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by John Wilcox

Why This Guide?

What will I learn tomorrow? Let me put it another way. I hope that tomorrow will be interesting, and will challenge me as a professional. I don't want to have to do the same old tasks that I have spent the last ten years repeating, honing my skills in narrow areas to perfection. I want new experiences, so that I can continue to grow as a professional.

Furthermore, by continuing to learn, I can re-awaken part of myself and reconnect with the world that my students inhabit. I can rediscover the frustrations of not being able to understand fundamental concepts or master essential skills, and I can again experience the joy of success and the fear of failure. I can remind myself of the value of the great teacher and of great teaching. I can experience first hand the hurdles we place in front of those who wish so much to learn.

In any case, learning is good for the soul. It leads to regeneration and growth, without which our intellects will wither. It leads to a questioning approach and to reflection on experiences from which both we, and our students, benefit - and if that questioning and reflection take place in view of the students, then it will also influence their own approach.

Of course, there are many other reasons for signing up to continuing professional development, and we will look at these in more detail below.


This guide has two principal objectives. The first is to highlight the skills required for successful, lifelong professional development. These skills, like many others in life, can only be acquired by coaching and by practise. The second objective, therefore, is to suggest strategies and methodologies that can assist in the acquisition of professional development skills.


For many people in further and higher education, professional development is synonymous with short courses or with post-graduate qualifications. However, professional development is more than training or continuing education - increasingly it is recognised that learning also occurs in the work-place, as an integral part of working. Work-based learning focuses on solving real-world problems. The time and effort invested in the learning are immediately rewarded through completing the task in hand and the usefulness of such learning, together with the short-term nature of the rewards, improves the motivation to learn.

Professional development therefore covers a wide range of learning situations:

  • Private study and reading
  • Attending conferences and seminars
  • Preparing papers and presentations
  • Committee work
  • Collaborative work with colleagues
  • Conversation and discussions with others
  • Courses and distance learning
  • Researching the solution to problems
  • Working with others outside the organisation

To these we might add the learning and development that take place when we are transferred to new situations, or when we take on new responsibilities within our existing job functions. Professional development also includes the full range of intellectual discipline, from conceptual understanding to the practical application of knowledge.

The informal and ad-hoc nature of much professional development poses problems for us as educationalists. How do we evaluate and assess it? How can we recognise and reward it?

Delivering professional development on demand to practising materials technologists using a variety of learning modes will require new approaches to teaching and learning, and should make use of modern information technologies, adapted and adopted for teaching and learning.

However, such matters lie outside the scope of this guide.


We will start by reviewing the importance of both continuing professional development and the skills that enable it to take place. We will then define the terms 'professional development' and 'professional development skills'. Finally, we will consider methods to identify and deliver relevant lifelong learning. These methods also provide the training regime through which we can become skilled at professional development.

Why are Professional Development Skills Important?

Professional development is not a new concept, but it is becoming increasingly important. The continuing pace of change in materials science and engineering means that what we learned in our initial training courses soon becomes dated and irrelevant. It has been estimated that the half-life of technical knowledge is about seven years. Furthermore, the amount of knowledge - and the amount of information - continues to increase. Materials science and engineering has become knowledge intensive: we have entered the knowledge-based economy.

In this new world, it is impossible for us to know all that there is to know, yet access to the knowledge base is increasingly readily available. So what will make us good materials technologists, rather than poor ones, is that our knowledge is more relevant, and more current, and is applied more efficiently and effectively.

The work-place has also changed, with the result that materials scientists and engineers are expected to have a wider range of skills (see table 1). We increasingly work in teams on projects and much of what we do is virtual rather than tangible. As one project ends, another begins, and so we move from project to project, from team to team, and from one work-place to another. Indeed, for many, the increasingly itinerant nature of work leads us into several different careers during our working lives.

These are strong, compelling reasons for professional development skills, but there are many more!

