Once, at the School of Nursing, grade point average and standardized test scores were all that mattered. Students hoped for the highest marks they could achieve and administrators used them as a barometer for success.
Then came Betty Shelton.Or, rather, then came Betty Shelton again. She had worked at West Virginia University for three years as a faculty member before taking an administrative job in Pennsylvania. It didn’t last long. The commute was easier, but she missed the supportive environment she’d left behind. So she returned to Morgantown in 2004, this time as the assistant dean of student services and with the intention to turn admissions on its head.
It wasn’t that Shelton rejected GPA and test scores all together – the rigors of the University’s nursing program require that students are academically inclined – but she thought the school should be admitting students based on more than a few sheets of paper.
Shelton had spent nearly two decades in the practice of nursing. Inspired by her special needs son, she treated mostly medically fragile and developmentally disabled patients, hoping she could help them reach mental and physical heights that once appeared unattainable.
She wanted the same for her students. And a new admissions procedure seemed like a good place to start, shaking the nursing school loose from its traditional boundaries.
She began pushing a plan in 2006, the year she became associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs. She wanted her colleagues to consider face-to-face interviews for all nursing school candidates, where administrators could gauge motivation and weigh it against cognitive ability.
“Who’s to say a student with a 3.5 GPA is going to be a better nurse than a student with a 3.4 GPA,” Shelton said. Because good nurses aren’t always measured in numbers. They’re measured in empathy and commitment, the qualities that matter when health, or life, is in peril and emotions take unpredictable leaps and dives.
“It took a while to convince people that it was an important thing to do,” Shelton said. But three years after finally implementing the plan, the nursing school has an unheard of 90 percent retention rate and Shelton has a national reputation.
That admissions procedure she touted – fittingly called the “Shelton Model of Student Retention” – is now used by nursing programs across the country to find students with the correct quantities of intelligence and promise. For that model and other contributions to student retention, the National League for Nursing’s Academy of Nursing Education recently named Shelton a 2009 fellow.
It’s a position that offers more prestige than it requires responsibility. But it’s also designed so that its members can capitalize on each other’s expertise.
In a field where the practice of the profession is often more appealing – and financially lucrative – than the instruction of it, nursing educators have a daunting mission. Their students must be taught to be meticulous but not dispassionate; shrewd but not glib. They must learn to love the science as much as the patients and the patients as much as the science.
It’s a delicate and frustrating balance that can chew through students’ determination and send them searching for new majors. Shelton wanted a way to stop the bleeding.
It started with the “Shelton Model,” and continued into the classroom with Shelton’s other brainchild, a student survey known as the “Perceived Faculty Support Scale.”
No longer would administrators search for candidates who would make good students. They would look for students who would make good nurses. And they would nurture instincts and respond to fears.
Listen to the students
The faculty support scale has an intimidating name, but a vital function. It’s a way for students to tell their professors what they need from the nursing program and to let them know if they’ve been receiving it. The system eliminates guessing and dissatisfaction. When students struggle, professors know it. If they need help, they get it, in the form of peer tutoring or faculty mentoring.
Traditional students benefit, of course. But students from coveted underrepresented or disadvantaged groups – often rural and male students in West Virginia – are buoyed, as well, providing them the support they need but might not receive at another school.
By 2010, Shelton hopes to make yet another student-centered transformation at the nursing school. She’s currently leading an overhaul of the curriculum. Many of the changes are obligatory, handed down by the accreditation board. But while other nursing schools are simply incorporating new classes into their existing programs to meet the requirements, WVU is throwing the old curriculum out and starting anew.
“We want to blow it up and restructure it,” Shelton said. “We don’t want to plug holes.”
The end result, she hopes, will be a more conceptual approach to teaching, one she believes will benefit student retention and success the way the Shelton model and support scale have. Because, while Shelton’s job often keeps her hidden in her corner office, away from students – “If I know them, it’s either really good or really bad,” she said, chuckling – it’s still the mission to improve their experience that keeps her moving, and her success in doing so that keeps her relevant.
“WVU really does care about the student,” Shelton said. “That’s why I came and that’s why I came back. Our students have a sense of community amongst themselves. They truly have a family in this school.”
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