It’s All About Experience: 5 Tips for Engaging Today’s Students in Elder Care from a Seasoned Nursing Educator

by Emily Kuhn, Communications Specialist for Realityworks, Inc.

It’s been 25 years since Bobby Scanlon began teaching geriatrics, and to say that a lot has changed is an understatement. Twenty-first century learning aids and technology have transformed what today’s students expect to experience in a classroom. Tech-savvy and not afraid to question what they’re hearing or seeing, today’s students love to learn, but they aren’t afraid to ask “why.” What’s more, they crave hands-on, real-world learning opportunities.

For some educators, the idea of embracing new technology and teaching styles to provide such opportunities can be daunting. However, if there’s anything Scanlon has learned in almost three decades of teaching, it’s that adaptation is not only vital to be an effective 21st century educator, but it can truly help transform your students’ education — and help them be that much more successful in their careers.

“One of my goals by the end of each class is to pass on my passion for working with the elderly to my students,” said Scanlon, who is a nurse educator with Dove Healthcare in West Central Wisconsin. “If I’m able to get even three students from a class of 10 to stay in long-term care, then that’s three more people who can touch the lives of the elderly. So I’m always looking for new ways to present a topic to my students and get them excited about learning.”

True to her word, Scanlon regularly incorporates new ideas and teaching methods into the CNA, CBRF, and CPR courses she teaches for Dove, but there are a few strategies she now consistently uses to ensure her students are presented with a variety of learning opportunities – and that there is a balance. Here are 5 tips Scanlon recommends for engaging today’s health science students in elder care

1. Find out what works.

For years, Scanlon used in-class cues like body language and eye contact, plus her own experience, to decipher students’ learning styles as she taught them. One day, it occurred to her to simply ask – before she began teaching them. Now, Scanlon welcomes each new class of students with a questionnaire about their learning styles.

“I ask them, ‘Are you a visual learner? Do you prefer to be shown and then left to your own devices?’” said Scanlon. “Their answers help me learn about them before we ever start clinicals so I can try to align their needs to what I need to share with them.”

2. Create an atmosphere of familiarity.

As Scanlon recalls, this tip was born of frustration. After teaching one of her first big classes, she noticed that by the end, her students still didn’t know their peers’ names.

“In healthcare, teamwork is so, so important – you need to be able to depend on your coworkers,” said Scanlon. “But you can’t do that if you don’t know who is sitting right next to you.”

Scanlon now starts each class with a networking activity, where students pair up to ask each other specific, personal questions. As a result, her students are more engaged – with the class, and with each other.

“When students pair up to practice skills, they have a greater sense of comfort with each other and can interact a little better,” said Scanlon. “They’re not afraid to ask questions and discuss what’s happening – and learn.

3. Be flexible.

According to Scanlon, flexibility is key. Based on the behavior of her students and the topic being discussed at the time, Scanlon will incorporate a new lesson or review previously covered material so her students have a chance to get up and practice skills on each other or watch a video, even if she wasn’t planning to address that topic at the time.

“When I teach, I seek out one or two people to make good eye contact with and get some reassurance that I’m headed in the right direction, and it’s clear when they’re feeling less enthusiastic about what you’re saying at the moment. Even something as simple as stopping and having students practice backrubs on each other when you’re discussing that skill is enough to re-engage them and get them excited.”

4.  Don’t be afraid to try new teaching tools.

Scanlon has always sought to teach her students empathy and compassion toward the elderly. She regularly emphasizes the interactions her students have with residents during clinicals and encourages them to observe and consider why residents behaved in certain ways. However, those skills can be difficult to teach without giving students the chance to experience for themselves what their patients are going through. When Scanlon discovered Realityworks’ RealCare Geriatric Simulator, an interactive age simulation suit, she didn’t hesitate to try it in her classroom – and saw immediate results.

“Change can be hard, but when I see something and it excites me, then I’m going to try to incorporate it in class as soon as possible,” said Scanlon. “With this simulator, students don’t need to wait until they get to the floor to see what’s happening with the residents – they can feel and experience it for themselves. And what’s more, it brings excitement into the classroom.”

5. Keep it real.

When she first began conducting evaluations for Wisconsin nurse aid candidate exams, Scanlon was surprised to encounter students who had never practiced basic skills on real people, like putting compression stockings on or brushing teeth. Scanlon recommends using interactive activities as often as possible. Not only does this grab students’ attention and keep them engaged, but it helps them develop valuable soft skills.

“Practicing skills on one another is not only hands-on, but personal – it helps students get used to each other and not be afraid of touch,” said Scanlon. “More importantly, it gives you the perspective of the residents you’ll be helping… and if you can put yourself in a resident’s place, you are going to be much more compassionate and empathetic.”

Eleven of the top 20 fastest-growing occupations nationwide are in health care. As demand for nursing and geriatric care skills increases, so will the importance of using teaching tools and resources that truly engage new generations of healthcare students. To anyone considering a new method of teaching, Scanlon has this to say:

“Whatever you do is going to be valuable to them – it’s going to give them experiences and open up their eyes.”