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The power of independent studies

Ahlemeyer, Jessica BSN; Mahon, Maureen BSN

doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0000457079.97768.a0

At the time this article was written, Jessica Ahlemeyer and Maureen Mahon were nursing students at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

The authors have disclosed that they have no financial relationships related to this article.

NURSING EDUCATION BUILDS the foundation for great nurses, providing the structure for students to learn how to think critically and provide stellar comprehensive care for the patient and family. The changing nature of healthcare requires educators to foster students' abilities to respond and adapt to change by providing innovative professional development opportunities. One way nursing schools can cultivate versatile nurses is by letting students create independent studies tailored to their own interests. This article discusses the many benefits of independent studies and describes the authors' personal experiences with an independent studies project.

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Professional development

Independent studies empower students to explore subjects and issues that foster professional development in a supportive environment with positive role modeling and mentoring. Independent studies also give them the freedom to explore individual interests and topics that aren't covered, or are covered only briefly, in other courses.

Nursing schools strive to cultivate students who are critical thinkers. These students are passionate about nursing, which pushes them to look beyond the usual course of study and explore additional venues for learning and career advancement. Through this desire, nursing students might develop an interest in a specific field or seek more opportunities to grow as future nurses.

One way to create opportunities for nursing students interested in a particular field is to give them the freedom to design a personalized curriculum. An independent study lets the student participate in planning the course objectives and desired outcomes, and explore topics in a nontraditional way.

When a course of study is tailored to the needs and interests of the student, he or she becomes more knowledgeable on a subject and develops more advanced academic or clinical skills. Students are more receptive to topics that they find fascinating; having an interest in the subject increases the student's effort and level of participation in the course. One example of an independent study option is working with public health faculty to develop a course examining various birth practices in different cultures and how they affect the nursing process.

Students must seek out professors or nurse experts to assist with the project as a mentor. This strengthens the student's relationship with faculty and can increase the student's comfort with asking future professional colleagues for assistance. Mentors help students maximize their potential and aspire to a higher standard.1

The mentor-student relationship goes beyond the coursework and can lead to a lifelong professional and personal relationship.1 This relationship shifts from student-teacher to a collegial relationship, which serves to improve the student's confidence and self-esteem.

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Positive personal experiences

During the authors' fall semester at Saint Louis University, we had the opportunity to develop our own independent study and chose to explore the professional publication process. We planned to start our course in the fall, so we began to prepare during the previous spring semester because we knew very little about publishing and curriculum development.

We met with a mentor who we both believed would serve as a helpful guide throughout the course. She had the skills we hoped to acquire as well as previous mentorship experience, and, most important, was enthusiastic about the proposed course. At her suggestion, we looked into the guidelines at Saint Louis University's School of Nursing with regard to independent studies and requirements, and we began discussing timelines and goals for course outcomes.

The mentor provided guidance about a realistic goal that would be professionally productive. Although she was honest and open about many of the difficulties we'd encounter, she also gave positive feedback about why this process would be worth every minute of challenge.

Our goal was for each of us to submit a manuscript for publication by the end of the semester. We hoped to accomplish this goal by breaking down the writing process into manageable steps with our mentor. We met in the summer to discuss types of publications and topics of interest and selected topics related to aspects of nursing care we found important.

The course was broken down into phases, which included discussing the basics of publication, literature reviews, writing drafts, editing, submitting manuscripts, and completing a final presentation that summarized our coursework and overall growth as nursing students.

Our mentor helped us understand the basic foundations of publishing and expectations of professional writing, then encouraged us to start our own personal journeys toward our first papers independently. We conducted our own literature reviews to find what information was available, and we met regularly with each other and with our mentor to see how we could improve our experience and fill in gaps and weak areas.

Once we felt that we'd exhausted the literature, we drafted outlines and discussed ways to improve them. We completed much of the work alone; however, together we discussed our progress and regularly kept our mentor informed about our individual progress and steps we were taking to meet our objectives and goals.

Starting earlier helped us to excel beyond our expectations for ourselves. Because we were prepared ahead of time, we met all of our original goals, and we both completed a longer paper and a shorter reflection paper. Two are already accepted for publication. We're now learning about reading proofs and editing as part of the publication process.

Completing one paper in a semester initially seemed impossible, but after finishing two, we were eager to see what we could do next. As a result of this unexpected success, we decided to move forward and continue this independent study into the spring so we could continue publishing articles on new topics and in different journals.

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Benefits from the course

The 4 short years that nursing students have to prepare themselves for their profession offer very little flexibility in the course of study. Program curriculum is determined by the guidelines of two accrediting bodies: the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing and the National League for Nursing Accreditation Commission.2,3 Specific university requirements also contribute to the educational requirements that nursing students must complete. Consequently, students have few opportunities to explore unique interests, especially those that might offer a professional advantage.

On reflection, we both realized that in creating this independent study we began investing time in personal interests that we feel will become the building blocks for our future professional endeavors. We realized that our course of study and student-mentor relationship will be invaluable in the future. Not only did this let us start an individual journey toward fostering deeper understandings of particular areas of specialization, it allowed us to better understand the professional expectations we must meet when we graduate and pursue our careers.

Over the course of the year, we've both learned to work more effectively as individuals with a mentor rather than the traditional teacher-student method. Through queries and guidance from our mentor, we learned how to select journals likely to publish our manuscripts and how to develop these pieces based on an editor's guidelines and feedback. We've also learned how to appropriately review literature, reference sources to strengthen our papers, and manage our citations. Through researching and writing about our topics, we've become more knowledgeable about providing patient care and implementing evidence-based research.

Equally important, we've learned the value of time management. The writing and publication process is lengthy and can easily foster procrastination. We were often frustrated with the writing process and relied on each other and our mentor for support. Through realistic goals, a solid timeline, a good mentor, and peer support, the process became easier and our stress was minimized.

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Fostering great results

Independent studies offer unique opportunities to explore personal interests and expand one's knowledge. The initial process for creating and implementing an independent study can seem overwhelming, but careful planning in the beginning enabled us to have a positive experience.

The best piece of advice we can give to nursing students is to explore the resources available at their schools and ask about what other learning opportunities are available. Opportunities are created through asking what more can be done and charting your own course as you advance your education.

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1. Hadidi NN, Lindquist R, Buckwalter K. Lighting the fire with mentoring relationships. Nurse Educ. 2013;38(4):157–163.
2. Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. 2013 standards and criteria. 2013.
3. American Association of Colleges of Nurses. Standards for accreditation of baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs. 2013.
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