Assessing students' professionalism: considering professionalism's diverging definitions

Educ Health (Abingdon). 2011 Dec;24(3):599. Epub 2011 Dec 12.


Context: Although most health education programs assess students' professionalism, there is little clarity within the health education literature on the definition of professionalism. This makes assessment of students' professionalism a potentially flawed activity. This literature review clarifies professionalism by bringing together diverging definitions from across a number of health disciplines and discusses the complexities and limitations of these definitions.

Methods: A search was conducted within the medical and health science education literature to identify articles that discussed professionalism and its assessment. Theoretical, qualitative and empirical research were included in the review.

Findings: The literature defines professionalism as upholding professional values, as demonstrating professional attitudes or demonstrating professional behaviours. Each of these perspectives influences how professionalism is to be assessed, with each perspective having its own limitations. The behavioural perspective is simple to assess, but it has been criticised for being too superficial. The values perspective has the potential to develop professionals who are motivated by philanthropic values, but values can be difficult to identify and assess. Attitudes are complex in their structure, but they are less superficial than behaviours and can be assessed with attitudinal scales.

Conclusion: Health professions educators should ideally assess all three perspectives of professionalism, however, this may not be realistic given the already laden curricula and the demands on educators. Educators may decide to only assess one perspective and given its advantages, the attitudes perspective may be a useful starting point.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Education, Medical / methods*
  • Faculty, Medical*
  • Humans
  • Physicians / ethics
  • Professional Role*
  • Social Identification*
  • Students, Medical*