how the nclex works

How the NCLEX-RN Works

Staff Writer
May 5, 2022

Becoming a nurse means passing the National Council Licensure Examination, better known as the NCLEX. The test, proctored by the National Council of the State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), is not like the tests you took in school. Unlike your math exams where everyone had to answer the same questions, the NCLEX is dynamic. It’s a test that watches you, reacts to you, and tailors itself to you, which means it’s very unlikely any two test takers will have the same NCLEX experience.

Computerized Adaptive Testing

The NCLEX uses a system known as computerized adaptive testing (CAT) to gauge your abilities. The system will give you questions of variable difficulty, gradually honing in on what level you’re able to answer consistently. The test starts easy and, as you answer questions correctly, gradually increases in difficulty. The NCLEX will ramp up the difficulty until you get a question wrong. When or if that happens, it will then give you some easier questions. If you get those right, the questions will get more difficult.

The test is trying to find the level of difficulty of questions you can consistently answer. If you can keep answering questions at a level above a certain baseline, you pass. If you can’t consistently answer questions at that baseline, you don’t.

Related Resource: How to Manage Stress Before Taking the NCLEX

NCLEX Test Length

One of the most noticeable features of the NCLEX is its variable length. The test is anywhere from 75 to 265 questions long. If the test ends after question 75, that means one of two things: Either it’s decided you’ve gotten so many questions wrong it’s time to terminate the test, or you’ve performed so admirably there’s no need for you to sit and keep proving yourself. A 75-question test is either the very best or very worst a future RN can do, and that leads to no shortage of anxiety for NCLEX test takers.

Regardless of how many questions the test gives you, you’ll have up to six hours to complete it. That includes breaks and a brief tutorial.

Related Resource: Normal Lab Values in Nursing

Experimental Questions

The NCSBN rewrites the entire NCLEX every three years. It takes a lot of testing for new questions to become an official part of the exam, and part of that is live tests on real students such as yourself.

Somewhere in the NCLEX are a few questions that don’t have anything to do with your score. Instead, they’re new types of questions the NCSBN is trying out on you. In these instances, the test isn’t evaluating you; you’re helping evaluate potentially new parts of the test. There’s nothing to distinguish these questions from the others. You won’t know when you’re dealing with a live question that contributes to your score, or when you’re facing one that’s being tried out for future tests. Your only option is to prepare and answer to the best of your abilities.

Related Resource: 8 NCLEX-RN Exam Practice Questions

At Joyce University, it’s our mission to foster those abilities. We dedicate entire courses to studying the ins and outs of the NCLEX and the types of questions you’ll encounter. We also give you real examples of how the test adapts and thinks.


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