Are We Addressing Fundamental Student Needs In The Classroom?
The author recently inherited a challenging class of nursing students that were difficult to engage in the learning process. A brief survey was administered to the students during the first class meeting. It provided the author with each student's personal perspectives of their needs and expectations while providing them with a vehicle for venting their frustrations, voicing their needs, and reflecting on their learning experience thus far. As a result, every student became an active participant in a successful learning experience.
My first classroom teaching assignment was a challenge. I was inheriting a class of nursing students with a reputation for "chewing up and spitting out" a number of previous instructors. My colleagues informed me these students were difficult to engage. "They're dead in there" were the words used to describe the energy in the classroom. My co-workers chuckled and wished me luck. I was ready. I had a plan.
With their academic requirements being addressed by the curriculum, I wanted to know what else my students needed in order to succeed. It was common knowledge that this group of students had endured many last minute changes in schedules and instructors. As a result, they were frustrated and a bit angry with their situation. After introducing myself, I passed out a brief survey, explaining how their answers would enable me to understand their group and individual needs as we worked together to establish a positive learning experience for all of us.
The survey asked about their learning style, how they prepared for class, their goal(s), and any challenges, barriers, or frustrations that were keeping them from attaining their goal. Lastly, and most important, I asked "What do you need from me as your instructor?" Common themes identified from their responses to this question were: "be fair", "be available", "don't make me feel stupid because I don't know the answer", and "don't treat us like children". The survey provided students with a vehicle for venting their frustrations, voicing their needs, and reflecting on their learning experience thus far. It provided me with their personal perspectives of their needs and expectations.
After reviewing their responses and identifying themes, I shared the survey results with the students. This allowed them to hear the feedback given by their classmates. It was also the perfect segue into a discussion of my syllabus and a review of the teaching strategies I planned to use. I had hoped to show the students that I was not just another instructor with wordy power point slides and mind-numbing assignments.
After my first hour in the classroom, I noticed how cold it was. In fact, a majority of students were bundled in coats and sweaters. "We never have heat in here. It's awful," grumbled one student. A number of students actually left early that night because they "couldn't take the cold". How could I expect students to learn when they were focused on keeping warm? After speaking with the program director, there was heat in the classroom the next day. "Thank you for the heat, Mrs. Mapp." I assured them that I was on their side and would be until graduation. Having met one of their basic needs and laying a foundation for trust, we could begin to focus on learning.
I had heard that this group of students did not engage in classroom discussion. In fact, one instructor actually told them they were "hard to teach" because of their reticence. Another instructor allegedly scoffed at their wrong answers or berated them for not knowing the material. It is no wonder why they were silent in class. Fear of ridicule or criticism had left students feeling unsafe and insecure.
In an effort to promote a safe learning environment for the students, I initially paired them together so that my questions would be directed to a team rather than an individual. Instead of declaring a response "wrong", I guided the student with questions to arrive at a correct answer. After a few class sessions, I began calling on individual students, providing praise and encouragement rather than criticism. It was not long before students were offering answers freely and engaging in discussions.
Love and belonging
People have an inherent need to belong, to be a part of something. Each student needs to feel like they have a rightful place and an equal voice in the classroom. I noticed that the same few students were the only ones responding to my questions. The rest of the class sat quietly with their thoughts kept to themselves. I made it my personal goal to learn each student's name in a week. This enabled me to invite a specific student to participate in class discussion and conveyed a sense of belonging to the student.
Group work was another strategy I used to include every student in the learning process. I appointed different students to act as "group leaders", giving everyone an opportunity to be in charge. Experiencing positive interaction among classmates enabled many students to feel comfortable in the larger class group.
Students are quick to say "I know this is a dumb question but ..." I quickly pointed out to the students that a question is an outward sign that they are thinking. All learners should feel supported in the classroom as they try to understand new concepts. This group had shut down as a result of critical instructors with ineffective teaching methods. As a student posed a question, I would first declare it an "excellent" question and invite other students to provide the answer. Praise along the way contributed to the confidence of each student and respect among the entire group.
One student in particular was failing by the time she took the second exam. I met with Jessica a few times to discuss her study habits and her challenges. "I don't know what else to do Mrs. Mapp. I am this close to dropping out," she tearfully proclaimed. I discover she was working an average of 32 hours a week, which, in addition to her class and clinical time, left her little time to study. I suggested it was time for her to decide what she wanted more, her current job or her future as a nurse. With the support of her father, Jessica quit her job and devoted every waking hour to her schoolwork. Her average went from 62 to 78 by graduation. On our last day together she said "Thank you for believing in me. Everyone else told me I couldn't do it." I was proud of her but more important, she was proud of herself.
As the weeks went by, I saw the dynamics of the group slowly change. Our classroom became an open forum for discussion and learning. Students felt free to answer questions ask their own. Grades improved as students felt safe and became more engaged in their learning. In fact, every student successfully completed their final module of study and passed their final exam. As of this writing, every student that has taken their NCLEX-PN exam has passed, including Jessica.
Reflecting on my first classroom teaching experience, I realize that my approach with these students was the right one. Academically, the curriculum requirements were already established. It was necessary, however, for me to understand who my students were as people and what they needed. By asking for their input and addressing their fundamental needs, I was able to create a positive learning experience for each of my students. Was it challenging? Yes. Was my plan successful? I believe so. One of my colleagues stated that I had "worked magic with those students". Now it was my turn to chuckle.
Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation [Online exclusive]. Psychological Review. Retrieved from http://psychclassics.yorku.caLast edit by Joe V on Apr 23, '12
Dawn Mapp MSN(c) RN -- I decided to bring my 25 yrs of experience and love of nursing into the academic arena 4 years ago. The challenges vary but the rewards are always worth every minute of hard work.
dmapp63 has '30' year(s) of experience and specializes in 'Nursing Education'. From 'Rocky Hill, CT, US'; Joined Apr '12; Posts: 16; Likes: 32.Apr 23, '12What an excellent article, dmapp63! Thank you for sharing your words of wisdom. There's an old expression "iron sharpens iron," and I feel like I have been challenged, energized, and encouraged by reading your account. I love the way you tied your role as facilitator of learning in the classroom to Maslow. You approached your students holistically, as human beings, and met them at their many points of need. You created a rich learning environment in which they could grow and thrive. Bravo to you!Apr 23, '12As a student I have to say that I love your approach to teaching. There have been a lot of changes made this year to my nursing classes as well and not only are the student having difficulty so are the instructors. I have great instructors but I really appreciate your concern for your students. Thank you for giving them all the opportunity to succeed!Apr 24, '12Wish I had you for some of my nursing classes a few years back! Thank you for sharing the 'other side'Apr 24, '12What an inspiring article, and thoughtful approach to teaching. I will definitely adapt some of your techniques.Apr 25, '12You are truly a caring instructor. You have found your calling in nursing and educators and leaders can learn a lot from reading this article.Apr 26, '12Wish I had you for my last term at Nursing schools! hate when teachers doesn't want to engage students or make them feel as if their question or inquiry means they are stupid. That only fosters the student os hut down and crate missed opportunities to learn.
I hope more teachers take your approach.Apr 28, '12This is a very good article, Dawn- your passion for excellence in teaching shines through! Nice work.
All the best!
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