Nurses Offered Multiple Ways to Demonstrate Leadership Skills


Clinical Assistant Professor, Dr. Jan Tillman, of East Carolina UniversityDr. Jan Tillman is very aware that the advanced practice nurses in her leadership course are a heterogeneous group. They are older than the traditional East Carolina University student and bring years of clinical experience to the table. They are practicing nurses, moms, dads, veterans and have varied ethnic backgrounds.  So she knew from the start that they would also bring a wide variety of learning styles to the table. 

When a workshop on improving student engagement and learning through course re-design was offered at ECU, she was excited to participate. The workshop had a focus on two approaches—Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and the Integrated Course Design (ICD) concept created by Dee Fink. It was sponsored by the ECU Office for Faculty Excellence and College STAR (Supporting Transition Access and Retention).  

Inspired by the workshop, she spent the summer of 2015 revamping the hybrid distance learning course  “Interdisciplinary Leadership and Role Development for Practice Excellence” to give her students several ways to both learn and demonstrate their knowledge of leadership principles.   

She divided the course into three tracks—a traditional read and lecture track, an “exposure” track which involves shadowing a working nurse leader, and an “experiential” track with a service learning component.    Students are required to select a track at the beginning of the course with no option to change mid-stream. In addition to selected readings, participants also are directed to material on as well as to TED Talks. 

All of this is consistent with UDL principles  which encourage a curriculum that presents information in multiple ways to give learners various ways of acquiring knowledge, providing learners multiple ways to demonstrate what they know and using multiple ways of engaging learners to keep them interested and motivated.

The idea is to give students the opportunity to choose which track fits their current situation, Tillman said.   “I have no way of knowing what’s going on in their lives,”   she continued.  All three tracks have proven to be popular, and students appreciate the opportunity to come up with a learning plan that works for them. 

The students do two-thirds of their work on-line and come to the ECU campus once each semester for a 3-5 day workshop.   Because maintaining a Reflective Learning Portfolio is a key component of the course, Tillman has been able to get a good picture of her students’ experiences.

 “The most helpful learning components of this course that sparked my interest and assisted me in retaining the materials that I needed to know were the videos from the website,” said one student.   “They were extremely informative, easy to follow, and highly appropriate for the course objectives. I know that I am a visual learner, and I also realized that I learn the best when I can simultaneously listen to the pleasant calm voice see the pictures and graphs that support the information presented, and read about it in a transcript to reinforce the new knowledge.”

Tillman said she was excited to be able to include a service-learning component in her course as this is a key focus of ECU and the College of Nursing.   “Service-learning can open the door for students to cultivate unique opportunities for working alongside community-based leaders in order to gain practical insight of nonprofit organizations,” she said.   Leaders and workers within nonprofit organizations have unique relationships with health care organizations by providing housing, social and financial support, job training, skill enhancement, and improved quality of life for those whom they serve, Tillman noted.   

“Having the three tracks as options to complete the assignments was wonderful,” wrote one post-masters student.   “We all learn differently and have different responsibilities in life. Being able to choose the most conducive track for me took away a lot of stress. Track two was perfect, the best of both worlds. I was able to meet with a leader in my own hospital and experience a new level of leadership and nursing.”    

“I chose to shadow a nurse leader in my community because she just recently opened her own office,” another student shared.     “She allowed me to spend time in her office and see how she conducts her business.  She has such a care and compassion for the people in her community, and it shows in the ways she interacts with her patients and how much they love her.  In her spare time, she volunteers for community outreach programs like sponsoring walks for diabetes and events for Habitat for Humanity.  I learned a great deal from her.”


 “I learned to meet people where they are,” wrote one student doing service learning at Christian Ministries in Lincoln County.  “ It´s not that I didn´t know this, but seeing it in action and seeking out opportunities to identify different communication styles made this an educational experience sure to impact my practice as a nurse leader.   My experiential learning track was exactly that…an experience!”


Even though they were given options, many students chose the traditional track.   “I chose the traditional track based on my personal schedule, one student shared.   “With 2 small children and my work schedule, I was able to perform assignments late at night or early morning.  In addition, Track 1 was more organized for me because I knew what was due and when.   I think I was successful because I could fit the course into my schedule.”

The flexibility offered in Tillman’s course and others in the College of Nursing recently were recognized by U.S. News & World Report in their list of 2016 Best Online Programs.   ECU’s College of Nursing programs were ranked 23rd out of 147 schools.