and make for an uncomfortable and unsafe exposure to the WIL atmosphere. Physical harm can vary across different organizations, from something as simple as a dog bite to something more drastic such as a fatality. It was found that, despite physical harm being considered a risk, it is manageable assuming that appropriate procedures were put into place and the student was made aware beforehand of the potential hazards (Fleming and Hay 2021). Emotional harm can include harassment and bullying. This kind of behavior in a work environment may negatively impact participants and make them feel at risk for harmful actions. Participants who are a part of a cultural or gender minority are often targeted and discriminated against in this context. Mental health is also affected when it comes to harm and can have a serious negative influence on participants. Suitable ways for emotional harm to be lessened may include a pre-placement system, where students are matched with a host organization that follows disclosure processes with academic staff, as well as assessments of the suitability of host organizations (Fleming and Hay 2021).


While there are a lot of benefits of WIL, for both the student and host organization, it is important to recognize that there is a potential for risks as well. Through the eyes of a student, it is critical to understand and lessen these risks to make for a more inclusive and beneficial environment. Facilitating potential solutions to these risks will help to improve the overall WIL experience for all involved and make for a more productive, mutually beneficial experience. Taking this into consideration, I encourage faculty and staff to think about the students that are relevant to them and ask how they might navigate risk and/or discussion with those students. The next post in this series will focus on facilitating a safe learning environment and the responsibilities of the mentors in that learning environment. Being able to recognize, as a mentor, the responsibilities that help to make up a safe learning environment will improve the overall well-being of a WIL experience.


Ferns, Sonia, Matthew Campbell, and Karsten E. Zegwaard. 2014. “Work Integrated Learning.” In Work Integrated Learning in the Curriculum, edited by Sonia Ferns. Milperra, N.S.W. Australia: Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australia (HERDSA).

Fleming, Jenny, and Kathryn Hay. 2021. “Keeping Students Safe: Understanding the Risks for Students Undertaking Work-Integrated Learning.International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning 22 (4): 539-552.

Mercer-Mapstone, Lucy, and Sophia Abbot. 2020. The Power of Partnership. Elon University Center for Engaged Learning.

West, Libby, and Ashley Stirling. 2021. “Re-designing Work Study as Work-Integrated Learning.” International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning 22 (3): 385-395.

Annelise Weaver is a 2022-2025 CEL Student Scholar. She is collaborating with participants in the 2022-2024 research seminar on work-integrated learning. Learn more about the current student scholars.

How to Cite this Post

Weaver, Annelise. 2022. “What’s the Risk? Student Perspective on Work-Integrated Learning.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. September 27, 2022.