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Making the most of nurse training

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Combining academic work with practical placements can make nurse training a real juggling act.

Ann Shuttleworth finds out how the right coping strategies can help students to succeed

Studying to become a nurse isn’t like being a typical university student. The hours are longer and the holidays shorter than on many courses – and juggling academic work, placements, assignments and your life outside the course can be tricky. However, with the right coping strategies, you can find your pre-registration course as exciting as it is challenging.

‘One big problem is that most nursing students also work part-time, and with the huge number of study and clinical hours they have to complete, they get very little free time,’ says Karen Elcock, director of practice and work-based learning at Thames Valley University in London. ‘Timing can also be difficult – they often get assignments as they go on to placements, so they are away from the university facilities, other students and the academic arena.’

Many nursing students also have dependants, points out Gail Mooney, a lecturer at Swansea University. ‘It’s vital to look at what help you will need before you enrol on a course, and get a support network set up before you start,’ she says.

Hywel Davies, a third-year student at Swansea University, says planning is crucial. ‘You have to be organised, particularly if you have family commitments, so you need to prioritise your work and plan your schedule carefully,’ he says.

Nursing courses attract a large proportion of mature students, many of whom have not studied for years and may need to develop study or IT skills. While universities can offer support, Karen emphasises that students must be ready to ask for help.

‘It’s important to access support as soon as possible rather than go through the pain of struggling through an assignment and failing it unnecessarily,’ she says.

Gail says students can also help themselves. ‘Reading is vital – and I don’t mean just what you need to complete assignments.

Students should read more widely than that,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t just increase knowledge, it gives the chance to see how to write, how other people do it, and how to deal with references.’

A nursing course is about more than purely academic studies. Placements are where students develop their clinical skills – and they can be a daunting prospect, as Amanda Morgan, a third-year student at the University of Wolverhampton, points out. ‘It can be hard to fit in,’ she says. ‘Staff may not bother because you’re only here for seven weeks and they can be reluctant to see you as part of the team.’

Students can do a lot to make placements successful by the way they communicate and try to integrate, says Sharon Arkell, senior lecturer in adult nursing at the University of Wolverhampton. ‘For example, the way they communicate with HCAs can make a real difference – they mustn’t appear to be telling them what to do – they can learn a lot from HCAs.’

Even when they get off to a good start with the team, students can find it difficult to meet their learning outcomes.

‘Workload pressures mean wards are often very set on routines and care becomes very task-based,’ says Penny Tremayne, senior lecturer at De Montfort University. ‘I encourage my students to ask for a caseload of patients to manage – and to go against routine if they think it’s justified.

‘For example, one of my students spent time doing a jigsaw with a patient who had had a stroke. The staff on the ward saw her as being lazy but the time was very well spent as she learnt a lot of useful and pertinent information about the patient.’

The key to getting through academic work and placements is to take responsibility for your own learning. Understand your needs and don’t be afraid to ask for help or to be given an opportunity to do something. Karen believes this attitude will pay dividends. ‘If you get these things right college needn’t be painful – it can be a lot of fun.’

How to gain the most from college
• Take advantage of study skills support if you need it
• Plan your time for a whole term
as soon as possible
• Don’t treat study days as free time
• See your personal tutor as you work through assignments rather than waiting until they are finished
• Let your personal tutor know immediately if you have any academic or personal problems
• Develop your IT skills
• Set up a support network with your fellow students
• Leave yourself time for enjoyment

How to gain the most from your placement
• Be clear about your learning needs for each placement
• Try to discuss your needs with your mentor before a placement begins
• Have a meeting midway through the placement to review your progress
• Don’t avoid ‘basic care’ – you can learn from HCAs and patients
• Ask to take on a caseload of patients to learn about holistic care
• If your mentor does not have enough time for you, ask if you can have two mentors
• Be prepared to be flexible in shifts to work with your mentor
• If you don’t get on with your mentor talk to the university about changing

Plan, look and learn

‘It’s important to plan your time at college as early as possible, or you’ll find it hard going to fit everything in,’ says Amanda Morgan (pictured), third-year nursing student at the University of Wolverhampton.

‘If you do that you can also identify where placements might be useful in giving you a case study for an assignment. When it comes to studying, you have to find out what works for you. For example, I like to do one assignment at a time but other people prefer to have a few on the go at once.’

She stresses the importance of gaining support from those around you. ‘Students can help each other with ideas and moral support. You can also motivate each other – if it all feels too much having someone say “you can do it” makes all the difference.

‘It’s also important to have academic support, so make appointments to see your personal tutor as you work through assignments so you know you’re on the right lines. It’s much easier to change direction half way through rather than finish and find it’s not up to scratch.’

After 11 clinical placements Amanda has plenty of experience – good and bad.

‘On many wards they are so busy the nurses just get on with things then say “oh, you could have watched that”. I find it’s good to listen carefully at handover and identify possible learning opportunities, then you can ask your mentor if you can go with that patient.

‘You do need to be quite assertive and self-reliant, or you may find yourself not getting to meet your learning objectives, or being asked to do something that’s beyond your competence. When that happens and you say you can’t do it there’s a danger they won’t ask you again. The trick is to say you haven’t done it before but you’d be happy to observe so you’ll learn to do it for another time.’

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