November 17th, 2017

Teaching Students the Importance of Professionalism


teaching students to be professional

In almost a decade of teaching, I find myself lamenting that I still have to remind students to arrive on time, bring the proper materials, and pay attention to lectures. Despite admonitions and penalizing grades, students still use cellphones, do the bare minimum to pass an assignment, and struggle with constructive criticism. I often worry, how will they ever succeed in a professional workplace with these behaviors? So when my college introduced extracurricular workshops to help students develop professional behavior, I decided to go one step further and incorporate professionalism into all my courses.

On the first day of class, I explain why professionalism is 10-15% of the overall class grade. I point out that the behaviors and attitudes that make one a successful student (commitment to excellence, comportment, integrity, etc.) will translate well to the workplace. The classroom can, and should, be a training ground for students as they prepare to enter the professional workforce. Accordingly, I list and define eight professional values on the course syllabus. These behaviors and attitudes are derived from my college’s professionalism initiative and are commitment to excellence, honesty and integrity, expertise, humility, respect, compassion, awareness of interpersonal boundaries, and comportment. I also include a list of specific behaviors associated with each professional value. For instance, texting during class demonstrates a lack of respect to fellow students and the professor, just as texting during a business meeting would show a lack of respect for coworkers and the boss. In the workplace, behaviors like these may result in a poor performance evaluation and a less-than-stellar reputation.

As for grading, each student begins the term with 100 points and loses a point for each unprofessional behavior exhibited. However, there are also points lost on the paper grades if students turn them in late. So, missing deadlines costs points on the assignment and points on their professionalism grade as well. Incorporating professionalism into the course gives me a better way to explain my justifications for why late papers are penalized, why coming to class late is unacceptable, and why students need to be respectful to others.

Throughout the term, I remind students of the professionalism requirement. Sometimes it’s a gentle reminder to be more civil during class discussions or in a formal assignment where specific values are explored. I regularly ask students to write a short paper on the professional code of conduct or ethics for their specific discipline. I also create assignments that let them demonstrate their professionalism, such as debates or a group project. In an attempt to help them gauge their level of professionalism over the term, the final exam includes the following questions: “Discuss the professional habits, attitudes, and behaviors that you feel you did NOT exhibit or that you could have improved upon in this class,” and “Discuss the skills and attitudes you have gained in this class that can be used to achieve academic and professional success.”

As a result of these changes in my courses, student behavior has improved immensely. One student confessed, “I have failed to exhibit the values of professionalism because I never arrived to class on time and I turned in one of my papers late.” Others admitted that they knew their behavior would be unacceptable to other professors and employers. Finally, many students have used this opportunity to assess how their lack of appropriate behavior resulted in their poor class performance. Several students took responsibility for their scores, admitting it was their fault they did not earn a passing grade.

Bringing professionalism into the classroom in an explicit, direct way can remedy many of those student behaviors that drive professors over the edge. And as happened in my courses, it is an excellent way to have students assess their own conduct and reflect on their behavior and attitudes. This approach often results in students taking more responsibility for their academic performance rather than blaming the instructor. According to student feedback, the focus on professionalism helps them see their classroom experiences as preparation for the “real” world. We do not have to dismiss inappropriate behavior as a sign of youthful immaturity or let it exasperate us. We can instead help students develop the skills, attitudes, and behaviors they need to chart successful courses as students and soon-to-be professionals.

Angela F. Keaton is an associate professor of history at Tusculum College.

Reprinted from Teaching Professor, 29.6 (2015): 5. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

For more on this topic, read:

  • Laura Shulman

    I like this. While i do grade participation (which requires timely attendance) and effort, and deduct points for assignments being late, I might use your more explicit approach to describing and grading professionalism.
    I would like examples of the other eight “values”. Can you share with us the section of your syllabus that spells this out for students? Or perhaps we can brainstorm here which “irritating” behaviors fall into which categories (sleeping in class = lack of respect?, being prepared = commitment to excellence? Sharing helpful insights in discussion = expertise? Listening attentively to others = respect? Monopolizing a discussion = lack of respect? Lack of humility?).

    • Stacyesq

      You are so right! As I read this, I kept waiting to learn more of the specifics of how to incorporate these good ideas into my classes. I spent too much time this week lamenting about students who are late, texting, eating, or just generally being rude. This is the time of year when I have to fight being quiet but cynical (thinking to myself, “hey, it’s your F. If you don’t care, why should I?”) and showing my genuine frustration — right before student evaluations are completed. Each semester, I think I will nip this behavior from the beginning, and each semester, I fail. This semester is worse than normal. I would definitely welcome potential solutions.

  • Allison

    I love this. I might change my syllabi to say professionalism vs “behavior and participation”

  • Corinne Whitney

    Isn’t it funny that we fixate on those (students) that really aren’t that motivated to engage in their learning when we really should seize on those that are present in the classroom. I gave up the technology fight a while ago and have taken steps to incorporate applications such as NearPod and Padlet into lesson plans. This at least has them working with technology in a more positive way (I hope).

    I love the idea of reframing behaviour and participation to standards of professionalism. It conjures up a more holistic view of actions in the classroom. We tie our learning outcomes to employability skills and discuss transferabilty of skills, why not hold student deportment to a similar lens. It certainly creates a more realistic spin on how actions have consequences. For example, sleeping in class (for me) falls under comportment. Could you imagine someone at work laying across their desk in the cubicle next to you?

    In providing opportunities for students to review their participation and reflect on their classroom professionalism, the may see opportunities to adjust their patterns in the classroom. Of course, you may need to wake on or two up to do so.

    • Laura Shulman

      I like your opening observation that our focus should be primarily on students who ARE engaged. They are the ones who DESERVE our attention. Sometimes I do feel, as Stacyesq suggested, that the unmotivated students can just “sink or swim”. There is a point where “hand holding” and being the “helicopter” teacher just has to stop or they will never learn to swim (fly) for themselves.

  • Carolyn Pokrzywinski-Weber

    Professionalism can be taught. The best way to teach this valuable competency is to incorporate these behaviors as professors. Great article!