Veterinary teaching institutions have a duty to ensure training is relevant, timely and meets the changing needs of society. It is expected that veterinary students will emerge from training with the attitudes and behaviours commensurate with their role as professionals and with a variety of generic life skills to enable them to successfully engage with their careers. Professional attributes are not only linked to perceptions of ‘veterinary success’ but are intrinsic to the expectations of clients, employers, educators and programme accrediting bodies alike. As professionalism is a complex and developmental phenomenon, its elements should be taught and measured across the programme using a variety of learning strategies and assessment items. At this stage, the great majority of information applicable to teaching, learning and assessment of professionalism in veterinary students is derived from the medical literature. In this relatively young and rapidly evolving field for veterinary education, many unanswered questions remain.
The overarching aim of this thesis is to generate data to inform an approach to the professional studies curriculum that supports the development of professional attributes in senior veterinary students at the University of Queensland. This thesis describes a series of five studies designed to collect and analyse feedback from students and employers of new graduate veterinarians, for the purpose of improving the learning outcomes from the professional studies curriculum. Using a variety of survey instruments and both quantitative and qualitative analyses, this research: (1) compared student and employer views regarding the essential personal, interpersonal and professional qualities for new veterinary graduates to possess; (2) evaluated student perceptions of the relevance and importance of content delivered within a professional and life skills lecture series; (3) evaluated the impact of a new experiential communication workshop designed to enhance student consultation skills and inspire them to improve these skills prior to graduation; (4) evaluated the impact of clinical practice-based learning on student perceptions of day one skills, knowledge and attitudes (the building blocks of professional competence) and (5) explored the qualities of veterinary roles models as described by senior veterinary students.
Study 1 revealed that senior veterinary students and employers largely agreed on the personal and professional attributes that are desirable in new graduate veterinarians. Communication skills, teamwork, respect for co-workers, honesty and an awareness of personal limitations were valued highly by both groups. Study 2 revealed that senior veterinary students, irrespective of age, gender and intended field of practice, valued the content of a professional studies lecture series that covered the professional roles and responsibilities of veterinarians and a variety of non-technical skills useful for practice. In study 3, the introduction of a new experiential communication workshop underpinned by adult learning principles was well received by the students. The workshop was acknowledged to be a valuable and enjoyable learning experience that improved student’s confidence in their consultation skills and helped them to prepare for imminent transition to professional practice. Following the workshop students were inspired to further develop their own skills, and feedback received from students and graduates provided evidence that some had adopted elementary reflective practices within the context of veterinary-client communication. In study 4, exposure to clinical practice-based training was linked to significant improvement of senior veterinary students’ perceptions of competence in clinical and professional day one abilities. In addition, a self-assessment checklist assisted the majority of students to guide their learning over this period. A key finding from this study was that high perceptions of mastery across individual ability items did not necessarily translate to similar levels of overall satisfaction with knowledge and skills, or preparedness for practice. Professional competence encapsulates the relationship between the clinician’s ability, a task or process, and the clinical context in which this occurs. With this notion in mind, it is possible that a set of isolated abilities only crudely represent the fluid reality of professional practice, and inadequately define student’s perception of their own professional competence and preparedness for starting work. And finally, in study 5, student’s descriptions of their clinical role models were sought. Role models strongly influence the professionalisation of physicians. Based on this study, role models for senior veterinary students not only possessed exemplary knowledge and skills but were good communicators and teachers. They were well respected and, in turn, demonstrated respect for clients, colleagues, staff and students alike. Understanding the qualities that students seek in their clinical role models may assist institutions to identify clinicians who could be particularly influential in terms of student learning. In addition, this information may assist with staff selection, training and development.
Results from this research may assist others working within this discipline and may serve as stimulus for further research in this important area. Continued faculty development, support, and research into the most effective ways to deliver and assess professional studies content within the veterinary curriculum is warranted.