  • A better informed and more sophisticated public is demanding a higher duty of care and level of service from professionals.
  • Linked to this is the increasing risk of claims for negligence from professionals deemed to have 'failed' in their duty or given poor advice.
  • Within organisations, modern quality management systems demand that qualified people are in place to make decisions.
Table 1a
Combine general and specialist engineering knowledge and understanding to optimise the application of existing and emerging technology.
Apply appropriate theoretical and practical methods to the analysis and solution of engineering problems.
Provide technical, commercial and managerial leadership.
Communicate effectively and possess good interpersonal skills.
Apply appropriate codes of professional conduct, recognising obligations to society, the profession and the environment.
Source: UK Engineering Council

Table 1b
Transform existing systems into conceptual models.
Transform conceptual models into determinable models.
Use determinable models to obtain system specifications in terms of parametric values.
Select optimum specifications and create physical models.
Apply the results from physical models to create real target systems.
Critically review real target systems and personal performance.
Source: UK Engineering Professors Council

Table 1c
Apply knowledge of mathematics, science and engineering.
Use the technical skills and engineering tools necessary for modern engineering practice.
Design and conduct experiments, and analyse and interpret data.
Design a system, component or process to meet sopecified needs.
Function in multidiciplinary teams.
Formulate and solve engineering problems.
Interpret and employ guidelines on professional and ethical responsibility.
Communicate effectively.
Apply knowledge of contemporary and cultural issues.
Appreciate the impact of engineering solutions in the global and social context.
Work in teams or in collaboration with others.
Information technology and management skills.
US Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology

Table 1: The skills required by professional engineers

If we do not respond to this challenge, we face the prospect of becoming irrelevant. If, as professionals, we assume that our old time-served competences will last a lifetime, we will find ourselves becoming candidates for redundancy. The organisations we work for equally run the risk of failing to provide the new products and services that the market requires, resulting in decline.

And so we need to learn continually as we work. This requires a skill set all of its own, a skill set we need to learn for ourselves as teachers and mentors, and a skill set we need to instil into our students for their future benefit.

What is Professional Development?

Professional development is the process by which a person maintains the quality and relevance of professional services throughout his/her working life. It has been defined by the Institute for Continuing Professional Development as:

'The systematic maintenance, improvement and broadening of knowledge and the development of personal qualities necessary for the education of professional and technical duties throughout the practitioner's working life.'

It follows that we have an ethical responsibility as professional materials technologists to continue our professional development throughout our careers.

Professional development is not a product, devised by training providers and academic institutions. It is a mindset, a habit to acquire.

Professional development requires self-directed, independent learning. It also demands an active rather than passive approach to learning. It differs from other forms of learning because it requires us to decide that needs to be learned or un-learned, how to learn it, and how to test and assess our learning. These are issues that we will discuss below.

Effective Professional Development

'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cheshire Cat.
'I don't much care where,' said Alice.
'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.
'So long as I get somewhere,' Alice added as an explanation.
'Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, 'if you only walk long enough.'

Lewis Carroll (1865), p54

The European Society for Engineering Education (SEFI) has issued a discussion document (Padfield et al., 1998) with the intention of stimulating debate on professional education and lifelong learning for engineers. This document defines professional development skills as the ability of the learner, fluently and without external direction, to:

  • audit and assess what they already know and can do
  • work out, at a level of detail that will differ from individual to individual, a career and a learning development plan
  • integrate, into their learning, acknowledgement of their need for continuing personal development in the private as well as the professional realms
  • understand the qualities of different kinds of knowing, of understanding, and of skills and competences and understand how the different kinds of knowledge inter-relate and reinforce each other
  • reflect upon their knowledge, establishing links between different kinds of knowledge, and formulating relevant theoretical constructs to explain it
  • conduct research into elements of professional knowledge, practice and competence that lie within the context of their work, in pursuit of solutions to 'problems of the day', personal professional development, and (more generally) the development of their profession

