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HealthJanuary 26, 2021

Advising unsuccessful students without discouraging

By: Shena Williams, MSN, RN
Nursing school is challenging for many students. Of course, it is important for instructors to provide guidance to the students who are successful and unsuccessful in their studies.

There are many tools available to help document and “guide” what documentation should cover; however, it is often not discussed what one should say in the meetings or what should be said to guide the students properly. Some instructors are direct, while others may try to come off as nurturing. Regardless of one’s mannerisms, all instructors must advise the students in an unbiased manner.

It has also been noticed that some students often feel that they are being discouraged when being advised. Nursing school is challenging to students and when they fail a course, they often feel as if they have no other hope or, in the words of a previous student, their “life is over.” It is crucial to help them navigate that difficult time without discouraging them.

There are many reasons a student can be unsuccessful in a course, especially in the age of COVID-19. Students are adapting to various changes along with the faculty, which is why advisement is especially important during this time. There are several key points in providing good advisement to unsuccessful students without discouraging them.

Setting boundaries

While all instructors care for the students’ wellbeing and wish nothing more than for them to succeed throughout their courses, the boundaries must be set before beginning a meeting. We want our students to understand that we are “human” and understand what they may be facing however, some students may confuse this association with friendship. The mistaken “friendship” could blur the lines of professionalism within the student-teacher relationship. When beginning an advisement session, one should create a brief list of advisement objectives and standards, if possible. This list could be as vague as using the school’s provided outline or creating a personalized one. If you create a customized set of objectives, make sure they are not written in a defensive tone.

An example of this would be:

Example 1

Incorrect: Group advisement will be held on the first Monday of each month. Personal advising is only available if my schedule allows it.
Correct: Schedule and attend regular advising appointments. Come prepared and on time to each appointment.

Example 2

Incorrect: Go to the counseling center before meeting with me.
Correct: Utilize campus resources and be involved in connecting on campus.

It’s imperative to remember that writing has a tone, can come off strong at times. The wording chosen in your message or notice can be the difference between a student being receptive or defensive.

Scheduled meetings

When scheduling meeting times, it’s essential to consider that all students are not available at the same time during the week. Once again, with the ongoing pandemic, it is also important to be reasonably available. Setting office/advisement hours on various days at different times will allow students more options for meetings and can work not only around the instructor schedule but also the students. While making meeting times more flexible, it is also important to still maintain the structure. Making sure students understand the duration of the meeting, that they are to be on time for the advisement session, and even notifying them that after a specific time of being late, the meeting may be canceled due to absence. It is also essential to set and ensure all advisees are aware of the scheduling procedure. Many students believe it may be appropriate to schedule same-day meetings and sometimes walk-in meetings. Since proper advisement requires preparation, same day and walk-in appointments are not the best way to advise students. If an instructor chooses to do walk-ins, an appropriate manner may be to have these dates prescheduled and posted so that the students are aware. It is also a good idea to indicate what type of advising can take place, as sometimes, the length of time depends on the issues that are going on with the student. Having scheduled meetings allows the student not to feel rushed and enables the instructor to set aside to address all problems and help create a plan instead of dismissing the student.

Academic planning

Despite being told to seek their academic advisors as early as their freshman semester, students often try to plan their college courses and route independently. This often leads them to miss vital courses that may be needed to graduate, and the students usually are scrambling to take these courses as late as their graduating year. This can also lead them to be misinformed about many options they may have when they are unsuccessful in classes. The best way to advise these students while not discouraging them is to first ask them about their understanding of the schools’ progression policy.

Many schools allow one to two-course failures before a student is dismissed from the program. Students are often given the policy and sign the acknowledgment their first semester of nursing school, and unfortunately, they forget what it said. Having them explain to you their understanding of the policy can help with advising because they often don’t remember it. It also gives you the chance to determine if they need clarification or a full explanation. It also helps to set the tone of the meeting, allowing them to understand that you aren’t “talking at them” but conversing “with” them. Students should be active participants in their advisement meetings.

Helping students create their academic plan early will give them some direction and call for them to have accountability in their schooling. Many students prefer to be told precisely what is needed of them, especially when entering something so new to them. Creating a template or form in which students can prepare on their own and bring to the meeting with their advisor ensures that they are actually looking at their plan and courses. It also allows them to take a moment and think about what they are doing.

Careful empathy

Empathy is taught and used by all nurses in various situations. Knowing how to convey empathy carefully is essential. When advising students, it’s always important to make sure the student-instructor relationship maintains boundaries. Sometimes when showing empathy can be thought of as a “weakness” by students. The phrase “mistaken my kindness for a weakness” always comes to mind. Students, whether instructors see it are not, pick up on the relationships amongst faculty. This is why it is crucial when a student is sharing their issues not to overstep. By overstep, I mean it is essential to not “choose a side” and keep the student on track when they may veer off the topic of their studies and begin discussing a faculty member or issues within a course.

When advising students who are not successful in courses, it is important, to be honest with the students and not lead them to believe that an impossible situation is possible. Once again, it is often the tone of the conversation that guides the meeting. Compassion is needed when showing empathy; however, a bit of honesty will go a long way with the students.

Advising is essential for all nursing students. Often small misunderstandings can alter the course of an advisement session and damage the student-teacher relationship. Disgruntled students are often egged on by faulty advisement, which is why it is vital that advisors set clear expectations, boundaries and show empathy to the students to build and keep the professional relationship strong and provide unbiased, honest advisement.

Shena Williams, MSN, RN
Expert Insights Contributor for Wolters Kluwer, Nursing Education
Lippincott® Nursing Education
Preparing today’s students to become tomorrow’s nurses
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