1. Berube, Carol A. MSN, RN, CNE
  2. Gouveia, Jean Marie MS, RN, CNE

Article Content

Caring faculty members connect with individual students to help them achieve their educational goals. Many nurse educators have studied the impact of support and stress reduction on student success and retention.1-7 Strategies such as thought stopping and visual imagery have been found to be positive techniques to aid in passing the NCLEX-RN. With thought-stopping behavior, students are taught to become aware of negative or destructive thoughts, then stop them and redirect them toward more realistic or positive ones.3 Visual imagery is used to help students form positive mental pictures and enhance problem solving.3 Support in the form of faculty presence has been found to be helpful and convey caring to students.3,4,6,7 As nurse educators strive to mentor and motivate students, it may be difficult to know what to do to help a student be successful.7 Sometimes faculty members find ways to support students unintentionally. This article presents an account of a nurse educator's journey in developing a successful academic support strategy.


The "Magic Pencil"

Over the years, the authors have provided support to nursing students who experienced academic difficulties. For some students, however, failure was the outcome they expected.4,7 Although they were encouraged to seek help before they developed academic problems, not many did. Some students rationalized that if they just "studied more" or "made flash cards" they would do better. Others were "frustrated" and second guessed their ability to pass their tests. Some students lost confidence in their ability, which often prompted them to seek help from faculty. Whether they came for help early or later, similar strategies were used. The main focus was on empowering students to take control of their own learning by identifying barriers related to their academic success.


Examinations were reviewed individually with each student to understand their thought process, study and test-taking habits, and issues related to anxiety. Themes emerged that helped to identify if students were not studying correctly, were not carefully reading the question, or were having difficulty deciding on the answer. Individual stressors before, during, and after an examination also were discussed with students. Test-taking strategies and study skills were reviewed, and students were encouraged to practice these before the next test. Suggestions to reduce anxiety were also addressed.


One day a student burst into tears minutes before an examination. Lost as to how to help the individual, a pencil stub with no eraser was offered. The student was told that the examination was keyed with that pencil, it "knows" the answers, and "When in doubt, refer to the pencil." The student enthusiastically offered thanks and acted as if receiving a priceless gift. After the examination grades were posted, the student returned stating, "The magic pencil worked, I passed my test."


This practice of handing out any available no. 2 pencil to students who need an extra boost in their self-esteem and something to believe in has continued for years. One year, 13 students were in jeopardy and met with a faculty member every week to clarify content, review study and test-taking skills, and learn about anxiety reducing strategies. Each student was given a "magic pencil," which they used for every examination. By the end of the semester, all 13 had passed. Since that time, students who come for help even once receive a "magic pencil." They use it to study for and take each examination. When it wears out, gets misplaced, or "loses its magic," they come back for another. Students share details about their progress and seek assistance when needed. They believe in the "pencil" and themselves. A bond has been forged, one of support and success. As 1 student stated, "The pencil reminded me that I had to put in effort to do well, and you were there to help me through. It helped me remember to 'take a deep breath' and have confidence in myself."



Several years later, a random sample of students (N = 20) who sought support and received a pencil were asked to complete a survey that asked their initial reaction on receiving it and what it meant to them. While some students initially thought the "magic pencil" was "crazy," they later viewed it as a symbol of support and encouragement and a source of confidence. A student commented, "When I got frustrated on an examination, I looked at the pencil, laughed and thought about the advice that you gave me[horizontal ellipsis] it means someone has faith in me." Students also commented that the pencil was a visual cue to control their anxiety. Using the pencil during an examination "calmed" students and helped them focus: "It's a reminder to calm down, focus, and bring all my knowledge to the test." It served as a reminder to use study skills and test-taking strategies that were previously discussed with their faculty members. Students stated, "The pencil represents everything new I learned[horizontal ellipsis] from material to test-taking strategies," and "it has calmed me during a test because I can picture the helpful hints I learned."


While some students may attribute their success to the "magic pencil," it is a symbol of the relationship formed between teacher and student and a visual reminder to students that they can realize their goals. This simple, portable, and inexpensive object conveys caring, confidence, and concern by the nurse educator.




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