What Is Simulation in Nursing and Why Is It Important?

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What Is Simulation in Nursing and Why Is It Important - Marquette University

From the treatments patients receive and the technologies used, to the services provided and even the ways medical records are kept, healthcare — and the nursing profession — have grown increasingly complex.

Not surprisingly, to keep up with these advances, the ways in which nurses are trained have also changed, and that’s a good thing. Today’s nursing students graduate better prepared to make decisions and face high-pressure clinical situations, thanks in part to considerable advances in simulation technology and how it’s used in nursing school.

So what is simulation in nursing school?

Clinical Simulations Prepare You for Real-World Nursing Practice

Imagine you are evaluating a patient. Reviewing his chart, you see he has a history of heart failure and is on a daily fluid restriction, though he says he hasn’t been keeping track of his fluid intake today. He feels a bit clammy to the touch, but his vital signs appear stable, so you don’t think much of it. However, as you’re about to leave the room, you hear him cough and notice he is having a difficult time breathing while talking. Suddenly, you realize you forgot a key piece of the assessment. Upon listening to his lungs, you recognize the sound of crackles and immediately halt continuous fluids, as well as call the physician. Your patient is experiencing the early signs of fluid overload.

A scenario such as this one could have easily turned fatal had his cough and breathing not caught your attention. Ultimately, you made the right decision; however, you initially missed some tell-tale signs that something was wrong.

marquette university direct entry students in simulation lab

As real as this situation sounds, it was a clinical simulation in a nursing lab — the ‘patient’ was a high-tech patient simulator. And it illustrates just how quickly a patient’s condition can change, as well as why it’s essential that you enter the hospital setting prepared to think critically and exercise sound clinical judgment. It also illustrates just how important a role simulation labs play in preparing students for the kinds of emergency situations nurses experience on a daily basis.

The Role of Clinical Simulation in Nursing School

Of course, as valuable as they are, clinical simulations are just one part of your nursing education. To understand how clinical simulation fits into nursing school as a whole, let’s take a brief look at the three main components of Marquette University’s Direct Entry MSN program in Pleasant Prairie. This accredited, second-degree program makes it possible for eligible students to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree in 19–21 months through a combination of:

  • Online coursework designed to teach you the fundamental theories behind nursing practice while allowing you to study wherever you prefer — whether at home, your favorite coffee shop or local library.
  • Skills and simulation labs that provide you the opportunity to apply what you’re learning to hands-on practice at our state-of-the-art Pleasant Prairie learning site.
  • Clinical rotations that let you experience firsthand what it’s like to work in real-life healthcare settings while under the close supervision of an experienced clinical instructor.

What’s the Difference Between Skills and Simulation Labs?

Though both labs are designed to give you the skills and confidence you need to succeed in the nursing profession, each plays a unique (but complementary) role in your education.

Skills lab is exactly what it sounds like — where you learn and practice essential nursing skills, such as checking vital signs, inserting catheters and IVs, conducting nursing evaluations, and more. Or as May 2019 program graduate Kassielle puts it, “Skills lab is where you take everything you’re learning in theory and put it into practice.”

Marquette University - 2019 Graduate Shelby

Simulation lab takes the concept further, bridging the gap between skills labs and theory coursework, and clinical rotations. Set in a life-like healthcare environment, sim lab is where you apply your newly acquired skills and knowledge to mock nursing scenarios featuring high-tech, anatomically correct patient simulator manikins.“These manikins, they’re almost like real people,” says Shelby, another May 2019 graduate of Marquette’s Direct Entry MSN program. “They can cry. They can talk back. They blink. Their pupils dilate. This is just another stepping stone to get to that real-person interaction.”

Three Benefits of Clinical Simulation in Nursing School

Simulation labs are a critical component of your nursing education, allowing you to:

  1. Become confident dealing with high-pressure situations.
  2. Learn from your mistakes in a safe, supportive environment.
  3. Gain experience with conditions you may not encounter during clinicals.

