Students should be the drivers of their learning and career planning, but that doesn’t mean they have to do it alone

Libby West

With a goal of bringing greater clarity and consistency to our national conversations about career development, CERIC developed a set of “Guiding Principles of Career Development” that have been enthusiastically embraced across Canada. These eight Guiding Principles are intended as a starting point to inform discussions with clients, employers, funders, policy-makers and families. Each issue of Careering features a Guiding Principle “in action,” exploring how a career professional is applying a Principle in practice. CERIC has recently released six Action Plans based on the Guiding Principles that provide any professional who delivers career supports with starter questions, practical interventions and fun exercises to apply with different client groups.

Guiding Principles: Career development should be self-directed. An individual is responsible for his or her own career, but is not alone – we all influence and are influenced by our environment.

Staring at a mountain of colourful crafting supplies during a professional development activity, I was tasked with visually answering the question, “What is your greatest hope for student learning?” I settled on painting as my medium and the image of a strong, healthy tree came to mind, representing our students at the University of Toronto, full of knowledge and strength. I hadn’t intentionally planned the background I chose for my image: bright blue skies and lush green grass. However, through our post-reflection exercise, a colleague drew attention to it and we had a great discussion about the environment in which our students are meant to thrive, as well our role in shaping it.

Emphasizing student agency

This metaphor really resonates with this particular CERIC Guiding Principle of Career Development and one of the main programs in my portfolio. I am part of a large team at the University of Toronto that co-ordinates Work Study, which makes available 4,500 paid, on-campus positions that provide an opportunity for students to deepen their knowledge, strengthen their skills and explore how their academic studies translate to career possibilities.

At Career Exploration & Education, we have a set of values that underpin all of our programming – one of which is student agency. For us, agency (a synonym for self-direction) means ensuring the student is the driver of their learning; we want to meet students where they’re at and not make assumptions about their level of prior learning/experience and their needs.

Previously, our education-delivery model for Work Study was workshop-based. However, we recognized that not all students want to learn in that manner, need to learn that exact content or are available to attend in-person sessions. Students can be trusted with deciding what works for them, given they’ve been provided the necessary context to make an informed decision. In addition to the in-person sessions, we developed a series of self-directed resources for students (eModule Series and Professional Development Workbook) that provide the necessary structure to support their learning without dictating exactly what or how they should be learning.

Don’t miss our past Principles in Action articles:
Elementary career education equips students to navigate complex world of work
Change is inevitable in career development. Fear of it shouldn’t be
Embracing external influences to help guide career exploration

Building an environment for success

Although students have access to resources to support their professional development through Work Study, this alone is not sufficient. As the tree metaphor highlighted, we can’t expect a tree to thrive without the necessary sunshine, water and nutrient-dense soil. Similarly, it’s unfair to students to hold the belief that they’re solely responsible for their career success – the environment we as educators and practitioners can help shape significantly affects students’ career development. It is for this reason we developed training and resources for Work Study supervisors to highlight the importance and impact of supporting their students’ professional development through the setting of learning goals and reflection on those goals.

Attending to both self-directed resources and students’ learning environment has been essential to creating the necessary experience critical to students’ future employability; research shows that it’s not the duration of a work-integrated learning experience that best predicts future employability, but rather, the presence and quality of the structured learning support (Smith et al., 2014).

The impact of this approach has been significant. In April 2019, we administered a survey to Work Study students in the 2018-2019 program period and had 727 students respond.

Students were asked to check off which of the following activities they completed: set learning goals, mid-point check-in, final reflection or none of the above. A new independent variable was then created, grouping students who completed all three steps as one group and students who responded “none of the above” as the comparison group.

“… the environment we as educators and practitioners can help shape significantly affects students’ career development.”

Students who completed the three key steps were, on average, 26% more likely to “strongly agree” with the following statements compared to students who indicated they received “none of the above”’ learning support from their supervisors (each statistically significant using t-test analysis at the .05 level):

  • My work study position provided me with meaningful work experience
  • I feel better prepared for future opportunities
  • I gained a better appreciation of the concepts I learned in the classroom and their application to employment
  • I strengthened my knowledge and technical skills in areas related to my field of study
  • My Work Study position gave me a better idea of the type of career/work experience I want to pursue (or avoid) in the future
  • I felt involved and well-utilized at my job
  • I increased my awareness of my skills and/or strengths

Students were able to articulate the valuable impact of directing their learning in a supportive environment: “Setting goals and a mid-point check-in helped clarify expectations and keep me on track,” one student said. “Gaining feedback from my supervisor on my individual strengths and areas I can work to improve was also very helpful for my personal growth and career development.” Without the support of their supervisor, this student could have still set learning goals and worked toward them. However, they were really able to maximize their professional development because of the support and insights they received from their supervisor. This balance of self-directed learning with the necessary environmental supports is key to students’ career success.

Further considerations for a self-directed approach

Fundamental to this CERIC Guiding Principle of Career Development, students’ career development will always be a balance of their desires, actions taken and the environment they are navigating. Our Work Study program highlights the impact of self-directed resources and a supportive learning environment; however, the impact of the environment on students’ career paths goes far beyond our programming. From a social equity perspective, it is highly unfair to believe that given the same set of self-directed actions, all students have equal access to career opportunities; the levels of social and cultural capital, critical to academic success and employment, can vary drastically in marginalized groups (Bourdieu, 1986). For instance, people of colour who choose not to “whiten” their resume are significantly less likely to be called for a job interview, even by employers with organizational diversity statements on their website (Kang et al., 2016). As career practitioners, particularly those of us working at large institutions, we need to help shape the larger environment, be cautious of the language we use when talking about self-direction and responsibility, and consider these factors when developing our programming and resources.

Libby West has been a vocal advocate of the value of Work Study at the University of Toronto for the last three years in her role as Lead Co-ordinator, Peer and Work Integrated Learning Programs – working to update and create the resources necessary to ensure that students are gaining the maximum employment, personal and academic benefit from their Work Study.


Bourdieu, P. (1986) The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York, Greenwood), 241-258.

Kang, S., DeCelles, K., Tilcsik, A., & Jun, S. (2016) Whitened Resumes: Race and Self-Presentation in the Labor Market. Administrative Science Quarterly. 61(3)469–502.

Smith, C., Ferns, S., Russell, L., & Cretchley, P. (2014). The Impact of Work-integrated Learning on Student Work-readiness: Final Report, Curtin University of Technology, LSN Teaching Development Unit.