Why You Don’t do well, even when you study hard (hint: it’s NOT test taking strategy…)(Episode 49-Navigating Nursing School Podcast)

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Today I’m going to answer a student question one of my VIP tutoring members recently asked me…and it’s definitely the most important question that YOU should be asking yourself during nursing school, too! 

Not only will you discover what this very important question is, AND why it’s the key to your nursing school success, but you’ll also find out how the answer to this question explains why you’re not doing as well as you want to on your exams, no matter how much you study. So what’s this mysterious question? 


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Links from Episode 49:

Exact Instruction Challenge (PB&J version): https://youtu.be/Ct-lOOUqmyY

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Tutor On-Call Program (www.YourNursingTutor.com/tutor-on-call): All the benefits of the VIP Tutoring Membership, PLUS 24/7 access to ask a Professional Nursing Tutor all your questions via voice/text messaging. Limited Spots available, but you can join the waitlist to be notified as soon as there are openings.

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Transcript for Episode 49

Today I’m going to answer a student question one of my VIP tutoring members recently asked me…and it’s definitely the most important question that YOU should be asking yourself during nursing school, too! 

Not only will you discover what this very important question is, AND why it’s the key to your nursing school success, but you’ll also find out how the answer to this question explains why you’re not doing as well as you want to on your exams, no matter how much you study. So what’s this mysterious question? 

First, let me introduce myself! My name is Nicole Whitworth, and I’m a Registered Nurse and the founder of YourNursingTutor.com. I’ve got more than 12 plus years of experience helping nursing and pre-nursing students get through school confidently and calmly by training you how to be a self-learner, think like a nurse, and get better grades as a result. I do this through my VIP Tutoring Membership, which provides affordable access to quality tutoring for nursing school.  

And as I answer this student question over the next few minutes, you’ll finally have a better understanding of how you can study so much, yet still do badly on your exams.

This question was submitted by Faith, one of my VIP tutoring members who is currently working on her pre-requisite classes, and preparing to start nursing classes soon. She asks:

“Does thinking like a nurse take a lot of practice? I am not a critical thinker by nature. I hope I can retrain my mind. As a future nurse. I’d like to start now! It is mind boggling how much you have to remember, and if you’ll do the right thing in a crisis situation.”

I LOVE the question that Faith asked because it’s showing that she’s going to make an amazing nurse one day, for one thing! She’s thinking about these things now, before she’s even in nursing school. And she’s thinking about them so that she can provide the best care possible for her future patients. And also because she knows that you should begin how you intend to continue. 

So what that means is that if you know that you’re going to need to start thinking like a nurse in the future, then maybe you should start practicing thinking like a nurse right now. 

For a lot of people, this is going to be a big mindset shift. It was for me. So let me tell you a little bit about my experience back when I was in nursing school. First of all, before I was in nursing school, I had always been a good student. Nursing was a second career for me…in fact, you could probably say that I had been a professional student, or chronic student, as my first career. 

But seriously, before I switched to nursing, I thought I was going to be a clinical psychologist and work as a professor at a university somewhere. But instead, I switched gears and decided to drop out of my PhD program so that I could have more flexibility to follow my husband who was in the military. 

I did manage to complete my master’s degree in clinical psychology before deciding to go back for nursing. And I assumed nursing school would be pretty easy for me, since school in general had always been pretty easy for me, even graduate school. 

However…it was not! 

I failed my very first quiz in Fundamentals of nursing. So what that experience taught me, is that the things I had been doing to get into nursing school, the study skills and methods that helped me do well in the previous classes I had taken, were NOT going to be the same things that would get me successfully through nursing school. 

That’s why I think Faith is asking a really smart question here, because she’s learned from MY mistakes, and is looking ahead for how she can be proactive to avoid failing for herself. 

And for that, I have good news for all of you. 

The good news is that thinking like a nurse doesn’t take as much practice as you’d think. And if you think that you’re not a “critical thinker” by nature, I would challenge you on that. I bet you’re better at critical thinking than you believe, it’s just that a lot of times critical thinking is not clearly defined, especially when it comes to nursing school. 

So it ends up being kind of a fuzzy goal, especially when you’re struggling, and the only advice your instructors can give you is that “you have to improve your critical thinking”, and “you have to learn how to think like a nurse.”

