Getting Clinical Experience as an Online Nursing Student

NurseJournal Staff
Updated October 11, 2023
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Nursing school clinical experiences are necessary for students to graduate — but how do clinicals work in online nursing school? Find out below!
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A multicultural group of nursing students practice using the IV drip during an onsite clinical.Credit: sturti / E+ / Getty Images

Clinical experience is vital to undergraduate and graduate nursing students. It improves their hands-on skills and cements their knowledge.

However, clinical experiences for online nursing students may be more difficult to arrange. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some programs allowed students to complete virtual clinical experiences.

Data show differences in competency evaluations between online and in-person clinical experiences. While virtual clinical simulation use expanded during the pandemic, the outcomes could affect patient care.

Our nursing contributors discuss the student advantages and disadvantages of arranging online nursing clinical hours, and give tips on how to find clinical placement.

How Do Clinicals Work for Online Nursing Students?

The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) defines clinical nurse experiences as planned learning activities that help students to understand, perform, and refine their professional competencies.

These clinical experiences are important opportunities where nurses can apply the knowledge and skills learned during their undergraduate or graduate program. Nursing students can expect to provide patient care and have their instructor or clinical preceptors observe and question them.

Nursing school clinicals take place in an approved hospital facility or healthcare provider’s office. The days and times of student nursing clinical hours are coordinated between the nursing program and the clinical experience facility.

Comparing Clinicals for In-Person and Online Nursing Students

There are key similarities between clinical hours for nursing schools that are in-person or online. These similarities include the type of patient care and professional skills nurses must demonstrate.

Traditional undergraduate students attending an in-person program can expect the school to arrange their nursing clinical hours.

Traditional graduate students and online students can expect to arrange their own clinical experiences with the facility or healthcare provider.

In some cases, online nursing programs will assist the student in finding nursing clinical hours. Emma Leigh Geiser, an RN, blogger, and freelance writer said “It can be difficult to find preceptors and to do this on your own; it’s much easier and less stressful if the school already has an established relationship with an institution.”

Sharon Cobb, Ph.D., MSN, PHN, RN is an assistant professor at Mervyn M. Dymally School of Nursing. She pointed out that during the pandemic, some pre-licensure programs were using simulation models to help students complete required clinical hours. The number of hours allowed varies by state.

In other circumstances, programs provide an immersion experience for students who are not local, so they can complete clinical hours quickly.

Clinical immersion provides an opportunity to build clinical reasoning, management, and evaluation skills. Whatever clinical site a pre-licensure student uses, Cobb said they need an established agreement with the school.

“Post-licensure students usually have to complete all clinical hours through direct patient care,” she said. She went on to explain that post-licensure (often RN-BSN) programs encourage students to find a clinical site in their geographical area.

Cobb notes that some preceptors charge post-licensure students. “It may be more difficult for students who are non-local, and the program has no established sites near the student’s location,” she said.

Average Required Clinical Hours by Degree Level

The average BSN program requires roughly 600 nursing clinical hours. This can vary by program and state.

RN-to-BSN programs often require far fewer clinical hours. This can range from 50 – 100 hours to complete the program. Nurses tend to work an eight-hour shift.

Master of science in nursing (MSN) programs have a wider range of potential clinical hours, depending on the program and the state. They require roughly 1,000 nursing school clinical hours to graduate. The student completes these hours at the discretion of the healthcare provider who is precepting them.

400-700 hours
BSN Degree

600-1,300 hours
MSN Degree

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How To Find a Clinical Training Site as an Online Nursing Student

Finding a strong clinical training site when you’re involved in an online nursing program can be challenging.

If your program does not provide clinical placement assistance, begin looking for training opportunities within the last weeks of the previous semester.

This gives you enough time to find a placement that meets the nursing school clinical requirements for the term.

The training site must meet program requirements and pass approval for your nursing clinical hours. Consider these tips to find an approved training site:

  1. 1

    Know the school requirements and time commitment

    Nursing programs have specific criteria for nursing school clinicals. To ensure the site meets criteria, know what the criteria are and what the time commitment you must meet during the semester is.
  2. 2

    Watch out for organizations that advertise placements

    These groups charge students to find preceptors or clinical training sites. However, most students can easily and independently find a placement to fulfill their nursing clinical hours.
  3. 3

    Contact the institution’s nursing administration

    The department that arranges and approves nursing school clinicals can differ from one institution to the next. Nursing administration in each hospital will be able to direct you to the right area.
  4. 4

    Make a good impression

    The clinical training site is more apt to approve a placement for students who present themselves professionally in their correspondence and conversation. Students who act professionally during their clinical hours for nursing school are also more likely to receive a recommendation for their next placement. Remember you are a guest at the placement and a representative of your online nursing program.
  5. 5

    Have your documentation ready

    The nursing program may have documentation they want completed from your clinical training site. The hospital or physician’s office may want to see your resume and letters of recommendation. Have the paperwork prepared so you aren’t scrambling at the last minute.

How Clinical Experience is 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. In these cases, instructors come 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 (often 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.”

Frequently Asked Questions About Clinicals for Online Nursing Students

Can I complete clinicals online?

Nursing school clinicals provide an opportunity to grow clinical reasoning and critical-thinking skills. While some programs do offer virtual clinical experiences, which may mimic telemedicine, all nursing students must complete hands-on nursing clinical hours.

What are virtual clinicals?

Virtual clinical simulations are experiences that allow students to interact virtually with patients in a digital learning environment. The goal is to offer a parallel to real-world engagement so learners can practice nursing skills, such as assessment, diagnosis, and interventions.

What nursing programs require students to complete clinicals?

All accredited nursing programs require students to complete nursing clinical hours to graduate. Clinical training must be sufficient to ensure the student attains practice-focused outcomes and integrates their knowledge into their professional practice.

How many hours do you need for clinicals?

The number of nursing clinical hours required varies depending on the school, state, and undergraduate or graduate program. For example, a BSN student may need to complete up to 700 clinical hours but an MSN student may need to complete up to 1,300 hours.

Related Pages

Meet Our Contributors

Portrait of Emma Leigh Geiser

Emma Leigh Geiser

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

Portrait of Dr. Sharon Cobb

Dr. Sharon Cobb

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.


Page last reviewed January 9, 2023

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