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Developing an effective nurse residency program


Developing an effective nurse residency program

After reading this article, you will be able to:

  • Discuss how to implement a nursing residency program

by Vicky Goeddeke, RN, MS, CEN, CPEN

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part series about nurse residency programs. Part one, which discussed the benefits provided by residency programs, appeared in the August Strategies for Nurse Managers.

Benner (1984) told us that upon becoming a nurse, individuals develop in stages based on gaining experience. It is important to note that Benner describes experience not as longevity with the passage of time, but rather as the refinement of knowledge through encounters with many practical situations. Nurses are typically exposed to a variety of patients and care situations along the path to becoming competent. A well-structured nurse residency program can guide the new graduate nurse through exposure to many circumstances, thereby increasing experience, which in turn supports quicker development of competence.

Structuring a program

A nurse residency must be more than an extended orientation. New graduate nurses are not just transitioning to a new job environment, they are transitioning to a new role. This role development includes not only developing clinical skills, but learning to apply critical thinking and becoming acquainted with leadership skills. Residents are no longer nursing students; the focus of a nurse residency should be guidance for application of their knowledge.

Most organizations accept nurse resident applicants as a cohort, which helps manage the program efficiently. Participants also gain an informal support system in their resident peers.

Many programs struggle with how to integrate a didactic component into a nurse residency. Keeping didactics within the cohort can be beneficial, but as residents are working in various clinical specialties, topics must have a general focus. Although clinical exposure is the foundation of a nurse residency, didactics that enhance the experience of the specialty need to be incorporated. In addition, leadership skills should be touched upon during a nurse residency.

The desired outcome of a nurse residency is new graduate nurses who quickly develop into competent, efficient, and confident staff members. Offering flexibility within the clinical structure to consider the nuances of various nursing specialties is crucial to the success of a program.

A successful program also requires preceptors and mentors who are committed to facilitating the growth of nurse residents.

Strong preceptors support the clinical component and guide residents gradually from shadowing to independent practice while ensuring exposure to different situations that lead to competence. Strong mentors support the didactic component by posing various challenges to residents that facilitate their assimilation of knowledge and clinical exposure into competent nursing practice.

Sometimes, the roles of preceptor and mentor may be fulfilled by the same individual. Other times, depending on the scheduling needs for residents or the unit, multiple preceptors may be used. Communication among all those involved with residents is crucial to monitor progress and must extend to the unit’s nursing leadership and the nurse residency program coordinator. This can be a formal or informal process but should be defined as part of the program.

Benefits of a nurse residency group

In developing or updating a nurse residency program, the initial considerations should look at activities to support the cohort. A nursing core orientation usually offers an in-depth overview to organizational nursing practice for newly hired nurses. Offering a separate core orientation for the resident cohort may better meet the new nurse graduates’ needs.

Bringing the cohort together at defined intervals for education provides the opportunity not only to review various topics relevant across the practice spectrum, but also allows the individuals to build stronger relationships with other nurse residents.

Socialization is an important consideration in job satisfaction, and each nurse resident will integrate with his or her unit’s team. But the shared experience of entering the nursing profession together makes the residents true peers who can support each others’ development as nurses. And as the cohort successfully completes its journey through the residency, a recognition celebration for the group is in order.

Curriculum and activities

Developing unit-based activities for the nurse residency requires flexibility in guiding the structure of the program. Flexibility allows for program adaptation at the unit level, ensuring that it meets the needs of residents and the unit. Nurse residents typically should not “count in the staffing numbers” for an extended period, so a variety of learning opportunities can fit into scheduled shifts. By having residents and preceptors teamed for patient assignments, there is flexibility for residents to be guided for clinical opportunities or be relieved for didactic components.

Consideration should be given to developing tools or strategies that will help assess and monitor progress. A tracking tool that notes residents’ exposure to skills and processes can offer insight. Creating a unit-specific tool can outline various assessment skills, equipment, procedures, specific medications, or documentation standards needed within the unit’s specialty. It could be formatted for daily or ongoing use and it can note opportunities to observe or perform. Whatever tools are developed should be simple to use and have the purpose of guiding the resident-preceptor teams in structuring the clinical experience for variety and challenge.

The didactic component of a nurse residency should guide and support residents as adult learners and be addressed at the unit level and for the cohort. Mentors can facilitate residents’ incorporation of clinical experiences and knowledge. It is this incorporation that leads to competency and efficiency and gives new nurses confidence in their practice.

Routine meeting time between residents and mentors away from the clinical setting can be used for discussion and review. This time may include going over new clinical experiences, knowledge that is important to the specialty area, or case studies, all avenues to reinforce learning.

Additional education can be accomplished through granting self-study or guided time. Residents can complete assignments that will benefit integrating specifics into their practice. This might include review of unit-based competencies or unit-based policies and procedures or specific classes such as ACLS. Residents may be assigned to visit alternative sites that give insight into the continuum of care for the patient. For example, a resident on a cardiac care unit might visit the cath lab, or a resident on a postsurgical unit might visit the operating room.

Residents should also have exposure to understanding nursing leadership. Mentors should take responsibility for introducing residents to issues such as resource utilization, peer review, and quality improvement. Shadowing a nurse leader at the organizational or unit level can give residents perspective on the demanding challenges of a nurse leader.


Organizations offer various timelines for their programs, but be flexible with the prescribed program length to accommodate the needs of each specialty practice. Whatever the required length of time, participant evaluation is needed to monitor progress. Input for the evaluation should come from the preceptors, mentors, and unit nurse leaders and be shared with the resident program coordinator. Self-evaluation should be offered to residents, and peer evaluations from other nurses could be considered. In addition, nurse residents should have the opportunity to evaluate their preceptors and mentors.

When developing or updating a nurse resident program, start by setting objectives for participants to accomplish. There may be objectives for the cohort, with additional objectives for the resident’s unit. The program’s main goal is always competent nurses, regardless of the outlined objectives. By combining the structure of a nurse resident cohort with flexibility at the unit level, this goal will be accomplished.

Editor’s note: Goeddeke is the ANCC Magnet Recognition Program® and nursing experience manager at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, IL.


Benner, P. (1984) From Novice to Expert: Excellence and Power in Clinical Nursing Practice. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.