EducationFocus on. . .Professional Development

Role of the staff nurse in undergraduate nursing education


The staff nurse plays an integral role in clinical nursing education, helping to prepare undergraduate nursing students for professional practice. A positive and enriched learning environment can influence a student’s perception of the healthcare facility as a possible future employment site. As healthcare reform continues to alter the healthcare workforce, providing positive clinical learning experiences can aid recruitment of future nursing staff.

But while many staff nurses find the teaching role satisfying, others don’t see it as their responsibility. Greater patient acuity, high nurse-to-patient ratios, and increased workloads stop some nurses from participating in students’ education.

The student-staff nurse relationship profoundly affects learning. Not all staff nurses have formal preparation for the role of mentor or are responsible for evaluating a student’s clinical performance. Staff nurses are meant to be resources for students when faculty members are unavailable. They also serve as nursing role models and educational facilitators of practical nursing skills. This socialization into the profession is a crucial component of the student’s education.

Practice makes perfect

Applying classroom concepts to actual practice is an exciting and anticipated part of the curriculum for young, eager nursing students. They arrive with theory, knowledge, and simulated laboratory experience, ready to practice nursing skills on real patients.

Partnerships between staff nurses and students

Nursing students are partnered with staff nurses as an extension of the learning model and are supervised by a faculty member. A positive experience in the clinical site with a dedicated, kind, nurturing role model can promote learning. A negative experience with an overburdened, unpleasant, uninterested mentor can impede learning.

Clinical preparation is crucial. Hospital surveys have shown new nurses have high expectations. Many staff nurses, on the other hand, believe nursing education programs don’t adequately prepare new staff for increased patient acuity and blame a lack of clinical-skills preparation. Yet some of these same nurses dislike teaching nursing students.

Students’ attitudes and expectations also affect clinical learning. How strong is the student’s desire to learn? Is the student self-directed? New learners lack experience, which contributes to increased stress. They’re also less self-directed and need more nurturing and structure in their learning environment. Undergraduates tend to focus narrowly on basic tasks and skills; experienced nurses see the broader picture.

Clinical settings place a high priority on clinical competency. Yet new learners may be awkward and slow, which can frustrate a hurried clinician. Effective mentors have such characteristic behaviors as guiding, cooperating, supporting, and listening actively. (See Effective mentoring behaviors by clicking the PDF icon above.) When staff nurses lack these characteristics, nursing students may be afraid to ask questions and may lose their confidence. If these mentoring deficiencies persist throughout the student’s clinical experience, it creates a poor learning environment for everyone. On the other hand, if a mentor interjects simple praise or suggestions, such as “Take your time, you’re doing fine” or “Try positioning the lead farther over here,” this may calm the student-and reassure the patient that the clinical situation is under professional supervision.

Clinical teaching challenges

Many challenges exist in clinical teaching. Some challenges, such as lack of clinical sites and poor attitudes from patients, are outside educators’ control. Students and faculty also face obstacles from within. Although staff nurses work closely with students, few are adequately prepared or formally recognized for their role as clinical facilitators.

Responsibilities of educational and clinical institutions

The learning experience is richer when administrators believe the staff nurse plays a critical role in improving the quality of nursing education. Hospitals and other healthcare employers must be held accountable for providing these educational experiences.

Partnerships between staff nurses and clinical faculty should be cultivated so both groups can foster a culture of learning and support. To bridge the gap between education and practice, educational institutions should implement some form of educational preparation for staff nurses who are acting as preceptors for students.

Student responsibilities

Students need to be respectful and courteous to teachers. Sometimes, a hospital unit has as many nursing students as clinicians. Even small niceties, such as students offering staff their seats in crowded places or recognizing the need for quiet conversations in areas reserved for charting, show a respectful attitude toward their nurse-teachers.
Also, students should refrain from challenging mentors by saying, for example, “My teacher says it should be done this way.” The student’s role is that of learner, not critic. Students should appreciate that they’re guests of the facility and make sure their behavior shows they understand this concept.

Recognizing staff nurses’ contribution

Observing all aspects of professional nursing is educational for students. This includes observing interactions among staff nurses and colleagues, physicians and other healthcare providers, support staff, patients, and visitors. Discussing these observations in postconference debriefings held with faculty and students immediately after clinical experiences provides important learning opportunities, whether perceived as positive or negative.

Students and faculty should recognize all clinical experiences by acknowledging the staff nurses’ efforts to mentor students. Whether it’s a small gesture (such as a written thank-you note or a home-baked or store-bought treat from students) or something more formal (such as a staff nurse-appreciation luncheon hosted by the educational institution), all thoughtful actions go a long way toward recognizing staff nurses’ contributions to clinical nursing education.

Educating future caregivers

Staff nurses are educators by definition. They educate patients, families, the community, and each other. We need to help them realize they have a vested interest in their vital teaching role, because today’s nursing students are tomorrow’s caregivers.

Transitioning from nursing as a collection of skills learned from a textbook to nursing as a profession in a peopled work setting is difficult, at best. How can we foster professional growth in nursing students? Staff nurses and clinical faculty strive to balance academic and clinical knowledge in daily nursing practice. Giving students learning opportunities to find this balance is a key component of clinical education—and the staff nurse plays a critical role.

Staff nurses should value and recognize their role in ongoing development of future nurses. Of course, staff nurses vary in terms of educational personalities. Some are more productive educationally to students than others; those who’ve received little or no formal training in teaching and mentoring students may be ill prepared for this role. With even minor improvements in the educational atmosphere-including positive attitudes from staff, students, and administrators-staff nurses will be able to more fully appreciate and enjoy their important contribution.

Click here for a complete list of references.

Kathleen A. Ahonen is an assistant professor at the University of Toledo College of Nursing in Toledo, Ohio, and maintains a part-time practice as a women’s health nurse practitioner (NP). Colleen M. Quinlan is an assistant professor at the University of Toledo College of Nursing and a certified women’s health care NP.


  • thank you for this comprehensive article, it is very helpful and beneficial to other readers and as well as researcher like me.

  • Thank you so much for your comments – I agree,the issues in clinical/professional education (vs. academic/curriculum) have a common thread which extends through our shared experience as nurses.

  • Professors (Ret.) Nursing; Emily B. Campbell and J
    June 2, 2013 9:37 pm

    We enjoyed reading your article. It brought back memories of our paper published in the American Journal of Nursing in May of 1967. Not Education, Not Service but Nursing. Not much has changed.
    Please give our regards to your Dean Tim and Professor Phyllis Gaspar

Comments are closed.

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