How do you solve a problem like literature searching? Adding professional value to academic skills development.

David Brown discusses how to ensure that professionals in training have the chance to develop academic study skills.

What's the point of developing study skills? For some the answer to that question will be very clear (whatever their feelings), but for many students this presents a difficult challenge. This is especially the case for students on professional programmes, where their ultimate goal is registration for a specific career path. Academic skills can therefore seem like simply a means to an end, rather than in themselves proving professionally beneficial.

This is despite the fact that some professional bodies explicitly expect students to develop exactly those skills during their degree. The Nursing and Midwifery Council's Code for Nurses and Midwives, for example, obliges new registrants to maintain robust and effective literature searching skills in order to "practise in line with the best available evidence". The challenge for practitioners and teachers of study skills is therefore to create a link for students between the academic environment of the university and their end goal of professional registration. How do we demonstrate the relevance and transferability of traditionally academic skills? How do we encourage students to view academic skills as a means to strengthen, rather than distract from, professional skills? This post will explore some of my recent work with students on the BSc Nursing programme in Health Sciences to address these issues.

What was the problem?

Health Sciences students are expected to engage with a range of academic skills from an early stage in their programme. Literature searching in particular is a prominent area of attention, especially so given the discipline's focus on evidence-based practice and the inherent need to find and use literature of sufficient quality and academic rigour. This focus means that students will often be expected to develop skills and knowledge of literature searching very quickly, and likely very much sooner than their peers on other programmes.

On the BSc Nursing programme, students receive a range of guidance on literature searching specifically (and digital literacy more broadly) across the three years of the degree. The first of these classes takes place in a first-term module in year 1: Co-operative Learning Group (CLG) 1. CLG modules are designed to provide an open and inclusive environment for discussion and collaboration; students are allocated into groups which follow through the whole programme. The session is designed as an introduction to basic principles of effective searching, and previously included a range of procedural activities related to searching. It did not, however, tackle the broader professional context or sufficiently explain to students why literature searching was such a key focus of the degree. It was also an issue that students were being asked to focus on relatively basic skills, despite this session being timetabled several weeks into the programme when they arguably should have covered many of those skills already.

What did I do to address it?

In October 2015 the session was changed to adopt a flipped-classroom method. Students were asked to complete exercises and read content in advance through the Health Sciences Subject Guide, including an online activity to search YorSearch, the Library catalogue. This left more time in class for group discussion and active learning activities, which was much more closely aligned to the format of the CLG modules in general.

In the classroom activities, students were asked to watch the video below about the importance of literature searching in a professional context, then to comment on scenarios where literature might be used to inform and add value to interactions with patients.

The aim of these activities was to situate literature searching as holding direct value, both for the students as practitioners and the patients under their care. Literature searching therefore becomes a core skill for the students, rather than an optional, overtly academic extra - at least that was my hope!

There was also time in the session for students to explore relevant online resources and to develop basic literature searching skills, in support of their assignments for upcoming modules.

What was the outcome?

Initial feedback from the students and their interest in class suggests that the session's new approach was broadly successful. The true test will be in how students develop their literature searching skills through the rest of the programme. Subsequent sessions in year 1 and beyond are designed to become gradually more complex, with the intention that students have a solid contextual grounding from this first session. In practice it is often in year 3 of the programme that students truly see the need for advanced literature searching skills, when they have to work on a longer project and evidence their searching methodology.

The success of this session could well be replicated across other programmes, especially those with an overt link to specific career paths or where skills development is mandated by a professional body. Disciplines such as Social Work and Law could therefore benefit from a more contextualised approach to academic skills.

How do you solve a problem like literature searching? The answer, at least in my experience, is to make it relevant to students. Skills with a purely academic end will only ever appeal to a limited group of students, but by emphasising how academic development also aids employability and personal development, we can gradually reach a wider audience and create truly skilled professionals, whatever their discipline.