A key factor in experiential learning: Assessing preceptor and clinical site fit

It is a common practice for universities and colleges to maintain a list of approved preceptors and...

It is a common practice for universities and colleges to maintain a list of approved preceptors and sites where students in various programs, such as Nursing or Occupational Therapy, can explore and propose potential placements.

However, there are some students who prefer to take matters into their own hands and leverage their networking skills to bring their desired preceptor and site to the table. Perhaps they have their sights set on working at that particular site after completing their undergraduate program. Alternatively, these students might be enrolled in an online program, and since the university doesn't have a presence in that area yet, their options are limited.

Moreover, it is becoming increasingly evident that today's health science programs, like Nursing for example, are grappling with a shortage of available preceptors and learning sites. This poses a significant challenge for students who rely on these placements to gain valuable practical experience and enhance their skills.

Regardless, the changing dynamic of higher education is putting more onus on faculty to navigate uncharted waters in order to facilitate the student experience. Where you once had a bench of regional sites within easy driving distance, you could count on for preceptors and externship clinical sites you may now be managing in the many dozen – or hundreds. And they may be across several state lines.

With 16 years of experience in higher education and as a trusted technology partner to hundreds of experiential education programs, we’ve witnessed (and helped) various programs successfully enable students to seek out sites and preceptors. However, it is crucial for the institution to take necessary measures to ensure that preceptors are well-suited for their roles. 

Every institution has its own unique processes for experiential education placements. Student nomination of preceptors is certainly a more proactive approach, but it’s becoming increasingly common. If a student is going to nominate their own preceptor and site, it’s fair to expect a certain level of examination was done by them before bringing this option to administration:

Research and networking

If students want to nominate their own preceptor, they should be expected to conduct research to identify professionals in their field of study with expertise and experience relevant to the preceptorship. Ideally, they have already been forming these relationships through networking events, conferences, and industry associations. 

Maybe they live in close proximity as well and have made a personal visit and appeal. There should be some trust that the student did a little legwork prior to bringing the preceptor site to you.

If you are a student, you could also seek recommendations from professionals, colleagues, or mentors who may be aware of potential preceptors. Use whatever professional networks you have - including social media.

Nomination and verification

Before nominating a preceptor, students should independently verify the qualifications, credentials, and expertise of the potential nominee. This is hopefully spelled out by the university program regarding expectations for students nominating their own preceptor. This example from the University of Maryland is a good one to reference as a preceptor policy template.

Verification steps you could strongly encourage include reviewing their professional background, publications, or any other relevant information.

Whether the administration favors a manual or software-led process, a comprehensive nomination package that includes information about the potential preceptor's qualifications, professional experience, and how their expertise aligns with the goals of the preceptorship program should be an expected deliverable from the student. University staff should review and provide communication to both the preceptor and student about the nomination progress.

Clearly articulate the reasons for nominating the particular preceptor. Explain how their unique skills, experiences, or perspectives could enhance the educational experience for students. Providing a strong rationale can help faculty understand the value of the nomination.

Follow the procedures outlined by the program for submitting preceptor nominations. This may involve completing a nomination form, writing a letter of recommendation, or providing relevant documentation about the nominee.

Learn more about Site Prospector!

Faculty review and evaluation

Once submitted, the review is going to fall onto the faculty at the school. Either a single member or a committee of members will review nominations, assess suitability, and either approve or ask for follow-up information to further verify the information and take closer looks at items, including the preceptor's credentials, expertise, and alignment with their own undergraduate program objectives; such as how this evaluation from Catholic University works.

For students, navigating this process can be unfamiliar and overwhelming. Enhance the student experience by understanding and empathizing with their perspective.

Students hopefully are open to feedback and collaboration with staff during the nomination process. As an administrator, you can provide insights, offer modifications, or give alternatives to ensure the success of the preceptorship program if there is a failed nomination.  Thorough justification, regardless of the direction of the decision, should clear up any misunderstandings.

