Nursing School Clinical Experiences: All You Need to Know With Elmhurst University's Online Nursing Programs

Nursing students standing in front of their school
Nursing students standing in front of their school

Nursing education includes multiple types of learning. Online degrees combine coursework delivered through virtual platforms with hands-on clinical application. Clinical experiences, where students work in supervised environments to deliver nursing care to real patients and families, are a required component of all accredited nursing programs. This blog provides a thorough overview of what you need to know to be fully prepared for nursing school clinicals.

How Do Nursing Residency Experiences Work?

As a new nursing student, you may be excited and a little bit nervous about working directly with patients and families in your nursing clinicals. Nursing faculty know this and intentionally design and order courses in your nursing program to prepare you and grow your confidence in clinical skills. One way this happens is through nurse residency programs, which are on-campus experiences conducted with hands-on simulation in nursing.

Elmhurst simulation labs are opportunities for experienced faculty to help refine your approach to patient communication and physical assessment. The residency experience allows you to:

  • Network with fellow nursing students and faculty
  • Receive personalized attention and mentorship
  • Make mistakes and learn in a risk-free environment
  • Practice nursing skills on mannequins resembling patients of all ages
  • Grow familiar with common medication administration techniques
  • Engage in clinical scenarios you may not encounter during your clinical rotations

Because nursing is an extremely hands-on profession, practicing nursing skills during nurse residency is essential. During these experiences, nursing simulation case studies are presented that recreate real-world clinical situations. Students learn to respond in emergency clinical scenarios and think under the pressure of rapidly changing patient vital signs and other physical symptoms. Faculty supervise and debrief with an in-depth discussion about the moment-by-moment simulated care experience.

The residency experiences set you up for your nursing school clinicals where your nursing program faculty continues to foster your progression in nursing competency.

What are Nursing School Clinicals?

When applying for a registered nurse (RN) position, nursing clinicals are the field experiences that successful graduates reference to communicate their effective transition from textbook learning to practical nursing competency.

Paramount for all student nurses, clinicals are directly supervised by experienced licensed RNs while nursing faculty facilitate and evaluate student progress. When clinical remediation is required, a supervisor or preceptor, will work directly with the student and faculty to support and create an effective learning plan to strengthen critical thinking for the clinical mastery needed for safe, entry-level nursing practice.

Below are some tips for success in nursing school clinical rotations:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions
  • Watch and learn from other nurses in the field
  • Journal and reflect on your progress
  • Prioritize rest and self-care when you are off-duty
  • Talk with your peers and faculty about your experiences with patients
  • Value patient privacy and remain HIPAA-compliant

When you have the chance to practice a nursing skill during clinicals, take the opportunity with your preceptor or supervisor to step forward rather than shy away from patient care. It is critical to make the most of your clinical time so you emerge with the greatest preparation possible.

Next, let’s go deeper with specific answers to your questions about clinical experiences with Elmhurst University’s online nursing programs.

A nursing instructor teaching her student how to read a chart

What Can I Expect at Elmhurst University?

We want you to know that nursing clinicals in Elmhurst’s online nursing programs are different. We offer a close-knit community of support along with a challenging academic program to produce effective registered nurses who are prepared to meet the demands of the current health care climate.

Our accelerated nursing programs are rigorous, and this brings us to one of the most frequently asked questions about nursing school clinicals.

How many clinical hours are required for nursing school?

Graduation with a nursing degree is a noteworthy accomplishment when students have not only met nursing school prerequisites but also completed all clinical requirements. Accreditation standards for nursing curricula specify a relatively large number of mandatory clinical hours for all nursing programs.

Generally speaking, clinical hours must be direct patient care experience with vetted, qualified preceptors in approved clinical settings that align with the type of work that is available with the earned nursing degree.

Elmhurst offers different nursing degrees for individuals looking to make a career transition into nursing. With a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, students may be eligible for Elmhurst’s online Accelerated BSN (ABSN) program or the online Master’s Entry in Nursing Practice (MENP).

Clinical features of these programs include:

  • Immersive campus residency opportunities at Elmhurst’s state-of-the-art simulation lab
  • 450+ clinical hours are included in the ABSN program to prepare second degree distance education students for a future in nursing
  • 850+ clinical hours are included in the MENP program to train nursing graduates with the skills required to be a clinical nurse leader (CNL)

This emphasis on clinical application promotes safe and effective nursing practice.

Where Do Clinicals Take Place?

During a nursing program, students will be assigned to complete clinical hours in a variety of care settings. The purpose of including this range of experience within a curriculum is to encourage the broadest possible exposure to health care work settings where registered nurses are employed.

Care environments where clinicals take place can include:

  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Home health care

When clinical rotations are within a hospital setting, students are assigned to rotate through different departments or locations, such as:

  • Emergency room/department (ER)
  • Operating room (OR)
  • Intensive care unit (ICU)
  • Obstetrics (OB)
  • Labor & delivery (L&D)
  • Medical-surgical unit (Med-Surg)
  • Behavioral health department

Clinical placement services are a complementary part of Elmhurst’s student support benefits. These services allow a student to provide input on where they would like to complete clinical rotations if they have a provider or location in mind, as long as the preceptor qualifications and clinical agency are vetted by Elmhurst’s clinical placement team and the planned rotation is approved to meet the clinical requirements of the program.

The value of complementary clinical placement services for a student cannot be overstated. To set up a clinical rotation, there may be legal contracts, health requirements, background checks and other complex onboarding requirements with unique and detailed processes.

