Professional Formation in the Classroom

Meg Gorzycki, Ed.D.


Professional formation addresses aspects of college education that concerns both academic and personal growth. Recently, employers have expressed concerns about the caliber of professional formation, and they recognize many areas of professional growth, including: 1) Oral and written communication skills; 2) Teamwork and collaboration skills; 3) Ethical decision-making skills; 4) Critical and analytical thinking skills; and, 5) The ability to apply knowledge to real-world problems and circumstances (Strauss, 2016; Hart Research Associates, 2015). Others have found that the ability to plan, lead, set priorities, and organize tasks are vital for success in the field (Doyle, 2016; Chegg, 2013).


The purpose of this tutorial is to provide instructors with ideas about how to nurture students' professional development in their curriculum. This material will address a rational for integrating professional development into existing courses, identify strategies for integrating professional development into existing classes, and offer sample exericses the prompt analysis, reflection, and discusison, including:

Instructors will also find a set of strategies for incorporating professional development into existing courses, and a list of helpful references.

Academic and Professional Identities

The academic identity of students regards the extent to which they feel like they are welcomed in and well integrated into the academic community. It also pertains to the students’ sense that the academic community values their intellectual and personal development, and systematically and explicitly highlights students’ academic achievements (Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005) 

In developing professional identities, students assimilate the key values espoused by experts in the field, refine their ability to take responsibility as do professionals, and improve their awareness of what professionals do in order to maintain their currency in the field (Molinero, 2013; Trede, et. al., 2012; Komarraju, et. al., 2010; Murphy, et. al., 2009).

The Human Resources Professionals Association notes that being a “professional” pertains to members of group that performs specific duties or services that require discrete skills, and that originally, a professional was also one who was committed to high standards of public service, integrity, and performance (Balthazard, 2015). Standards of performance, integrity, and public service have been articulated by various professional organizations. The American Nurses Association (2017), for example, has developed position statements and codes for nurses, as has the American historical Association (2017), and the American Institute for Certified Public Accountants (2017).

Barriers to Professional Formation

The cardinal barriers to students’ development of a professional identity concern values and attitudes (Borman, 2015). Research indicates that, increasing, students value their own achievement and happiness more than they value caring, and, even when universities require community service, many find ways to “game” the system (Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2016). Other have found that popular culture encourages students to think first of their own success rather than the common good (Weissbourd & Jones, 2014; Konrath, et. al., 2011; Putnam, 2005).

What students believe about knowledge and the purpose of the university is important. Many students hold that knowledge is information that is a warehouse of information and tools that are necessary to solve a problem (Buehl & Alexander, 2001). This approach diminishes the valuing of the processes needed to create, critique and apply knowledge, and insensitivity to the nuances of ethical and contextual variables that are involved in these activities.

Kreuter (2014) argues that institutions encourage students to approach their studies as would consumers, by offering easy credits, using marketing strategies that emphasize the material benefits of a degree, and investing lots of resources in branding, sports, and students’ social life.

This approach may leave students with the idea that higher education is about jumping through hoops as comfortably and as expeditiously as possible, and not about undertaking a deep and meaningful transformation of self, values, and intellect.

Pedagogical Strategies for Integrating Professional Formation

Cultivating professional formation is sometimes challenging because it often explores personal attitudes and values, and because it is not always explicitly integrated into the curriculum and course materials. Courses dedicated to professional formation serve a purpose, yet, it is possible to integrate professional development into existing courses. The advantage to this practice is to ensure that such formation is consistently fostered, incrementally improved, and monitored.

Envisioning the Outcomes

Because courses “live” in the context of departmental programs, it is important to build consensus among one’s peers on what characterizes students who have been professionally well-formed. Consensus may clarify departmental goals, and lead to the development of curriculum and assessment strategies that can be scaffolded into courses across the program.

