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What to Expect During Nursing Clinicals

3 min readNovember, 15 2023

Although nursing clinicals are essential to your nursing curriculum, you might be hesitant to provide hands-on patient care, especially if you're unsure what to expect in clinical nursing rotations. Learn what's involved in the clinical process, how to prepare, and how you're measured.  

What Are Clinicals?

The nursing curriculum can vary in length and presentation depending on your school and state requirements. Educational content is generally divided into three presentation methods.

  1. Traditional didactic teaching is presented in classroom or online lectures and provides a fundamental nursing knowledge base.
  2. The simulation lab provides a no-risk environment to practice skills in a safe setting before caring for a patient.
  3. Nursing clinicals offer opportunities to apply the skills you learn in classroom and laboratory settings. You'll better understand complex patient needs, the disease process, and treatment plans.

Although the time spent in a nursing clinical is unpaid, the knowledge you gain is invaluable. Besides applying your educational foundation in nursing, clinical experience allows you to discover what type of nursing you enjoy most, hone your skills with confidence, and network to build connections with potential future employers.

How Many Clinical Hours Are Needed for Nursing School?

Clinical rotations in nursing allow students to work on practical nursing skills in various health care settings under the supervision of an RN clinical instructor. Clinical rotations can span several semesters or years, depending on the length and structure of the nursing program.

Clinical hours vary from state to state, and each board of nursing determines the required hours and settings. Some states permit simulated hours online or in-person instruction in the lab to count toward the required clinical hours.

What Are Clinical Nursing Rotations?

The clinical nursing experience includes diverse clinical settings and specialties, which can help you narrow down the types of roles to pursue. You may even find you enjoy a specialty you hadn't considered before.

Most clinical rotations are several days a week during the semester and can range from four to six hours to an eight-to-twelve-hour shift.

Clinical Rotations for Nursing May Include:

  • Long-term care
  • Acute care
  • Medical surgical clinics
  • Pediatrics
  • Labor and delivery
  • Mental health facilities
  • Community settings

How to Prepare for Clinicals

Your school will provide instructions regarding the appropriate attire for your clinical rotation. These guidelines typically include the following:

  • Scrubs or school uniforms in the school color
  • Comfortable closed-toe shoes
  • Name badge from your nursing program
  • Additional identification badge specific to the health care facility

Other tips on attire include:

  • Wearing compression socks for long shifts
  • Ensuring hair is neat and pulled back
  • Presenting an overall professional appearance

Most importantly, nursing clinicals require a balance of confidence and curiosity. Don't worry about not having all the answers but be prepared to find out if you don't know.

Nursing Clinical Experience

Nurse in blue scrub assisting a patient.

Your clinical instructor will be on-site to support and monitor you and answer your questions. The number of students assigned to a clinical instructor is typically six to ten. That ratio depends on the school, clinical site, and state regulations.

Your First Day of Clinicals

During your first day of clinicals, you'll receive a tour of the facility and the floor to which you're assigned. You'll be introduced to staff members and shown the location of equipment, supplies, emergency exits, and patient and procedure rooms. Other topics reviewed may include policies and procedures, parking, and directions to areas like the cafeteria or break room.

Clinical Pre-Conference Meetings

This recurring team meeting with your clinical instructor and other students occurs before the start of each shift. Your clinical instructor will usually discuss plans for the day, go over patient assignments, and allow time for questions. They may also review classroom content that connects to the clinical experience.

Hands-on Patient Care

Assignments for clinical shifts may vary depending on where you are in the nursing program, the clinical setting, and the health care facility. You might start by caring for one patient, working with a student buddy, or being assigned to a nurse. Your clinical instructor will check in with you throughout the shift to answer questions and may offer opportunities for you to assist with or view a procedure.

Clinical Post-Conference Meetings

This debriefing with your clinical instructor occurs at the end of each shift. You'll have time to discuss the patients cared for that day, ask questions, and practice critical thinking by analyzing how you handled each situation.

What Do Nursing Students Do in Clinicals?

During nursing clinicals, you'll be responsible for various tasks depending on what stage you're at in the nursing program. You'll also be required to complete a nursing care plan utilizing the nursing process.

Other General Nursing Tasks You May Perform:

  • Taking a medical history
  • Performing a head-to-toe assessment
  • Obtaining vital signs
  • Bathing or dressing patients
  • Making beds
  • Assisting patients to walk or toilet
  • Assisting with procedures
  • Administering medication

During these tasks, you'll practice communicating with patients and their families.

How Are Students Graded?

Each school has its specific grading system, but all must adhere to the guidelines of the accrediting bodies. Nursing students typically get graded on the following:

  • Attendance
  • Participation
  • Preparedness
  • Homework

By the end of a clinical nursing rotation, you should be able to achieve more autonomy and the confidence to care for multiple patients independently. If you put in your best effort, are engaged, and act as a patient advocate, you can make the most of your clinical nursing rotations.


Images sourced from Getty Images

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