Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Sign In Skip to Content

Applied Learning

Applied Learning

Approaches to Learning in the Vocational Major and the Victorian Pathways Certificate

There are many elements that lead to successful learning in a vocational and applied learning course such as Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL), and in the future the Vocational Major (VM) in the VCE and the Victorian Pathways Certificate (VPC). The term ‘Applied Learning’ is a catch all for these elements, but to be fully understood it is useful to break the term down into components. In this way teachers can have a clearer understanding of what is required to nurture a student to thrive in Applied Learning.

Applied learning involves students engaging in authentic and motivating learning experiences. It is a method of learning where theoretical information comes to life for students when in a real-world context that relates directly to their own future, is within their own control and is within an environment where they feel safe and respected. Students' knowledge grows and expands as they take action to learn, reflect on that action and plan how to do it better next time.

5 Pillars of Applied Learning principles

Analysis which guided the learning in VCAL, and which form the basis for the Vocational Major within the VCE and the Victorian Pathways Certificate, categorises applied learning principles into 5 areas:

Motivation to engage in learning

  • Ensure what is learnt in the classroom is connected to scenarios and experiences outside the classroom and makes that connection as immediate and transparent as possible
  • Engage students in demonstrations, activities, investigations and problem-solving in the classroom, community, workplace and other educational settings
  • Undertake activities that challenge the student’s level of competence and support them to succeed and build self-efficacy.

Before learning can begin a student has to decide if they are going to engage in the cognitive process involved in their learning. The teacher in the classroom walks to the front of the room and calls for attention and begins to deliver an explanatory session on the day’s topic. The student decides, consciously or subconsciously, whether they will engage with this topic and the learning. According to Robert Marzano in The New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (2007) three factors lead to the decision to engage: - “if a task is judged as important, if the probability of success is high, and positive affect is generated or associated with the task, the individual will be motivated to engage in the new task.” He refers to these three factors as The Self System and their combined impact on knowledge gain is calculated at an effect size of .74, or an achievement gain of 27 percentile points.


A sense of importance comes firstly from the knowledge that the learning will fulfil a basic need such as physical safety, food or shelter. Secondly it comes from the knowledge being perceived as an aid in the achievement of a personal goal. The curriculum of the Vocational Major provides opportunities for students to believe what they are learning is important to their personal needs and is instrumental in them achieving their personal goals. A major focus of the VCAL program has been to look at the future world of work, and an individual student’s place in it. Helping students to clarify their individual goals and the pathway to achieving them is highly motivating and engages students in the learning process. Time in a real workplace stimulates this reaction to a higher level.

Self Efficacy

The second element of the Self System is self-efficacy, the concept developed by psychologist Albert Bandura (Bandura 1977). Simply, self-efficacy is a person’s belief in their ability to succeed, or not, in attempting a particular activity. High levels of self-efficacy build a confidence to tackle difficult tasks as we believe we will succeed. Low levels of self-efficacy often stop students from even beginning a task, as they fear the failure they believe will come. Bandura explained that levels of self-efficacy come from being successful at an experience, which builds a self-belief in your ability to be successful in the future, by seeing other positive role models be successful through a sustained effort, by receiving positive feedback while undertaking a task, and by adopting a positive mood when engaged with a task.

Including self-efficacy in the Self System of the New Taxonomy is critical, for ‘if students believe they do not have the requisite ability, power, or resources to gain competence in a specific skill, this might greatly lessen their motivation to learn that knowledge, even though they perceive it as important.” (Marzano 2007). Hattie places the effect size of self- efficacy at 0.92.

For a number of students in the VCAL program, school has not been a series of successes to celebrate and build their confidence to continue. Gaps in their learning caused by absences at critical times, missing key building blocks of knowledge from a lack of mastery at the time, not engaging in the learning activities, homes where literacy and numeracy are not overtly supported, or exposure to a teacher who was not able to respond to their learning needs are all situations that can lead to a loss of confidence as a learner. Carol Dweck (2007) uses the term “fixed mindset’ to describe those who believe their skills are predetermined, limited and unchangeable. These students will be less likely than those with a growth mindset to stick with learning tasks they see as difficult and unachievable.

