What is the role of the preceptor in the educational experience of clinical graduate students such as Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and Physician Assistant (PA)?
Preceptors are our partners in educating the next generation of advanced practice nurses and physician assistants. They are essential to the success of our students. Preceptors provide one-to-one, guided professional practice in clinical settings. They oversee student interactions with patients and arrange for other important clinical experiences that orient students to the role of the advanced practice provider. While preceptors help students meet specific learning goals, they also often serve as role models to students. It’s difficult to overestimate the impact a preceptor can have on a DNP or PA student.
Why is the role of preceptor critical to clinical education?
We are in practice professions, and what students need to be competent professionals is more than can be taught in a classroom. Students work with preceptors in real world conditions where they have opportunities for hands-on practice with high levels of contextual support. Preceptors not only teach students based on their specialties and unique practice settings, but also pass on their own experiential and professional knowledge.
What motivates advanced practice providers to volunteer to become a clinical preceptor?
The primary reason that I hear from preceptors is that they want to give back to the profession. Current physician assistants and advanced practice nurses had the benefit of learning from expert clinicians and they wish to pass on that knowledge. A lot of our preceptors love their careers and want to share that passion with students. Our preceptors also learn from students sometimes. Students are often up-to-date on the most recent publications and evidence-based guidelines. Precepting is also a way for alumni to stay connected to our programs. At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, we strive to maintain strong relationships with our preceptors, some of whom are alumni, and truly partner with them to benefit our graduates and, by extension, our patient populations and communities.
Talk about the specific skills and competencies that make a competent and efficient preceptor.
My colleagues and I have learned over the years that being an expert clinician doesn’t necessarily make a good preceptor. Our best preceptors are passionate about and committed to their field, and they share that passion with students. But a preceptor also needs to be organized, understand how adults learn, acknowledge and work toward learning goals with the student, and understand what to do when a student is struggling. Students’ favorite preceptors are those that communicate their expectations clearly and provide a lot of constructive feedback. We all like to see students succeed and become our trusted colleagues after graduation. The best preceptors are invested in that next generation of professionals and committed to providing a challenging but positive learning environment.
How are preceptors trained?
What our team has learned is that preceptors for DNPs and PAs rarely receive any training in how to teach. Preceptors may have lots of education, training, and experience in their clinical roles, but have no training in how to provide clinical education. What we find is that many preceptors rely on the training methods used by their own preceptors. There are national organizations that provide some education and training. Individual health care systems may provide workshops or training in how to precept, but this is rare. Most preceptors need to seek out these experiences on their own, and they are not always easily available. Otherwise, most learn through experience.
Talk about best practices for supporting preceptors.
When we talk to advanced practice providers, many want to work with a student, but don’t feel prepared to do so. Preceptors need specific training for working with students in a clinical setting. They need to feel prepared and supported. Through a collaboration with our clinical practice partner, UW Health, UW–Madison faculty from the PA and DNP programs created a half-day preceptor workshop geared specifically toward meeting the needs of busy clinicians who precept PA and DNP students. To develop the workshop, we listen to what preceptors are telling us about their learning needs and cover topics that will make the experience good for both the preceptor and the student.
Another key element in supporting preceptors is good communication. They should have clear expectations of their time commitment, the objectives of the course and program, the qualifications and background of the student who will be working with them, and who to contact if there are questions or concerns. It’s also important for preceptors to be recognized as a crucial member of the teaching team through clinical practice partnerships, incentives for precepting, and appreciation.
Do you have a personal story about your own clinical education experience with a preceptor?
I had the good fortune to have wonderful preceptors who provided not only important clinical experiences, but also showed me the role of the advanced practice nurse in the health care system. My preceptors strongly influenced my decision to work in long-term care settings, and I stayed in touch with one of them for years after I graduated.