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What Successful Nursing Students Have in Common (and why it matters to nurse educators!)

By March 1, 2017June 2nd, 2023No Comments

Entering a new clinical setting is stressful for both students and educators. The anxiety and stress of students is almost palpable during orientation to any clinical environment.

I would look over my new clinical group and wonder how each student would be able to perform and transfer essential learning to this setting.

Is it possible to predict which students will be successful and which will struggle?

Based on a qualitative study of nurse educators, specific themes and traits of successful students were identified (Lewallen & DeBrew, 2012).

Knowing these six essential traits of successful nursing students can help strengthen student learning two ways in the clinical setting.

For educators, it provides a practical way to anticipate potential issues that may come up if these traits are not present in students.

Students need to know these traits because it provides a bar that they can measure themselves against, reflect and make it a priority to make any weaknesses a needed strength.

Why EARLY Recognition Matters

Not all patients are at the same risk to develop complications. Some are at higher risk and may require “rescue” due to age or preexisting medical problems.

Not all students are going to struggle. Some are at higher risk and may require remediation.

How do you know which students are at risk? There are also traits that unsuccessful students have in common that need to be recognized.

Just as EARLY identification of a patient complication will likely result in successful “rescue” with a change of status, EARLY recognition of potential problems a student may demonstrate in clinical is essential to ensure student success and progression in the program.

Traits of Unsuccessful Students

The following traits were identified with students that had struggles in the clinical setting. The specific behaviors that these same students demonstrated are “RED FLAGS” that every clinical educator must have on his/her radar whenever you are teaching in the clinical setting(Lewallen & DeBrew, 2012):

Trait: Unable to function in fast-paced clinical environment

Behaviors observed:

  • Unmotivated
  • Disinterested
  • Unable to think critically
  • Lacks basic skills
  • Tries to fly under the radar (tries to avoid being noticed)

Trait: Jeopardizes patient safety and commits legal-ethical violations

Behaviors observed:

  • Unsafe behaviors
  • Legal-ethical issues
  • Overconfident

Trait: Unprepared for clinical and does not show improvement

Behaviors observed:

  • Patterns of negative behaviors do not improve
  • Unprepared for clinical
  • Consistently tardy
  • Does not take responsibility for learning
  • Makes excuses
  • Poorly written work
  • Immature

Trait: Difficulty communicating with patients, faculty, peers, and clinical staff

Behaviors observed:

  • Poor communication skills with patients
  • Poor professional communication
  • Receives complaints
  • Does not demonstrate caring behaviors

Traits of Successful Students

In contrast, the following traits and behaviors were demonstarted by students that were able to be successful and even thrive in the clinical environment (Lewallen & DeBrew, 2012):

Trait #1: Prepared for clinical setting

Behaviors observed:

  • Brings needed resources
  • Professional in dress and manner
  • Researched medications and patient pathophysiology
  • Prompt with attendance and paperwork
  • Organized

Trait #2: Able to think critically by transferring knowledge from the classroom to the clinical setting

Behaviors observed:

  • Strong knowledge base that is applied in clinical setting
  • Attentive and makes clinical connections
  • Critical thinker and problem solver

Trait #3: Able to develop appropriate plan of care and provides safe care

Behaviors observed:

  • Understands and can use nursing process
  • Prioritizes care

Trait #4: Builds relationships and communicates effectively with faculty, staff, patients, and peers

Behaviors observed:

  • Effective communicator
  • Demonstrates respect
  • Works well with others
  • Asks appropriate questions

Trait #5: Has a positive attitude and is willing to learn

Behaviors observed:

  • Seeks out learning opportunities
  • Eager to learn
  • Positive attitude
  • Self-motivated
  • Caring
  • Open to learning
  • Engaged
  • Honest

Trait #6: Demonstrates progress, accepts feedback and adapts to clinical experience

Behaviors observed:

  • Receives constructive feedback and uses to demonstrate progress and growth
  • Flexible in the clinical setting

There are also traits that students must possess to critically think. be sure to check out my past blog on character traits students must possess to think critically.

How to APPLY

Use the following steps to make this content practical so it can be incorporated into your clinical teaching:

  1. Share these traits with your students. Write this down or simply forward this blog to the students in your program or clinical group.
  2.  Next time you have clinical orientation orientation, share these traits of successful students as expectations that represent professional nursing conduct and behavior.
  3. Use these traits to guide clinical evaluation. These traits are easily measurable to determine if the student is performing according to these expectations or not. It can simplify clinical evaluation by making it more concrete and removing as much subjectivity as possible.
  4. Incorporate traits of successful nursing students in your clinical evaluation form if they are not already present. This is a practical way to integrate educational best practice into the evaluation of students in your program.

In Closing

Do your students struggle to demonstrate professional behavior and ACT like a nurse?

This is a work in progress with most students and it is the responsibility of nurse educators to role model, partner, and guide students to live out what it means to be a professional nurse.

By making professionalism practical, these traits of successful nurses can raise a high bar of clinical expectations that are realistic and need to be attained before students leave your program.

By communicating and holding students accountable to these characteristics of successful students, you can be confident that you are developing the professional and ethical comportment of nursing that will empower them to live out what it means to be a healthcare professional and be the needed change in clinical practice.

What do you think?
What traits do you observe in successful clinical students? Are there any traits that were not identified in this study?
Comment below and let the conversation begin!


Did you know that there are also traits that successful clinical educators possess? Check out my past blog 7 Habits of Highly Effective Clinical Educators


  • Lewallen, L.P. & DeBrew, J.K. (2012). Successful and unsuccessful clinical nursing students. Journal of Nursing Education, 51(7), 389-395.

Keith Rischer – Ph.D., RN, CCRN, CEN

As a nurse with over 35 years of experience who remained in practice as an educator, I’ve witnessed the gap between how nursing is taught and how it is practiced, and I decided to do something about it! Read more…

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