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Identity and the learning experience of non-traditional students undertaking the specialist practitioner qualification

02 August 2021
Volume 26 · Issue 8


This small qualitative study is an exploration of the concept of identity and its relationship to the learning experience of non-traditional students undertaking the Specialist Practitioner Qualification in District Nursing. Using a narrative inquiry approach, three participants were asked to recall their experiences 1 year after completing the SPQDN programme. Individual narratives were analysed, and central themes were extracted using NVivo coding. The findings indicated that feelings of academic self-doubt, the impact of past learning experiences and the connotations of being labelled as a student all had an influence on the participants' learning experience.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) (2013) mandate to Health Education England (HEE) highlights the importance of establishing and maintaining training structures to enable workforce development within the NHS. This ensures future sustainability of a workforce with the right knowledge, skills and behaviours, and in the right numbers, required for delivery of high-quality patient care (DHSC, 2013). A vital part of the NHS in all countries of the UK are the district nursing and community services (Queen's Nursing Institute (QNI), 2019). There are insufficient numbers of suitably qualified district nurses in the UK to meet the complex and burgeoning needs of district nursing services. To meet the demands seen within the community teams, undertaking the Specialist Practitioner Qualification in District Nursing (SPQDN) is advocated to support the delivery of quality-based leadership, and maintenance of high-quality patient care (Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), 2001; QNI, 2014; 2015). However, despite this, the QNI (2019) reported that education within community teams is often postponed when teams lack the workforce to enable training to take place and be fully supported. Alongside these organisational challenges, there are also personal complexities associated with undertaking this qualification that need to be addressed, particularly around professional identity. Nurses who undertake the SPQDN programmes must make a transition into higher education, which requires an identity shift, not only in terms of practice but also in cultural disposition and character (Tobbell et al, 2010). SPQDN students move from one life path as a professional registrant to another as a post-graduate student. This transition requires a revision in individual roles and responsibilities and an acknowledgment that external commitments can also play a part in their future success (O'Brien et al, 2009; Baxter Magolda, 2014). Howard and Davies (2013) argued that the social and cognitive risks of participating in higher education are often greater for mature non-traditional learners who may have positioned themselves as having a non-learner identity; thus, the transition towards a learner identity and embracing a change in their perceived self-concept and efficacy can often be difficult to negotiate. Attrition rates, for example, are higher among mature learners, which could be linked to the difficulties that some students have in returning to a learner identity (Kenner and Weinerman, 2011).

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