In the VM and VPC curriculum and assessment will need to maintain its flexibility to be tailored to the individual. Best practice has seen VCAL classes where all students are on parallel, but slightly varied learning activities and assessment tasks to ensure their confidence in themselves as learners is being challenged, supported and extended at their point of need.

Emotional response

The third in Manzano’s (2007) elements of the Self system is the emotional response that a student has to a learning situation. Emotions are powerful motivators of human behaviour (Le Doux 1996) Le Doux refers to ‘when fear becomes anxiety’ and every teacher has seen that happen for young people in their classrooms, where students have frozen when asked to stand for an oral presentation, or to explain to the class their understanding of a mathematical equation. The impact can be long lasting. Now commonly referred to as “The Hook’ the concept of engagement is better understood as the attempt to stimulate a positive emotion to the learning to focus the attention of students on the point to be learned. Daniel Golman in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence sees a ‘link between attention and excellence …(which) ripples through almost everything we seek to accomplish.” He even goes on to quote from the Jedi Master, Yoda “Your focus determines your reality”.

Applied Learning Practices

  • Ensure students apply what they have learnt by utilising the learning cycle of doing, experiencing, reflecting and relating new knowledge and skills to the real world
  • To cater for individual student needs, use authentic materials and resources drawn from everyday life rather than mass-produced textbooks or materials
  • Utilise the experience and knowledge of community members including employers, cultural and community leaders and former students
  • Ensure learning reflects the integration that occurs in real-life tasks, incorporating skills and knowledge relevant to the whole task and the whole person such as collaboration, communication, problem solving and interpersonal skills
  • Present learning activities in different modalities: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic, to allow the greatest uptake of knowledge

Explicitly teach the technical language of the content that can be applied by students in talking, reading, writing and listening, using authentic examples.

The concept of applied learning is often equated as ‘hands on learning’ or practical learning experiences or kinaesthetic learning. However, to meet the outcomes students deserve, there needs to be more than just the ‘doing’. Just ‘doing’ is only the first part of the equation of effective learning. Applied learning is a higher level of learning which can’t be achieved by only reading a book. It is learning that is used by the student of any age to build an understanding of the concept delivered, to apply it to a real-world situation, and through that application to gain greater insight into the knowledge or process they have undertaken. They can gradually build their level of competence through a cycle of input, application, reflection and acting again. A student is shown for the first time how to dribble a basketball. Application of that skill shows the student the possibilities and variations of bouncing the ball. Increased application spirals the growing level of competence upwards to ever increasing levels. Personal reflection on the features of bouncing a ball and planning on how to improve the speed and agility will lead to better outcomes. Inputs of more information from coach / teacher / personal research allow for increasing nuances of learning and increasing levels of competence.

In Australia we are very happy with sporting analogies, but applied learning occurs in more than just the physical sphere. An economist can learn about market force theories and then apply what they have learnt to predicting the trajectory of house prices. Being able to reflect on the success or not of their predictions is a further input to their learning, and through further application will take them to the next level of understanding and competence in their field. A science student is constantly applying theories learnt about chemical reactions through experimentation, developing hypotheses and then testing these through application again.

David Kolb’s Experiential Learning cycle (1984) articulates this process of learning in a way that will build the learning in vocational and applied learning situations.

Experiential Learning cycle

In this 4 stage process, a student acts in some sort of concrete experience; to use an example from the real world work place they engage with customers in the coffee shop where they are training as a barista.

After the physical experience, they reflect on what they observed – about themselves and their actions, the way they manipulated the coffee machine, and the reactions of the customer. What worked and what didn’t?

They then conceptualise that experience – from their experience, what conclusions can they draw about how to be a good barista, and their own current level of competence? Why did things happen the way they did?

They apply what they have learnt from their observations and thinking through the experience and develop a plan to be more effective in their action.

The cycle then begins again, with taking action while implementing the plan.