Students at Elmhurst can rest assured that they will be supported as these arrangements are finalized. This means you can keep your focus on your studies and begin your nursing school clinicals on time.

When Do Clinicals Start?

Clinical experiences typically begin midway through a nursing program after you have received foundational class material and had the opportunity to practice basic nursing assessment skills. The official start date of your clinical rotations will align with the course in the nursing curriculum where the clinical hours are allocated.

Because you will most likely be working with a staff nurse during your clinical rotations, you will also coordinate your clinical start date and timeline with your preceptor’s work schedule. Professional communication with your preceptor is a must for nursing students.

Once your clinical schedule is set, treat the rotation with the same care you would an employment position. You must arrive on time (or early) and be ready to actively participate in the day. If an adjustment to the planned schedule is needed for any reason, communicate with your preceptor and faculty member about the change clearly and as early as possible.

What Expectations Are Set for Students in Clinicals?

In addition to professional communication, students must come to clinicals prepared in appropriate attire with all necessary supplies. The time commitment for nursing clinicals is similar to a full-time job, so it is also expected that students will devote this time and attention to nursing school.

For Elmhurst’s online nursing students, this means that school is a full-time commitment and outside employment is not meant to coexist. It is not feasible for most students to excel in clinicals with the rigorous demands of an accelerated online program while also maintaining a job.

Other expectations for students in clinicals include:

  • Willingness to do anything that helps in care delivery during your clinical rotations
  • Preparation for each shift by reviewing clinical knowledge and skills beforehand
  • Expressing interest in performing tasks and procedures you are not yet familiar with
  • Being helpful, cooperative and eager to learn from your preceptor

Nursing staff and preceptors that you work with during clinicals are often excellent professional references for your first nursing job, so remember to invest in those relationships and demonstrate integrity as a student nurse.

What Areas of Nursing Will I Experience?

As a nursing student, you will gain experience working in a variety of settings and with different patient populations. Examples of nursing areas you may experience include:

  • Pediatric, adult and geriatric patient care
  • Psychiatric mental health nursing
  • Maternal-child nursing
  • Community and public health
  • Nursing specialty exposure including orthopedics, cardiology, neurology and others

As a nursing student, you will also gain some exposure to the field of nursing informatics as you use technology in the clinical setting. Clinical documentation systems, point of care reference materials, patient devices for monitoring disease and other databases are involved in everyday health care delivery.

Who Supervises My Clinicals?

There are a couple different models for clinical rotations. Group clinical experiences typically include one university clinical instructor who oversees a small group of students. During the clinical rotation, the clinical instructor will assign students to care for different patients and the instructor will supervise student care delivery.

Another type of clinical rotation model is the one-to-one clinical preceptor model where one student will work directly with one clinical preceptor who is typically a staff nurse at the clinical site. In this scenario, the preceptor directly supervises the clinical rotation with communication and monitoring by a university faculty member who may complete a site visit to evaluate student performance.

What Do You Wear to Clinicals?

In the clinical setting, nursing students are required to wear professional nursing scrubs that are usually purchased through the university in a uniform color as a set dress code. Comfortable, lightweight, non-slip shoes or sneakers that are easy to clean and professional in appearance are recommended for nursing clinicals. Your student identification badge must also be worn at all times in the clinical setting.

Many nursing schools have recommended supply kits that students can purchase and bring to clinicals. Supplies you will need include:

  • Your stethoscope
  • A notebook and pen
  • Small surgical scissors
  • A pen light and measuring tool
  • Point of care reference materials

Other supplies such as catheter kits, syringes, bandages and personal protective equipment are usually located at the clinical site. You will learn where to find these materials during your clinical orientation for each new setting.

What Is Patient Interaction Like?

Every patient encounter has unique dynamics. You will interact with diverse individuals and families from different cultures and religious backgrounds who have distinct dispositions, personalities and communication styles. As a nursing student and a future registered nurse, you will meet many people and foster professional caregiving relationships.

You will likely connect easily with some patients and feel unsure at times as you grow more comfortable talking to all types of people, but every patient interaction has the potential to be deeply meaningful. Patient interaction is a necessary part of the nursing role, and your skills will develop with experience as you provide excellent care, education and advocacy according to the health care needs of each person and circumstance.

How Are Clinicals Graded?

Clinicals provide an opportunity to evaluate your overall development in nursing clinical competencies. Grades for clinical are based on several factors including:

  • Completion of the required number of clinical hours
  • Accurate documentation of patient encounters including nursing care plans
  • Critical thinking for nursing prioritization through case studies and discussion
  • Evaluation of your clinical performance by your preceptor and faculty

These components must be successfully completed with an increasing level of competency as you progress from your initial patient care experiences toward graduation to pass your clinicals.

Getting Your Nursing Degree Online at Elmhurst University

If you are ready to embark on a rewarding career in nursing, an online accelerated BSN or online direct-entry MSN program at Elmhurst University might be the next step for you. You can earn your BSN degree in just 16 months or your MSN in just 20 months depending on the program you choose.

Benefits of a nursing degree from Elmhurst include:

  • Innovative nursing simulation in every program
  • Programs are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Education (CCNE)
  • Preparation for success on the nursing licensure examination (NCLEX)
  • Online coursework with clinical placement support

For more information on how you can launch your second career as a registered nurse, contact us to get started today.