By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—What is the most critical component of nursing?
Compassion? Teamwork? Responsibility? Adaptability? Ethics?
Each of these can stake a claim. But there is a case to be made for another tool in the nurse’s kit, one that in some ways underlies all the others: communication.
Adam Booth, assistant professor of nursing, teaches B231: Communication for Health Care Professionals. It could very well be a dry run-through of tried and true techniques, but in Booth’s hands, the class is a vibrant laboratory of innovation where theory meets practice in ways that deepen and transform the students’ understanding of their chosen field, and of themselves.
A commitment to innovation
Booth’s innovation has to do with the unique application of active learning strategies to facilitate interaction, critical thinking and team-building.
It all starts with Booth finding out who his students are, getting a sense of their learning styles, life experiences, personalities, and personal goals.
He gathers insights into these by means of student self-evaluations throughout the term.
“Self-assessment inventories address the students’ interpersonal communication skills, problem-solving and trust building, communication skills with other classmates, listening, and conflict management skills,” Booth said.
The assessments help him craft an individualized strategy that prioritizes knowledge development and critical thinking. They also reinforce his role as a facilitator or guide rather than a drill sergeant. Research into active learning shows that this is a highly impactful practice.
“By valuing the learner’s methods of learning and educational preferences I create the most effective and efficient learning environment that motivates and encourages participation,” Booth said.
Booth uses nontraditional methods to help the students address the multifaceted demands of the nursing life. For example, he leads them in guided-meditation using the Headspace app to promote stress management and stress reduction.
“Part of being a nurse is managing one’s own workload, time, and coping strategies effectively in order to prevent burnout and compassion fatigue,” Booth said.
Nursing is about teamwork, and many of Booth’s activities expand the notion of the classroom in order to hone collaborative skills. He takes the students to team-building retreats at Mount Saint Francis where they “learn to ask for help, work together, respect each other’s differences, and promote positivity,” in Booth’s words.
In the classroom he incorporates role playing activities in which the students develop and act out potential interactions that may occur in a healthcare setting, such as conflict resolution, communication barriers, and therapeutic communication. The exercises may take unusual forms; for example, to create teamwork, communication and critical thinking, Booth divides the students into group and challenges them to build the tallest structure using uncooked pasta, a marshmallow and tape.
Open to the power of technology to accelerate learning, Booth builds some exercises around Flipgrid, an online learning tool that enables educators to promote student conversations around relevant discussion topics. This year, he has prompted his students to comment on themes relating to how nursing school has impacted their perceptions and experiences during the pandemic.
“This experience is an excellent way to improve communication, learn some new problem-solving skills, and build meaningful bonds,” Booth said. “The goal I challenge my students with is to emphasize respectful and positive communication in order to achieve success and personal growth throughout the nursing program.”
The final exercise encapsulates Booth’s willingness to be creative. The students are asked to apply the sum of their learning during the semester—from the hand’s-on activities and role-plays to the self-reflections–to assess and evaluate the interpersonal communication techniques of characters in their favorite movie. The result is a group project involving a presentation and a paper. Though the movie is fictional, the analysis is a true test of their ability to apply learning to real life.
“The students are able to critically engage with topics and events they will potentially encounter in the clinical environment,” Booth said. “Their learning is enhanced because they are able to ask for help, work together and deal with conflict and stress in a meaningful way that promotes active participation rather than passive observance.”
Developing a professional voice
Over and over, Booth stresses the interrelationship of the personal and the professional.
The point is that nursing is more than job training. It is also self-improvement.
This standpoint mirrors his own path.
As a bedside nurse in the surgical intensive care unit at the University of Louisville Hospital, Booth found himself tasked with guiding and educating new hires and students amassing clinical hours and experience. He found he enjoyed the process of teaching, and became a preceptor in the education department. Eventually he brought his real-life nursing experience into the classroom as a full-time academic, where it could be effectively paired with his theoretical expertise to help the next generation of nurses become capable of the sympathetic, decisive, evidence-based decision-making that will be expected of them.
“This method encourages self-direction and enables learners to capitalize on their ambitions and intuitions in the development of learning,” Booth said. “Furthermore, it provides an opportunity for students to develop their professional voices as nurses and future healthcare providers.”
Matters of life and death
For Booth, innovation isn’t just good for nursing, it is central to the field’s identity and purpose.
Nursing is constantly evolving, driven by advances in medicine and changes in the healthcare industry.
“As educators, researchers and healthcare providers, we – as nurses – must innovate to changes in practice, particularly in the light of new evidence and standards of practice,” Booth said.
To remain effective, nurses need to be lifelong learners. This isn’t an inborn talent. Nor is it something you pick up on the job or in a YouTube video. It’s a learned habit of mind that becomes a way of approaching each aspect of the practice.
And this habit, this process of analysis and reflection, is what Booth seeks to cultivate in his students.
“Innovation is a way for me to not only improve how I lecture, but also how I engage the students in active learning strategies, interpersonal communication exercises, conflict management strategies, stress reduction techniques, team and trust building activities, and a constant process of self-assessment to evaluate and implement change,” Booth said.
Why does this matter? Because nursing, in contrast to other disciplines, is directly involved in life-or-death decisions.
Without accepting—and living—the need to understand innovations and without the ability to put them into practice, a nurse is less able to fully support a patient.
Learning can save lives.
And communication, be it with patients, colleagues, superiors, family members, is the key to learning.
“It is important to foster innovative techniques that not only promote play, positivity, respect, and optimism, but also the notion to promote curiosity and lifelong learners,” Booth said. “As a healthcare worker, I have found that practice and education change in the light of new evidence, so we have to incessantly adapt and be nimble in our response in order to improve patient outcomes.”
Booth surely leads by example, with an innate drive to learn new things, and incorporate them into his practice of teaching, just as he would hope his students will incorporate new information into theirs.
“I enhance student learning by never settling,” Booth said. “I am always researching new methodologies and ways to improve and facilitate the student’s experience so that I promote engagement and curiosity.”