Stories of Innovation: The Rules of the Game: Creating a Culture of Professional Fluency

Kelli Hallsten Erickson., Director of the Tutoring and Learning Center, with support from Mike Seymour, Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs, Lake Superior College

The Rules of the Game: Creating a Culture of Professional Fluency

Part one: The Initiative

Imagine, if you will, a classroom full of students. Everyone shows up, and not just on time…five minutes early. The students have all their work done. One student approaches the instructor before class starts: “Excuse me, professor. I will be absent next Tuesday. I see we are going to be working on this particular aspect of Chapter 3. I also know that I cannot make up in class points, and I respect that. I wanted to make you aware of my unavoidable absence anyway.” During class, the students are engaged with the material, the instructor, and each other, sharing and listening and acknowledging other points of view while adding more to the conversation. As the end of the class period approaches, all students listen for directions for the upcoming class and, on the instructor’s words, “That’s it for today,” begin to pack up. Another successful class in the books.

Is this just a dream, or is it the product of work specifically designed around professionalism? The faculty at Lake Superior College (LSC) wanted to find out. In 2013, hallway conversations about the lack of professionalism from students turned into formal conversations about how some faculty, specifically in the health and science fields, address professionalism. In 2014, a team of faculty created professional demeanor language that faculty could choose to include in their syllabi.

Then came the Master Academic Plan (MAP).

Getting real about professionalism

In 2016, LSC entered into a new cycle for our Master Academic Planning. I was on the planning committee, and though some might complain about committee work, this was one of those magical committees where the right people are in the right room to create an atmosphere ripe with possibility. Based on all the previous conversations about professionalism, it was the perfect opportunity to make it a major campus-wide goal. The initiative ended up being called “Professional Fluency.” The lofty plan? Teach students professional skills that are ingrained when they move forward to transfer or into their careers.

At the time, our Director of Workforce and Community Development was our former Duluth city mayor, and he was interested in the concept of bringing community partners together to discuss the professionalism needs within Duluth and the surrounding communities. What emerged from that conversation was a cloud of information, telling us the aspects of professionalism they valued most:

Word cloud based on written responses from community employers about professionalism

Duluth is home to many legacy employers: businesses and organizations such as the hospitals and merchants like Maurices that consider traditional forms of professionalism to be paramount. Duluth is also a hub of growth, with new employers like Bent Paddle Brewery and Loll Designs, who might have some new ideas of what’s important for their employees and professionalism. At one organization, the armful of tattoos an employee sports wouldn’t bat an eye, but at the other, those tattoos would need to be covered up. Even a common aspect of professionalism, such as being on time, can be interpreted differently depending on the organization. Not only are we challenged to help our students be generally more professional, but we need to help them understand how to correctly interpret their specific employer’s expectations.

Understanding the need on campus

During Spring semester 2017, I set out to understand what faculty and staff at LSC wanted from the students regarding professionalism. I interviewed 20 faculty representing all divisions (Liberal Arts and Sciences, Nursing and Allied Health, and Business and Industry) and staff who work closely with students, such as the Director of our Tutoring and Learning Center. I asked what aspects of professionalism were most important for the students as well as how they specifically teach those aspects. I found out that most instructors teach by example; it was clear that we needed to learn how to teach professionalism explicitly.

At the same time that these interviews were taking place, I was meeting regularly with a small group of faculty and our Director of Accreditation, Research and Assessment to create a College-Wide Outcome (CWO) on professionalism as well as interpretations for that outcome. We figured that if we wanted to commit to turning out professionals, we’d better have a CWO reflecting it. After much discussion in our small committee and while moving through the AASC process (which included discussion at MSCF union meetings and Shared Governance), the following outcomes were approved:

Part of our College-Wide Outcomes poster featuring professionalism

As I was working on this, I started to realize that if we were going to make some concrete progress on our goal of enhancing professional behavior, we should focus in on those aspects needing the most work. Based on the community conversation, the faculty and staff interviews, and the almost overwhelming number of “hallway conversations,” the clear winners emerged:

  1. Communication (written and oral)
  2. Timeliness
  3. Respect
  4. Taking Personal Responsibility

Who would argue that these aren’t important aspects of professionalism? That’s right: no one. These aspects are also broad enough to encompass what we expect from students in our courses and what will be expected of them in all places of employment: traditional and “new age.” The concept of “considering the audience” umbrellas the entire venture.

Taking action: the pilot

Any new initiative worth its salt has a pilot project, and this one has two. The first occurred during Spring semester 2018, where faculty in five different courses elected to explicitly teach the four target areas of professionalism to their students. They used a rubric created by another committee Fall semester, indicating the definitions for “Proficient,” “Acceptable,” and “Needs Improvement” levels for the targeted areas. The committee members who developed the rubric also created a packet including a variety of tips for how an instructor might go about teaching these aspects.  The pilot project faculty members kept track of their efforts along the way in a teaching log and surveyed the students at midterm and finals.

The final survey of students gauged the general success of the teaching efforts, as well as the aspects of professionalism students, saw as most important for us to focus on moving forward. 115 students completed the survey, and a few themes emerged. Nearly 100 percent noted they are likely to carry over the professionalism lessons learned in class to future courses and work, but they felt that oral and written communication, showing up on time, and meeting deadlines are what they need to continue working on. We also asked students how they felt they best learned about these aspects of professionalism. Many suggested that instructors use case studies and other scenarios and include class lessons specifically about professionalism. Interestingly, several also thought faculty should have more stringent policies on tardiness and late work.

Moving forward

At this point, we have a strong sense of which aspects we need to focus on moving forward: Timeliness and Communication. Taking Personal Responsibility is arguably a close third, but it seems that this overarches all of the aspects, including Respect (which can be addressed via the other three). We plan on rolling this out campus-wide Fall semester, asking faculty to make a concerted effort to teach these aspects in their courses. Everyone will get the packet with the rubric and teaching tips, and we hope faculty will utilize strategies that work for their students. There should be no mystery here: we also want to tell students explicitly that we are teaching professional behaviors and are expecting them to demonstrate those behaviors.

Amy Jo Swing, the online professional development coordinator, and I are also running a second pilot based on online professionalism, similar to the one that took place in the spring and thanks to Shark Tank Track Two funding from the System Office. Do we also want staff who work with students to talk about professionalism? Absolutely. The goal is to make these ideas a part of our campus vernacular, ingraining it so it doesn’t need to be a special initiative—it’s simply what we do.

Will we be successful? Stay tuned for Part Two: Getting Buy-In, coming in January.

Do you have a story about a campus innovation you’ve been working on?  Consider submitting it for publication to “Stories of Innovation”!   Contact Stephen Kelly, Open Education and Innovation Program Coordinator, at for more information.

Leave a Reply

Up ↑