Professional Identity and First Year Student Learning
Does knowledge of the profession and the development of professional identity support student learning? There is much evidence favoring this claim in nurse education (Grealish, 2005), teacher education (Hooley, 2007; Carrington 2006) and in engineering education (Turns, 2008). The general conclusions drawn are that professional identity can provide ‘Intrinsic meaning’ or the creation of a strong personal connection to knowledge (Dahlgren, 2007). Identity may also serve to focus and make coherent academic subject knowledge in the mind of the student. However, as Young (2003) reminds us in the schooling sector exposure to work and work practices is not necessarily a magic bullet to enhance learning and student motivation. In general, these writers draw on situated learning and entry into communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) as their overarching theoretical framework.
This study in contrast focuses on professional identity development as a means of promoting student retention and success in the early stages of learning at first year level. Currently, the focus on increasing retention and success of disadvantaged university students in South Africa has been on epistemological access to the nature of the disciplines being studied (Boughey, 2007; Morrow, 1991). This works well for traditional universities where students focus predominantly on the development of subject knowledge but less well where the focus is on the professions. As Ron Barnett (2007) points out ontology (access to being an engineer, teacher etc.) may trump epistemology in terms of student learning and retention.
Initial interviews with first year students indicate that exposure to the field may increase their ‘passion’ to learn and enable them to ‘think like an engineer’, i.e. their sense of becoming. This paper explores further the relationship between professional identity and early learning in students, and proposes how we may design pedagogies which involve identity development.
Keywords: Communities of Practice, Identity, Learning
Dr. James Garraway
Academic Developer, Fundani Centre for Higher Education Development, Cape Peninsula University of Technology