The role of the teacher in this process is critical – stimulating the reflection and conceptualisation through targeted questioning, setting up of journals to guide the student, encouraging students to engage in the cognitive process of learning from the experience.

Increasing Competence

A spiral upward displaying increasing competence

Each time you go through the process you build your skills and knowledge, giving you a bigger foundation to bounce forward, and at the same time building your self-efficacy and motivation to keep going. Success breeds success.

A further applied Learning practice is to ensure that the learning should reflect the integration that occurs in real-life tasks, include skills and knowledge relevant to the whole task and the whole person such as collaboration, communication, problem solving and interpersonal skills.

Student Agency

  • Engage in a dialogue with students about the curriculum and how they can make connections
  • Ensure students are moving to equal partners in determining the learning process as they develop greater independence and responsibility for their own learning
  • Encourage students to collaborate with peers and identify and utilise individual and group strengths, and reflect on each stage of their learning journey
  • Share knowledge and recognise the intellectual, cultural and practical knowledge students bring to the learning environment
  • Value students’ own approaches to the study including effective use of supporting technologies
  • Support students to learn through interaction and cooperation via discussion, asking questions, giving explanations and presentations, and working cooperatively in pairs or small groups.

Metacognition, or the process of ‘thinking about thinking’ is a key aim of teachers for their students. What teacher doesn’t want the individuals in their class excited about learning, and actively monitoring and planning their own role in the process? Marzano (2007) though analysis of research studies has found engaging the metacognitive system has an effect size of 0.72, increasing achievement for a student by 26 percentile points. Hattie (2009) calculated the effect size of 0.69, well above his ‘hinge point’ of 0.4 average effect – all those above it add value to student learning at increasingly higher levels.

When you look at a definition of Student Agency the link to the active process of metacognition is clear. Student Agency is defined in the Department of Education and Training (DET) publication Amplify - ‘Student agency refers to the level of autonomy and power that a student experiences in the learning environment. ……. Agency gives students the power to direct and take responsibility for their learning, creating independent and self-regulating learners.’

Griffin (2006) explains that self-regulation shifts the emphasis from the teacher work to student work where ‘learners become responsible for progress along the developmental continuum, setting their own goals for that progress, negotiating outcomes, resources and approaches as well as devising strategies for achieving those outcomes and realising their learning goals. In these circumstances, students need to understand the process of seeing goals and identifying the evidence required to demonstrated they have achieved those goals. The responsibility for learning passes to the student, and, with a teacher’s guidance and support, students will be obliged to develop increased competence to monitor their own learning.’

Marzano (2007) and Hattie (2009) put forward similar descriptions of a self-regulated learner. A student needs to begin by setting the goal of what they want to achieve. Teachers are key to helping students clarify their goals and then move into the next stage of monitoring their progress towards the goal. Is the strategy they decided on to achieve their goal working? Have they documented their goal and timelines so they can check progress along the way? Hattie (2009) says ‘goals have a self-energizing effect if they are appropriately challenging for the students, as they can motivate students to exert effort in line with the difficulty or demands of the goals.

Self-regulated learners then need to monitor their progress for clarity and accuracy – do they have clarity about the essential knowledge of the task they are undertaking, for example getting ready to go into a workplace for the first time? And when they get there, they need to be monitoring the accuracy of how they apply their knowledge. Accuracy is paramount in so many workplace situations, whether it is safety in the use of machinery or in the measuring of chemicals. Being able to justify your understanding of accuracy increases deepening of the thinking process, throwing up ideas of what might lead to inaccuracy.

Student-centred flexible approach

  • Understand the students’ knowledge and skills prior to commencing the study and use this as the starting point for their learning
  • Understand and encourage students’ personal, education and pathway goals
  • Consider the whole person and celebrate successes and connections to build resilience, confidence, and self-worth
  • Build on the positive strengths of each student, including learning strengths and character strengths
  • Teach concepts in contexts relevant to the students’ backgrounds, interests and experiences
  • Facilitate mutually beneficial relationships with a range of local communities while raising awareness about social and community issues and practices that influence and impact on students’ lives and futures.

