Background and purpose: Few studies have examined the experiences of students' professional socialization in physiotherapy. This international longitudinal study aimed to study experiences of situated learning and change in a student cohort during a physiotherapy education programme.
Method: A phenomenographic design with semi-structured interviews was carried out with a cohort of physiotherapy students from two sites, strategically selected for variation in gender, age, educational background, work experience and academic level. Interviews were carried out after each of the first five semesters in the programme by a team of researchers. Seventy-six interviews explored students' learning experiences. Analysis identified the variation in experiences seen as important to becoming a physiotherapist.
Results: Distinct perceptions of professional growth and progression are identified in four pathways of development: 'Reflecting on Practice'; 'Communicating with Others'; 'Performing Skills'; and 'Searching Evidence'. These pathways demonstrate qualitative differences in the focus of learning experiences and preferred learning context, and include learning in a context which supports reflection, learning as agreed by others in a context with patients and other professionals, learning physiotherapy skills in a practice context and learning formal knowledge in a context where theory can be linked with practice.
Conclusions: In a cohort of students professional growth can be seen in a variety of development pathways. Each shows progress of professional growth in the 'what' as changes in experiences and the 'how' as ways of learning from them. In addition, the pattern of pathways in a cohort may change from one semester to another suggesting individuals may adopt different learning pathways throughout their education. Teaching staff are challenged to consider how they recognize a variation in development pathways in their student cohorts and how they purposefully ensure experiences to guide students through different learning pathways in socialization to become a physiotherapist.