The question, “What kind of classes will I take in nursing school?” is one that comes up pretty often…and rightly so. Nursing school classes are a bit of a mystery and not knowing what to expect certainly adds to the anxiety and nervousness. Never fear, I’ve never let you down before and I’m not about to start now!

Fundamentals Class

Though it might be called something different, this is your basic “how to do nursey-type things” class. In Fundamentals, you’ll learn all those day-to-day skills in excruciating step-by-step detail. Which is good…because once you’re in the hospital your opportunities to learn are much less structured and usually pretty fast paced. You’ll start out learning how to measure urine output accurately, empty Foley bags and check blood sugars. You’ll soon graduate to placing NG tubes, doing wound care, giving injections and transfusing blood. It is the most FUN you’ll have in nursing school…especially if you sneak into the lab with your classmates one lazy afternoon and practice doing IVs on each other (which absolutely never happens. Ever. Really, it really never happened. Not once. OK, maybe once).

Studying for fundamentals is a bear. The amount of detail is mind numbing and you will want to  weep with longing for your former, carefree self on more than one occasion. However, it is one of the most important classes you will take, so brush yourself off and press on. You got this. The most nerve-wracking element of Fundamentals class is the SKILLS CHECK OFF.

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In order to absolutely nail your skills check off, you need to perform at a level of near to absolute perfection. And if you don’t, you fail the check-off and are at risk for failing nursing school. Most programs will allow 2-3 attempts to pass a skills check off, so don’t go crawling into a fetal position and gently rocking yourself for sleep just yet. You are going to practice practice practice and sail through your check off with flying colors. If your program has open-lab hours, get in there and practice. Take a buddy and go through the check-off list step-by-step. Do the whole spiel, from introducing yourself to performing hand hygiene to everything in between. Sure you’ll feel like a major dork talking to an anatomical mannequin but that’s ok. Nursing is about jumping headfirst out of your comfort zone, so might as well start now.

I remember my very first skills check off like it was yesterday. I was FREAKING OUT over something that I could eventually  do with my eyes closed, standing on one foot and with both arms tied behind my back. It was a simple check off for taking pulses, respirations and temp. It wasn’t so much the skill that had me shaking in my boots, it was the process of being evaluated so stringently. So, I did what any sensible Straight A student would do. I grabbed my friend Tyrone and practiced over and over before the big day. Don’t have a friend named Tyrone? Any friend will do, but you get extra cool bonus points if his name is Tyrone and he’s as fun and awesome as this guy.

Theory Classes

The politically-correct thing to say here is that theory gives you the backbone of nursing, your sense of history and a basis on which to build your practice. Are you kidding me??? Theory class is uber dull. Like watching the grass grow in the desert kind of dull. But, like root canals and mammograms it is one of life’s necessities and must be endured. Well, more than endured…you  must also pass theory class and try to learn something useful in the process. Gauntlet thrown!

If you enjoy history, there are elements of theory class you’ll enjoy. Florence Nightingale was a bad ass, so that’s a highlight.

If you are a history buff then you very well could enjoy some of your theory classes. But, for the most part, you’ll find them to be tedious and, to be honest, kind of blah. This doesn’t mean they aren’t important, it’s just that in this stage of your nursing career you are drawn to the bright shiny things…the patho, the pharmacology, the skills, the gory wound pictures and adrenaline-rush code blues. Think of theory classes as the calm in the storm and you may appreciate them just a little bit.

Assessment Class

This is typically a first-semester class wherein you learn how to assess every little thing. You’ll start with the basics (temp, pulse, respirations, blood pressure) and work your way up to differentiating lung sounds, conducting a full neuro assessment and doing a top-to-bottom, full-on, no-holds-barred, head-to-toe assessment. You’ll practice on your classmates, so if you’re not friendly at first blush, you’ll get there!

Med/Surg Class

You will have two med/surg classes (med/surg is short for “medical-surgical” which pertains to the general patient population…they’re either in the hospital for medical or surgical reasons…or both). This is your general “care of the adult patient” class and this is where you’ll go over all the different maladies, surgeries and whatnot your patients will have. Some schools have a separate pathophysiology course, while others weave patho into med/surg. Regardless, this will be your most favorite class, but also your most difficult. You will be introduced to concepts for which you have no frame of reference and often feel like you are learning everything from absolute ground zero. Before you get too overwhelmed, remind yourself that you actually DO have some useful background knowledge, even if you’ve never stepped foot in a hospital. It’s your Anatomy & Physiology courses. Draw upon that knowledge and Med/Surg will be bearable. I promise.

