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Gaining Clinical Experience as an Online Nursing Student

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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced higher education institutions to switch to web-based instruction, colleges and universities continued to offer more online and hybrid programs over the past decade. These programs came with a degree of flexibility and independence that on-campus programs couldn’t match. Online nursing programs, however, faced some challenges in transitioning to online learning — especially with required on-site clinical rotations.

Some aspiring professionals may wonder, “how do clinicals work in online nursing school?” Read on for detailed information on the matter.

The Nursing Clinical Component

Nursing programs generally consist of three components: classes and lectures, lab sessions, and on-site clinical rotations. Students learn theory in their classes and practice nursing skills in simulation settings during labs. The clinical component occurs at patient care facilities, like hospitals, physician’s clinics, or nursing homes. Here, degree-seekers observe nurses and carry out their newly-learned nursing duties under supervision from licensed professionals.

All students must complete nursing school clinical experiences. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education requires colleges to include clinicals in their curriculum plans to become accredited. Additionally, states require each nursing candidate to complete clinical hours to qualify for licensure.

The number of clinical hours depend on state requirements, the type of degree, and the school’s curriculum. For bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) programs, each enrollee generally spends 300-700 hours in clinical training. Master of science in nursing (MSN) students usually need to accrue 500-1,000 hours in clinical rotations, depending on their specialty.

Clinical Experience for Online Nursing Students

Online programs offer the theoretical component of the program through web-based features, like pre-recorded lectures or class discussion boards. Some schools provide online lab simulations online, with others requiring students to complete these components in person. When it comes to clinical rounds, though, students always need to complete their required hours on location.

“My online program was cohorted in my city with a set number of students who completed on site testing, clinical, and skills/simulation training together. It felt very much like in-person study, except we had more flexibility for completing the theory portion of the degree,” said Emma Leigh Geiser of her online program.

Common clinical locations include nursing homes, hospitals, urgent care centers, clinics, outpatient centers, and psychiatric facilities.

How Do I Find a Clinical Training Site as an Online Nursing Student?

As with any traditional, on-campus programs, finding a clinical site varies for pre-licensure and post-licensure nursing students. The school usually chooses where pre-licensure students complete their clinicals or assists them in finding available sites.

Post-licensure students follow a different process. These programs include RN-to-BSN, MSN-to-NP, and doctor of nursing programs — essentially, they’re any program that admits nurses who already possess licensure. For these programs, nurses usually need to find clinical sites on their own.

“Preceptors at these clinical sites may charge post-licensure students, so students should be encouraged to find a preceptor who is willing to allow them to shadow and gain experiential experience without cost,” said Sharon Cobb, assistant professor and RN-to-BSN program director at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

When Should I Start Looking?

Pre-licensure students generally do not need to worry about locating clinical placements. Schools either take care of this for students or guide them very closely. Post-licensure students, on the other hand, do need to consider their clinical placements. A post-licensure enrollee should begin looking for a training site before they even begin their program, Cobb said.

“This will allow students to prepare the affiliation agreement with the site and the nursing program, so they will not have any delay in starting their clinical hours,” Cobb added. “During COVID-19, many sites had to stop accepting nursing students for clinical placement, which may have delayed the clinicals for some students.”

How Will My Clinical Training Be Assessed in an Online Program?

Assessment for clinical training can take many different forms.

“Our school had satellite instructors and administration who were in charge of our clinicals and skills assessments,” Geiser said. “We would meet once or twice a week for hands-on activities and testing related to our clinical training.”

Other universities rely on technology for assessments, with instructors coming to the site for in-person evaluations less frequently.

“Most programs have employed application software that will allow students to document/chart on their patients and create nursing care plans (usually for pre-licensure students),” Cobb said. “In addition, faculty and students perform an evaluation of the site and the student’s performance during midterm and finals.”

Advice for Online Nursing Students

When it comes to selecting an online program, make sure to do your research, Cobb advises. She suggests attending information sessions and checking the program’s accreditation status. Cobb also highlights the importance of informing yourself about the learning platform, curriculum, clinical requirements, and preceptorship details.

“If you enjoy having flexibility in your schedule and still want some hands-on guidance, an online program may be a fantastic option,” Geiser said. “I was able to work as a nursing assistant during my program, which gave me an advantage when applying for new grad positions.”

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Meet Our Contributors

Emma Leigh Geiser
Expert Reviewer: Emma Leigh Geiser

Emma Leigh Geiser is a registered nurse, blogger at, freelance writer, and financial coach. She recently celebrated 10 years in the amazing field of nursing.

Dr. Sharon Cobb
Expert Reviewer: Dr. Sharon Cobb, PhD, MSN, PHN, RN

Sharon Cobb, Ph.D., MSN, PHN, RN, is an RN-BSN program director and assistant professor within the Mervyn M. Dymally School of Nursing at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, California.

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