At the University of Brighton there are two cohorts of Return to Practice (RtP) students each year. These students are usually studying Adult, Child, or Mental Health Nursing. The age range in this group differs but often students have previously been in senior positions.
The university incorporates an optional communication café from 9-10am on the morning of their university day, which aims to be a friendly social time where the returners can meet each other and the course leader. The café is held in the restaurant and over coffee students chat about their experiences in practice, raise any course related issues with the course lead or just build friendships. The course leaders could see the worth of this time, but never so much as when Covid-19 arrived.
Covid-19 changed the way the course worked, without the opportunity to meet in person. They still needed to get the students together and to foster the feeling of belonging to their RTP course. The course team benefited from getting to know the students outside of dedicated classroom time. Being online or just starting the course also caused huge anxiety with some students. It was important to think about how to continue to support students in their course without communicating face-to-face.
Key actions taken
The course leader increased the communication café to twice a week (online) to provide additional opportunities for students to connect with the course leader. They let students know about the workshops which are run by Student Support Guidance Tutors (SSGT). Examples of workshops included:
- Managing stress
- Building on your own resilience
- Time management and avoiding procrastination
- Communication in challenging situations
- Enhancing mental wellbeing in challenging times
- Arriving at your placement with confident communication skills
The RTP students identified which workshops they felt they would benefit from. The course leader and SSGT worked together, released SSGT short videos on Friday and then covered the topic on Monday afternoon. These were supplemented with scenarios created by the course leader.
The Monday 9am session became more than just a meeting place. Past RTP students joined the virtual café, providing an opportunity for our current students to ask questions to those who are already in practice, both about Covid-19 and about their return to the nursing register.
Over the weeks there was a change in student wellbeing. They were more relaxed in the online café, and they asked more questions. Students picked up the sessions quickly and found it easy to get to know their peers. It was really pleasing that the students often answered each other’s questions or offered solutions. For example, one student had struggled in getting her Practice Assessment Document (PAD) signed by practice staff. After a session from the SSGT on assertiveness, she realised that those in practice struggled to have time to sign off the PAD. The student changed her approach and told them what she needed in a non-challenging way. This change in her approach to learning yielded results and took away her worry of not progressing. As a result, the student took the lead on a 4pm café and shared her experience with other students.
Reflecting on the changes made to support students’ wellbeing, the online communication café has been irreplaceable and something to continue. The module evaluation identified that the students valued the time to meet with previous cohorts of students. One student wrote “having the RTP returners speak gave us hope and inspiration and gave us different perspectives, warts and all”. Facilitating the SSGT workshops and the time spent discussing practice-based scenarios within the student group made a huge difference to the student experience. The communication café has had good retention rates and the ability for students to drop-in with their concerns has been invaluable.
Going forward, the communication café will continue for RTP courses. In the 2021/22 cohort, students have been contacted prior to their RTP modules to allow time for them to settle in. The course has introduced activities in groups of two students to increase communication and allow students to get to know each other.
The course leader, when reflecting on the programme, stated “I have always believed that students should feel like they belong to my RTP course. Taking time to get to know my students and for them to know me, hopefully goes a long way towards making me approachable. If a student’s wellbeing is impacted, I want them to feel like they can speak to me. I am not just the course leader, I am here to support them in whatever way I can.”