Nurse Preceptor: A Vital Role

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Two nurses talking at a work stationAs a registered nurse (RN), if you haven’t been asked to be a preceptor, chances are you soon will be. More than half of new graduate nurses start their careers in a hospital setting, and more preceptors are needed to bridge the gap between nursing school and the hospital.

Nurse preceptors are vital to the success of health care organizations, and studies have linked effective preceptors with reduced nurse turnover and increased patient safety. As a result, health care organizations are increasingly requiring RNs to serve as preceptors for new nursing staff by tying the role to career advancement and raises.

Nurse preceptor definition

A preceptor by definition is a teacher or instructor, but the role of a nurse preceptor goes beyond that traditional definition.  The nurse preceptor serves the dual role of practitioner and educator.

The responsibility of precepting falls in between teaching and mentoring. “Like mentoring, it is a one-to-one relationship. Even if a person precepts more than one student, each relationship tends to be handled in a one-to-one manner,” says Barbara Stevens Barnum, author of “The Role of the Preceptor: A Guide for Nurse Educators.” In addition to being a teacher and a mentor, a preceptor also serves as a role model, leader, influencer, evaluator, socialization agent and protector to the apprentice nurse.

The preceptor is instrumental for a student nurse to successfully link nursing theory to application in a clinical setting, according to researchers at the University of Calgary. The preceptor and student nurse work together as one unit, with the nurse carefully observing the preceptor in action and performing tasks under the preceptor’s watchful eye.

Nurse preceptor characteristics

Nurses who are asked to be preceptors are typically experienced RNs who are enthusiastic about the nursing profession and have a desire to teach. The preceptor should have a BSN degree at minimum, and preferably a master’s or higher degree in nursing.

Good candidates for preceptors are unit-based nurse managers, nursing department heads, nursing education department personnel and advanced practice nurses, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

However, not all nurses have the ability or the desire to be preceptors. While skill, knowledge and experience are important, the best preceptors are effective communicators who know how to help student nurses transfer knowledge into bedside application.

In addition to having a desire to teach others, a preceptor should have the following characteristics:

  • Effective interpersonal and communication skills
  • Teaching skills
  • Sensitivity to the learning needs of student nurses
  • Leadership skills
  • Decision-making and problem-solving skills
  • Positive professional attitude
  • Ability to provide feedback effectively

Nurse preceptor job description

The overall goal of a preceptorship is to ensure the novice nurse applies classroom learning in a clinical setting. There are a variety of ways that preceptors can help to facilitate this learning transfer, including:

  • Demonstrating nursing actions
  • Talking through actions to illustrate the preceptor’s thinking process
  • Role-modeling professional interactions
  • Designing learning experiences and patient care assignments
  • Assessing the student’s readiness for assignments
  • Giving feedback on performance

An effective preceptor should:

  • Communicate clear expectations
  • Connect information to broader concepts
  • Answer questions clearly
  • Explain the basis for actions and decisions
  • Give appropriate responsibility to the novice nurse
  • Be open to conflicting opinions

Nurse preceptor training

Most nurse preceptors are skilled clinicians who have never been in a training role. In order to be effective, they need to understand the learning process and learn how to effectively give feedback.

Preceptor training helps to dispel fears that an experienced nurse may have in training novice nurses. The programs teach concepts such as creating an optimal learning environment, conflict resolution, communication skills and teamwork. Training enhances the precept experience and helps prevent burnout.

Pros and cons of being a nurse preceptor

There are advantages and disadvantages to taking on the preceptor role. Here are some factors to consider before taking on the added responsibility:

Pros

  • New nurses and nursing students bring a fresh perspective and enthusiasm to the workplace.
  • The precept experience gives both preceptor and student a chance to learn new skills.

Cons

  • Preceptors may find these extra duties overwhelming.
  • Some preceptors may be apprehensive about taking on the role, without sufficient training.

Although nurse precepting is not for everyone, those who do take on this important role are rewarded with the feeling of accomplishment, knowing they’ve helped launch many nurses’ careers. Veteran nurses also find their career reinvigorated by taking on the assignment.

If you’re interested in learning more about becoming a preceptor – or working alongside one – Wilkes University’s fully online nursing education master’s degree program is full of answers. Take a look at what we offer.

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