Practice learning and student support – The Open University experience

Messenger, Julie (2009). Practice learning and student support – The Open University experience. In: NET2009, 8-10 Sep 2009, Cambridge.



Pre registration nursing typically incorporates elements of work-based learning for the development of practice competencies. However for many higher educational providers, this learning is in short term units – with students moving through a placement circuit through the duration of their programme. The Open University’s provision is unique in that, not only do students develop their practice competence in one primary area; that primary area is also the student’s workplace as students learn to balance and manage the complexity of working in their prescribed roles as both student and health care assistant. This role complexity requires a significant infrastructure to be maintained to ensure that the student is able to optimise each learning opportunity and not default to the role of care assistant and worker rather than that of a learner.

Often students come to the programme with little or no formal education and therefore feel very uncertain of their abilities to study, question and interrogate practice. As much of their experience is in their own workplace, students need support to see their role beyond that of a health care assistant and gain the confidence to question and challenge others, and be innovative in practice.

Unlike many other higher education providers, mentors enter into this supportive relationship with students for the duration of their four year pre qualifying programme. The uniqueness of this longitudinal, rather than short term mentorship relationship in nursing mirrors more closely the original use of the concept of ‘mentor’ (Wikipedia 2009) where Mentor was left in charge of the son of Odysseus when Odysseus left for the Trojan War which historically is thought to have last for more than 150 years. It is therefore likely that Odysseus would have been away from his family and home for many years on this quest leaving the welfare and development of his son to Mentor.

The Open University’s application of long term mentorship allows for significant investment to be focused on each learner. The application of mentorship as a longer term investment is not without its challenges. The primary challenge is around ensuring that the mentor has the confidence to critically and objectively provide feedback and accurate assessment of fitness for practice on their learners. In nursing, the concern re ‘failing to fail’ students led most recently to a review of the standards to support learning and assessment in practice (NMC 2008). For The Open University’s provision, the parallel relationship of the student and mentor as colleagues and co workers means that the mentorship relationship is even more complex and important to manage. For students, to benefit from learning in the work place, they must have confidence in the accuracy of the mentor’s feedback to capture precisely their levels of competence so that personal development plans can be considered appropriate to their developmental needs. Issues of familiarity must not influence the impartiality and ability of the mentor to provide critical and constructive feedback.

The Open University supports both students and practitioners in their work-based learning role in the format of a programme tutor role that merges together both that of a personal tutor and clinical liaison link but additionally extends to encompass other areas of the student’s practice development. This role is seen and valued as pivotal to aid the individual’s transition from health care assistant to that of student, and ultimately to that of autonomous practitioner. Like the mentorship role, this role is set up to be longitudinal throughout the entirety of the student’s four year programme with one programme tutor assuming the responsibility for a group of ten students in their practice development. Through this time, the programme tutor will work with the student’s primary work place to fully support and develop the learning environment to ensure and enhance quality assurance processes.

On a parallel, the unique teaching and learning approach of supportive distance learning through the entirety of the student’s programme, enables and requires students to apply and reflect learning directly in their workplace. Many of the course activities structured within course materials require application of principles, discussion of concepts with qualified practitioners, and development of a personal and professional portfolio in practice. Many activities are recommended for use as evidence against standards of proficiency with the student reflecting and writing these learning opportunities up for inclusion into their portfolios. As a result of this approach, The Open University’s course materials are often highly visible to practitioners in the work place and can, and are used as a basis to discuss work-based learning.

These two aspects are just two examples of how The Open University has grasped work-based learning to optimise the learning for pre registration nursing students. In both these examples, partnership working between the work place and the university is critical. Ultimately the student, those who support teaching and learning and the learning and teaching strategies used impact on work-based learning and require careful management and evaluation to benefit all involved in practice-based learning.


Nursing & Midwifery Council (2008) Standards to support learning and assessment in practice: NMC standards for mentors, practice teachers and teachers, London, NMC.

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