Helping Professional-Track Students Succeed

teaching professional track students

Today’s students enroll in college with expectations of a smooth and direct path to graduation, only to discover that professional track programs can be inflexible, challenging, and prescriptive. Programs such as nursing, dental hygiene, physical therapy, occupational therapy, veterinary technology, and others are governed by rigorous accreditation standards. Colleges and universities must adhere to the standards developed by the respective governing bodies; however, many of the standards are in direct conflict with how some students learn and absorb knowledge and do not take into account learning preferences, teaching styles, and student/faculty personalities. With accelerated programs popping up all over the country, how can we maintain high accreditation standards yet be flexible enough to meet the learning needs of today’s professional track student?

Prior to beginning a new teaching assignment, professional track faculty must understand the specialized accreditation standards for that program and what those standards mean in terms of teaching and learning. Written in verbiage that only an accreditation expert might understand, what are the standards really asking faculty to teach? It is not unusual for full-time and part-time faculty to realize after the fact, when the program has drop-outs or failures, that the standards could have been met in a much easier way. So, the first question a faculty member must ask is, “Do I know what’s expected of me, according to the accreditation standards?”

Next, how can faculty take students from all types of educational backgrounds and seamlessly merge them into a professional track program? This includes a wide variety of students with diagnosed and undiagnosed learning disabilities, challenges, and underdeveloped or overdeveloped academic expectations. Many students underestimate what “professional” truly means and how rigid and, indeed, stressful these programs are at times. Our legal and moral obligations to these students spans a variety of education requirements just to provide a basic foundational professional curriculum. Students enter our programs with different personalities, backgrounds, previous learning traumas or successes, and present-day responsibilities and are expected to come out the other side with a near-uniform level of knowledge and skill.

It’s a challenging task for faculty, but by employing a few key teaching strategies, instructors can reach and understand more about these emerging professionals by taking time to understand their learning preferences. Professional track candidates have generally received excellent grades throughout their schooling, but professional programs are very different from most high school programs. The discipline needed to reach the same academic standards achieved in secondary school will likely take much more time and effort. It may even require a completely different approach to studying and a bit more grit. In her book, Grit, the Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth suggests that a student must have grit when entering an academic environment, no matter how intelligent and successful they might have been in previous academic endeavors.

In addition to developing grit in their students, faculty might consider providing students with a learning style inventory such as VAK/VARK. Inventories and pretests allow students to learn more about themselves as learners. Taking time to understand their own teaching and learning styles can also benefit faculty, and it’s important to consider any real or perceived conflicts between how faculty teach and how students learn.

As many institutions adopt “fast track” or “accelerated” programs for quicker adult success, faculty are pushed to incorporate effective educational methods at a rapid pace. The challenge intensifies as faculty must complete the curriculum while teaching more diverse populations, while keeping the same professional standards required by the governing bodies.

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York, NY, US: Scribner/Simon & Schuster.

Lujan, H. L. & DiCarlo, S. E. (2006). First-year medical students prefer multiple learning styles. Advances in Physiological Education, 30, 13-16.

Doreen B. Johnson, CDA, RDH, M.Ed. is the preclinical director at Fox College.