"“the way in which we [holistically] understand professional practice is central to how we perform that practice” (Dall'Alba, 2004, p. 680)

University curricula tend to focus on knowledge and skills to prepare students for the knowledge-based economy (Dall'Alba & Sandberg, 2006; Muller, 2015). However, one unintended consequence of this focus on knowledge and skills is that students may develop a disjointed understanding of a profession, wherein professional knowledge and skills are seen as separate from, rather than inherently embedded within, practices and values associated with a given profession – say the medical, engineering, or research profession (Badcock, Pattison, & Harris, 2010; Chan, Zhao, & Luk, 2017). Since professional development is ultimately about learning how to be a professional (a doctor, an engineer, a researcher, etc.), rather than merely the acquisition of knowledge and skills, you may wish to explore your students’ development of professional understanding (Adams, Daly, Mann, & Dall'Alba, 2011; Dall'Alba & Barnacle, 2007; Sutherland & Markauskaite, 2012).

Tool to evaluate professional understanding: open-ended questionnaire

Educational theorist and researcher, Gloria Dall’Alba, has developed a questionnaire for evaluating the development of a student’s understanding of a profession over time. This tool has been used with students of medicine (Dall'Alba, 1998; 2004), pharmacy (Burrows, Dall'Alba, & La Case, 2016) and dentistry (Tan, Anderson, & Foster Page, 2013), but it can also apply to other professional contexts. Indeed, similar approaches (although using different methods of data collection) have been applied to study development of professional understanding in engineering (Daly, Adams, & Bodner, 2012; Eliot & Turns, 2011).
The educational theory underpinning this questionnaire emphasises that there are multiple ways of understanding a profession, just as there are multiple ways of becoming and being a professional (Dall'Alba, 2009). The aim is not to assess your students against some objectively ‘right’ way to understand an area of professional practice, but to improve your understanding of the main ways in which students’ holistic understanding of a profession is developing over the course of their studies.

The questionnaire  consists of only two open-ended items (although demographic data about the respondent is also often collected) which the students are to respond to in writing:

  1. Give an example of a concrete situation which shows what you think is central to the work of a [medical doctor]. Please answer in as much detail as you can – there is no word limit.
  2. Give an example of a concrete situation in a [medical doctor’s] daily work that you think can be difficult to deal with. Please answer in as much detail as you can – there is no word limit.

Note that you are also likely to identify variation in student responses, and this should not be seen as a problem. By paying close attention to the rich data that this questionnaire can generate, you will be able to identify the diversity of developments in students’ understanding of a profession. For example, in one study (Dall'Alba, 2004), the majority of students initially expressed an understanding of the medical profession overwhelmingly in terms of applying knowledge to diagnose, inform and treat patients. However, over time, most students moved away from an understanding focused solely on applying knowledge, and came to understand the medical profession in a subtly but significantly different way, which emphasised that medicine is about a supportive and mutually respectful interaction in which medical professionals use knowledge cooperatively and collaboratively with patients in order agree on a treatment that works for the individual patient.


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