Improving professionalism in first year computer science students: Teaching what can't be taught

Shelagh Keogh, Jill Bradnum, Emma Anderson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


Professionalism is a philosophy or a notional standard by which a person can be judged or can aspire to be perceived in their approach and behaviour in the context of professional practice. Far from being a tangible object, which one can see, hear or touch, it is a philosophically and socially constructed ideal. We argue that professionalism is essential in computing to protect the public as computing is ubiquitous and reaches into every sphere in society. Teaching professionalism is always a challenge. It is acknowledged that there is no agreed definition of what constitutes a professional in any profession, despite the concept being around for centuries.

As computers become more crucial to our existence it is vital that we ensure our computer science students have a deep understanding, but, more importantly, they adopt professional practice in their endeavours.

The foundation for this research project was conceived from concerns that although we teach students professionalism in the curriculum, this may not be sufficient to encourage adoption of professional practice, we argue that for students to be truly professional they have to drive their own learning outside as well as inside curriculum activity.

We cannot require our graduate students to be members of a professional body, but it is a requirement of a professional body such as the ACM or the BCS that we make visible the teaching and learning of professionalism in the curriculum. This objective is more easily achieved if we have distinct professionalism visible across a degree course.

As academics, more focus should be on the evidence that students are committed to professional practice rather than to passing assessments. This may require an attitude shift on the part of academics as well as students.

While we can teach skills and impart knowledge, only by adoption can a professional attitude be achieved. In an attempt to incorporate an early intervention for computer science students, this research examined a self-selecting group of first year computer science students who volunteered to drive their own professional development through a co-creation of activities inside and outside the curriculum.

This research aimed to establish student motivation, the availability and prioritisation of opportunities and the impact of outcomes. The research also sought to discover what attracted the students to this initiative and how they assessed any personal development when the project ended.

The findings from this preliminary research will be followed up with a further study into the development of a framework to establish a competency based approach to programme learning outcomes to support the teaching and learning of professionalism. Learning outcomes that will not be specifically linked to modules or individual subjects, but will be a requirement for students to demonstrate professional development at the end of each year of their programme of study. A similar approach is used by closed, statutory, professional bodies, such as doctors and nurses, where continuous professional development and practice has to be demonstrated for a member to retain membership and continue to practice.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the 3rd Conference on Computing Education Practice
Number of pages4
ISBN (Electronic)9781450366311
ISBN (Print)9781450366311
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jan 2019
EventComputing Education Practice 2019 - Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom
Duration: 9 Jan 2019 → …


ConferenceComputing Education Practice 2019
Abbreviated titleCEP 2019
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Period9/01/19 → …
Internet address


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