Nursing Simulation Labs: Before, During and After

As we touched on earlier, simulation labs play a crucial role in your nursing education. However, there’s more to them than simply participating in the simulation scenario itself. What you do before and after simulation lab is equally important, which is why it’s best to think of sim labs as consisting of three distinct steps: preparation, simulation and debrief.


To get the most out of your clinical simulations in nursing school, it is essential that you show up prepared. Prior to attending a simulation lab, you’ll be given a list of patients that you may see. For example, one might have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), another asthma and so on.

You could be given a patient with one symptom or one issue, or you could be given a patient with multiple issues.

Lisa, a May 2019 graduate of the Direct Entry MSN program in Pleasant Prairie

It’s on you to complete any assigned readings, review your week’s coursework and research the patients’ conditions before showing up for simulation lab. Keep in mind that if you show up unprepared, not only will you not make the most of this valuable learning experience, it will be obvious to your instructor and the other members of your cohort.


As illustrated in our opening example, one thing you’ll quickly learn about simulation lab is that you don’t know what is going to happen, and that’s the point. Working in a hospital, a patient could be in stable condition one minute and coding the next. As a nurse, you have to be ready to act on a moment’s notice, because things can change quickly. Simulation lab is the same way.

When you show up for simulation lab, you’ll be assigned to care for a ‘patient’ exhibiting one or several of the conditions you were assigned. This could be with another student or solo. Meanwhile, your instructor will observe you through a two-way mirror, where he or she can control the simulator and even talk to you (as the patient). This allows him or her to test your ability to critically assess the situation and respond to what is happening in real time.

Did you know?

At first, it might appear to students that the patient simulators they interact with display behaviors and symptoms at random; however, simulations are anything but. These simulated experiences are designed and managed by a well-educated team of technologists, based on best practices and grounded in science and research, and can be varied by your instructor as he or she sees fit.

“In simulation [lab], you’ll walk into the room and you’ll have a manikin lying in the bed, and then behind a screen that you can’t see, you’ll have someone that’s operating the manikin,” says Lisa, who recently graduated from Marquette’s Direct Entry MSN program. “The scenario might perhaps be a patient that’s having respiratory distress. The manikin will start coughing or the lips will turn blue, and then you have to step into action and take those skills that you have learned in skills lab to help that patient.”

However, the lesson doesn’t end when the simulation does…


Just as important as participating in simulations are the debrief sessions that follow. Each simulation is filmed so that you and your cohort can review what went right, what went wrong and what could be improved upon — similar to how a sports team ‘reviews the tapes’ after a game. And there’s a lot of value in this.

Based on the Debriefing for Meaningful Learning (DML) model developed by Marquette faculty member Kristina Thomas Dreifuerst, PhD, RN, CNE, ANEF, FAAN — and used the world over — these sessions are where a significant portion of the learning occurs. That’s because when you experience a scenario, you are in the moment — as a nurse is. However, reviewing it afterward (and seeing your actions) allows you to think more clearly about what you did and why, absent the stress you may have experienced during the simulation itself.

“Our professors set up a lot of scenarios that we could run into in the real world, so it’s really nice to get that experience and see how I would really react before I get into the real world and the profession,” says Alyssa, a May 2019 Direct Entry MSN program graduate. “I also learn a lot from watching my peers in the simulations because you watch somebody and think, ‘I wouldn’t have thought to do that.’ That’s a really good thing.”

Marquette University - Debriefing Room
Following simulation lab, students participate in a debrief session in which they discuss what went right, what mistakes were made and what could have been done differently.

Additionally, these sessions provide you the opportunity to ask your instructor follow-up questions, and allow him or her to identify areas where you and your classmates may be struggling to grasp concepts. The end result is that you enter clinicals better prepared and more confident in your abilities.

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Marquette Nurse?

A career in nursing could be closer than you think with Marquette University’s Direct Entry MSN program in Pleasant Prairie. Contact an admissions adviser today to learn more about how you can earn your MSN in 19–21 months.