The process of learning can be personally confronting in a classroom. Students need to be comfortable with taking a risk of possible failure, they need to have open minds to new learning and must be prepared to receive and act on feedback with a positive mindset. To achieve all of this they need to have a level of trust in their teacher (Hattie & Yates 2014). A positive relationship between student and teacher, where the teacher comes to know the young person as an individual human being with all the same hopes and worries as themselves, can lead to a level of trust which enhances the learning opportunities. ‘Students value being treated with a) fairness, b) dignity and c) individual respect (Hattie & Yates 2014). This is the essential element of a Student-Centred approach under the Applied Learning title. Working with the positive strengths of each young person focuses the teacher on encouragement and nurturing rather than coercive discipline and builds the confidence and self-worth of the student. Of course, this isn’t always easy, but it can take only a single incident for a student to lose that sense of trust, but long hours to build it.

Using the student’s starting point for the commencement of the study and weaving in their personal interests and experiences is a clear sign of that individual respect, and supports them to take a risk with their learning.

Assessment Practice which Promotes Success

  • Use the assessment method that best fits the content and context and allows for incremental indications of success
  • Afford students multiple opportunities for success and assessment.

Assessment is one of the most critical aspects of a student’s learning. McTighe & Willis (2019) referred to John Hatties’ metanalysis of assessment practices - ‘Hattie noted that 3 of the top 10 interventions having the greatest effect on learning were the use of formative assessments, providing timely feedback to learners, and engaging students in self-assessment.” They also put forward in their book “Understanding by Design meets Neuroscience” that the video game experience enjoyed by so many young people is a model for effective learning by the brain and could be replicated by educators in the classroom. They ‘identified four elements of this model that educators can replicate to enhance the learning of their students: (1) establishing a desirable goal, (2) offering an achievable challenge, (3) providing constant assessment with specific feedback, and (4) acknowledging progress and achievement en route to a final goal.

Performance assessments are a methodology suggested by McTighe & Willis, where students apply their learning to a situation and thus build the transfer of their growing knowledge and skills to different situations. By creating such situations teachers are giving opportunities for the growth of 21st century skills as students adapt to a collaborative environment and respond creatively to the challenge presented.

Authentic assessment tasks which we often speak about as motivational for these students are described by Grant Wiggins (2006) as “simply performances and product requirements that are faithful to real-world demands, opportunities and constraints. The students are tested on their ability to ‘do’ the subject in context, to transfer their learning effectively.” Because these tasks are often project based and don’t have the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answer, the most effective form of assessment of outcomes is to have criteria established beforehand so the students, as active partners in their own learning, know what they are aiming for. The assessment process is transparent and predictable in a rubric, and the student can determine the level of engagement and learning for which they are aiming, because they can see the outcome is within their control. Increased understanding of their aim is created by showing students examples of previous student work at the different levels of the rubric. Rubrics can also be used to promote self and peer assessment to build student ownership.

Dweck, Carol S. 2006, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Random House, New York.

Hattie, J. A. C., & Yates, G. C. R. 2014. Using feedback to promote learning. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum (pp. 45–58). Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Hattie, J. A.C. 2009, Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, Routledge, New York.

Marzano, R. J. 2007, The Art and Science of Teaching, ASCD, Alexandria.

McTighe, Jay & Willis, Judy 2019, Upgrade your teaching: understanding by design meets neuroscience, ASCD, Alexandria.

Wiggins, Grant (2006). Healthier testing made easy: The idea of authentic assessment, viewed 19 April 2022.

Integrating Studies


Differentiation in the Vocational Major (VM) does not mean teachers need to plan a separate lesson for every individual in the classroom. Differentiation is about understanding the strengths and challenges of our students and responding to them. Students vary in their preferred ways of learning, levels of comfort for team and individual work, written and spoken languages, and interests and aspirations. In designing curriculum, each student’s individual needs should be considered, as well as their unique circumstances. All students need to understand the same content; however, they may learn, understand, and be assessed in a variety of ways, and in a different time frame.

