How to Make the Most of Clinicals

PT Blog   •   November, 2017

Clinical season is well underway and you may feel like you’re riding the waves or abruptly crashing. New hours, ongoing projects for your third year classes, and seeing numerous patients a day can be overwhelming for even the strongest contender.  I can remember those days, and thinking that I would never remember all of the information I learned. It was like drinking from a fire hydrant. Luckily, we have a few tips to make it through the holiday season and into the new year.

  1. Pay attention. It’s easy to get caught up in preparing for the next patient, researching new diagnoses, and trying to remember each cranial nerve test that we forget one of the most simple things, pay attention. Take a deep breath and listen to the patient sitting in front of you. Most of the time, they will give you the answer before you even begin your objective examination; taking a thorough history will prove beneficial. Also, listen and pay attention to your clinical instructor. Watch how they organize their evaluation, what objective measures they focus on with different diagnoses, and how they organize their treatment session. Clinicals are for those invaluable lessons, so don’t get so caught up in preparing for the next thing, or having everything perfect that you miss out on what’s right in front of you.
  2. Be confident. As the adage goes, “fake it til’ you make it”.  Have confidence in what you are doing. It will not only put your patient at ease, but also provide a level of trust between your patient and yourself as a healthcare provider.  You will also learn better. When you have confidence in your interventions, and they don’t succeed, you will remember what didn’t work and be more prepared in treating correctly for future patients.
  3. Take notes. Carry a notebook with you to your clinical and jot down items that you find interesting, or likely won’t remember.  Break up your notebook into the major subjects (MSK, NM, CVP) and write down everything from special tests you never learned in school, basic protocol progressions, to how to set up specific modalities. You think you’ll remember these moments; however, trust me, they become fuzzy and a handwritten note may jog your memory perfectly.
  4. Be prepared. Discuss with your instructor the day prior, to see which diagnoses you will evaluate the next day.  Review your notes the night before to familiarize yourself with the patient’s diagnosis. This will create a stress-free evaluation and you are more likely to remember what you learned by putting it into practice the next day.
  5. Create a study schedule.  Lastly, inevitably the NPTE will be here before you know it! Create a schedule, read your physical therapy test prep books, and utilize the PT Qbank to set yourself up for success.  Studies show the ineffectiveness of cramming, and by setting up a schedule that last minute studying will simply be a refresher of all the items you’ve already learned.  Set up a schedule via systems (1 month MSK, 2nd month, NM, etc…) or by reading a certain number of pages in each section of your test prep book a month. Then test yourself on the subject material a little at the end of each week via Qbank questions.  Preparing ahead of schedule will not only allow you to better retain the information, but prepare you for most school’s exit exams and ultimately, successfully passing your boards!

We wish you the best of luck on your clinical endeavors!

The PT Qbank Review Team

Review Question

By what percentage did students perform better when spacing studying vs cramming?


13%!  A 2009 Applied Cognitive Psychology study found students performed 13% better when spacing their studying time into intervals, rather than all at once. This was even demonstrated for short study breaks!


About the Author:

Ashley Theobald, D.P.T. – Ashley was born and raised in a small town in Alabama. She attended the University of South Alabama and was an advanced undergraduate student completing her Bachelor of Science degree in pre-professional health sciences in 2012. She then graduated with her doctorate in physical therapy in 2014. During her first year of PT school she met and married her husband, Ben. They moved to Nashville, TN where she worked for 3 years in an outpatient clinic full time and at Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital PRN. She is now working for ATI Physical Therapy full-time in Greenville, SC. She has been an avid health and fitness fan playing softball growing up, tennis in high school, and completing 2 half-marathons in college. She enjoys traveling overseas and has completed 2 short-term medical mission trips for physical therapy in the Dominican Republic (2013) and Haiti (2015), with intentions of returning yearly.
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