Anna Reid

  • The Professional Entity: Researching the relationship between students' conceptions of learning and their future profession

    Anna Reid, Macquarie University, Sydney, Peter Petocz, University of Technology, Sydney

    Conceptual paper

    Themes addressed: Theories of learning and teaching, Supporting learners, Learning environments

    Research on learning often focuses on ways students learn in specific situations. Researchers investigate learning in specific topics, courses and institutions, and sometimes workplaces. The outcomes of such research have been used to set up learning environments such as problem-based learning that mimic professional settings. An assumption is that students will be better prepared for their future professions by studying in a simulated work environment. But what are students' attitudes to their future professions, and how can their expectations of professional work be used to enhance their institutional learning? This paper reports and extends a series of research studies that explore the relationship between students' understanding of learning within tertiary institutions and their perceptions and expectations of professional work.

    The initial idea evolved from research in music education (Reid, 1997), where a strong relationship was found between students' understanding of their learning and their perception of work as a musician. It was discovered that a limiting 'technical' view of the profession of music corresponded with a learning focus on development of atomistic musical skills. At the other extreme, an expansive 'personal' view of the musical profession allowed students to focus their learning on the meaningfulness of music. Importantly, it was also discovered that encouraging students to broaden their conception of music and the music profession gave them access to a broader range of approaches to learning (Reid, 2000).

    Investigations in a diverse variety of areas (Design, Statistics, Accounting, Law, Sustainability and Theology) revealed the same basic framework in these professionally oriented domains. The abstract notion of the 'Professional Entity' is a unifying way of thinking about students' understanding of professional work. It consists of three different levels: the narrowest is the Extrinsic Technical level, which describes a perception that professional work is constituted as a group of technical components that can be used when the work situation demands it; the Extrinsic Meaning level holds that professional work is about developing the meaning inherent in discipline objects; the broadest conception is the Intrinsic Meaning level, in which people perceive that their professional work is related to their own personal and professional being.

    The Professional Entity is an over-arching framework that relates students' understanding of their subject and their perceptions of work in their area: its identification enables an interdisciplinary approach to the learning and teaching that is a preparation for professional work. Further research is presently investigating how the framework may need modification for students studying in areas that are only one component of their future profession, for example, servicing statistics for business students, mathematics for future engineers, or sustainability for chiropractic students.

    The Professional Entity seems to be a unifying theory that can be used to develop appropriate curriculum for professional studies, make connections between work-integrated learning and work-based environments, and to help students find an important focus for their learning in an institution. It can also be used as a basis for reflection on and critique of the professional values being passed on to the next generation.


    Reid, A. (1997). The meaning of music and the understanding of teaching and learning in the instrumental lesson. In Gabrielsson, A. (ed.), Proceedings of the Third Triennial ESCOM Conference, Uppsala University, 3, 200-5.
    Reid, A. (2000). Self and peer assessment in a course on instrumental pedagogy. In Hunter, D. and Russ, M., Peer Learning in Music, 56-62. University of Ulster: Belfast.