When the faculty at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) decided to map out a new curriculum for the School of Dentistry, Dean Huw F. Thomas asked his colleagues to put aside any preconceived notions about curriculum. He didn't want them to limit change to what they thought might be possible. He asked them to focus instead on what they wanted to achieve. Together they created a list of some 30 goals to guide development of the new curriculum. These included:
- taking a synergistic approach to the basic and clinical sciences
- reinforcing basic science education throughout the four years of dental school
- getting students into the clinic sooner
- creating students with better reasoning skills
The curriculum that grew from these goals contains much of the same knowledge and skills previously taught at UAB, but now they are delivered in a strikingly different package. The basic sciences are no longer taught by discipline. Instead students study the bodily systems, drawing on the expertise of several professors. UAB also instituted small-group, case-based learning for 50% of its nonclinical curriculum. This serves as a bridge between the basic and dental science curricula. Pairing study of the renal system, for example, with a case study in which the patient has diabetes illustrates the application of the basic sciences to the dental arena in a way students can immediately grasp.
This is UAB's first year using the new curriculum, but according to Dr. Michael S. McCracken, Associate Professor and Associate Dean for Education and Curriculum Development, case-based learning has eliminated the question "why are we learning this?" It has also significantly raised the level of discourse among UAB's dental students.
"The faculty are amazed by how much freshmen can learn on their own. When you walk in on a group meeting, you think you are listening to a senior-level discussion. The students are teaching themselves by going to the Web, calling physicians, interviewing clinic personnel. They are not only learning the dozens of facts we've woven into the cases, they're bringing in dozens more and learning how to investigate in the process."
The new curriculum also places less emphasis on meeting individual requirements, and more on preparing the whole student to meet professional expectations. The use of e-portfolios to assess students in the areas of professionalism, research, service, and clinical competencies supports this effort. UAB is getting help with this from ADEA CCI Liaison Dr. Cynthia C. Gadbury-Amyot, who has successfully implemented e-portfolios at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dentistry (see November Liaison Ledger).
Ultimately UAB will look to board scores, residencies, rates of continuing education, and self-assessments of students as practitioners to evaluate the success of the school's recent innovations. But judging from the students' enthusiasm, their course reviews, and faculty feedback, Dr. McCracken and others at UAB believe they are firmly on the path to achieving the goals they set for the new curriculum.