July 2nd, 2018

The Privilege and Challenges of Teaching in Professional Programs

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nursing students

Those of us who teach in professional programs have some unique instructional challenges. Certainly, like everyone else, we have content that students need to learn—and, like everyone else, we have too much content and struggle to get through it all. We’re also alike in that we want our students to develop lifelong learning skills, such as problem-solving and critical thinking. And yet, on top of this, all students in professional programs have skills related to the profession that they must truly master—a matter complicated by the fact that whether it’s a culinary program, welding, woodworking, occupational therapy, social work, or computer repair, most students begin these programs having none or very few of these skills. Moreover, unlike many of the more traditional academic majors, in our programs we are also expected to teach students how to act like professionals in our fields. And finally, the reputation of our programs depends on how well our students perform in all of these areas, as measured by a certifying exam that students must pass in order to work in the profession. Indeed, professional education has its challenges which those of us teaching in the programs along with the rest of the academic community need to regularly consider.

I’ll use my own program to further explore what makes teaching in professional programs at once challenging and rewarding. For decades, I have taught in a Faculty of Nursing at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Our undergraduate students come to us with high grade point averages, or if they are transferring into our After Degree program (meaning they have a degree in another discipline, such as science, and then take our two-year program to a Bachelor of Science in Nursing), their grades need to be competitive.  In the undergraduate program, students take theory and clinical courses and the theory courses are approved by the university.  The nursing regulatory body determines the exact number of hours students spend in each clinical area. After completion of the program, students write a North American examination before they can enter nursing practice.  Because most of our students must work part time to pay escalating tuition costs, they become experts at time management. To say it more directly, nothing is easy for students in our programs or in other regulated programs at the University of Alberta, and I suspect that is true of professional programs offered elsewhere.

Preparing students to be professionals in a regulated discipline means they must have foundational knowledge in their discipline, plus courses in related areas such as ethics, legal issues, history of the field as well as current trends and issues. In many fields, the content of the curriculum is closely monitored by those in the field or by professional boards or associations who prescribe what graduates should know and be able to do. Those of us teaching in a professional area, do not have as much curricular freedom as other faculty do. We have a responsibility to equip students with the knowledge and skills needed in the profession.

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