The Nursing Student Clinical Experience in the COVID Era, and a Look Ahead

The Nursing Student Clinical Experience in the COVID Era, and a Look Ahead

There probably isn’t a single person that would deny the incredible impact COVID-19 has had on all aspects of society around the globe. The healthcare industry, however, was hit especially hard, which includes those actively working in healthcare as well as those preparing to enter the front lines. Two years ago everything changed, but have we found the new normal?


Clinical Experience During Covid
Matthew Murphy


April 4, 2023

What Changed, and Why?

Like a tsunami crashing ashore after the siren sounded, the global COVID-19 pandemic forced sudden and extreme changes to almost all forms of medical education. Nursing students were ripped from their routine of time spent in the classroom and in clinical settings and were forced to adapt to new processes and experiences.

From the perspective of the institutions that hosted nursing students for clinical experiences, there were a lot of changes happening, and they were happening quickly. There were so many unknowns when it came to managing this virus, and medical facilities quickly started working on mitigating the damages. One element of that mitigation plan focused on limiting its spread, and that meant limiting the number of people in one place.

The bottom line was that having nursing students in the hospital represented an unnecessary risk. It represented a risk not only to the nursing students themselves, but also to their loved ones and the staff. On one hand, helping treat patients during a global pandemic would provide a great experience for up-and-coming nurses. On the other, it was just too dangerous. It was a risk that leadership in academia and healthcare were not willing to take.

As a result, nursing schools were forced to somehow continue educating nurses. We couldn’t just let all these soon-to-be nurses come to a standstill in their education. After all, we didn’t know how long this pandemic was going to last and they just might be essential members at the front lines before long. There began the appreciation and refinement of the virtual classroom.

Student Challenges

Online coursework is not necessarily something new to many people. Whether it is an asynchronous program or a class facilitated by zoom, people have been getting online degrees for a while now. The challenges begin with the unique nature of nursing school.

What you learn in nursing school isn’t just book knowledge, it includes the development of clinical skills and critical thinking. These are not things traditionally taught through online education. Skill-based learning has historically been thought to be best learned in a hands-on environment, where a student can practice the skill in the presence of an expert multiple times. That skill is then validated for competency by that expert.

From the student’s perspective, many were not used to learning online. On top of not being familiar with it, nursing students reported challenges regarding many aspects of their new format of learning, including concerns such as the following:

  • Privacy
  • Internet connectivity issues
  • Not knowing how to use the online learning platforms
  • The feeling of poor communication with their instructors
  • Isolation
  • A sense of uncertainty in their education
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Faculty Challenges

Nursing faculty were not spared from feeling challenged during this time either. Faculty for undergraduate nursing students who were especially used to facilitating face-to-face learning were suddenly thrown into the virtual classroom very quickly.

Although they were in the middle of a pandemic, nursing schools still had to uphold the quality of the education they were providing. There was added pressure in making sure they were maintaining all the academic and regulatory standards to support students in meeting their course and program requirements.

Surveys regarding the transition as experienced by faculty during this time revealed themes such as: 

  • Feeling stressed and overwhelmed
  • Experiencing an increase in workload
  • Working longer hours
  • Frustration with technology support resources
  • Feeling emotionally drained
  • Feeling isolated
  • Lack of infrastructure to go virtual

The Silver Lining

Not everything about the changes experienced in nursing education and clinical experiences should be considered negative. There have been some positive outcomes in learning over the last 2 years, a silver lining you might even say.

Greater flexibility in learning experiences

Limited availability at clinical sites has been a long-time challenge for many nursing schools. The transition to virtual learning in some ways helped solve this problem. Suddenly, all programs were either very limited or removed altogether from their clinical sites, and schools needed to develop a plan. As a result, there are now formats and programs that supplement nursing students in learning that can be used at any time.

Forced to think outside the box

The onset of the pandemic and the changes in nursing education that followed forced educators to start thinking outside the box. Suddenly, those creative ideas offered via virtual platforms and apps on your smartphone that we thought were “cool ideas” were prioritized as something to operationalize immediately. Now, these resources continue to supplement learning in many ways.

Virtual patients

In the live clinical environment, a nursing student is limited to the types of patients available to them at that time. In the virtual world, nursing students can gain the experience they would not have otherwise gotten through a greater variety of simulated patient conditions.

Leveraging technology

Educators were led into meaningful ways to leverage the technology available to them. Recording a virtual lecture, for example, sounds simple, but it offered a great benefit to students who might want to go back and reference the material later.

Improved school-life balance

When asked about this topic, some nursing students really appreciated the improved balance between school and their personal life. There was suddenly no more commuting, paying for parking, more time for themselves, and a sense of greater self-care at a time when life stress was at an all-time high.

Tips for Success in Your Virtual Studies

At the present time, with a gradual reduction in the risk associated with COVID, nursing students have slowly started reacclimating into the clinical environment. Clinical groups are not as large as they once were, and some sites are still off limits; however, we’re headed in the right direction.

Virtual learning in nursing school is not likely to go away anytime soon. And why should it? We have spent the last 2 years refining an educational resource with many great benefits. Along these lines, there are some ways to retain the momentum of remote learning as a meaningful resource.

Virtual group sessions

Many nursing students find group discussions online with their peers and faculty to be helpful. Nursing students feel better communicated with and supported in navigating new platforms. It even takes the sting out of isolation by being able to connect with their peers. Students should ask their instructors about standing online meetings, which can provide a meaningful resource of support.

Communicate with your instructors

There is no doubt that in an age of remote and virtual learning experiences that the personal touch of teaching has been lessened. Nursing students need to remember they are equal partners in their own learning, which means that some responsibility falls on them. Stay in contact with your instructors but be patient, because they may be just as stressed as you are.

Pay attention to deadlines and due dates

It is easy to forget about that assignment that is due tomorrow or that exam coming up at the end of the week if you’re not face-to-face with someone reminding you. Keeping a calendar of assignments, or creating reminders on your smartphone are some ways to keep on track.

Formalize the routine

Just as nursing instructors and faculty will be treating the virtual classroom like their real classroom, nursing students should be doing the same. This means creating a learning space as if you were creating your home office: don’t show up to class in pajamas, and be respectful of your peers.

A Look Ahead

The changes made in nursing education that have been brought about by COVID-19 are likely to remain. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The addition of virtual learning to create the present hybrid learning environments for nurses is accompanied by some great benefits.

We are definitely in a much better place than we once were at the start of the pandemic. More research needs to be performed on how to appropriately administer things such as online exams, and the gaps that have been identified in public health awareness, technology, and support for students need to be filled.

Nursing students need to maintain an active partnership in their education. As a nursing student, you can work with nursing faculty to continue to improve the recent changes in nursing education. By being an active participant in virtual learning, communicating with your instructors, and giving feedback, you will be helping to refine the new normal. You will be investing in the outcomes of your own education and the education of your peers.

COVID brought about many terrible things and forced nursing education into a whole new realm, but we’ve overcome some major barriers, with even greater developments ahead.

We've been there.
We get it.

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