August 7th, 2013

Helping Students Learn to be Professional


“My students act so unprofessional,” a faculty member complained. “Two of them were all but making out before class started and they never stopped touching each other during class.” Heads nodded and more examples followed.

Being professional isn’t something easily defined and any proposed definition can be debated when it comes to examples of what is or isn’t professional. But in many fields, teaching students professional behavior is part of the instructional agenda. I have always admired those who teach in professional programs where there is the usual large amount of content, but also skills students need to develop and professional behaviors that must be learned. Nursing is a good example—lots and lots of content, plus all of the sophisticated skills and behaviors expected of health care professionals. All this is taught within the time constraints of a degree program that ends with a rigorous certification exam. Hats off to colleagues who teach in programs like these.

As for those with the complaints I shared in the opening paragraph, I wanted to ask, which students are being unprofessional? Are they first-year students or seniors? Do we have unrealistic expectations for students in those first college courses? No one is born knowing what it means to be professional. These are skill sets that must be learned.

One of the big problems that we face with students is convincing them that what happens in college classrooms is very similar to what happens in the world of work. For example, they assume that once they get into the workplace, they won’t have to work with people who fail to carry their weight on a team project. Perhaps we should invite them to observe faculty committees. A lot of students also think it doesn’t matter if they miss deadlines, come late to class, regularly request a bending of the rules, or text while someone else is talking. In some cases they might know these things are unprofessional, but the actions become justified in the student’s mind because they’re doing them in class, not at work.

In the article referenced below, two teachers propose an interesting way to get students to begin thinking about college as preparation for professional life. Each one taught a course that they framed as a job experience. The teacher functioned as the supervisor, students were employees, the syllabus was the employment contract, and the assignments were authentic—tasks employees could be asked to do on the job. These weren’t specially created courses; one was an industrial organizational psychology course and the other a course that introduced students to the psychology major. However, some course details were changed in interesting ways. For example, in the industrial psychology courses, points weren’t given for attending class—that was expected—but students lost points for multiple unexcused absences.

The authors make this observation in their conclusion: “Framing these two courses as a job made us think more carefully about all of our classroom policies and procedures … and whether we were effectively preparing our students for their futures in which they will need to be responsible and accountable for their actions.” (p. 66) That’s a key point and it got me thinking again about how college experiences need to occur on a developmental trajectory. We should be treating beginning students differently than seniors. Recently I’ve been looking at some syllabi from capstone courses and have been surprised with how many are peppered with the same policies and prohibitions found in syllabi for lower-level courses. If we’re working on developing professional behaviors across a sequence of courses and years in college, shouldn’t seniors know that work needs to be turned in on time and that not being in class has consequences? Maybe we need to examine the approaches we’re using to develop professionalism if our seniors can’t set their own rules for responsible behavior.

We operationally define professional behavior with various rules and regulations, but do students know that’s what we’re doing or do they think all those policy requirements are just teachers telling students what to do because that’s one of those things teachers do? The reasons for deadlines, attentive listening, careful editing, respectful disagreement, and being punctual may not be obvious to those who think college classrooms operate on a different plane than “the real world.”

Reference: Campana, K. L. and Peterson, J. J. (2013). Do bosses give extra credit? Using the classroom to model real-world work experiences. College Teaching, 61 (2), 60-66.

  • Lynn Mack

    Great article. I agree completely and I have used that approach in my mathematics courses and with my workstudy students.
    I tell them one of my main goals is to prepare them for the workplace and not only to get a job but to keep it. I allow my teams to fire or dismiss a team member if they do not fulfil their role on the team. For the next project I put all the team members that have been fired together, actually by then they get the picture and usually perform much better.

  • Karen Miller, PhD

    Dr. Weimer was totally on target in discussing how hard it is to define and teach professionalism. It actually comes down to personal behavior, and today's students are extremely sensitive to having their behavior criticized. Many have been raised in an "I'm OK, you're OK" environment, and it's a bit of a jolt when someone suggests that it's not OK, for example, to openly multitask when in a conversation with a professor or attending physician.

    Medical schools across the country are trying several strategies to address this content, and the most successful seem to center on having learner involvement in the process. For example conducting structured discussions about why professional behavior is essential to success; how to be mindful of one's own behavior with patients, families, and peers; and how to help peers identify behaviors that are OK in social situations but not in professional situations can be useful. Forward thinking can also help … Can you envision yourself acting like this in 5 years when you are (for example) a practicing physician or a nurse practitioner?

    In medical education, we are accountable for how this type of instruction is provided. That is actually very helpful because it justifies the instructional time dedicated to a topic that could be overlooked in favor of clinical content.

  • diazcarlos

    I teach business-related topics in my classes to junior and senior private college students, and because of my extensive experience in the business world, I advise them that in my classroom I will observe, critique and evaluate their behavior as if they were my employees.

    Sometimes I evaluate their work by saying…"if I was your boss, I would not tolerate such etc, etc, and would ask you to go to HR and pick up your severance". It works most of the time (athough some students have complained to my superiors because of my cold posture), and many former students have written to me years later thanking me for teaching them how to conduct themselves in the business world, and being so demanding.

