Published on 2016/02/26
The EvoLLLution | Five Strategies to Deliver Quality Programs to Professional Students
Working adults have a different set of priorities when it comes to their postsecondary experience and universities need to be able to meet those expectations to serve them.

Professional students’ diversity of experience can lead to rich dialogues, unique perspectives, and unexpected collaboration in the classroom. The diverse nature of the adult student population can also lead to administrative challenges in delivering programs that satisfy and serve all professional participants. With over 4,900 professional students coming through Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies annually, our team follows five key strategies to deliver top-quality programs that create a conducive and supportive learning environment for professional students.

1. Align marketable skills with institutional values

To design competitive programs for professionals, institutions must do quantitative and qualitative market research to identify the skills most in demand in the marketplace. At the end of a program, a participant should be able to confidently apply a newly gained skill. If that skill is in demand the student is more likely to get a promotion, a new position, change careers, or tackle a new project. Alignment between what’s needed in the market and what participants are learning in the classroom is critical to student success.

It is also important to recognize internal strengths and institutional identity. As the nation’s oldest Jesuit university, at Georgetown our belief in cura personalis—care of the whole person—calls for us to offer individualized attention to the needs of each student, with appreciation for their unique circumstances and concerns. These values drive our programs for undergraduates as well as professional students. By keeping our portfolio of offerings relevant and timely we serve community needs while fulfilling the university’s mission. Creating an inviting and diverse educational community is central to The Spirit of Georgetown.

2. Focus on applied learning

Professional students are eager to learn skills that will be useful in the workplace. A certain amount of theory, history and introduction is necessary to build a foundational knowledge, but applying that information will make programs stand out for professional students. Programs for professionals should always be focused on the application of learning to real-life problems. Using case studies and simulations are great ways to provide examples and to give context. Learning assessments likewise should look like products that professionals would be expected to produce at work. Rarely are professionals asked to sit for a written exam at the office, so in order to make assessments more meaningful in the classroom students should instead be asked to prepare presentations, proposals, or other deliverables that would be recognized in the workplace. Completing industry-focused projects gives professional students templates and models to take with them back to the office. A cumulative experience such as a capstone project can also provide students with an opportunity to synthesize data, apply knowledge, think critically and support recommendations. At the end of each class, success can be measured by what students learned that could be applied to their professional work.

 3. Design instruction and curriculum based on competencies and skills

Implementing adult learning theories and best practices for professional learners, such as self-directed learning, transformational learning, and Knowles’ (1980) concept of andragogy (“the art and science of helping adults learn”), is essential to delivering quality programs for this student population. Additionally, designing with the end in mind is an approach that confirms students will master competencies and skills at the completion of their educational experience. This is possible by taking pieces of many successful models and creating the best experience for the specific group. When designing programs, institutions should also speak with hiring managers in the industry. Institutions should ask questions like, “If you are hiring someone, what do you want them to be able to do if they have this credential?” That’s your end goal. Then establish the curriculum, assessments and lesson plans so that participants are able to use those specific skills at the end of the program. This also confirms alignment with industry and market needs.

4.Meet students where they are …

… not where the institution is. It is critical to adapt programs, adjust curriculum, and develop new modalities that will be meaningful to the professional student population. Instructional design must be attentive to variations in student experience level, as entry-level professionals need to be challenged in different ways in their learning than senior executives. When designing courses, faculty must be agile to respond to the evolving needs of professional students and to facilitate a collaborative learning environment. Leaving time for student reflection is especially important to enable professional students to fully explore the practical application of their learning. Institutions also need to be proactive in identifying and communicating the necessary experience level and expected outcomes for each course or program. Additionally, with the growth of technology, institutions must explore new modalities that will fit student demands while maintaining the quality of the educational experience.

5. Give students flexibility to customize programs to individual needs

Professional students are intrinsically motivated, otherwise they would not be in our classrooms. Whether driven by a desire for professional growth, academic challenge, or simply a love of learning (or all three), our students are here because they want to be. Providing flexible options where possible can help both students and programs succeed. This includes flexibility both within program requirements, such as elective course choices, and within modalities, such as letting students seamlessly moves between online and on-ground courses. Within the classroom, professional students value the opportunity for self-determination. This could be choosing to work alone or in a team on an assignment, or enabling students to select the topic for a final assessment. Providing flexible options allows students to customize the educational experience to what is most valuable to their individual goals.

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