Fixation on Histology

How You Can Train Clinical Students Without Feeling Overwhelmed

Training Clinical StudentsThe Paradox of Clinical Students
It’s a paradox histology lab supervisors are all too familiar with - the lab is short-staffed, everyone’s working hard, and you need more staff. Taking on students, trainees, new employees, or cross-training might help in the long run, but it’s hard to dedicate the time and effort. Clinical students or cross-training does take time. It’s easier for a bench tech to get their work done when they’re not explaining what they’re doing, and a trainee or student won’t be as fast as an experienced tech. Patient care comes first, and it’s easy to decide that you don’t have the ability to take on a student.

Don’t Say “NO” Right Away. Think about the benefits.

By declining students for clinical rotations, you could be missing out on a huge opportunity. A student rotation can be looked at as an extended job interview. You get to meet the student and observe how they interact with other employees, get a sense of their personality and fit, and start teaching them how your lab does things. You can think of it as a “trial period” for your next employee.

Not only is it a benefit for the student as a potential employee, but it’s also a benefit for your current employees too. Mentoring or teaching a student is a valuable experience. Bench techs can improve their own knowledge and skills by training – they say the best way to learn is to explain it to somebody else.

There are Real, Actionable Things You Can Do To Make it Easier to Host Students.

There are ways to make student clinical experiences easier, less time-intensive, and even helpful for your lab and employees. By taking some time to develop a training plan that fits your lab, your employees, and your workflow, you can improve the learning experience while avoiding overwhelming yourself or your employees.

Evaluate Your Workflow and Equipment

If you have students, have agreed to take on students, or are considering accepting students, the first step is to evaluate your workflow and equipment. You can do this at any time and reevaluate as necessary.

Ask for copies of the learning objectives and discuss the expectations for student clinical experiences with the program director and faculty for the program. What are the most important things they want the student to get experience with? What objectives would they like the student to complete?  Once you understand the objectives evaluate your lab’s workflow and use of equipment.

When are your employees the busiest? For most histology labs, the morning run is the largest. Embedding during the morning run might be too much for a teaching experience, but slower after that. The special stains bench might be fairly slow in the mornings and more active in the afternoons.

Employees aren’t the only consideration. You might need all your embedding stations in the morning, but only one or two in use later. If there’s a free microtome or embedding station at certain times, take a note of that. When does daily or weekly maintenance get done? That’s a great way to get familiar with a piece of equipment.

Once you have identify the “when” in your workflow a student’s training might fit, bring your supervisors and administration into the discussion. What are the limits of what you can do with a student? What paperwork or inprocessing needs to be completed before the student can start clinical rotations? How do you capture or record the effort you and your staff are putting into this? Many facilities have methods in place to record time spent teaching or mentoring, especially at hospitals with resident programs or nursing programs. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that you can get FTEs or workload credit for student instruction.

Start Building a Teaching Collection

You don’t need to constantly be looking for something for a student to do. With minimal effort, you can start putting together a small collection of samples and cases that make for great learning experiences.

  • Talk to the grossing department. While they gross some of their specimens, they could make an extra cassette or two with very little effort, just like we do for control blocks. Before disposing of a grossed sample, you could section off some extra cassettes and label them by source.
  • As you clear out old blocks for disposal, think about keeping some for training purposes. You don’t have to keep a huge collection, but a few blocks with different types of samples can be put aside and used to train.
  • Do you have expired reagents? Use them! Expired reagents aren’t suitable for patient specimens that are used for diagnosis, but you can still use them for training.
  • Students can help! Sectioning a specimen, filing, and sorting old blocks, cutting extra slides and checking expiration dates is just as useful for teaching as the finished product.

At this point, we’re making lists of what we could do, and coming up with ways to smoothly slip that in.

Develop a Training Plan

Once you have a good idea of your workflow, capabilities, and objectives, you can start working on a training plan.

Everyone needs to go through initial training, competency assessment, and proficiency testing. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel! The standards and documentation you use for a new employee can be just as useful for teaching. This might even be a chance to improve your competency assessments. The learning objectives and evaluations you can get from the program directors could work just as well for a competency assessment.

Individual practice time is important for students. You can’t learn to cut or embed from a book, and classroom lab time is limited. There’s a great benefit to blocking off time for practice  - sit them down at a microtome with a stack of blocks, and let them know that they can always get advice if they need it.

Just because a student is initially scheduled for certain hours, it doesn’t mean you have to keep those exact hours. Talk to the program director about flexibility for times and days. You might even be able to mix it up a little bit. Have a student come in early to observe the morning run for a couple of days, then have them come in later on other days to do hands-on practice when it’s less busy.

Use the student evaluation as a guide. Student evaluations can help guide the training. You don’t have to wait until the end to start using them. Take a few minutes at the end of the day or the end of the week to go over the evaluation objectives with the trainer and student. You can use them to arrange extra practice, look for extra opportunities, and they’ll make writing the evaluation at the end much easier.

Having Clinical Students Can Take Some Effort, But it Doesn’t Have to Prevent You From Taking Them

There’s no way to host a student that’s completely seamless. It still takes time and attention. But it doesn’t have to be so much of a burden that having a student is impossible. By taking a little time to develop a plan that takes your workflow and lab into account, you might find that it’s much less of a disruption than you’d think, and a joy to share your knowledge with a student who is eager to learn.


This blog was extracted from the NSH Resource Paper: How You Can Train Clinical Students Without Feeling Overwhelmed written by Trey Moody.

Written by Trey Moody, MLS(ASCP)CM



09-30-2022 13:44

Great points! The first item is what we tell our students.  It is also a way to showcase the new and innovative techniques that your lab uses.  We send our students with their own blocks to prove their skill level.  This allows the lab to assess the skill level and develop a plan.  In a few instances, the student was allowed to cut patient tissue within a few days of starting. Also having a weekly plan will help, instead of just shadowing.  It can be assisting with the processor, filing blocks, or changing the stainers to start off with. Many programs do not have a variety of equipment, so having the students assist with changing the reagents can really help to cement their knowledge.

08-14-2022 07:26

Trey, you make very good points! I find, too, that although the first few days of clinical rotation can slow the clinical mentor down somewhat, a well-trained student can be more helpful than hindrance soon and assist in getting the work out earlier.