INTRODUCTION: Are your students arriving late to class? Texting under their desks? Using inappropriate language? Unable to disconnect from social networking long enough to do their homework?

You are not alone. Across the country, instructors are noticing the same phenomenon. “It’s just not like it used to be,” a colleague of mine lamented. “How am I supposed to teach these students?”

As a community college educator with 20 years’ experience in developmental education, I propose that we, educators and students, ask some different questions. What would happen, for example, if students behaved the way they do at their paying jobs when they took their seats in our classrooms?  What changes might occur if we were to promote the notion of professionalism in the college classroom?

I have used each of the activities described in this article over the course of several semesters – always with positive results. Although I teach pre-collegiate reading and writing, these ideas can be adapted for use in many learning situations: First Year Experience courses, reading and writing courses, college success courses, or other situations in which instructors would like to positively influence student behavior. I have found that by focusing on encouraging professionalism (a positive) rather than discouraging annoying behaviors (a negative), I have been able to help students shift their behaviors in a positive direction. 

This activity is divided into several parts, some of which take portions of one class period, and the most comprehensive of which is revisited for short periods of time throughout an entire term.  Instructors may adapt all or part of the activity as appropriate. During the course of a term, students will:

  • Define Student Professionalism (first week)
  • Track and Assess Student Professionalism (semester-long process)
  • Reflect on Student Professionalism (end-of-term writing assignment)

PURPOSE: To promote students’ adoption of professional attitudes and behaviors in the academic classroom


Four Assignment Sheets (appended in Support Materials below)

  1. Defining Student Professionalism
  2. What Work Requires of Schools
  3. Tracking Student Professionalism
  4. Reflecting on Student Professionalism


1. Defining Student Professionalism

A. [First day of class: Explain to students how important it is that this class be the highest quality, most meaningful and useful learning experience possible. Explain that the college learning environment is actually a professional environment, similar in many ways to a professional work environment. Ask students to consider the idea that they are actually professionals. The word “professional” has a positive connotation to which students respond favorably. Give homework, “Defining Student Professionalism,” which asks students to research and respond to five questions about professional attitudes and behaviors. Homework is due on the second day of class.] [5-10 minutes]

B. [Second day of class: Students form small groups (3-5 participants) to discuss answers to homework questions assigned on the first day.  Students introduce themselves in their groups and spend a few minutes getting acquainted before discussing responses to the five questions about professionalism and looking for similarities and differences in their answers. Student representatives from each group report their groups’ response to one or more questions to the entire class. Collect homework.] [15-30 minutes]

2. Tracking Student Professionalism

A. [Second day of class (continued): Explain to students that many professional organizations have defined attributes of good employees.  Distribute the “What Work Requires of Schools” handout.  In order to familiarize students with the employability skills desired by employers, ask volunteers to read short paragraphs.  Students will discover that, according to a blue ribbon panel of employers convened by the US Secretary of Labor, employers are looking for workers who possess basic skills and workplace competencies.  (Canadian educators will find on the Internet a similar document called the Employability Skills Profile.) Ask students whether it makes sense that the same skills and competencies that make successful employees also make successful college students. Invite student comments.] [5 minutes]

B. [Distribute the “Tracking Student Professionalism” worksheet and ask students to individually define up to five professional attitudes and five professional behaviors to work on during the course of the semester. Suggest attitudes and behaviors that you feel are important (curiosity, for example) but encourage students to choose behaviors and attitudes that they know to be personally challenging.  For example, if a student knows that she is habitually late to class, suggest that she write “Arrive on time to class every day” under Behaviors. If a student claims to hate writing, suggest that he write “Enjoy writing” under Attitudes.] [10-15 minutes]

C. [Weekly thereafter: Ask students to rate their professional behaviors and attitudes: plus (excellent), check (acceptable) or minus (unprofessional). Explain that there will be time in class each week for students to assess themselves and that it is important that they keep track of the assessment sheet since collected data will be used to write a reflection paper at the end of the term.  After students have assessed their attitudes and behaviors each week, ask for volunteers to share results. As the weeks go by, encourage students to share briefly about areas in which they are doing well or in which they are experiencing challenges. If appropriate, ask for suggestions from other students.] [5-10 minutes each week]

3. Reflecting on Student Professionalism

A. [End-of-term writing assignment: Ask students to use their collected data to analyze and reflect upon their professional attitudes and behaviors over the course of the semester. Students will use their “Tracking Student Professionalism” worksheet as a starting point and evaluate the assessments they made each week. Suggest to students that they look for trends or patterns. Assign students to write one-page (or longer) paper about what they have learned (see handout).]


I have used these activities with hundreds of students, and students have, without exception, reacted positively to my expectation that they think and behave as thoughtful, responsible, and professional adults.  Of course, I always explain to students that they may come to my office hours if they would like to discuss any aspect of an assignment further, but no students have questioned these activities. Students enjoy getting together in small groups on the second day of class; they immediately get to know a few other students, and talking about professional attitudes and behaviors sets a positive tone for the term.  From the beginning, we agree that our learning environment will have a professional tone, and we move forward in a collegial and collaborative manner.

