Faculty Spotlight: Sense of Purpose

WashU faculty share thoughts on cultivating student's sense of purpose

In the CTL’s new guidebook for instructors, Promoting Student Well-Being in Learning Environments, one of the keys to well-being that we highlight is Gratitude & Purpose. We encourage faculty to help students appreciate positive experiences and explore links between their coursework and their sense of purpose in life.

We spoke with two WashU instructors about how they encourage students to reflect on their sense of purpose.

Jessica Randolph, Manager of Curriculum Services in Physical Therapy

Carey Holleran, Associate Professor of Physical Therapy and Neurology

How is your curriculum set up to provide opportunities for students to connect with their sense of purpose?

“Our program is set up in cohorts, so students are together the entire 3 years that they’re in the doctor in physical therapy program, which creates unique opportunities for us to cultivate student purpose. Early on, they focus on questions like, ‘What is the purpose of the profession? And what is our role in the profession?’

We start out by emphasizing the importance within the profession of being lifelong learners committed to continual growth and improvement. From the first day, students are asked to reflect on how their own learning is in service of others and how lifelong learning is linked to one’s moral purpose, values, and duty within the profession.”

What are some specific ways that you have students reflect on their sense of purpose?

“One example is that students complete an assignment in the first week of the semester where they write about their best reflected self. They answer questions such as, ‘What does your best reflected self look like by the end of the first year? What growth and development have you gone through?’ And then they revisit this initial reflection over time and use it to help them reflect on areas where they have grown and areas where they still want to grow.

Another way that we help students explore their sense of purpose is through our coaching program where students are connected with a faculty member. We encourage faculty coaches to talk about their own pathways in the profession so that students can see that things aren’t linear. This is also an opportunity to model for students how challenges and struggles can be opportunities for learning and growth.”

Why is it important to you to create these kinds of opportunities?

“I think the most important thing is that we are creating an environment that models what we want students to do for the rest of their lives. We want them to form habits of being reflective about their practice and of seeking feedback to continually grow.

And we also see this as a way for students to build tools for resilience to help them navigate the potential for burnout in the contemporary healthcare environment. We want to give students opportunities to form the solid sense of purpose and moral anchor that can sustain them through a long career.”


Want to learn about research at WashU about how college students develop their sense of purpose? Check out our recent Research Spotlight!

This post is part of our ongoing series on Promoting Student Well-Being in Learning Environments, see our News page for more posts in the series.