Nursing studies

Helping students find their feet

Staff nurse Joleen McKee, honoured for her efforts to help nursing students get the most from placements on her ward, talks to Lynne Pearce about her ideas

Staff nurse Joleen McKee, honoured for her efforts to help nursing students get the most from placements on her ward, talks to Lynne Pearce about her ideas


Joleen McKee has developed a student experience programme for her ward.
Picture: Simon Graham

For staff nurse Joleen McKee, the experience of doing her nursing degree was so recent she knew just what students needed when they came on placement to her busy cardiothoracic surgery ward.

‘I remember being a nursing student and hearing someone talk about giving a patient a cabbage,’ she recalls. ‘I thought why on earth would they do that? And then I found out it was a coronary artery bypass graft, which is shortened to CABG. If you haven’t worked in this area before, you don’t know the abbreviations.’

When you’re new and inexperienced, gaining the confidence to ask what something means can also be daunting. ‘Students are in fear of people thinking they haven’t done their research, when they probably have,’ says Ms McKee, who qualified in 2016 from Ulster University in Northern Ireland.

‘I wanted to be able to kick-start their learning’

‘But they worry they’ll make a bad impression,’ she adds. ‘They’re also concerned with getting to know their mentor before they feel able to ask so many questions. I wanted to be able to kick-start their learning.’

To help students find their feet, Ms McKee has developed a student experience programme for her ward at Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. It includes an introduction to the ward, lists of abbreviations they are likely to come across and a beginner’s guide to the specialism, as well as a library of useful material.

In the pipeline is a student information pack, and there is a broad ambition to roll out the scheme to other wards in the longer term.

Making their journey through the ward that bit easier

‘The programme helps to cushion students and make their journey through the ward that bit easier,’ says Ms McKee, who sat on the RCN Students Committee for two years. ‘My own training is quite fresh in my mind and I can remember the various things I worried about as a student, where I needed a bit of extra help.

‘For me, placements were always nerve-wracking – you don’t know anyone and you may never have worked in that hospital before, let alone that ward.’

Students, whose placements last between six and 12 weeks, can also suggest topics they would like to learn more about, with the ward providing training sessions led by experts in that particular area. 


Ms McKee’s programme helps students gain a picture of how the team works together.
​​​Picture: Simon Graham

‘Everyone is very supportive and involved’

‘There is such a lot happening on this ward, but it may be that during your placement you don’t get to experience everything,’ says Ms McKee. ‘This helps to fill in the blanks of anything that’s missing.

‘Everyone is very supportive and involved – from nurses to medical staff, physiotherapists and catering assistants. Students gain a complete picture of how the team works together as a whole.’

The innovation has proved so popular and successful that she won the Learning in Practice award at the 2018 RCN Northern Ireland Nurse of the Year Awards, announced in June.

‘I’m looking forward to having students of my own’

‘I was nominated by my manager and was so happy to have her approval,’ says Ms McKee. ‘I was shocked and quite humbled to win – it was like a dream. It was an achievement to bring it back to the ward and have our work recognised. We’re all working very hard.’

Looking ahead, Ms McKee is hoping to become a nurse lecturer, first doing some formal training in mentorship, which starts in the next few months, before gaining experience in different clinical areas, including intensive care, emergency nursing and the community.

‘I’ve always had a passion to work with students,’ she says. ‘Becoming a mentor will help me gain insight into what students are learning now, as I need to keep my knowledge up-to-date.

‘I’ll also gain some hints and tips about how to look after them. I’m looking forward to having students of my own.’


Lynne Pearce is a freelance health writer

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