Students choose an array of behaviors and attitudes to monitor, for example, being prepared, building confidence, attending every class, waking up on time, staying in a good mood, and being responsible.  Less common, but typical, are asking for help and being honest.  As the weeks go by, students become more comfortable with one another, discussions open up, and the conversation includes talk about self-awareness, motivation, and emotional intelligence.  Usually after about four to six weeks, students feel comfortable making suggestions about, for example, overcoming procrastination. In a recent semester, a student who had habitually been seven or eight minutes late to class began setting his alarm 15 minutes earlier and arrived on time–-or early-–thereafter.  Another student volunteered that she was working on being more respectful–not just in the college environment but at home, as well. “My relationships,” she reported, “are going better.”

Toward the middle of the term, students often fall into a bit of a slump. It’s difficult for them to follow through on obligations, and they miss class, don’t do their homework, and slip up on professional attitudes and behaviors.  When I spot a cell phone out on a desk, I ask, “Do I see your phone next to your book?” The phone disappears. If students cannot resist talking with their neighbors, I remind them that professional behavior requires that we listen respectfully when others are speaking.  They stop talking. On the rare occasion that a student disappears for more than a week without contacting me, I am not hesitant to ask whether such behavior is professional. From the beginning, it has been clear that professional attitudes and behaviors are part of our way of doing business.


My goal in developing the activities described here was to create a positive, professional learning environment from the beginning in my reading and writing classes. Integrating student professionalism activities heightened the positive atmosphere in my classroom. Students have gained self-awareness and self-management skills that have translated into better attendance and increased classroom participation. In two writing classes that were part of learning communities, these activities also seemed to be correlated with high quality written work.

Students reported appreciating having had the experience to look honestly at their attitudes and behaviors, as evidenced in these quotes from students’ “Reflecting on Student Professionalism” papers.

“When I started this semester I was one of the shortest tempered people around.  I was the guy who blew up at the drop of a hat.  I realized a long time ago that I had a bad temper, but that didn’t change me.  At the beginning of this semester, though, I was forced to put my attitudes and behaviors on paper and show myself the truth.  Over the past weeks, I have realized that when you’re forced to look at your attitudes on paper, it allows you to change. The best feeling is when you look at your scores eight weeks into the semester and you see all of your minuses turning into pluses.”

“At the beginning of the semester, I was negative towards myself, and it didn’t really seem like I would make it through the entire semester without any real issues. One of the changes I’ve made, or at least attempted to make, was to be more talkative with my classmates.  I tried to participate more often and make myself heard. The best thing I was able to change was how I changed the negative attitudes toward myself and turn them positive.”

 “I believe that this tracking professionalism chart was a great idea. Managing my time became a big problem for me.  I would always try to do something not important before I did something important.  One day I walked in about 10 minutes late because I didn’t give myself enough time to make sure that I had all my homework with me.  I fixed this problem by making sure that I have everything that I need in my backpack before I go to bed. Now that this class is over, I will carry on my attitudes checklist in my head.  I am a true believer in this checklist because it helped me stay on track.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that, for many students, a focus on professionalism has had a positive impact on academic persistence.


I have used this strategy in reading and writing classes over the course of three semesters, and I will continue to use it because students’ improvement in attitudes and behaviors has had a positive effect on their academic and social success.  From the first day of class through the end of the course, students have perceived themselves as “professionals,” and they, for the most part, have behaved accordingly.  Most students who enroll in developmental reading and writing classes have not thought about or examined personal attitudes and behaviors. Therefore, this activity was a new and sometimes eye-opening, challenging experience.


Credit goes to Merrill Deming from Crafton Hills College in California for introducing me to the concept of Student Professionalism at a Basic Skills Bootcamp sponsored by Chaffey College in 2009. The Tracking Student Professionalism form was adapted from On Course by Skip Downing.


  1. Defining Student Professionalism
  2. What Work Requires of Schools
  3. Tracking Student Professionalism
  4. Reflecting on Student Professionalism



Think about and answer the following questions about the ways you think and behave as a student. Bring this paper with your written answers to class at the next class meeting. [Leave room on the page for students’ written answers.]

1. What does professionalism mean to you? Look up the definition of professionalism and write it here.

2. What behaviors and attitudes are common to students or workers who behave professionally?

3. How might adopting professional behaviors and attitudes help you be a successful college student?

4. Which professional behaviors and attitudes will you adopt this semester in this class?

5. How will your classmates and the instructors know that you are demonstrating professional behavior?


The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) was appointed by the Secretary of Labor to determine the skills our young people need to succeed in the world of work. The Commission’s fundamental purpose is to encourage a high-performance economy characterized by high-skill, high-wage employment.

This document outlines both these “fundamental skills” and “workplace competencies” and is retrievable from .


