We just attended the National League for Nursing (NLN) Summit to exhibit and learn more about Nursing Education. Rubrics and continuous improvement are already a big part of most nursing programs, and hybrid and online degrees are the norm, particularly at the graduate level. We met many nurse-educators who self-identified as “rubric lovers” and who talked about their commitment to high quality feedback (and the burden it imparts).

The NLN Summit definitely felt different than your average academic/elearning conference, not least because “METIman” lay across from our booth. The sophisticated simulation software/equipment looked particularly grim at the beginning of the day as he lay with a sheet covering him.


Along with cool exhibits, the conference had a ‘can-do’ feel to it; there was even a presentation on building tenure-track faculty positions for purely online teaching positions – because of the growth in nursing programs and demand for faculty.

The opening plenary featured the awarding of the 2010 NLN President’s Award to Dr. Carrie Lenberg in “recognition of her extraordinary legacy of nursing education leadership.”

Dr. Lenberg joined NLN in 1960, and talked about the changes we now take for granted, like awarding credit for competencies earned in the workplace. Two weeks earlier she’d had back surgery, and she told a funny story about the hotel-provided scooter running out of power just before she was to give her speech in front of a thousand of her peers.

Her parting message, though, felt like a challenge to all educators. While in the hospital, she had spent time in a waiting room that was filled with TVs, people, and activity. She was working to reduce her anxiety through meditation, which was challenging because of the hubbub, and when finally summoned by a fellow nurse she asked about the noise and whether there were any quieter areas to wait. The nurse that came to get her asked, “What workplace have you ever seen that wasn’t noisy?”

Dr. Lenberg drew from this story the difference between basic competency and compassion, and urged her fellow educators to inspire and teach their students both skills and values – difficult to do with multiple choice tests. To us, the difference is the same between rote memorization/content knowledge and deeper learning.

I also attended a packed session on grading and grade inflation titled, “The Meaning of Grades: Stories of Undergraduate, Graduate, and Doctoral Nursing Students.” Nursing, it turns out, is one of the only academic disciplines with a challenging licensure exam. For instance, engineers aren’t tested on their knowledge unless they take the Professional Engineering exam (which few do). Since many engineers move into management and sales in the US, there is really no check to see whether a 3.5 GPA really indicates knowledge or just the ability to cram for exams.

The presenters, Dr. Susan Poorman and Melissa Mastorovich, frequently work with 4-year degree students with GPAs above 3.0, but who have failed the licensing exam multiple times. The presenters talked about the expectations on the part of students for ‘A’s’, and that anything less was taken personally. They questioned whether we should be creating and encouraging a system where everyone expected to get A’s all the time, which is clearly not how the real world works. It was a particularly compelling repudiation of the simplistic grading system that millions live and suffer under.

Their approach was a narrative one; they read the statements of the students they had surveyed. Any practicing teacher should periodically listen to such statements to remember the anxiety that many feel around the subject. It is too easy to grow callous and forget that educators are often making life-changing decisions when they grade a student’s work. They quoted President Truman’s comment about “C students running the world,” which is a non-scientific benchmark for how much we’ve changed. How many students graduate a university with a C average? Probably very few.  A ‘B’ is the new ‘C’ at many institutions.

Ultimately, the licensure exam that troubles so many students might not have bothered Dr. Lenberg’s nurse, who lacked compassion, which is why educators need to continue to strive for authentic assessments that align with agreed upon competencies.