The above is a list of 'performance criteria' by which we might assess our professional development skills. However, what is missing from the list is the route by which we might achieve these objectives. It is suggested that a five step approach is used:

STEP 1 - Profiling Ourselves

This is the starting point for our individual professional development plan and should contain the ingredients from the table below:

The personal profile - based upon the Macmillan open learning course for Nursing

Working Life List strengths and successes
Identify expertise that has not been exploited
Skills inventory Rate skills and competences on a scale of 1-5
Identify skills needing further development
Values, attitudes and beliefs Review the opinion of others
Evaluate your own views and opinions
Learning skills Identify types of learning preferred

Developing our personal profile will make use of the reflective practices discussed in step 5.

STEP 2 - Define the Strategy

Our professional development needs to be correctly focused for maximum impact so that it meets both our individual development needs and those of the organisation for which we work (see Table 2 below). If our employer has in place an annual staff review and appraisal process, then our individual aspirations and the organisational goals may have been reviewed, and a training and development plan agreed for the foreseeable future. Otherwise, we should discuss our professional development needs with our manager and our training or human resources department.

Fragmented approach to CPD
Focussed approach to CPD
Not linked to organisational goals
Linked to both organisational and individual needs
Seen as a cost not an investment
Viewed as an investment in human resource management
Focussed on training (discontinuous) not development (continuous)
Focussed on on-the-job development and skills development in addition to knowledge-based training
Evaluated with both pre- and post- course assessment
Menu driven, like ordering from a mail catalogue
About 'learning' as opposed to 'training'
About directive training and knowledge acquisition
Transferred to action and change in the workplace
Viewed as unimportant, with course attendance frequently cancelled due to pressure of work or lack of commitment
Flexible in application including open, distance and self-development
Not transferred, with learning rarely being implemented at the workplace
Viewed as a reward for good performance

Table 2: The differences between a Fragmented approach to CPD and a Focussed approach - based upon Willie (1991)

STEP 3 - Develop an Action Plan

Putting the strategy into action can be the biggest challenge. An action plan can help. An effective action plan has four key ingredients:

  • A clear statement of the goal to be achieved
  • The actions required to achieve the goal
  • The target timescale for achieving the goal
  • Criteria to assess when we have reached our goal

In order to deliver the action plan, we will have to seek out opportunities for learning and skills development, ideally in partnership with our employer. And since professional development benefits both the employee and the employer, we might find that our employer asks us to make a contribution to our own professional development, by committing some of our own time and perhaps by sharing the costs.

Having established our action plan, we next need to decide how we are to go about the learning process.

STEP 4 - Learning Styles

Research commissioned by the British Audio Visual Society in 1988 suggests that we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 80% of what we say and 90% of what we say and do at the same time. For this reason, Fisher (2000) recommends that we integrate learning and working, so that we learn within the context of our work using real-world problems. Then the time and effort we invest in professional development is rewarded by immediately assisting us to complete the task in hand. Fisher believes the immediate usefulness of the learning greatly improves our motivation to learn.

Whilst this may be generally true for groups of people, as individuals, we each have our own preferred learning styles.

There are many ways to categorize learning styles, but the simplest places learners into one or more of three categories:

  • Visual - those who learn best through their eyes and what they see and read. The ideal learning approaches in this case will involve studying magazines and books and learning online.
  • Auditory - those who learn best by hearing things, either on tape or in discussion. Dialogue and discussion is important to their learning process. The ideal learning environment is the classroom, but discussions with colleagues and audio tapes can also be useful.
  • Kinesthetic/Tactile - those who learn best by 'doing', such as taking their own notes or participating in demonstrations and hands-on projects. Ideal structure: magazine and online learning; classroom that encourages participation.

It is important to analyse the way we learn best before devising the learning strategy/action plan to achieve our goals. Like me, you might find the way that you learn changes as your grow older. I now find myself drawing upon my past professional experience to build new knowledge and understanding, whereas before I could assimilate facts almost effortlessly.