Basic Skills: Reads, writes, performs arithmetic and mathematical operations, listens and speaks

  • A. Reading–locates, understands, and interprets written information in prose and in documents such as manuals, graphs, and schedules
  • B. Writing–communicates thoughts, ideas, information, and messages in writing; and creates documents such as letters, directions, manuals, reports, graphs, and flow charts
  • C. Arithmetic/Mathematics–performs basic computations and approaches practical problems by choosing appropriately from a variety of mathematical techniques
  • D. Listening–receives, attends to, interprets, and responds to verbal messages and other cues
  • E. Speaking–organizes ideas and communicates orally

Thinking Skills: Thinks creatively, makes decisions, solves problems, visualizes, knows how to learn, and reasons

  • A. Creative Thinking–generates new ideas
  • B. Decision Making–specifies goals and constraints, generates alternatives, considers risks, and evaluates and chooses best alternative
  • C. Problem Solving–recognizes problems and devises and implements plan of action
  • D. Seeing Things in the Mind’s Eye–organizes, and processes symbols, pictures, graphs, objects, and other information
  • E. Knowing How to Learn–uses efficient learning techniques to acquire and apply new knowledge and skills
  • F. Reasoning–discovers a rule or principle underlying the relationship between two or objects and applies it when solving a problem

Personal Qualities: Displays responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, self-management, and integrity and honesty

  • A. Responsibility–exerts a high level of effort and perseveres towards goal attainment
  • B. Self-Esteem–believes in own self-worth and maintains a positive view of self
  • C. Sociability–demonstrates understanding, friendliness, adaptability, empathy, and
  • D. Self-Management–assesses self accurately, sets personal goals, monitors progress, and exhibits self-control
  • E. Integrity/Honesty–chooses ethical courses of action

Five Workplace Competencies


  • A. Time–Selects goal-relevant activities, ranks them, allocates time, and prepares and follows schedules
  • B. Money–Uses or prepares budgets, makes forecasts, keeps records, and makes adjustments to meet objectives
  • C. Material and Facilities–Acquires, stores, allocates, and uses materials or space efficiently
  • D. Human Resources–Assesses skills and distributes work accordingly, evaluates performance and provides feedback

Interpersonal: Works with others

  • A. Participates as Member of a Team–contributes to group effort
  • B. Teaches Others New Skills
  • C. Serves Clients/Customers–works to satisfy customers’ expectations
  • D. Exercises Leadership–communicates ideas to justify position, persuades and convinces others, responsibly challenges existing procedures and policies
  • E. Negotiates–works toward agreements involving exchange of resources, resolves divergent interests
  • F. Works with Diversity–works well with men and women from diverse backgrounds

Information: Acquires and uses information

  • A. Acquires and Evaluates Information
  • B. Organizes and Maintains Information
  • C. Interprets and Communicates Information
  • D. Uses Computers to Process Information

Systems: Understands complex inter-relationships

  • A. Understands Systems–knows how social, organizational, and technological systems work and operates effectively with them
  • B. Monitors and Corrects Performance–distinguishes trends, predicts impacts on systems operations, diagnoses deviations in systems’ performance and corrects malfunctions
  • C. Improves or Designs Systems–suggests modifications to existing systems and develops new or alternative systems to improve performance

Technology: Works with a variety of technologies

  • A. Selects Technology–chooses procedures, tools or equipment including computers and related technologies
  • B. Applies Technology to Task–Understands overall intent and proper procedures for setup and operation of equipment
  • C. Maintains and Troubleshoots Equipment–Prevents, identifies, or solves problems with equipment, including computers and other technologies




Honestly assess your behaviors and attitudes that relate to being a college student each week during the semester.   Keep this sheet in a place where you will always be able to find it. Use the following assessment system to track your progress:

Excellent:           +




Behaviors 8/26 9/2 9/9 9/16 9/23 9/30 10/7 10/14 10/21 10/28 11/4 11/11 11/18 11/25 12/2 12/9



Attitudes 8/26 9/2 9/9 9/16 9/23 9/30 10/7 10/14 10/21 10/28 11/4 11/11 11/18 11/25 12/2 12/9



One of the required documents in your final portfolio will be a typed analysis of the Professional Attitudes & Behaviors you assessed during the term.

Please analyze and reflect upon the 16 weeks of data you collected about your professional attitudes and behaviors this semester.  Look carefully at the assessments you made of yourself with relationship to the professional attitudes and behaviors you identified as being important to you. 

Consider the following questions:

  • Why did you choose to assess the attitudes and behaviors you listed on your assessment sheet?
  • What have you learned about yourself by honestly assessing professional attitudes and behaviors each week?
  • What trends or patterns do you notice?
  • Where were your greatest challenges?  How did you overcome these challenges?
  • Has assessing your attitudes and behaviors been helpful to you or benefited you in any way?
  • What positive changes have you made this semester?
  • Which good habits will you continue next semester?

 –Teresa Ward, Chair, Developmental Writing, Reading, and ESL, Butte College, CA

Forum Image OptionPromoting Student Professionalism Forum