Choice is a mechanism to ensure differentiation. The VM curriculum has been written to encourage student choice. For example, a student can be given choice over their research topic, community engagement project or industry to investigate. Getting to know the learner well will greatly assist the teacher. Being prepared with a wide variety of alternatives and exemplars can calm nerves, spark curiosity, and increase engagement. Teachers can help students to understand their environment and community issues with visits, guest speakers and visual representations. If a student sees the authenticity of a potential project, they are more likely to engage with it.

Differentiation means students also benefit from choice in the way they demonstrate competency when deciding on the process they will undertake to achieve skills and knowledge. Teachers should ensure transparency of assessment and negotiate with the student to agree on how they will demonstrate competency. It is sometime easy to confuse rigorous with onerous or arduous and this doesn’t help students become critical thinkers or efficient problem solvers. If there is a simple but reliable way to assess competency, one that ensures students have the required skills and knowledge, teachers should use such an assessment method. There are a wide variety of suggested assessments in the VM Study Designs and the VM Exemplars that will assist.

In differentiation, variety is key. Given that there are numerous pathways to understanding, teachers should use multiple modalities to ensure students engage with theory or concepts as well as the application of knowledge. Teachers should assist students in recognising their preferred routes to comprehension and provide numerous points for them to access the curriculum. Some students thrive on graphic representation, some understand best verbally, others gravitate towards kinaesthetic or experiential learning. Demonstration of higher order skills like analysis, comprehension and predication requires the use of a number of different instructional approaches that tap into students’ strengths, intelligence preferences and interests.

Building a strong classroom culture is important. Helping students to understand that assessment will vary between individuals and making that part of the normal teaching and learning practice will help students feel comfortable when experimenting with how they learn. It will also promote diversity. In teamwork, effective differentiation may require students to work in mixed ability groups, which will foster their understanding of how people thrive in a variety of areas. For example, Pia may struggle with writing but she is an extremely effective communicator; and while Abdi is great at calculations the thought of presenting to a group is overwhelming. When teachers acknowledge and address learning differences explicitly and in a respectful way that promotes a growth mindset, students come to understand there are many ways of learning and appreciate the strength in diversity.

Further differentiation resources


Cash, Richard M (2017) Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century, Free Spirit Publishing Inc.

DeSousa, D & Tomlinson, CA (2018) Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-Friendly Classroom (2nd ed.), HawkerBrownlow Education

Diller, D (2007) Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-Friendly Classroom, Stenhouse Publishers

McCarthy, J (2017) So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation, Rowman & Littlefield

Robinson, Sir Ken (2009) The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Viking Books

Tomlinson, CA (2001) How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2nd ed.), Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Clips and Website

Differentiated instruction

Differentiation in maths

Five aspects of differentiated instruction

Sir Ken Robinson - Multiple Intelligence
The desired segment starts at 2:55

Teaching VCE Vocational Major (VCE VM) students and Victoria Pathways Certificate (VPC) students in the same classroom

The VPC and VCE VM have been written to accommodate the delivery of both curriculums in the same classroom. Careful planning and collaboration with your student cohort and teaching both studies in one class can have several advantages. In an integrated classroom VPC students continue to be engaged in education at a level that is relevant and accessible to them, while remaining connected to, motivated and challenged by their peers. VM students can continue their education, accessing a range of ability levels, and have the opportunity to demonstrate and extend their learning by mentoring and guiding other students in their class, including VPC students.

The curriculum has been developed to recognise a learning continuum, engaging each student in a continuous and sequential learning pathway.

Same project; different expectations

While all students may be working on the same project or theme, the complexity of the task, application of skills and knowledge, and amount of time dedicated should vary.

