Cultivating Skilled and Motivated SPs Through a Structured Onboarding Process and Creative Engagement Activities

By: Paula Rutledge, CHSE, University of Mississippi and Alaina Herrington, DNP, RN, CHSE-A, CNOR, University of Mississippi

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” Simulation education is no different. Simulation scenarios with standardized or simulated patients (SPs) provide learners the opportunity to get involved and have a hands-on, customized learning experience with a live person. But for SP simulation activities to be effective and facilitate relevant learning, SPs must be well trained and invested in their position.

Developing an SP onboarding process involves several considerations. First, what are the responsibilities of the SP? Will SPs evaluate learners in addition to role portraying and giving feedback? How many staff members and how much time can you commit to the onboard training? How much money can your center invest toward training? Budgetary restraints can make the adequate training process challenging.

We have developed a three-session training process to efficiently and effectively train our onboarding SPs. Each session is approximately three hours. New SPs are expected to memorize the scripts of the training sessions before they participate.

  • During Session 1 SPs receive a case binder containing a manual (including roles, responsibilities, and policies) and five common cases the center runs suitable for the SP’s specific demographic. This session establishes a basic understanding of portrayal and delivering feedback to the learner. Training begins by attending a live activity and observing four different SP and student encounters through video live streaming. While watching the encounters, the new SP completes an evaluation form on the experienced SP. The session concludes with a discussion of observations and questions and answers with the trainer.
  • Session 2 involves a more active role for the new SP, including evaluating learners and practicing portrayal. After watching prerecorded encounters, SPs complete learner evaluation checklists and discuss them with staff. They then get an opportunity to put their new skills into action by tagging in and out of role playing and giving learner feedback in a case with staff acting as the learner. This experience is then debriefed.
  • Session 3 gives new SPs the remaining skills needed to fulfill their responsibilities. Attending a live activity and being in the room with an experienced SP allows them to closely observe the action. They do not participate in the encounter but are silent observers. During this time, they also learn the valuable tasks of completing a checklist in our software program and how to prepare the room for the next activity.

After completing the three-step training process, new SPs are scheduled to work one of the cases encountered during their training. New SPs are observed and evaluated by a simulation center staff member the first time they work. The staff member will give them feedback based on the evaluation and answer questions. Dividing the numerous responsibilities of an SP into these three training sessions helps minimize fatigue and information overload.

The journey is not yet over for newly trained SPs. It’s imperative to keep them continually engaged in their work. There are many ways to accomplish this — plan to be creative. Here are some ways that we have promoted continual SP engagement.

  • We conduct two mandatory training sessions a year to expand on our SPs’ knowledge and ensure validity. We often elicit help from SPs with specific backgrounds and expertise relevant to the topic to assist us with the trainings. Some topics we have had in the past have been on bias, portrayal, memorization, and interrater reliability. These sessions add excitement for the SPs assisting with the training and the other SPs.
  • We have found that sustaining high morale is key to keeping SPs engaged. We accomplish this by presenting SPs awards generated from learner surveys on their SP experience (see example award). Because funding is limited, we present our awards in a fun, creative manner. One example our SPs love happens during our morning huddles, with simulation staff celebrating the awards in a line dance. Our staff members don’t claim to be the best dancers, but love supporting SPs through this small gesture.
  • Our SPs also love to find out more about each other. Our team highlights one SP every quarter on the bulletin board, starting with the longest tenure. SPs answer fun questions and post pictures of their families.
  • During the holidays, our team enjoys a potluck lunch and playing Charades, the simulation staff versus the SPs. The SPs, of course, always win because of their acting skills. This event builds comradery and reinforces the valuable role SPs play in simulation education, critical for maintaining their commitment.

Providing optimal learning experiences for learners is one of the primary objectives of simulation activities. We have been successful in accomplishing this by breaking down the massive onboarding training process into bite-size pieces and constantly exploring ways to make our SPs feels valued and remain motivated in their distinctive role. Well-trained and actively engaged SPs are vital to having a successful SP program.


View Example SP Recognition Award

One thought

  1. Hello Paula and Alaina, this is such great work. We have been working hard to train and build up our SP cadre. Is this a program that you are able to share with others? We were thinking of creating something similar but not sure it’s necessary to re-invent the wheel. I’d love to hear more about this if you are available! Thanks, Melissa

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