Boosting Students' Engagement in Political Learning

Monday, 9 November 2015: 10:20 AM

Pamela M. Gehrke, EdD, MS, BS, AS, RN
School of Nursing, Boise State University, Boise, ID, USA

Health care and nursing are political, and nurses’ contributions are needed in policy decision-making processes. Political and policy participation can happen wherever nurses practice: in hospitals, agencies, communities, and government from local to global levels. However, the knowledge, skills, and inclination to participate in policy processes are not automatic and are required of nurses in order to influence healthy lives for all. Graduate nursing education prepares nurses for policy roles, but research is limited about what political and policy education is taught to undergraduate nursing students or how they learn the concepts, skills, and disposition for this work.

Nurses need education for civic engagement and political advocacy in their initial professional education. A study was done to learn how undergraduate nursing students made sense of concepts like political advocacy and policy making in an innovative, online blended, required “Policy, Power & Voice” course in one nursing program. The study was approved by the university human subjects’ review committee.

Constructivist grounded theory method guided study design and conduct. Interviews of fourteen students post-course and course documents provided rich data resulting in a theory of political learning, “Engaging in Learning Together”. Four primary processes of learning were identified: Push Starting Learning, Doing the Work, Learning Online Together, and Making it Real. These four processes resulted in Learning Deeply for most participants, which contrasted with previous experiences of “learning by checklist.” Engaged learning was defined as a "…promotive, synergistic learning process involving self, peers, teachers, and/or others, requiring investment of one’s physical and mental capabilities along with a positive commitment of spirit and energy. Put simply, it is learning in relationship with others that involves head, hands, and heart". 

Study conclusions were: 1) “Engaging in Learning Together“ was revealed as a theory for undergraduate nursing participants’ political and policy learning; 2) Deep, meaningful learning occurred with peers, the instructor, and others through reading, writing, discussion, and experiential activities; and 3) The disciplinary focus created a positive context for learning about civic engagement and furthered professional formation of participants’ knowledge, skills, and disposition for political and policy advocacy work as future nurses.

This presentation will highlight teaching and learning practices within the four learning processes which fostered participants’ engagement in learning despite the fact many participants were not interested in politics or policy at course beginning. Specific ways these practices deepened students’ learning through reading, writing, discussion, and experiential learning will be emphasized.

In similar contexts, the theory may have potential for guiding nurse educators’ course design and instructional strategies for teaching political and policy advocacy to undergraduate students. Creating intentional activities for students to develop these skills in their beginning education may help normalize these as a fundamental part of practice with importance equivalent to knowing how to perform vital signs.

Intentional, deliberate inclusion of political and policy education for nursing students in their beginning education has the goal of promoting nurses’ future civic engagement in their profession, organizations, communities, and governmental realms.  Participants in this study revealed new understanding of nursing’s roles in policy and political advocacy. Development of civically engaged professional nurses should position them to participate in these processes, create a stronger foundation for graduate education, and expand the profession’s development of political and policy leadership.