When it comes to being a preceptor, you can have it all.

“You can be a great teacher and a great clinician,” said Catherine Shull, MPAS, PA-C, an assistant professor in the Department of PA Studies.

Nevertheless, one of the most common hesitations Shull hears from potential preceptors is that they’re concerned about the added time precepting might require. “They believe that taking on a student is like taking on a part-time job,” she continued. “But that’s actually not the case.”

The most important thing preceptors offer their students takes no additional time at all – access to their patients. Patients, of course, are the real teachers in a clinical situation.

Still, preceptors need to be able to guide their students during a clinical rotation, making sure they learn the important lessons the patients have to teach. To help preceptors embrace their role as teachers and improve their skills, the Wake Forest PA program offers a workshop called, “Strengthening Your Teaching Toolbox.”

Cathy Shull - PA ProgramShull said this workshop is offered to help preceptors learn to balance their teaching with their clinical responsibilities. “Your role as a preceptor is so important to our program,” said Shull. “We want to make sure you’re armed with the right tools to make it a mutually beneficial experience.”

The workshop covers several strategies and teaching concepts, but Shull points to three main ideas that are most helpful for preceptors in balancing their teaching and clinical work. Those are role modeling, observation, and teachable moments.

Role Modeling

Another name for this powerful teaching method is “advanced shadowing.”

Ideal for working with a student for the first time, role modeling is an effective teaching method that does not require much additional time on the preceptor’s part.

As its name indicates, it’s a method of teaching students by setting an example. Through role modeling, the preceptor demonstrates how to perform certain tasks and functions, showcasing preferred methods and approaches to a variety of situations.

For example, if the preceptor has a strong preference for how to present a patient’s history, the preceptor can demonstrate this to the learner by performing a presentation.

However, it’s not enough to simply perform the tasks and let the students watch, passively. It is important to tell the student what to watch for. The student can look to see how the preceptor sets a positive tone for the patient encounter, for example, or listen to the types of questions the preceptor asks in a particular case.

Another important part of role modeling is debriefing afterwards. This gives the student a chance to ask questions and internalize the lesson, while letting the preceptor focus the teaching and assess the student’s skills and abilities. 


Once a student is more comfortable in a clinical situation and is able to start taking the lead on certain tasks and patient interactions, observation becomes an important teaching tool.

Every preceptor knows that observation is important, but most will say that they just don’t have the time. They think they have to observe the entire interaction, which takes precious time away from their other duties.

In fact, they don’t have to observe entire interactions. Instead, brief observations conducted at the beginning, middle, and end of patient encounters are very productive and conducive to teaching.

And, they take less time.

Prior to observing an interaction, preceptors must take two important steps.

First, they have to prime the student, sharing any patient information, discussing what the student will be doing during the encounter, and identifying what the preceptor will be looking for. Second, preceptors should inform the patient about the student’s role, making sure the patient is comfortable with the arrangement.

As with role modeling, debriefing after an observation is important. At this point, the preceptor can have the student do a self-assessment. That helps the preceptor to provide effective feedback, framing the discussion around what the student did well and where improvement is needed.

Teachable Moments

The third method preceptors can use to balance their clinical work while still being effective teachers is using teachable moments.

These are everyday occurrences that impart a lesson or make a point. Obviously, teachable moments are difficult to predict in advance, but there are many possible moments on any given day.

Preceptors should choose the moments they use to share a lesson carefully. It’s not necessary to use every moment or to teach with every patient. Instead, they should consider what their goals are during the interactions with the student.

Preceptors might use teachable moments to clarify a procedure, explain a diagnosis, show an easier way to perform a task, share some past experiences, or prevent mistakes in the future.

By thinking about their goals prior to teachable moments, preceptors can focus their teaching and use their time more effectively.

As a practicing clinician, serving as a preceptor is one of the most rewarding things you can do. “You are paying things forward to students,” said Shull. “It’s a very gratifying experience.”

That’s why Shull urges clinicians considering becoming a preceptor to not let the time factor prevent them from taking that step. “Your students don’t have to see every patient. You don’t have to be a teacher every moment of the day,” she said.

“By developing your teaching toolbox, you can be an outstanding teacher without sacrificing your clinical work.”

To learn more about becoming a preceptor for Wake Forest PA students, contact clinical director Gayle Bodner, MMS, PA-C, at the Wake Forest PA program: gbodner@wakehealth.edu.