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Susan M. Sinclair

UNC Board of Governors 2018 Teaching Award Winner Susan Sinclair

UNC Wilmington

Teaching Philosophy

Student learning can be viewed as the successful combination of foundational knowledge with curiosity and motivation. An effective teacher inspires students to see the value of engaging in the course, beyond the letter grade achieved. Inspiration cannot occur without a connection. Therefore, an effective teacher must develop a relationship with students that communicates respect and advocacy for their success. I approach relationshipbuilding with students with authenticity and transparency. I rely heavily on recounting relevant experiences and sharing my passion for research to encourage critical thinking and impart the value of life-long learning. I view my role as a one that may begin as teacher in the classroom but transitions to mentor and advocate, after the course ends and for some students, well into their careers.

Effective teaching is more than individual success in my courses; it is also measured by success after graduation. My goal is to ensure that clinical research majors have had the learning opportunities, experiences, and mentoring needed for success in the clinical research profession. Students need content mastery, but also strong oral and written communication skills, problem-solving and critical thinking ability, and practice with professionalism. As a faculty member, I embrace my responsibilities for continually assessing and improving the curriculum, using all available program evaluation data. I have led curriculum development activities in the Clinical Research Program through major curriculum revisions, the development and revision of a minor, and the development of a certificate program.


Anchor New Content to Fundamental Concepts and Real World Experiences

Students are not typically familiar with clinical research when they enter the undergraduate program. It is not a subject covered in high school or University Studies. The learning curve can be steep. Relating the course to everyday life, such as the medicine cabinet, the package insert, the nightly news describing breakthrough cancer treatments, is a good first step. However, once we move into the code of federal regulations, study protocols, data analysis, enrolling subjects, and investigational product; corollaries to everyday life become less obvious. I rely on the basic tenants of clinical research including protection of human subjects and medication safety and efficacy to anchor the more complex topics and continually re-emphasize these important, overarching concepts.

Whenever feasible, I incorporate team-based learning and applied learning opportunities to simulate the real-world environment. In 2015, through an ETEAL applied learning project, I redesigned an online writing intensive course to provide real-world experience for undergraduate students. [The proposal is provided in the supporting materials: “3d) Course Materials ETEAL Proposal (funded 2015)”]. Students worked in teams to write a study protocol for a medical device for lung disease under development by a local company. Study protocol writing is a complex process requiring team effort, cross-functional expertise, team interaction, negotiation, and consensus building. Students managed team logistics and demonstrated creativity, thoughtful work, and positive team interactions. Initially, some students were concerned about the potential frustration of group projects, especially in an online course. However, I incorporated tools used in project management to allow student teams to manage timelines, roles, and responsibilities. I also structured the grading rubric to minimize the impact of lowperformers on others.

For selected learning goals, I encourage critical thinking by providing only enough information to allow the student to struggle with the question and formulate a response based on his or her understanding of the problem, as this simulates problem-solving in the real world. Grading rubrics are provided to encourage depth of thought and exploration rather than formulating a right or wrong answer. For project-based work, I remind students that through their diligence, they are becoming subject matter experts and will reasonably exceed my level of expertise on their project. Expressing this to students boosts their confidence and encourages ownership and excellence.

Course Design

Creativity is required to keep students’ interest in an online research course. Students may struggle if the online learning environment is too homogeneous. I use a variety of media and communication approaches to address the different learning styles represented in each classroom. For example, module overviews, provided in a video and in letter format, are explanatory with informal tone, meant to communicate the goals for the module succinctly. Content is delivered in a variety of ways including reading assignments (e.g., textbook, literature, internet sources), formal recorded lectures, impromptu lectures to address questions or review assignments, and external content from high-quality sources. Learning activities are developed to address the cognitive, psychomotor and affective domains, as delineated in the core competencies. I often include learning activities that require students to use knowledge from prior courses, preceding content within the course, and the life experiences of the student. To promote student engagement and the timely flow of information, I include a “Questions? Ask here.” ungraded discussion forum in each module, in addition to graded discussion forums. I have worked closely with e- Learning over the years and have completed the course, Applying the Quality Matters Rubric. Prior to teaching each semester, I update my courses based on student and peer evaluations and new learning about online pedagogy. I re-evaluate the role of the course in the larger curriculum and initiate discussions with faculty, former students, and community partners to inform my revisions, as appropriate. Following faculty review and approval, I develop course content and opportunities to assess learning to align with course learning outcomes, program learning outcomes, University Studies competencies (as applicable), UNCW learning outcomes, and the profession’s core competencies. [An example of content mapping is provided the supporting materials: “3a) Course Materials CLR 410 Syllabus…” on the last two pages.]

Curriculum Development

Change is constant in clinical research, which underscores the importance of regularly reviewing and updating the curriculum to ensure that it is current and relevant. Content mapping and curricular alignment to achieve desired outcomes are foundational to my teaching philosophy and one of my strengths. Teaching and revising multiple courses has provided an opportunity to improve quality in the curriculum and mentor other faculty members in teaching. As a leader and the only tenured faculty member in the Clinical Research program, I have buffered staffing shortages by teaching multiple courses. Since I began teaching at UNCW 11 years ago, I have taught 15 different courses, developed nine new courses, and conducted a major revision of six courses. I have designed and implemented two major curriculum revisions including the development and revision of the clinical research minor and a new graduate certificate program.

Mentoring in Teaching

The clinical research field involves a face-paced, competitive work environment that can be both rewarding of successes, but unforgiving of failure. These aspects emphasize the importance of mentoring students to create confidence in the subject matter and ability, improve communication skills, and develop professionalism. I have an open-door policy (and quick email response time) for students to discuss issues related to their courses, internship, and work-life balance. Being available and providing a listening ear and support alleviates unnecessary stress, which can hinder performance and productivity. At times, simply providing a one- or two-day extension on an assignment can enhance the learning activity for the individual student. To best prepare students for their internships and subsequent careers, I require professional writing style in discussion postings and email correspondence with the intent of shaping this practice into habit.


My teaching expertise is highly valued. Currently, I currently teach in three programs (Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Clinical Research and Doctor of Nursing Practice). Teaching across programs has provided opportunities to learn and contribute from multiple perspectives. As a life-long learner, I continually evaluate successes, failures, new technologies, and developments in online pedagogy. Through professional developments available at UNCW and externally, I plan to continue to grow as an effective teacher, focusing my learning efforts on effective online learning strategies.

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