Facilitating learning in practice
Facilitating learning in practice

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Facilitating learning in practice

4 Support for mentors

Mentors require support because they often find it difficult to fail students. This is due to lack of confidence in understanding the assessment process, interpreting the information used by professional bodies and being able to differentiate between failing and competent students. They need to develop an in-depth knowledge and understanding of their accountability at every stage of the student’s programme, because they are accountable for the decision made to either pass or fail a student.

Activity 5 Support for mentors in decision making

Allow 1 hour

The following video features Ros Moore, a practitioner who talks about the problems in failing students and acknowledges the need for mentors to have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of accountability for the decisions made. She emphasises the mentors’ professional responsibility as facilitators of learning, gatekeepers and the public representatives within the profession, and believes that when mentors see a student struggling in practice, they should be willing to be the support and take action when required. Ros stresses the importance of their role as mentors in making valid judgements when assessing students’ competence in practice to protect the service users and maintain good professional standing.

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Fiona Dobson:
Hello Ros. As the former Chief Nursing Officer for Scotland I’d be really interested to hear your views about mentor responsibility. So I wonder whether to start off with, you might like to offer some thoughts about how mentors can be effectively supported to deliver those very difficult decisions that they sometimes have to make.
Ros Moore:
Yes. I think one of the things that many contemporary mentors don’t quite understand is where we started off from and where all this came from. And in the reforms to nurse education in the 1990s and early 2000 there was a very clear recognition that the responsibility for practice belonged with practice, rather than with academics working in a different situation.
So I think that’s the first thing to understand is that that was a compact that we made at that particular time. And it’s been a compact that we’ve made with society that we, as nurses, will ensure that the next generation are the right generation, have got the right skills in place and that we take responsibility for that.
At the same time, they have to balance that against their role as a facilitator of learning. Because one of the great things about those reforms was that it allowed learners to be learners for the first time. And therefore part of the practice role is also being a facilitator of learning.
Bringing those two things together can be difficult. It can cause a bit of role dissonance and I think all of us understand and recognise that, and indeed have experienced that ourselves in some shape or form.
But the responsibility of being the gate keeper, of being the public’s representative almost within the profession, of being that self regulating profession is that when we do see a student who is struggling that we are willing to stand up and to be the support and willing to take action when that’s required. And action early.
Fiona Dobson:
Thanks Ros that’s really helpful. I think that’s going to be very helpful to these new mentors who are sort of learning how to become mentors. It will give them some really strong insights.
I wonder whether we could move on now and think about the way in which a mentor needs to be delivering those judgements about student performance whilst also making sure that they do protect the public and maintain the standing of the profession.
Ros Moore:
So one of the things, the most important things that can support a mentor to be able to have the courage to fulfil their professional responsibilities and to support students at the same time, is reflective practice. The things that we do in and around patients and clients, we can actually do with our students providing it’s done within a framework of confidentiality and the professional codes. It’s a very useful thing to do in order to share approaches and strategies and things that have worked and to then take that forward into your practice as a mentor.
Fiona Dobson:
I think that’s a really helpful way of working isn’t it. I think sometimes nurses separate out what they do as nurses and what they do as mentors and don’t necessarily see the relationships between the two things. I think it’s really important to highlight that sort of approach to reflection.
Have you got any other suggestions Ros, of the way in which mentors can deliver effective support when they’re having to make difficult decisions?
Ros Moore:
I think the thing that we need to do is to look at the things that stop them making those difficult decisions. And we know from research what some of those things are. Some of them are around the lack of understanding, around the curriculum. And around the process of assessment and what exactly we’re trying to achieve.
I think mentors themselves will often talk about feelings of role dissonance in terms of, ‘I’m there to support the student but then here I am, you know, having at the same time to be an assessor and stand back.’ I think that sort of thing can really be helped by things like peer supervision, establishing a really strong mentorship network in and around your local area. Or between Trusts and organisations I’ve found have been particularly useful. And engaging in reflective practice. Of course that would have to be done within a framework of confidentiality but I think it’s a very important thing.
I also think this system itself needs to support the mentor. And we know that many mentors struggle simply to find the time within their existing responsibilities to do the job that they want to do. They know what they should do, they need to do the job that they want to do. So both the recent report from Lord Willis – Shape of Caring and indeed my own report into education, Setting the Direction in Scotland, both talked about what do we need to do. What does the system need to do to ensure that mentorship is doing what it should be doing? The assessor is supported to assess and have the knowledge skills, the attitudes, processes, etc. in place and an understanding of those to be able to: a) support the student and provide a great learning environment, but then b) when it’s necessary to engage in a good process of evidence-based assessment that means that the student knows that that challenge is made with evidence behind it and the right process behind it.
Fiona Dobson:
That’s given us some real food for thought I think. Thank you for sort of sharing your thinking about the role of the mentor and what could be supportive for them in terms of making these difficult decisions that they’ve got to be accountable for so I really appreciate your time today. Thank you Ros.
Ros Moore:
Thank you. Thank you to all those mentors out there who do this fantastic job and gate-keep on behalf of our profession. Thank you.
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As you watch, make a list of the factors that helped mentors to make confident decisions. Then reflect on what you have learned from doing this activity. Has it helped or hindered you in making assessment decisions on knowing when to fail students?


You may have considered the importance of preparation for mentors when failing students. It cannot be underestimated that mentors need to be prepared to undertake this aspect of their role. They need to be confident, assertive and skilled in assessing performance. There is evidence that mentors are inconsistent when assessing competence and are hesitant when faced with students’ unacceptable performance (Fitzgerald et al., 2010). Being organised as a mentor is key, as you need to:

  • keep accurate records of decisions made
  • seek guidance
  • encourage a network of support when required, such as peer supervision
  • encourage a really strong mentorship network in and around your local area, or between trusts and other organisations.

If not, a lack of preparation and experience in not recognising when students are underperforming may prevent the mentor from failing the student.

You will be able to make a ‘fail decision’ with confidence if you have followed a plan of action for any student who is not progressing or failing. The student should not be surprised at being informed that they have failed.

One of the key drivers for developing the role of ‘sign-off’ mentor was that more experienced mentors would be available to support assessment decision making not only at the end of a course or programme but also on the journey to completion. As you commence your mentoring role it is important that you establish what support is available to you through your colleagues, your employing organisation, education providers and national organisations.

Mentorship programme

If you are studying this provision as part of an NMC mentor preparation programme, you should discuss your reflections from this activity with your mentor and use your learning as a source of evidence in your portfolio.

Familiarising yourself with the NMC requirements for mentoring and keeping accurate records is discussed next. Accurate records will justify the decision made when assessing competence in students. It is therefore important to keep detailed notes of discussions that you have had with the student who has failed to meet the goals agreed.


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