Because as we all know, if you don’t have a clear goal, then you won’t know how to REACH that goal!

And the truth is that your instructors offer this kind of “fuzzy” advice, because the concepts are also kind of fuzzy to them! But for a different reason. The reason why they have a really hard time teaching you how to improve your critical thinking in nursing school is because they just sort of do it. Because they’re experts. 

They’ve been critically thinking like a nurse for years, maybe even decades. And the research shows us that it’s very, very hard for experts to turn around and break down the way that they think to explain it to a beginner. That process is called metacognition, which is thinking about how you think, and it’s surprisingly hard to do. 

If you don’t believe me, just think about how you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Actually, better yet, look on YouTube for some really hilarious videos, where parents do this challenge, and they ask their children, who are usually elementary school aged, to write out the step by step instructions for how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 

The kids think they got this one in the bag, because it’s easy to them to think about how to make a sandwich. They’re an expert on making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And so they will write things like put peanut butter on the bread. And then when the parent tries to follow the instructions, they take each instruction extremely literally, and put the entire jar of peanut butter right on top of the bread and squish it. And of course, hilarity ensues. And the kids are like oh no, no, no, not like that. 

I’m going to find the link to one of these challenges if you want a good laugh during a study break. You’ll see that one poor kid is about to cry because the Dad is basically finding every way possible to misunderstand his PB&J instructions.

And honestly, that’s how your instructors sometimes feel, too! Like they want to cry. But the big difference is that you’re not purposely trying to misunderstand their instructions the way that the Dad in the video is! But they sometimes assume that you are, because they don’t realize how easily this process comes to them…but not yet to you. Which is why there is such a big disconnect between instructors and students in nursing school, and sometimes this leads to instructors feeling frustrated, and even acting rude or bullying their students sometimes. 

It all comes back to the fact that when experts try to break down their own thought process to teach a beginner like you, it doesn’t usually come naturally to them. As a tutor, this is something that I’ve trained myself to be able to do. 

I’ve trained myself to be able to break down complex topics and thought processes so that I can explain them in a way that makes sense to your brain as a beginning nurse. Because if you’re in nursing school, then you are a beginning nurse, okay? And you will be a beginning nurse pretty much all the way through your first year after graduation. You’re not stupid, you’re just a beginning nurse. 

Unfortunately, when experts don’t understand this about themselves, this is where you get the eye rolling. This is where you get kind of the accusations that you’re lazy, or when you start to get the feeling that your instructor wonders if you’re cut out for nursing school. 

And it’s why you end up with these instructors who stand up in the class at the beginning of the semester and say these awful, discouraging things, like announcing that a certain number of your classmates aren’t going to make it through the program. It’s all because they can think like an expert nurse already…but they don’t know how to break it down to help YOU begin to think that way, too.

Which is why, if you want to improve your critical thinking, you first need to define what critical thinking is. The way I define it, is that you know how to take a certain body of knowledge, you know how to organize that knowledge so that you can recall relevant information for any given situation, and then you also know how to analyze that information and combine it with the NEW information that you get in a situation. Once you’ve analyzed it, then it’s easier to turn around and apply it.

Okay, now what does this look like in your everyday life? You actually do this all the time, which is why I cringe when I hear students like Faith who say they don’t think they’re good at critical thinking…because I know for a fact that she’s selling herself short. And I’m about to prove it to her.

So Faith happens to be a Mom in addition to going back to nursing school. So let’s use a “Mom” example. Let’s say you walk into a room and see two of your kids fighting with each other. You walk in, they both stop fighting, and look at you with guilty expressions. And you see a broken vase on the floor. What do you think happened? 

If you guessed that one of the kids broke the vase, or maybe both of them did, maybe because they were doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing, then congratulations!  You CAN critically think!

You were able to draw a reasonable conclusion based on your previous knowledge base about children in general, and about what it takes to break a vase. You took that previous knowledge, and combined it with the new information you gathered from the scene described. And then you analyzed it by determining the most logical way that everything fits together. Now it’s time to take the next step and apply your next best action by grounding those little suckers!

And that’s really the process of critical thinking. 

Of course, what you need to figure out now, is how to take your “critical thinking in everyday life” skill, and transfer that skill to nursing school. 