Professional formation outcomes may address various domains of practice, as follows:


  • Students will demonstrate their ability to write and verbally articulate their thoughts using whole sentences, precision in thought, and proper grammar
  • Students will demonstrate their ability to use a professional and respectful tone when communicating with others
  • Students will demonstrate their ability to discern what kinds of information is appropriate to share with others outside the workplace and which is inappropriate


  • Students will demonstrate their ability to identify the ethical considerations in decision-making  and apply ethical principles in their decisions and in their relationships with others
  • Students will demonstrate their ability to apply evidence in their academic and professional judgements
  • Students will demonstrate their capacity to be open to alternative perspectives in complex decision-making processes


  • Students will demonstrate their ability to faithfully follow procedures and complete assignments and duties
  • Students will demonstrate the ability to take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them
  • Students will develop a vision for life-long learning and provide evidence for their commitment to life-long learning


  • Students will demonstrate respect for co-workers and for the people that they serve in their professional capacity
  • Students will demonstrate their ability to assist others in planning, organizing tasks, completing assignments in a timely fashion, listening carefully to others, and thinking about what others have said
  • Students will demonstrate their ability to resolve conflict in ways that allow others an honorable way out of misunderstandings, failure to complete tasks, and other problems in the work place.

Strategies, Activities, Exercises

Front-loading the Syllabus

  • Include a statement regarding professional formation in the syllabus and discuss it in the first hours of the course.
  • This statement may provide a clear rationale for including professional formation in the curriculum, a clear set of expectations relative to the outcomes, and a sense of how students will be held accountable for demonstrating their growth in this area.

Create Activities that Target Discrete Outcomes

  • Activities may be clinical and hands-on in nature, or they could be academic, such as the viewing or reading of a case study followed by analysis and class discussion
  • Ensure that students have the opportunity to undertake personal reflections and to share their personal thoughts and experience with others in a safe, respectful environment, in which students understand that their attitudes and values may be challenged for the sake of professional growth.
  • Create rubrics that clearly identify the criteria and standards of assessments, so that students can see the difference between how the professional and the lay person or novice respond to various situations, such as conflict resolution, communication difficulties, disrespectful conduct of peers or clients, project planning, and reporting events or research to others.

Use Abundant Examples

  • Existing curriculum can be enriched by incorporating examples of how high standards of courtesy, responsibility, patience, self-discipline, discretion, empathy, and respect for others made a difference in real events
  • Allow students to offer their own, relevant examples, and be flexible in using these for discussion topics and assessments

Role Modeling

  • Respect students’ awareness of the reality that not all instructors “walk the talk.”
  • Exhibit patience, courtesy, clear and respectful communication, expedition of graded work and timely feedback, honorable ways out of conflict, and maintain objectivity and calmness when emotions are triggered.
  • Demonstrate intellectual curiosity and one’s commitment to life-long learning and self-improvement

Sample Exercises (Fictional cases based on real events)

Punctuality and Potato Salad: A Scenario for Reflection & Discussion

Hazel Smith is a social worker in Hennepin County. She is charged with overseeing the transition of incarcerated criminals to the community once they have served their time in jail. She has a good reputation with co-workers, and generally does a good job interacting with clients and completing paper work. When asked to stay late for a meeting, she is usually pleasant and compliant.

When traffic is heavy, it takes Hazel more than an hour to drive the ten miles between her home in the suburb of Richfield and her office in downtown Minneapolis. She is often late, and has claimed that poor weather conditions or trouble with her roommate has delayed her arrival to work.

On one occasion Hazel was late for a very important meeting. The Minnesota State Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training sent two members to present research and recommendations to a conference of social workers in the Twin Cities area. Before the conference, Hazel’s supervisor reminded Hazel and her staff that this was an important event, and that she was expected to participate in follow-up activities. Hazel was 25 minutes late for the session, and explained that her stove was broken, and so she had difficulty making the potato salad that she was supposed to bring to her sister’s home that night for a birthday potluck dinner.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is Hazel’s explanation for her tardiness a good excuse for missing an important meeting? Why?
  2. Would Hazel’s supervisor be responding to Hazel’s behavior in an irrational way if the supervisor thought about Hazel’s problem-solving abilities? Why?
  3. Should the Hazel’s and the supervisor’s gender, age, ethnicity, color, abilities, or religion influence the way Hazel’s tardiness is approached? Why?
  4. What are the potential detriments of Hazel’s tardiness?
  5. What are the professional obligations of Hazel and of her supervisor; and, how might these obligations impact the way the supervisor addresses Hazel’s tardiness?
  6. Put yourself in Hazel’s shoes, then put yourself in her supervisor’s shoes, then put yourself in Hazel’s staff’s shoes; how does imagining the situation from these perspectives impact your feelings about a professional response to the circumstances?

