New program supports better student outcomes

Students first day of class

By Erica Techo

To support nursing workforce development during the critical nursing shortage and ensure prelicensure students have the resources they need to stay on the path to graduation, the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Nursing has developed an innovative academic support solution that aids students on the front-end of academic challenges before they become barriers to successfully completing the nursing program.

The new Student Success Champions initiative connects traditional Bachelor of Science in Nursing students and Accelerated Masters in Nursing Pathway students—those from another career path coming into nursing school—who may be facing academic challenges to resources within the School and across campus to provide the support they need to be successful. They also are connected with a Student Success Champion, a faculty member who can develop a personalized plan that not only identifies students’ challenges but also helps develop a pathway to success.

“The nursing shortage certainly is not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a wider conversation,” said Instructor and AMNP Student Success Champion April Love, MSN, RN, RNC-OB, CNE (BSN 2010, MSN 2013). “COVID gave us a need that was more defined. We heard students emphasize that they are more than just a GPA and want success inside and outside of the classroom. It also encouraged us to create a new approach that is sustainable for our students and our program. These students have made a lot of sacrifices to get where they are, so getting to the end of their program in a timely fashion is important.”

“As a leadership team, we looked at how we could best support and help our students. We know they need, primarily, academic support, but we also recognize that multiple factors affect academic success. This program allows for the early identification of all student needs; implementing a collaborative action plan that can assist with the transition to the student nurse, reducing stress and potential burnout,” said Instructor and BSN Student Success Champion Jennie Alspach, DNP, MSN, RN, FNP-BC (BSN 1996, MSN 1999, DNP 2020).

Steps to foster student success have been in place throughout the School’s history, but the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated the importance of strengthening those resources and intervening early on.

“We thought about what we could do to ensure students are successful in their first and second semester, when they are most vulnerable to academic and other challenges,” said Associate Professor and Associate Dean for Undergraduate and Prelicensure Education Gwendolyn Childs, PhD, RN, FAAN. “Student Success Champions provide us an opportunity to identify early barriers to academic success—is it the transition to nursing school, time management, test taking skills or working in addition to school? Once we identify those students who are facing challenges, then we can either offer School support or connect them to campus resources.”

This support ranges from reaching out to students after early signs of academic challenges, such as a test grade that puts them at academic risk, to identifying ways to help students be even more successful. A new online course offered by the School free to all students provides access to resources such as scholarship opportunities, counseling, resiliency training and more.

“This goes beyond just pulling resources together. It also involves considering the specific needs of our student population as well as talking with faculty about courses and tools they have in place to help students succeed,” Childs said. “Our Student Success Champions are able to consider how students perform across courses and create a holistic approach to identify challenges.”

It also enables the School to keep students on track in their nursing coursework, helping them enter the field and meet workforce needs in a critical nursing shortage.

“In nursing, that knowledge base is the skeleton of the rest of your career,” Alspach said. “It is important that students master fundamental skills and concepts—critical thinking, pathophysiology and pharmacology—and build on them to connect the dots and apply knowledge to practice at the bedside. By providing this additional support, we not only continue to put nurses into the workforce, we continue to produce nurses who are safe, knowledgeable and can provide the best patient outcomes for our communities.”

The program has already seen encouraging results. Since it launched with Bachelor of Science in Nursing students in the fall 2021 semester, the number of students who had to repeat a course in their first or second semester was cut in half. These numbers are encouraging, Childs said, and show how the foundations of nursing skills and education are supported by this program.

The Student Success Champions program expanded to include the Accelerated Masters in Nursing Pathway during the spring 2022 semester.

“Academic success, especially in nursing, is rarely defined as a GPA-based thing. To go on to be a great nurse, it’s about a compassion for others and your ability to understand people at a different level,” Love said. “From a personal perspective, one of the things that drew me to the hospital and to UAB as a school is the diversity in our student population—and not just in any one aspect, but in lives and life conditions. Our students bring their world view and perspective and experience into the role, which makes it so exciting to help them transition to nursing.”

AMNP students, as well as some students in the BSN program, already have a bachelor’s degree or higher in a non-nursing field, and for most, nursing is a second career. Their life and career experiences are a benefit to the nursing field, Love said, as they approach nursing from a new perspective. But it also means facing potential challenges.

“The Student Success Champions program is very much about sitting down and meeting people where they are, looking at what amazing things they offer to the field, but also looking at the barriers. We help them find resources and a sense of community as they consider, ‘How do I turn this potential challenge into something that helps me be successful in the profession as a whole?’” Love said. “Resources have been set up for a long time, but too often they come in to ‘get you back on track.’ This is an opportunity to be more proactive, to learn skills super early on, so that as you’re moving through the program and they’re no longer an issue.”

The strength of the Student Success Champions comes from the understanding that all students face unique challenges and have different needs, Childs said. And ultimately, this program is one step in a continual conversation.

“This program is one way we can address the magnitude of what is needed, not just from an academic but also from a psychosocial perspective. It allows us to take a step back and look at how we engage with students and how we focus on the tools they need,” Childs said. “From here, we can address ways to further incorporate the new American Association of Colleges of Nursing Essentials, continuing to help our students become more resilient and more strategic as they navigate this education system and their careers.”

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