By Nicole Fauteux
“Some people say students don’t take self-assessment seriously,” says Dr. Diane Hoelscher, Chairperson of the Department of Patient Management at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry (UDM), but she doesn’t dwell on this or on the other concerns that skeptics voice about self-assessment. “I think the value is in the process,” she says with confidence. “We are engendering in our students the ability to look and see and think about their work.”
Dr. Hoelscher should know. She began using self-assessment when it was first introduced at UDM in the early 1990s. She was just coming in as a new course director, and Dr. G. William (Bill) Knight, currently Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry, had just arrived at UDM. He approached Dr. Hoelscher about including self-assessment in the preclinical simulation class she taught in operative dentistry. As advocates for self-assessment, Dr. Knight and his colleague, Dr. Pam Guenzell, now retired, were blazing new ground at UDM.
“Their philosophy was, it’s important for the students to self-evaluate and understand where they’re at in terms of the criteria,” recalls Dr. Hoelscher. “That resonated with me. An expert dentist can say, that’s good or that’s bad, but how does that help the student learn? The criteria allow you to say, it’s good in this area, but the angle isn’t right or this edge is rough. That helps the students to quantify what they’ve done and opens up a whole conversation where there’s so much more rich learning going on.”
With the assistance of her two mentors, Dr. Hoelscher went to work developing evaluation criteria and implementing self-assessment in her course. The students readily accepted the process, and liked the fact that they knew exactly where they stood. Today, self-assessment is part of the culture at UDM.
“When a student who fails comes to my office,” Dr. Hoelscher says, “I pull out the criteria and their evaluation. When I taught preclinical operative procedures, I would pull out my measuring device, and they didn’t have anything to say except, ‘Yes. You’re right.’”
When self-assessment was first introduced, the chair of the Operative Dentistry Department was supportive, but many other faculty members were skeptical. These included the co-director of Dr. Hoelscher’s course, a more seasoned faculty member who did not fully buy into the concept. Fortunately, he was willing to let her run with it. Today self-assessment has been instituted in all of UDM’s preclinical and clinical courses, and it is being used to evaluate critical thinking as well in the senior year evidence-based dentistry (EBD) course. Students are asked to include written reflections in a portfolio of work related to EBD.
“I’ve been reading this year’s D4 portfolios,” Dr. Hoelscher commented last fall, “and the students are able to discuss their strengths and weaknesses in a way that’s sometimes very amazing. This form of self-assessment feels like a really good way to grab onto the question of how well do students critically think.”
Despite widespread agreement that the ability to self-assess is essential in the health professions, a growing body of literature calls into question whether or not anyone is truly capable of evaluating his or her own work. Dr. Hoelscher has given the question considerable thought.
“I don’t think we need to get too hung up on whether students are able to truly say what their performance was,” she concludes. “If they can say, I did this and maybe I could have done it better, and you open up a discussion about how they could have done it better, then learning has occurred.”