Orientation for new preceptors

If a preceptor is approved, it might be wise to have them participate in some sort of orientation session before the student begins their externship. This can be done in person or digitally via virtual webinar. It’s important that universities try to maintain relations with their preceptors and maintain communication.

Once the nomination is approved, it becomes the responsibility of the faculty to ensure that the preceptors are fully informed about the program's expectations, policies, and goals. This includes keeping track of the time and tasks related to the program. If you use software like CORE's ELMS, you can utilize the messaging module or similar tools to provide preceptors with all the necessary information about the processes they need to follow.

A well-prepared approach not only expands the pool of mentors available for the program but also enhances the student experience. It gives preceptors an opportunity to give back to their profession and contribute to the development of the next generation of nursing or health science professionals.

How preceptor and site verification works

As mentioned earlier, the program staff must take necessary measures to ensure that preceptors are well-suited for their roles. Having a preceptor who is negligent or a site that is incompatible in terms of the ideal learning experience environment can have a detrimental effect on the trust and reputation of the program.

The selection and verification process may vary across different fields and programs, but for many there are common steps needing to be taken. Some do this entire process manually, or via email and folder tree within their desktop, while others use tools including CORE software

Professional screening

Preceptors are usually chosen based on their significant professional experience and expertise. Part of the nomination and approval process colleges use to assess preceptor track record can include years of experience, specialization, and achievements.

It’s smart to interview a potential preceptor as well as they are an extension of the classroom. Knowing and assessing their communication skills, teaching methods, and commitment to education are the kinds of soft skills that make a big difference for a student. It should be more than afterthought. Faculty also should be assessing if the preceptor’s approach matches the program’s educational goals.

It’s normal to get references from previous employers, colleagues, or students who have worked with the potential preceptor, as well. Feedback from these references give more insight into the preceptor's teaching abilities, interpersonal skills, and professionalism.

Site visits, when possible, are great ideas by college representatives to see how the preceptors work with their peers and with the students colleges take charge of. You want to verify in person if at all possible that the learning setting is beneficial to the students’ educational goals. 

Feedback and ongoing collaboration

Creating feedback loops give students the chance to have input on their experience with the preceptor and determine their effectiveness. Faculty should be continually assessing preceptors and taking certain steps when poor feedback is noted. 

Institutions collaborate with professional organizations or associations to identify and vet potential preceptors, too. These organizations often have standards and guidelines for preceptorship that align with educational objectives, and usually can provide references. 

By implementing feedback and having an organized system for measurement, colleges ensure that preceptors are both qualified and effective mentors who serve as an extension of the university for students in their respective fields.

Using software to automate the site vetting process

A lot of the preceptor nomination, evaluation, and verification processes take place via email and zip folders. This can create really thick bottlenecks in the process when you deal with hundreds of students, and several of them may want to nominate a preceptor and site not currently approved in a university system. 

This process, for example, from Walden University, invites a lot of interpretation as to the process itself and how things get tracked once submitted.

Fortunately, you do now have more software options at your disposal to make this process more visibility and manageable for each stakeholder.

ELMS by CORE Higher Education Group has a specific module called Site Prospector that accomplishes exactly that:  Make the nomination, evaluation, and verification process a single pane process for faculty, student, and preceptor. 

Connect with a team member to learn about CORE solutions

Site prospector allows students to research and submit sites they would like to be placed at.

This gives the student abilities they didn’t have before to take charge of nominating their own site and preceptor to work with. This offers faculty and students a lot of benefits:

  1. It empowers students to actively research and submit their preferred sites, giving them a sense of responsibility in their educational journey.
  2. The module expands the offerings in the Research Center within ELMS. 
  3. The module enables your institution to further develop its footprint and network.
  4. It provides a mutual benefit for both students and the institution's administrators. Students have the freedom to look for sites that align with their interests and goals and submit them for approval, while the institution can streamline its vetting process.

Tools like these can make the process of bringing new preceptors on board - and allowing students the ability to advocate for their own - much less of a lift for faculty already having to wear and prioritize multiple hats in the student experience.

CORE Higher Education Group


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