Med/Surg Clinical

Med/Surg class also comes with a clinical component, which is where you take what you are learning and apply it to real patients in a real hospital. Every program differs in the number of days/hours you are in clinical. You may do one long day, two shorter days or something in between. Whatever your schedule is, don’t think for one minute your clinical time is restricted to just those days. You will be doing a whole bunch of prep work ahead of time before each clinical day and this is what is known as the dreaded “clinical prep.” Here’s how it works at my school… note that it can be different but probably not by much.

  • The day before clinical you will go to the hospital to select your patients. If you’re studying GI that week in class, you might try to find a patient with a GI surgery. Or, if you’re wanting to get experience with tube feeds, maybe you choose a patient who’s got an NG tube and getting bolus feedings 3x a day.
  • Once you’ve selected your patient, you go through the chart and take about a million notes. What meds they’re on, what their medical hstory is, what’s happened to them since admission, what their current orders are, their most recent vital signs and labs, etc.. You will use this information to write up your clinical prep.
  • Writing up the actual prep will take hours. No lie. This is what you will be doing every afternoon/evening/night before clinical so get used to it and try to love it. Each program has different clinical prep requirements, so I won’t go into the details of how to do it here…just make note that it will be a great workout for your brain and a fantastic opportunity to apply what you’ve been learning in class.
  • Pre-clinical conference is where you get to the hospital SUPER early and meet your clinical group so your instructor can make sure you have all your prep work done. S/he is not going to let you loose if you haven’t done your homework. Show up prepared or you’ll be sent home, missing out on vital clinical hours in the process.
  • Going to the hospital for your actual clinical day. Have fun, ask questions, keep busy, be helpful and go out of your way to give your patients lots of TLC. They’ll love you for it.
  • Post-conference is where get together with your clinical group to discuss your day, talk about the different patients you took care of, and more-or-less get grilled by your clinical instructor. Try not to stress…it’s a great way to debrief and learn a ton in the process.

The 2nd semester of Med/Surg is your “Advanced Med/Surg” class. In this class you’ll go into more depth, study more complex pathophysiology and learn about things like ventilators, EKGs, hemodynamic monitoring, and so on. Your clinical rotation should include a couple of days in ICU and possibly the ER as well. In this semester you’ll be taking care of more patients, doing more stuff and really starting to see how a typical shift flows together. It’s super fun.

Mental Health Nursing

Psych nursing is fascinating with a capital F. It’s also hard as heck. You will learn all kinds of amazing things about the human brain, meet incredibly brave individuals, witness psychosis first hand and start psychoanalyzing all your family members. Mental Health consists of a class component and a clinical component. The clinical course will take place in some kind of facility that provides mental health services…I was lucky enough to go to an actual psych hospital and cried my first day there. I was terrified of the psych ICU. Those patients are on close observation for a reason and I did not know what to expect. It ended up being a fascinating, depressing and mega-interesting clinical rotation. One word of caution…never let your guard down, not even for a minute.

OB Nursing

Babies! Babies! Babies! If you love babies, you’ll love this class. I’m not really into babies much, but I found this class to be really interesting from a clinical perspective. The physiology involved in pregnancy and childbirth is incredible and I can see why OB nurses tend to have really high job satisfaction. Like many of your other courses, OB has a course component and a clinical component. For your clinical component you don’t have to do patient preps…but you will have a ton of new skills to learn (fetal monitoring and newborn assessment come to mind). If you’re lucky you’ll get to assist with a vaginal birth and if you’re super lucky, you’ll get to watch a c-section. Super super cool stuff. Depending on how your school does things, you may get to spend a day in the newborn nursery and a day on a postpartum unit. They’re all fun, and generally very happy places to be.

Pediatric Nursing

As the name implies, this is where you learn about taking care of the kiddos. This was a really interesting class, but the clinical component made me want to take up heavy drinking. It takes a very special person to work with kids…patient, thoughtful, patient, selfless, patient, caring, patient, gentle and patient. If you lack patience or don’t connect well with kids or parents this clinical will be tough. If, however, you love kids and they love you…this could be one of your favorite parts of nursing school. Lucky nursing students will get to spend a day in the PICU (pediatric intensive care unit) or NICU (neonatal intensive care unit)…we got to do this for a whole half day and it was on a strict ‘look but don’t touch” basis…observation only. It was fine by me…sometimes just being an astute observer is the best way to learn, especially when the stakes are this high.

The coursework for this class was one of my favorites…just the congenital heart defects alone will make the nerd in you all warm and fuzzy inside. Check out my notes on this topic and you’ll see what I mean…it’s a pathophysiology bonanza.

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So there you have it!

I hope this summary of the types of nursing classes you will take helps you know what to expect while alleviating some of those pre-program jitters. Want even more tips on how to absolutely rock the heck out of nursing school? Get the Nursing School Thrive Guide here (#ad), or an amazingly awesome planner here.


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