    In my personal opinion, we tend to be more paternalistic than we should in the classroom. The cold, unforgiving world out here will not forgive the students who tend to believe that they can get away with the same antics they performed routinely in college.

    • Nancy

      I could not agree with you more. The outside world of work will not accommodate the behaviors that many students seem to believe is appropriate in the classroom. I believe we are doing the students a disservice when we do not try and educate them in this area, regardless of our course disciplines.

  • diazcarlos

    PS if I may….could not locate the referenced article in using the title: Campana, K. L. and Peterson, J. J. (2013). Do bosses give extra credit? Using the classroom to model real-world work experiences. College Teaching, 61 (2), 60-66…can anybody help me?

  • pat pesci

    Pat Pesci

    Just for the record, I lock the classroom door in my upper level management classes. If a student is late they do not get in.
    If I am late, NO CLASS that day. In twenty years I have been late only once.
    I have been told by many grads to keep doing this.

  • John

    Great stuff, Dr. Weimer. Very thought provoking!

  • Kwena Matjekana

    I try to keep a strict regime of dscipline in class by making sure that those who behave disorderly regard themselves at odd with the class environment. At the same time gradually loosen up to make the students feel relaxed. I have also found that the restlessness and disorderly behaviour can be linked to the class environment (venues and technology, and other extramural factors. So, understanding your students' situation beyond the class helps in dealing with the challenge.

  • Meredith

    I have many of the same views as recorded in the above comments. However, one student told me "yeah, but when the baby boomers are finally all retired, these silly, restrictive rules about professional behavior won't apply."

  • Joseph R.

    Thanks for sharing your insight – this is a great post. I teach internationally in a 3rd world country and focus on leadership development among individuals who have great potential, but no financial resources available to continue education past high school. It was interesting to consider my students when reading this post. The same issues that exist in educating college students in the US exist elsewhere as well. In my context, we've tried many things to encourage professionalism in the classroom, but it usually results in creating rules that penalize students who do not comply. While many people may see this as constricting, I see it as another example of how education prepares students for reality. Employers impose plenty of rules that frequently come with great consequences to those who do not comply. If the "real world" is going to receive college graduates prepared for the workforce, professionalism must begin in the classroom. We cannot wait until after graduation.

    • Bob G.

      Joseph. In my experience, a new employee, as often as not, will require training to work through unacceptable habits. They often act as if they have a right to dress, speak, and behave in the way they are accustomed to. Sometimes the resistance to change is so strong that the individual is lost, along with all his or her knowledge and potential. You are right, "we cannot wait until after graduation."

    • Timothy Darling

      I have enjoyed thinking about this intersection between work and education. As a student who came to education after a stint in the military, I have often been baffled by attendance requirements and the lack of motivation to work diligently on the part of younger students. For me, the whole point of being in school was to apply myself in a way that would be helpful to me later. Are we coming to the idea of professionalism too late if we wait for advanced education? Are we so concerned about stunting secondary students' creativity and self-expression that we are neglecting to prepare them for the responsibilities of maturity? After all, we are speaking of students who continue their education, but many will not go on to formal degree programs. Many will face their next educational task in on the job training where professionalism is vitally important. The idea of making out (as described in the article) on the job is something out of a sitcom, not something you see on a factory floor … at least not for long.

  • Joseph R.

    Yes, Bob…I agree. Do you think that it's possible that businesses are becoming too lenient with regards to professionalism these days? For example, a very large corporation where I was employed for five years has gone through many changes in the last few decades. Engineers (my position) used to wear suits and ties to work, and now they can go to work in Jeans and a polo. Meetings regularly begin 10 minutes late, which was unheard of 20 years ago. I wonder if employers put a little more pressure on educational institutions, they may be more motivated to teach professionalism.

    • Bob G.

      Joseph. Although most business professionals still probably wince at the laxity of their new recruits, many of these young men and women would simply take their talents elsewhere if they were forced into any "perceived" mold that was not of their own design. It becomes a matter of giving ground or losing well-qualified candidates. I think you have hit on something, though. If there were incentives to the students to act with professional polish, schools would emphasize it. Companies who considered that level of polish an integral part of their corporate image would have to be prepared to compensate new hires for what they contributed to the organization in terms of image as well as in talent.

  • Tim K

    The postponing of Adolescence is evidenced in the fact that 2 generations ago men often married in their mid-teens, whereas now it is not uncommon for men to remain single and uncommitted until in their 30's. Sociologically responsibility has been strangled by rights and privileges. I was taught that it's not what is expected that gets done but what's inspected. Accountability delivers significance not enslavement. and the inner attitudes toward authority/accountability reveal themselves in the outer modes of dress and punctuality.

    • Bob G.

      So Tim, does the disconnect occur at the university level or earlier, in the home? Can educational institutions be expected to install disciplines which were not deemed important as the young person was growing up? A sense of decorum is probably far down the list of disciplines the institution would like to see the student bring to campus with them.

  • Mark D

    Behavior modification (training) it seems, is now being left to the college classroom instead of the home. Societal harmony is certainly necessary for society to function, but one wonders if the college is capable of doing that (and if so, where is the evidence that it is being done well) and if academic advancement has suffered as a result.