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Communicating with the Student Clinician---Not a One-Way Street!

09/08/2015, 8:45am EDT
By Dan Dale PT, DPT

One of the most special, meaningful events in a clinician’s career is the opportunity to serve as a clinical instructor for a future professional colleague. We all as former students (or current students) can remember the ways in which clinical instructors challenged our ways of thinking, opened up our eyes to different methods, and introduced new research and techniques to help us grow our arsenal. It is truly a special thing when you think about it—to be entrusted with teaching and mentoring someone directly, one-on-one, for an extended period of time. Often times, I think that I would love to have this scenario for myself now as a clinician with a mentor or more experienced clinician so that I can have that unique interaction to better myself as a clinician.

However, I often times see this unique opportunity and relationship squandered. However, it isn’t the student that is responsible; rather, I see clinicians not taking the opportunity seriously enough. I firmly believe that you should significantly consider not accepting students until you have either taken the APTA’s Credentialed Clinical Instructor course, or if you already have a background in professional education. Again, to be given the opportunity to be someone’s personal mentor and instructor for 2-3 months, I think we as a profession need to invest more in preparing those instructors if we hope to keep the quality of clinical education at the highest level.

Per the APTA’s Credentialed Clinical Instructor Program (CCIP), the experienced clinical instructor should the possess the following:

·       Understanding of and experience with the management of the "exceptional" student

·       Ability to communicate effectively in a variety of situations, including those involving conflict

·       Ability to define student readiness and plan and conduct relevant learning experiences

·       Ability to conduct and document formative and summative information of student performance

·       Ability to apply the principles of teaching and learning in the instructional process

·       Ability to adjust supervisory approach based on students' need

·       Knowledge of legal issues and federal regulations related to clinical education


To take it a step further, the APTA Board of Directors wrote “GUIDELINES: CLINICAL INSTRUCTORS”, last updated in 2009, to address what the clinical instructor should be able to do in order to promote a successful learning experience. The first set of guidelines speaks to the clinical instructor acting in an ethical and legal manner, as well as demonstrating professionalism, critical thinking skills, and time management skills.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, then you know how I feel about the importance of good and appropriate communication. The second set of guidelines talks about the CI and their role in communication. Of note:

  • 2.1.1 The CI defines performance expectations for students.
  • 2.1.2 The CI and student(s) collaborate to develop mutually agreed-on goals and objectives for the clinical education experience.
  • 2.2.4 The CI is open to and encourages feedback from students, clinical educators, and other colleagues.

I find these three to be of the utmost importance from the document. The CI ultimately defines performance expectations for the student in a way that the student can understand. I find that establishing this early helps the student who struggles along the way—it sets a defined goal for the student to attempt to reach, and allows for remediation and/or disciplinary action should the student continually fall short. In 2.1.2, the use of the word “mutually” is the most important thing that I often see missed by the CI. The student must be allowed to communicate their goals and needs for the experience along with your own so that the student is motivated and involved in the learning process. Finally, the CI is ultimately responsible for seeking feedback about their role as a CI in order to continually improve their performance just as the student does during the rotation.


  • 3.1.4 The CI is willing to share his or her strengths and weaknesses with students.

We all as clinicians have our strengths and weaknesses, and that is acceptable. You must be honest with yourself (and your employer and your patients) when something is outside of your strengths. When you are mentoring a student, this is never more important. You have the opportunity to mold their ideas and their clinical skills, and if you are not comfortable with your own skills in this area, your student needs to know. This is an opportunity to develop a learning objective to assist with the student’s abilities in this area, and an opportunity for the CI to research and grow as a clinician at the same time.

I encourage you to read the APTA Guidelines for being a clinical instructor found here:

I also encourage you to pursue becoming a certified clinical instructor by taking the APTA’s excellent course. You can find more information here:

Sponsored by Daniel Dale, DPT

Daniel Dale, DPT

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Daniel graduated with his Doctorate in Physical Therapy in 2011 from Armstrong Atlantic State University. He currently works in the Day Program rehab unit at the Shepherd Center, a model center for spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation, located in Atlanta, GA. Daniel currently serves as Recording Secretary for the Physical Therapy Association of Georgia, and has served as a Delegate and Chief Delegate in 2014 representing Georgia at the APTA House of Delegates. Daniel has presented multiple times since 2011 at both Combined Sections Meeting and Annual Conference, directed towards leadership and engagement for Early Career Individuals. Daniel also has served on multiple task forces for the Physical Therapy Association of Georgia, the American Physical Therapy Association, and the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Daniel is a current APTA Credentialed Clinical Instructor, as well as a member of the APTA Perspectives Editorial Advisory Group. Recently, Daniel was named an APTA Emerging Leader for the state of Georgia in 2013. 

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