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Professional Behaviour as a Student Assistant

This article discusses the importance of professional behaviour as a student assistant, and provides useful examples to help in your career.

Why do we consider behaving professionally important? Please read the following story:

Imagine that you are a first-year student at university and you have to follow a course in History of European Integration. You find this a rather challenging subject so you are motivated to follow all tutorials in order to stay up to date with the course materials. You know in advance that you will rely on the teacher and you hope that this person will be able to guide you through the course. However, during the first tutorial, it becomes clear to you that the student assistant teaching the tutorials has a lack of knowledge and does not have great didactical skills. The student assistant strives only to be “one of the girls” and classroom management is unknown to her.

studio tdes. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr (

Why is professional behaviour important?

The story is an example of why we think it is very important to form an opinion about how a student assistant should behave. The start of your career as a student assistant entails a change in role. From this point on, you are not just a student anymore. You are now an employee of the university and that results in having a new set of responsibilities towards the organisation and your fellow students.

What is professional behaviour?

Let’s start with exploring some definitions of professionalism.

In the first definition, stated by Hall and Berardino (2006), professional behaviour; for a successful career in an academic setting is defined as:

honesty, ethical decision making, punctuality, professional appearance, participation in professional organizations and appropriate behaviour.
Solbrekke and Englund (2011) make a distinction between the concepts “responsibility” and “accountability” in their definition of professional behaviour in higher education.
  • Responsibility assumes a proactive attitude and an approach in which, for instance, a student assistant takes responsibility. For example; as a student assistant with teaching duties you can have a shared responsibility with the course coordinator about the syllabus of the course you are teaching. If the syllabus lacks essential information, you act responsibly if you are proactive in signalising this to the course coordinator.
  • Accountability assumes to be able to explain your actions, a reactive approach. For example; when you are teaching a small group teaching session and you rearrange the chairs in a U-shape so the students can face each other you have to leave the room in the original state for the next teacher when you finish the session. Another example to illustrate the differences between the concepts: as a student assistant with teaching duties you are not accountable for the grades of your students. However, ideally you should feel responsible for facilitating the students in such a way that they are able to obtain good grades. You are accountable for an organised structure of your lectures and that you provide, for instance, formative feedback to the students.
Student assistants behaving professionally
So, what exactly do these definitions mean for student assistants? And where do you think the boundaries lie between professional and unprofessional behaviour? Or is there perhaps some sort of ‘grey’ area?
To illustrate this further, take a look at the picture below Juan took with his students. Do you think Juan is behaving professionally in this picture?
Student assistant Juan and his students Student assistant Juan and his students
We do think Juan is behaving professionally (in this picture). To explain this, let’s first look at the academic setting in question.
  • The picture was taken at the end of the last teaching session of the course.
  • The working culture at the University of Groningen is rather informal, so the dress code is not very strict. However, there are limits to the informality (very short shorts are for example not appropriate). Juan always dresses accordingly.
  • Further, he offers guidance to his students wherever possible (also if the issue lies outside his immediate course topic). – Juan has participated in the organisation of the university in many ways.
  • He treats his students with respect and expect from them that they treat him the same.
Isn’t taking a goofy photo unprofessional?
According to Juan, doing anything that will be detrimental for the learning process of the students is unprofessional. It is very clear that being unprepared, late, dating your students, or dressing inappropriately is unprofessional. Nevertheless, it is not always crystal clear. Juan believes that he can still be professional while he is friendly and takes goofy photos with his students because doing so is, in no way, harmful to the relationship that he has with his students. But most importantly, is also in no way detrimental for the students learning process. In fact, some of his students argue that having such a friendly learning environment made coming to class and learning for the course more fun.

To conclude, there are many aspects of professional behaviour to consider. We believe you, as a student assistant, can have fun with your students and be professional at the same time. It all depends on the working culture of your organisation. It is a good idea to open up the debate regarding professional behaviour in your own organisation to discover the boundaries.


  • Hall, A., & Berardino, L. (2006). Teaching professional behaviors: Differences in the perceptions of faculty, students, and employers. Journal of Business Ethics, 63(4), 407-415.
  • Hunter, A., Laursen, S.L. & Seymour, E. (2007). Becoming a scientist: The role of undergraduate research in students’ cognitive, personal, and professional development. Science Education, 91, 36–74.
  • Solbrekke, T.D., & Englund, T. (2011). Bringing professional responsibility back in. Studies in Higher Education, 36(7), 847-861.
© University of Groningen
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