Higher Education Ph.D. Dissertations


The Relationship of Work Experience to Clinical Performance in a Master of Physical Therapy Program

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Higher Education Administration

First Advisor

Carolyn Palmer (Advisor)


Research has extensively documented the impact of experience on learning.However, there are currently no studies within the physical therapy (PT) literature that address the relationship between work experience and clinical performance. The purpose of my research was to explore this relationship. The study, involving 155 students who completed a master of physical therapy (MPT) program between 2003 and 2006, examined differences in the clinical performance of two groups: nontraditional students who had worked as physical therapy assistants before entering the MPT program, and traditional students who had not. Clinical instructors used the Clinical Performance Instrument (CPI) to record midterm and final evaluations of student performance on 24 professional skills. For most of the skills, the two groups did not differ significantly in degrees of change from midterm to final scores. Final evaluations showed that the nontraditional students scored higher than the traditional students on all 24 skills and significantly higher on half of the skills. They also had a significantly higher number of exceptional scores. Further analyses showed that the number of years of work experience, age, and cumulative grade point average of the nontraditional students were not significantly correlated with their scores on most of the skills. The qualitative data provided in the comment sections of the CPI, along with the responses to a survey completed by clinical instructors who had worked with both groups of students in 2006, supported the quantitative findings. That is, clinical instructors consistently indicated that the nontraditional students demonstrated better clinical performance than did the traditional students. The results of this study have implications for graduate programs in PT and other health care professions. Recommendations for practice include considering previous work experience in the admissions process and developing programs that help nontraditional students adjust to graduate programs and prepare for transitions between the coursework and clinical phases of their programs. Future research should investigate other factors that may contribute to clinical performance outcomes or to the group differences found in this study.