STEP 5 - Evaluation and Reflection

'One day when Pooh Bear had nothing else to do, he thought he would do something, so he went round to Piglet's house to see what Piglet was doing .... (To) his surprise he found that the door was open, and the more he looked inside, the more Piglet wasn't there.'
A A Milne (1928), p163

As we have seen, good professional development relies strongly on self-analysis and appraisal to develop our personal profile and to analyse our preferred learning styles. This is not necessarily easy for a number of reasons. First, it can be hard to understand ourselves and 'see ourselves as others see us.' Second, reflecting on skills and competences is not something that engineers are necessarily trained to do. Third, as the pace of life continues to increase, it is not easy to find time for self-analysis and reflection.

Mentoring is one way of overcoming these problems. A mentor is someone who can advise and guide you in your career. He or she has a number of roles - as an appraiser, a supporter, a communicator and a motivator. The relationship therefore is different from that between a superior and his/her subordinate, and it is unlikely that a manager can carry out these functions. A good mentor has coaching skills, is trustworthy, respected and is free from major distractions either within or outside the workplace. Choose one with care!

Without a mentor, reflection is also not always a productive experience. It can be a bit like looking for Piglet - we can spend time thinking without arriving at a conclusion. It helps, of course, if we have a structure to our thinking. The key questions are:

  • What is happening/has happened?
  • What brought this about?
  • What went well and what did not go well?
  • How can the situation be improved?
  • What might we learn from the situation that might influence future action?

It is recommended that we carry out this reflective evaluation both during and at the end of any task or learning we might undertake. One way of encouraging reflective practise in our professional life is to keep a reflective diary or log.

Many of us keep diaries that list our business or social appointments. Some of us also keep 'to do' lists. A reflective log is like a personal diary or record in which we note not just what we have done or accomplished, and what we have learned but also reflect on our feelings. What did we find difficult? What should we do to resolve the situation?

Often, a particular incident requires us to take a look at ourselves and our performance. Such critical incident analysis should be reported in the log or diary. As engineers, we make good use of major disasters and failures in our teaching and learning. However, when it comes to personal reflection, we should take care to include successes as well as difficulties so that we keep a balanced record of our achievement.

As well as providing a focus for us to reflect on professional experiences, the reflective diary also has a role in helping us to evaluate our learning. Some useful questions are: 'Was the learning task appropriate to our needs? Was it efficient, achieving the desired outcome with the appropriate effort? Was it economic?'

Reviewing our reflective diary can also provide useful information. By looking back on our experiences, we can reassess our goals. What have we accomplished? What should the next steps be? This leads us naturally back to revisit and update our professional profile and our action plan.
And so the process continues....

Professional institutions are struggling to find ways of evaluating professional development. There is still a tendency to measure the inputs (number of hours) rather than the outputs (increased competence). The establishment of competence statements in the 3rd edition of Standards and Route to Registration as a professional engineer (SARTOR 3) by the UK Engineering Council provides a useful structure. The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining has adapted and developed these competences within the discipline of materials engineering and has specified over 100 areas in which Materials Technologists should demonstrate competence. However, whilst these are useful standards, we should remember that professional development is not a product or an outcome - it is a process.


Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology Inc (

Davis, M (1993), A Student's Guide to Open Learning, Macmillan Magazines Ltd.

Engineering Council UK (

Engineering Professors Council (

European Society for Engineering Education (

Fisher, G (2000) 'Lifelong learning - more than training,' Journal of Interactive Learning Research, Fall 2000, p265

Guest, G (2000) Lifelong Learning for the Global Networked Society, presented at Technological Education and National Development: Crossroads of the New Millennium, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 8-10 April 2000

Institute for Continuing Professional development (

Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (

Kennie, T Continuing Professional Development: The growing importance of CPD, Institute for Continuing Professional Development (

Padfield, C et al. (1998) Lifelong Learning in Engineering Education: A Call to Action. SEFI Document No. 20. Brussels: European Society for Engineering Education.