A Twist on Traditional Fables Helps Students Grasp Difficult Concepts

Nursing Professor Uses Creativity to Make Tough Course Effective

January 13, 2000

Most people probably don’t know that Goldilocks was an avid quantitative analyst who ate broth and tofu, not porridge, before falling asleep on Baby Bear’s bed.

Soon after Jeanne Grace began teaching an undergraduate research course at the University of Rochester School of Nursing four years ago, she hammered out several contemporary versions of traditional fables. Each story incorporates a research concept to help her students grasp difficult topics while making the course more interesting.

Students have heard that nursing research is terribly important, though they don’t always understand why. They expect the subject to be difficult and boring, Grace admits. In teaching the course, I try to engage them by keeping them amused. She describes the fables as the spoon of honey that helps the medicine go down.

The course has evolved to become the School of Nursing’s first on-line course, one that is highly interactive and contains more than 50 quizzes and practice quizzes. The on-line course has drawn the attention of other nursing schools, due in part to the clever use of allegory. Now, the School of Nursing markets both the fables and the on-line course on a subscription basis. Ten schools used the fables last semester. The School of Nursing anticipates enhancing its on-line course offerings over the next few years, and this summer will introduce an on-line course on computers in healthcare.

Because people learn in a variety of ways, you never know which approach is going to trigger the ‘ah-ha’ experience for students, says Grace. I use a smorgasbord of learning methods-the course textbook, my fables, multiple practice quizzes, play-acting-whatever helps them comprehend and retain the concepts better. She notices, however, that when her fables are used in class, students’ eyes stop glazing over.

When Grace teaches about quantitative data values, for example, she introduces the concept of level of measurement: values of a variable can have names (categorical), ranks (ordinal), or specific numeric units of measurement (interval/ratio). Level of data measurement is important because it drives the way one can summarize and analyze data, Grace explains. There are different rules of analysis based on the level of data. If students don’t know the level of data they’re dealing with, they don’t know what rules to apply. She reinforces the differences with the revised story of Goldilocks.

In Goldilocks and the Three Levels of Data, Goldilocks’ choice of soup to eat is based on the level of measurement possible for the contents, rather than the temperature of the soup. The first soup, a broth filled with identical-sized cubes of various vegetables and fruit, was too categorical; the second soup, containing small, medium and large pieces of tofu, was too ordinal; but the third soup, filled with a variety of sizes of potatoes pieces, all of which were multiples of the smallest in size, was interval and thus, just right for Goldilocks’ favorite analytic strategies.

Grace occasionally receives fan e-mail from someone who has discovered her fables on the Internet or has taken the on-line course. Her first fable, The Hunch Test of Notre Dame, addresses performing a quasi experiment rather than a true experiment. I wrote this fable to illustrate that there are times when you cannot manipulate the variable, that sometimes you can’t do the experiment and you have to make do with second best, Grace says. If you hold off acting on information until it has been confirmed by experiment, there are many things you simply will never know.

Grace’s course is as attractive for its fables as for its electronic format. Dalita Davis, a nursing student who took Grace’s on-line research course says, If it wasn’t for the fables, I wouldn’t have ‘gotten it.’ They made it that much clearer, allowed me to grasp and remember the concepts better, and understand the relevance of nursing research, she says. Taking the course on-line was very convenient. I could work at my own pace and fit it into my schedule-even if I was out of town.

Nursing research is central to the school’s RN to BS program and forms the basis of evidence-based practice. Nurses must be able to think critically about what they are doing. Understanding research and being able to critique it is the core of that, Grace explains. Nurses must be consumers of research in order to improve their practice.

Grace, an associate professor of nursing at the School of Nursing and a women’s health nurse practitioner, has a background in early childhood development. Her research centers on how children develop in disadvantaged families, especially focusing on how to help young women be effective mothers. Grace works once a week with pregnant teenagers in the adolescent maternity program at Strong Memorial Hospital.

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