When you think about critical thinking this way, you’ll actually be surprised at how quickly you can adjust to thinking like a nurse. Personally, I think the hardest adjustment with learning to think like a nurse is actually in building your new knowledge base. 

That’s because your knowledge base of nursing information is the foundation that you need to START transferring your critical thinking skills. You NEED to be able to recall the relevant facts that will help you make clinical decisions in any given scenario.

That’s the biggest difference between critically thinking in nursing school, and critically thinking in the example I just described with the broken vase. You already have this inbuilt knowledge base already when it comes to kids, and breakable objects. 

But when you face a clinical scenario, what kind of nursing foundation do you need to know before you can even begin to critically think about it? Probably normal anatomy and physiology a lot of times. You also need to know all of the strange and new vocabulary, the medical jargon and terminology, right? You need to know your specific assessment skills and how to do them. How do you palpate? How do you take a blood pressure? Things like that. 

And then you take all of this new information, and you practice using it while you’re simultaneously learning it. That’s really the biggest challenge of nursing school, because it’s a lot like building your house at the same time that you’re trying to live in it…and if you’ve ever done a major renovation on your home, you know exactly how messy and stressful that can be. 

The process of learning to think like a nurse is a lot like that.

However, this is also the exact reason why I always tell my VIP tutoring students that nursing school should get easier as you go…not harder. If nursing school is getting harder and harder as you go, then you need to know that you’re doing something seriously wrong. 

And in my experience as a professional nursing tutor, I can tell you exactly what’s wrong: you’re not properly building the foundational knowledge base of nursing information. It’s not because you’re not working hard on studying. I can promise you, I rarely meet a truly lazy nursing student, despite what many instructors may think. 

Who I DO meet are hardworking nursing students who don’t know what to do to improve! They don’t know the study techniques they should be using to maximize their efforts, so that their grades finally become an accurate reflection of what they actually do know. And they don’t know how to harness all that hardwon nursing information that’s already in their brain so that they can use it to think critically, practice thinking like a nurse, and be able to arrive at the best conclusion so that they can answer their TEST questions correctly and get better grades! 

So there is both good news and bad news. I’ll share the bad news first. The bad news is that if you’re in a situation where you’ve gone through nursing school, and it’s getting harder instead of easier, like maybe you’ve started your med surg class and suddenly things aren’t going so well. That’s why you always hear a lot of students, and even professors, say, “Oh, everybody says med surg is hard.” 

It’s not that med surg is hard, per se, it’s that med surg is really where the rubber meets the road, and if your foundation is soggy…well, you’re not going to do very well. That’s why this is the bad news part: you either have knowledge gaps, OR the nursing information is disorganized in your brain. Probably some of both.

This happens when you’re not gradually building YOUR foundational nursing knowledge base in an organized and strategic way early on, which is why you will really start struggling later on in nursing school. It’s simply too much information to be trying to memorize rote and then recalling without the proper context. 

Instead, you want to get to a point where the nursing information just becomes a sort of natural thing for you. And I’ll throw in another analogy here, because I always like using multiple analogies. Different analogies make sense to different people’s brains. 

So here’s another analogy: learning to think like a nurse is like playing with legos. But when you start nursing school, you first have to build each individual Lego block. The A&P, the pathophysiology, the medical jargon, the hands on skills…these are examples of the types of lego blocks that you need to build as you study.

Then once you’ve built the lego blocks, the fun part starts! You get to combine those lego blocks in new and creative ways to solve problems and achieve goals. And if you learn to keep all your lego blocks neatly organized by size or color or really whatever makes sense to your particular brain, then whenever you need a certain type of block for your current masterpiece (or test question!), then you’ll be able to quickly and easily find what you need, when you need it, to become a Master Builder.

But can you imagine if you actually DID have to create a brand new lego block for every single new masterpiece you wanted to build? It would be overwhelming! And realistically, you just don’t have time to do it. You’d waste way too much energy recreating the same style lego brick over and over again, simply because you didn’t realize you can reuse them. 

Or imagine if you spent the time it took to create all the lego blocks you would ever need for nursing school…then dumped them all in one huge toy box. How in the world could you ever be expected to find the exact lego blocks you need to answer your next test question correctly? 

