Nursing School Clinicals

Nursing is a hands-on profession unless you’ve achieved PhD status and are now engaged in super-intense research study. But for most working RNs the job involves direct patient care. Nursing skills don’t just fall out of thin air, a solid undergraduate—and some graduate-- nursing school program is founded on both academic learning and hands-on skill-building.

Two kinds of skill-building:

  • Lab skills: As a nursing student you first learn direct patient skills in a controlled lab or classroom, practice them, perfect them, and finally must perform various sets of skills to the satisfaction of your nursing instructor.
  • Patient bedside: Armed with your new-won skills you start clinicals at the patient bedside where you have plenty more time to perfect the essential skills you learned in class or lab.

This skill-building is commonly known as “clinicals.”

Undergraduate Clinicals

A nurse takes care of patients at the undergraduate level. You might study in a practical nurse program, an Associates of Nursing or in a Bachelors of Nursing degree program.

At the Associates and Bachelors level these are some of the basic skills you’ll learn to use at the patient bedside and perfect over and over while in your clinicals:

  • Preparing a patient bed – possibly one of the first skills you’ll learn is how to make a real hospital bed.
  • Administering medication
  • IV administration
  • Breath sounds – normal vs. abnormal
  • Heart sounds – normal vs. abnormal using a stethoscope
  • Pharmacology math for medicine calculations
  • Foley catheters
  • Systems of the body – normal vs. abnormal
  • Patient feeding tube systems
  • and more

These, however, don’t really indicate the patient interaction, or soft skills, you’ll need to effectively practice as an RN. There is no better source for information than your patient so you are encouraged to nurture high-level communication skills.

Because electronic documentation, informatics, and electronic medical records are quickly being embraced in healthcare, expect to be prepared to learn both paper and electronic patient charting.

Graduate Nursing Clinicals

At the Nursing Masters level the degree will determine largely what type of clinical experience you’ll be required to participate in. In fact some Masters programs may require none at all, an example may be the leadership and administration specializations.

Ultra-specialized MSN programs like the Nurse Anesthesia program, demand intensive clinical work. In this particular care setting your skills prior to becoming a CRNA only lay the most basic foundation for what is still to come. This is why most NA programs only accept RNs with at least 2 years professional patient care experience and then prefer those who have worked in a Critical Care, Acute Care, Trauma, or ED environment.


Undergraduate nurses participating in onsite clinicals—hospital, nursing home, outpatient medical center, urgent care facilities, etc.—are usually first under the supervision of their clinical instructor or nurse educator. Once oriented to their particular clinical site nurses are assigned to RNs for supervision and structured skills learning.

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