Kynthia James, RN, makes pharmacology instruction memorable by including some interesting tools: markers, crayons, and colored pencils.
Instructor of Nursing, Valdosta State University, Valdosta, Georgia
MS in Nursing, MS in Nursing Education, BS in Nursing
It is not hard to understand why Kynthia James, RN, nursing instructor at Valdosta State University, ended up teaching nursing with art supplies. “I am such a visual learner that many times when I am presenting in class, I’ll just put a picture on a slide and teach from that,” she says.
Five years ago, that realization prompted James to take a closer look at her Pharmacology in Nursing Practice course. She wanted the material—typically taught through lectures—to be more engaging for an increasingly distracted student body. She was observing more and more students spending their free time on their mobile device apps, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.
“One day it came to me that I needed to bring art into the classroom,” James says. She already used visuals in her presentations, so having her students actually draw some original pictures seemed a clear next step.
In addition to breaking up lectures and appealing to visual learners, James says leveraging artistic creativity in a nursing classroom can provide students with a new way to create their own study resources. Also, since she has made the exercise a team project, it encourages collaboration—something future nurses will need to be really good at.
Below, James shares her advice for using art as a strategy to help students to engage with one another while they gain a deeper understanding of the content covered in class.
“Students have so many distractions these days. You have to figure out how to grab their attention and even leverage their devices and social media for teaching. [So I thought,] ‘What if I have students create their own pictures?’”— Kynthia James, RN, MSN, CMSRN, CNL
Course description: Safe dosage calculation and pharmacotherapy, including pharmacological and parenteral agents, actions, therapeutic benefits, side effects, client response, and nursing implications.
See resources shared by Kynthia James, RN, MSN, CMSRN, CNLSee materials
5 tips to make artwork work for your students
Over time, James’s experience with visual instruction has helped her develop a number of best practices to engage all students, from those excited to share their creative works to those who are reluctant to do so. Here, she shares her top five tips for helping students create a visual study aid to improve the understanding of a particular course topic.
1. Choose art “subjects” with special care
Not every topic can—or should—be an art project. Determining the difference takes some time, so it is best done before the first day of class. “I look at what I want to cover over the semester and decide which points are best conveyed in a visual manner,” James says. “If I am talking about the principles of pharmacology, and how drugs react in your body, that’s hard to express visually. On the other hand, cardiac drugs, fluid/electrolytes, and constipation/laxatives are easier to bring to life visually, so they could be part of an art project.”
James also uses this planning stage to determine the number of times she will use art projects in a given semester. She does not recommend more than once or twice: “If you’re trying to be innovative, you can’t do the same thing over and over,” she says. “You have to change things up.”
2. Pair up students of differing ability
Jones leverages peer networks to help students feel more comfortable. “On the first day of class, I ask, ‘Is anyone artistically inclined?’” she says. “Some students raise their hands, and I use them as team leaders. There are two people in each team, and I combine those who are artistically strong with those who are more reluctant.” She encourages the novice artists to ask their peers for help with any questions or concerns they may have about drawing.
Working in pairs decreases student anxiety, she says, because they can draw upon each other for suggestions and feedback.
3. Provide supplies—and inspiration
James introduces an art project into the classroom as soon as the semester starts, since this helps students get to know each other (and begin collaborating), as well as better learn and absorb the topics.
“After separating [students] into groups, I provide markers, crayons, and colored pencils, as well as easel-pad paper, so they have the supplies they need to access their inner artists and begin,” James says. She gives the teams roughly 20 minutes to develop a drawing during class. If students need inspiration, James shares one of her favorite resources: Mosby’s Pharmacology Memory NoteCards: Visual, Mnemonic, and Memory Aids for Nurses, a set flash cards with engaging images on the front and explanations on the back.
4. Have them share what they know—and drew
Once the 20 minutes of artistic time are complete, James has the teams post their art on the wall at the front of the class. Then each team stands beside it to lead a class discussion on their work. James contributes additional commentary, which could include clarifying aspects of the topic or important points that the students might have missed.
James says she does not grade the artwork per se, but the work does factor into the participation points that are part of the overall grade.
5. Focus on the concept, not the artistic ability
No team will unveil a masterpiece during the 20-minute exercise, but that is not the point. “I care less about the quality of the drawing and more about how the picture simplifies, illustrates, and teaches the topic,” James says. She makes sure that the students know this, too. She encourages them to take and keep photos of the completed works to use as study aids, and sometimes she will scan their pictures and post them for the whole class to use for reference.