The Slacker's club: A Scenario for Reflection & Discussion

Kevin manages a restaurant in Millbrae, California. The restaurant is open 24-hours a day, seven days a week, and is a popular dining option for seniors and working class families who live in the area. Kevin’s friend Carlos also works on site as a dish-washer and stock assistant. Kevin oversees Carlos and also 18 other restaurant employees. In general, customers are satisfied with their meals, and the health department is pleased with the restaurant’s compliance with safety and sanitation codes. Some employees, however, are not happy with Kevin’s behavior.

Two servers, Mei Li and Bill, have complained to each other and some of the other workers that Kevin is absent from the floor for extended periods of time, and let’s Carlos take extra-long breaks so they can smoke and visit in the parking lot. Sometimes there breaks coincide with “rushes,” of several families arriving at the same time for meals. This has put pressure on the staff to seat and serve people quickly while checking in with diners to make sure everything is to their liking. Sometimes Kevin and Carlos are gone for so long that dirty dishes pile up to the point where there is no space for them, or that the garbage cans are overflowing.

Mei Li and Bill have spoken with Kevin about how stressful things can get during a rush. Mei Li also knows that some customers have complained that the carpet is full of crumbs and wrappers all the time, and that the forks and knives are dirty. Kevin tells the staff they have to be flexible and take responsibility for tasks when others are not around. Things get very hectic when the staff is short because someone is ill or on vacation. He is sometimes defense when people say his breaks with Carlos are hurting the rest of the staff, and told Mei Li and Bill that he can do what he thinks is best because he has a degree in Management.

Discussion Questions

  1. Does Kevin have the right and/or the authority to delegate tasks to the staff on his terms? Why?
  2. What impact do you think Kevin’s management has on the quality of the restaurant?
  3. What might be the most professional way for the concerned staff to respond to Kevin’s conduct, and what variables should they think about?
  4. Should Kevin’s or the staff’s gender, age, ethnicity, color, abilities, or religion influence the way the manager and the employees approach this situations? Why?
  5. What are the professional obligations of Kevin and the staff members in this scenario?
  6. One of the staff members in this restaurant suggested that Kevin’s behavior was no big deal, because, in her words, “It’s not like he’s managing a multi-billion dollar company or a surgical unit.” Is that a reasonable response to the situation?

Digital "Dissing:" A Scenario for Reflection & Discussion

A student sent an e-mail to his instructor with hopes that he could convince the instructor to give him some extra-credit. Here is what it said:

                        Mr. K!!! Wazzup?

                        I gotta F on the test!! need major points n git on track for spring grad

                        can u give x-tra cred for cls? Is up 2 u but I rlly like yo lcs!!


Discussion Questions

  1. The “Mr. K” in this scenario complained to a colleague about the e-mail, and said the tone was completely inappropriate and disrespectful. The colleague told “Mr. K.” that he was being “too sensitive,” and that if he wanted students to like him and give him good scores on his course evaluations, he should let is go and let the student earn some extra credit. What do you think?
  2. What are the detriments and potential hazards of communicating in this manner with professionals, supervisors, business colleagues, and public officials?
  3. Should the gender, age, ethnicity, color, abilities, or religion of the instructor and student influence the way the way people approach this situation? Why?
  4. What criteria should be applied when composing professional memos and e-mails? Why?
  5. What kind of response would help both instructors and students abide by professional standards of communication?

The Gossip Galley: A Scenario for Reflection & Discussion

Sid, Vicky, and Hector teach at the same high school, which serves over 1200 students and has a very large faculty and staff. During lunch breaks, assemblies, and their chaperoning duties, they like to get together and often end up talking about students, parents, and other teachers or employees. When they discuss other people, they are usually quiet and so not many people know what they are talking about.

The school administration understands that not all teachers and staff members have the same attitudes about controversial matters, including extra-marital affairs, drug use, student discipline, and special programs for students with learning disabilities. The administration also does not always agree with the district supervisors on matters related to the school and the community.