For example:

A Literacy class investigating the issue of animal cruelty

  • All students in the class read an article and watch several clips on the positive and negative outcomes of keeping animals in captivity.
  • A student enrolled in the VCE VM may be required to:
    • identify the purpose and intended audience of the articles
    • explain how language and visuals are used to influence an audience
    • compare and contrast how ideas and issues are presented in the sources provided
    • examine how bias is used to persuade an audience.
  • A VPC student would watch the same clips and read similar articles, however they would be required to:
    • identify the main ideas and arguments
    • note the differences between fact and opinion.
    • All students are learning about persuading an audience through written and visual mediums; however, the application of skills and knowledge differ.

A Numeracy class working on Financial Numeracy

  • The VPC curriculum specifies the focus area of Number and Change for this context.
  • The VCE VM students can also use Financial Numeracy as the context with the AOS Number and Relationships.
  • All students in the class work on a budget for the weekly shop at the supermarket.
  • The VCE VM students:
    • budget and review prices per serving
    • calculate cost savings on bulk buys
    • calculate savings made with discounted rates of 15% or 20%
    • practise recognising the rate of change in cost of fresh produce based on weight and cost per gram or kg.
  • The VPC students:
    • plan the budget
    • decide what to buy
    • add up the expenses
    • consider the savings that could be made if products were discounted at 25% or 50%
    • look at the increase in price of fresh produce as you buy more.
  • The Focuses in VPC and the Areas of Study in VCE VM show the progression of the learning continuum and where the teacher can differentiate the learning.

A Personal Development Skills class working on a project related to the concept of health and wellbeing

  • The VCE VM students:
    • design an activity that aims at understanding and improving individual and group health and wellbeing
    • describe and investigate the concepts and factors relating to individual and group health and wellbeing
    • propose and justify a suitable individual or group activity and outline the requirements
    • apply communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and planning skills when designing the activity.
    • apply communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and planning skills to undertake the activity.
  • The VPC students:
    • understand the key aspects of health and wellbeing
    • understand and explain the purpose of monitoring individual health and wellbeing
    • understand the features of positive social relationships and consent
    • demonstrate personal assertiveness and effective self-expression with peers through engaging in a group activity.

A Work Related Skills class working on developing a resume and cover letter

  • The VCE VM students:
    • provide an overview of an employee’s recruitment and selection process
    • understand the variety of ways jobs are advertised and the application process
    • understand what to include to support a job application
    • write a resume and cover letter, and apply for a mock job including undertaking a mock interview
    • seek feedback, then apply feedback to strengthen the cover letter and resume and interview.
  • The VPC students:
    • identify elements of a good resume and cover letter
    • complete a draft resume and cover letter including relevant formatting and language that addresses selection criteria
    • seek feedback, then apply feedback to strengthen the cover letter and resume.

Planning, mapping and transparency

It is important for both teacher and students to know the sequence and timing of outcomes and modules. Planning your semester will help everyone feel comfortable in the integrated classroom. You and the students will quickly ascertain whether the integrated plan is realistic, and adjust accordingly. Teachers are encouraged to clearly communicate the skills and knowledge that each student is required to demonstrate; assessment rubric/s, learning intentions and project plans are effective tools for this.

Classroom resources

Use a wide range of resources such as written, graphic, multimedia and audio; with a variety of complexity levels so that all students have a point of access to themes, projects or skills. Props, excursion and guest speakers can also provide an excellent way of engaging students across multiple levels. Teachers are also encouraged to see their students as a resource; for example, a student in the VM can cement their understanding and demonstrate their knowledge by explaining concepts to VPC students, this also helps to develop a collegiate classroom culture.

Further resources


Cash, Richard M (2017) Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century, Free Spirit Publishing Inc.

DeSousa, D & Tomlinson, CA (2018) Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-Friendly Classroom (2nd ed.), HawkerBrownlow Education

Diller, D (2007) Making the Most of Small Groups: Differentiation for All, Stenhouse Publishers

McCarthy, J (2017) So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation, Rowman & Littlefield

Sherrinton, T (2019) Rosenshine’s Principals in Action, John Catt Educational Ltd.

Tomlinson, CA (2001) How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2nd ed.), Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Clips and websites

Guide to formative Assessment Rubrics

Differentiated instruction

Five aspects of differentiated instruction