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Learning through work is a common feature of preparing health professionals for practice. Current understandings of work-integrated learning or a ‘work-based placement’, focus on students being consumers of experiences rather than providing a reciprocal benefit to the organisation in which they are placed. More nuanced understanding of the ways that students can offer value to organisations may provide new opportunities and increased capacity for workplace learning. This study drew on Social Exchange Theory to explore the perceived value and benefits of work-integrated learning experiences to the organisations in which students are placed. The focus was on population health placements undertaken by dietetics students at a large Australian university. An interpretive approach was employed with interviews with placement educators and document analysis of student-generated products from their placement. Seventeen of 20 eligible placement educators were interviewed, with interview data coded using thematic framework analysis. These data were supported with document analysis of student scientific posters completed as part of assessment to develop themes which were interpreted with social exchange theory. Three themes were identified: (1) students add to the organisation’s capacity, (2) benefits outweigh time cost of planning and supervising and (3) explicitly valuing students for their contributions may build trust and further potentiate bi-directional benefits. Results suggest that student placements can add value to organisations. This reciprocity of benefits should be communicated to all stakeholders involved in the university-community collaboration, including students. Social exchange theory sensitised researchers to nuanced findings that may support the translation of these study findings to other student work-integrated learning settings.
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