Sid, Vicky, and Hector began to get a reputation for their gossip. Some teachers began to avoid them, and others spoke privately to the principal about their attitudes towards certain students and staff members. On one occasion, a parent from a different school contacted the principal. He had been on campus for a football game in which his son competed, and was seated near Vicky and Sid, who were there as chaperones. The parent overheard Vicky and Sid, who alleged make jokes about the referee’s sexuality and the IQs of some of the players. The parent was very upset and knows that others in the crowd heard these remarks.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the ethical dimensions of this case?
  2. How might gossip impact the relationships between the faculty, staff, parents, students, and community at large?
  3. Where do professionals draw the line between the right to have personal opinions and the gossiping behavior of professional staff members?
  4. Should the gender, age, ethnicity, color, abilities, or religion of the subjects of gossip or of those doing the gossiping influence the way the principal approaches this situation? Why?
  5. Does this situation call for an individual or institutional response? Why?

Inventory of Professional Attitudes and Behaviors

This inventory is based on Hammer (2000), who distilled the attributes of professionals that reappeared in research during the 1950s and 1960s, when scholars were exploring the concept of professionalism. It also incorporates reflection as a pedagogical tool for learning and development (Kolb, & Kolb, 2005).

The purpose of this inventory is to provide reflection and discussion points that students may address in essays or class conversations. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers. Instructors should be prepared to explore student responses based on their understanding of professional standards and codes in their disciplines, and have references to sources that will help students learn about them. Instructors may ask students to:

  • Address the reasons for their responses
  • Identify exceptions they may feel apply to certain circumstances
  • Explore examples of certain behaviors
  • Consider what happens when professionals do not have a consensus on professional conduct

Directions: Select the number following each statement that best corresponds to your beliefs. Be prepared to offer rationales for your choices in reflection papers or class discussion. The scale is as follows:

5= Strongly Agree   4=Mildly Agree   3= Equally Agree and Disagree   2=Mildly Disagree   1= Strongly Disagree

  1. I always read what I am not required to read for the sake of deep learning                   1  2  3  4  5
  2. I know which organizations I can join to sustain my professional skills                        1  2  3  4  5
  3. I understand that some experts in the field are more skilled than others                        1  2  3  4  5
  4. My first motivation to be a professional in my field is to serve society                          1  2  3  4  5
  5. My ability to resolve ethical problems is highly refined and masterful                           1  2  3  4  5
  6. I always consciously focus on the dignity of people when I speak with them                 1  2  3  4  5
  7. It is the duty of professionals to consult with other experts on certain matters                1  2  3  4  5
  8. Professionals are obligated to treat those with little or no expertise respectfully             1  2  3  4  5
  9. The professional’s public duties are generated or caused by his or her salary                  1  2  3  4  5
  10.  Professionals always owe the public clear and honest communication                           1  2  3  4  5
  11. I believe experts owe the next generation their services as mentors                                 1  2  3  4  5
  12. The government has the right to hold professionals accountable to high standards          1  2  3  4  5
  13. All professions deserve the same amount of respect                                                          1  2  3  4  5
  14. I cut corners and lie about my work when I know it doesn’t matter                                  1  2  3   4  5          
  15. One’s peers are always the best ones to judge a professional’s work                                 1  2  3  4  5          


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American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. 92017). Standards and Statements.

American Nurses Association. (2017). Professional Standards.

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Chapel, W. B. (1998, December). Advising graduate students for successful international internships. Business Communication Quarterly, 61(4), 92–103.

Chegg. (2013). Bridging that gap: Analyzing the Student Skill Index.

Doyle, A. (2016). Top skills employers seek in college grads. National Association of Colleges and Employers.

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Hart Research Associates. (2015). Falling short? College learning and career success. Washington, D.C.: Hart Research Associates.

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Stedman, N. P., Rutherford, T. A., & Roberts, T. G. (2006). The role of critiqued reflection in improving the perceived leadership competencies of undergraduates during a ten week professional internship. Paper presented at the 2006 AAAE National Conference, Charlotte, NC. Retrieved from

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