I completed my Bachelor of Nursing in December last year and, if your undergrad degree is anything like the program I did, you have heard A LOT about SMART goals.
But how do you actually use SMART goals, especially when creating learning objectives for your student placements? Well, that is what this article is for (and don’t worry, I’m not going to be going over the acronym again or telling you how to write one)! Although they might seem tedious at times, learning goals are a really important part of the placement experience and allow you to reflect on your practice and improve in areas of weakness. Today, I would like to reflect on my experiences to share some tips for creating better learning goals for placement. It took me a while to get the hang of how to formulate and write ones that I would actually use and be able to achieve, so if you want to skip past this process these tips are for you!
1. Communicate your goals!
Believe it or not, –telling your preceptor or facilitator what you want to learn that shift is actually the hardest part of goal setting on placement. Unfortunately, communicating your goals is going to be awkward sometimes, especially if your preceptor is not as ‘student-oriented’ as others. My advice is to just bite the bullet and try to tell your preceptor as soon as possible what your goals for the shift are. Showing this kind of initiative and ownership over your learning may even help them warm up to you quicker.
In my experience, it is easier to mention your goals straight up, for example:
“Good morning Preceptor, I believe that I am working with you today. My objectives for this shift are to administer a subcutaneous injection and to perform a patient discharge – can you help me to meet these goals?”
2. Make a ‘Goal Bank’
I found it helpful during my placements to make a ‘Goal Bank’ at the start of the rotation which is a list of all the skills that I felt I needed to learn and would be able to practice in the placement setting.
I would then pick two from this list for each shift, meaning I did not have to worry about remembering to write two unique goals before each shift and always had a backup if I was unexpectedly moved to a different ward or section during the placement.*
An example of a goal bank would include tasks such as:
- Perform wound care using ANTT.
- Perform a skin integrity assessment.
- Administer IV antibiotics.
- Perform an ISBAR handover.
- Understand the process for requesting patient retrieval (rural hospitals).
- Perform a pre-operative admission (theatre/day surgery setting).
3. Don’t get bogged down in the use of Professional Standards
Try to avoid picking a professional standard as a learning goal as they are broad and (generally) unspecific. I found a better use of professional standards in goal setting is to reference a standard to validate a learning goal. For example:
- Invite patient to collaborate in creation of daily care plan (NMBA Standard for Practice 5.2).
- Locate and understand the facility policy for treating hypoglycaemia (NMBA Standard for Practice 1.4).
4. Make sure your goals are tangible
This might seem like a strange recommendation, but it is one that I found very valuable as it provides a physical demonstration of the competition of a goal. What can you show your supervisor at the end of the day to prove that you met your goal? This could include annotating your care plan/handover sheet to show that you have considered the chronic conditions of your allocated patients, performing all of your assessments on time or having a drafted handover completed at the end of the shift.
Providing a tangible communicator that you have achieved your goals is an excellent way to demonstrate initiative, especially if you do not have much one-on-one time with the facilitator or educator grading your performance.
5. Use and seek feedback from others
Unsure of where your weaknesses are? Your peers and preceptors are a great resource in identifying some areas of practice where you need to develop your skills!
At the end of each shift during my placement, I always made sure to ask my preceptor what they thought I could improve on or continue to develop, and I often received very helpful responses. Seeking feedback often leads to opportunities that you may not have ‘earned’ without demonstrating the level of reflective practice associated with seeking feedback. Asking questions about your and other clinicians’ practice is important when building professional knowledge and helps to develop an interpersonal relationship with your preceptors and facilitate the growth of a strong professional network.
6. Keep your learning within context
Every nursing context is different, and each provides its own unique skills. Keeping your learning goals within context means that your goals are tailored to what opportunities are available to you For example, a placement in a nursing home might limit your ability to practice administering IV antibiotics but will provide you with an opportunity to perform a Mini Mental State Examination or learn about Advanced Care Planning.
7. Be flexible
Nursing, no matter how well planned, is very unpredictable. Remember that no matter what happens, there is a lesson in everything. If a learning opportunity unexpectedly pops up, take it – from medical emergencies to facility-run education sessions – there is something to be learnt from every situation. Good skills to develop in order to become more flexible include:
- Improving your critical thinking and reasoning by focusing on what is being done and why
- increasing your active participation by stepping forward and volunteering to perform tasks where you feel confident instead of stepping back as an observer,
- working on your interpersonal skills so that you can better ‘read the room’ and know when is the most appropriate time to ask questions and be involved and when it is best to let the experts work.
At the end of the day, it is your engagement with the specialisation, your peers and patients, not the setting, that makes the placement worthwhile. Learning goals are a really good tool to use to make sure that you are putting your best effort in and are giving whatever you have been allocated a fair crack!
*Bonus tip: if you are in a practice setting where your patient load is variable (e.g. in a small rural hospital or general practice), make a list of “Quiet Day” goals that are not reliant on patients, such as going through the emergency trolley for that facility (which may differ from that “standard” trolley in most tertiary hospitals) or locating and identifying the equipment in an imminent birth kit if available in your setting.