Or maybe you waste to much time creating lego blocks that you’re never going to need, but you don’t realize that you’re never going to need them because you feel too anxious and want to have them available, “just in case”?

All this to say…the bad news is that if nursing school is getting harder, instead of easier, then you might be studying hard, but you’re not studying strategically. And you’re wasting a lot of time, energy, and stress as a result.

Now is a good time to mention that the solution is more than simply needing better test taking strategy. Because test taking strategy is not what you need. Test taking strategy is not going to help you make better clinical decisions and become a better nurse. You need to improve your critical thinking, learn to think like a nurse, and then your exams will automatically become a lot easier as a result without any gimmicky test taking strategies!

Now that leads me to the good news. The good news is, you’re already committed, you’re already a hard worker. That’s half the battle. And as a result, I would guarantee that you’ve already learned more important nursing information than your test grades would lead you to believe!

And so odds are good that all you need to do to see some quick improvements is to clean up your lego room. You need to have a study system in place that guides you to know which type of lego blocks to create, how to sort them, and how organize them so you can quickly and easily find them later, when you need them to answer a test question. 

And once you do this, you will start to find it a LOT easier to practice thinking like a nurse, to analyze and apply the information you already know, and combine it with new scenarios, case studies, and in clinical situations. 

So all that to say, let’s go back to Faith’s original question. Does thinking like a nurse take a lot of practice? Sure, it does. But you already DO know how to critically think better than you believe you can. So what it takes is a 2-part study combination where you’re first creating your foundation of nursing knowledge, and second you’re practicing how to analyze and apply that knowledge. 

If you only do the first part, then you’ll have a lot of extra nursing knowledge, but still be getting your test questions wrong. And then you’re going to think it’s because you need to improve your test-taking strategy, when that’s actually NOT the real problem. 

However, if you only do the second part, trying to practice analyzing and applying…well, you can’t. You can’t analyze and apply knowledge you don’t have. Which is why it’s super important to make sure that you’re learning the most important information when you’re studying, and not accidentally studying the wrong stuff so that you’re building the wrong foundation. 

When you can do those 2 things while you’re studying, then you’re learning to think like a nurse AS you’re studying, too. And if you think about how many study hours you’ll put in throughout nursing school, you’ll realize that you’ll be thinking like a nurse in no time! 

So again, yes: it does take a lot of practice. But if you’re studying strategically like I described, then it will also happen sort of naturally. Because you’re studying in a way that is training you to think like a nurse. That’s exactly why the Silver Bullet Study System that I use works so well. Learning to think like a nurse doesn’t have to be some special, separate thing that you add to your already busy “to do” list, like learning more gimmicky test strategies.

Because ultimately, if you’re thinking like a nurse, that’s what your test questions are testing you on. So if you have trouble answering test questions correctly, it’s not because you need better test taking strategy. It’s because you need more practice thinking like a nurse. And that’s what I specialize in helping students do.

I’ve worked with hundreds of nursing students over the years, and they always know more than they think they do when we start out. In fact, a lot of my VIP Tutoring Members start to see grade improvements in as little as 2 weeks sometimes when they switch to using the Silver Bullet Study System! 

Which is a little insane when you think about how long a lot of nursing students will continue to struggle before they finally reach out and get help, especially if they have to pay for it. Because they think it’s going to be too expensive, and don’t realize that they can get affordable and effective tutoring support through the VIP Tutoring Membership. 

Plus, you also get me as your nursing school “coach” for when you feel stuck or aren’t sure how to apply the Silver Bullet Study System to your next nursing school topic. I also provide mentorship, encouragement, PLUS you become part of a community of dedicated nursing students, most of whom are returning to school later in life, so they totally understand the unique struggles and challenges that you’re facing, too.

If you’re a nursing or pre-nursing student, and found the information I shared with you today helpful or encouraging, then could you please do me a favor by hopping over to iTunes or your favorite podcast app to leave me a 5-Star rating plus a review? Just 1-2 sentences of your honest opinion goes a looong way towards helping other nursing students find the help they need, and lets me know that I’m creating podcast episodes that are valuable to you…so that I know to create even MORE of them!

Until next time, good luck on your nursing journey!

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