Working at the coal face: The contribution of Programme Tutors in supporting practice-based learning in nursing

McDonagh, Lin; Draper, Jan; Davies, Gillian; Mowbray, Wendy and Gallagher, Donna (2010). Working at the coal face: The contribution of Programme Tutors in supporting practice-based learning in nursing. In: Nurse Education Today Conference, 07-09 Sep 2010, Cambridge.



This paper reports the findings of a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning-funded project to explore key features of effective support for pre-registration nursing students in practice settings.

The cultivation of positive practice learning environments for students of nursing, including high quality learning support, has been long established as a thorny issue for nurse educators and practitioners. Indeed it was a key theme for the very first nursing research series, supported by the Royal College of Nursing, in the early 1980’s. This included Fretwell’s (1982) work on ward teaching and learning, Orton’s (1981) work on the ward learning environment and Ogier’s (1982) work on the role of the ward sister. Since then there has been an explosion of research in this area.

As a profession we have a responsibility to ensure high quality learning support for students in practice settings. If we do not, there will be wide-ranging implications for the quality of patient care, work-related stress, role satisfaction, retention and attrition and professional reputation. Given the significant investment in nurse education and the need to retain nurses in the workforce, it is unsurprising therefore that the practice learning environment has emerged as a key policy issue in the United Kingdom and internationally.
Previous research indicates that relationships between the learner and staff are crucial in supporting learning in practice (Pearcey and Elliott, 2004) and that ‘learning is maximised when the learner is effectively partnered with a clinician and experiences are shared’ (Henderson et al., 2009, p.178). In this context, The Programme Tutor (PT) – a role unique to the pre-registration nursing programme at The Open University (OU) – is crucial in facilitating learning in the practice setting. The purpose of the PT role is to work longitudinally with both students and their mentors to support learning in practice and monitor student progress. The PT therefore plays a pivotal role in facilitating learning in the practice setting, aspects of which may have potential for transfer to the wider health education sector.

The overall aim of the project was to critically examine the experiences of a sample of PTs supporting students and mentors on the pre-registration nursing programme at the OU in order to identify the key features of effective PT practice. These features would then inform the continuing development of the programme. Two PTs were recruited as co-researchers on the project, the objectives of which were to:

• Explore PT’s experiences of supporting students and mentors
• Explore PT’s views regarding student progression
• Identify how PTs ‘grow’ into their role
• Identify enabling and disabling factors contributing to role effectiveness
• Examine the boundaries between the role of the PT and mentor
• Explore variations in the PT role across the UK.

Data collection and analysis
A sample of 20 PTs working on the final practice module of the pre-registration nursing programme, and located across the nations and regions of the UK, was identified. Following ethical approval, telephone interviews were conducted using an interview guide informed by both a review of the literature and the experience of the PT co-researchers. Telephone interviews were used in preference to individual face-to-face interviews in order to accommodate the dispersed geographical spread of participants. The interviews were recorded using digital recording equipment and following transcription, conventional approaches to qualitative data analysis were used to identify common themes across the data.

The ethical principles of confidentiality, anonymity and informed consent were upheld throughout the study. The sample was assured that confidentiality would be maintained at all times throughout the project. Anonymity was protected by using pseudonyms both for PTs and organisations. Informed consent was gained at the start of the project and participants were able to withdraw from the project at any stage.

Findings suggest that PTs find their role both rewarding and vital in the context of creating supportive learning environments and ultimately supporting students’ transition to become registered practitioners. Being an effective communicator and establishing and maintaining relationships with students, mentors and service managers was described as crucial to the success of the role. Understanding the pressures within practice environments and being able to acknowledge the realities of ‘working at the coalface’ enabled PTs to support both students and mentors in such settings.

This paper will elaborate more fully the findings of the project, illustrated with reference to verbatim quotes from the data. Although a role unique to the OU pre-registration nursing programme, there may be aspects of the role which could be transferable to other practice-based learning settings. This will be interactively debated with conference delegates.
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Fretwell, J. E. (1982) Ward teaching and Learning, Royal College of Nursing, London.

Henderson, A., Twentyman, M., Eaton, E., Creedy, D., Stapleton, P. and Lloyd, B. (2009) Creating supportive clinical learning environments: an intervention study, Journal of Clinical Nursing, 19, pp.171-182.

Ogier, M. E. (1981) An ideal sister, Royal College of Nursing, London

Orton, H. D. (1981) Ward learning climate, Royal College of Nursing, London

Pearcey, P. A. and Elliott, B. E. (2004) Student impressions of clinical nursing, Nurse Education Today, 18, pp.29-31.

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