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Campus Spotlight: University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine

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By Janet Hulstrand

UPItt SDM LogoAt the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine (Pitt SDM) a variety of initiatives encourage students to make a habit of self-directed learning.

"Dentistry can be a very solitary profession,” says Zsuzsa Horvath, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in Pitt SDM’s Department of Dental Public Health and Director of Faculty Development in the Office of Faculty Affairs. “Once the students get out of school, many times they are in private practices where they are working alone. They may have a partner, or they may even be in a group practice, but even so, they really have to depend on themselves to continue to develop their knowledge and skills after they’re out of school.” 

To prepare students for a lifetime of continuous learning, Pitt SDM builds the ability to engage in self-assessment into every aspect of the curriculum. “Students get accustomed to evaluating their own performance, and comparing that to faculty assessment of their performance,” says Joseph Ambrosino, M.S., M.P.M., D.M.D., FAGD, Instructor in the Department of Dental Public Health and Director of the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine Continuing Dental Education Center. “When that assessment differs, it can be an opportunity for them to learn how to objectively and accurately assess their competencies, and discover areas for improvement.” These skills, he stresses, can be very important later in their careers. 

Pitt SDM places a strong emphasis on continuing education (CE) as well. Starting in their first year, all students are required to attend one in-person CE course and one online CE course annually. “It is hoped that this exposure to continuing education will help foster a basis for lifelong learning,” Dr. Ambrosino says. 

The dental school also provides students with the incentive of being able to take additional CE courses on a variety of topics offered throughout the year at no additional cost—a policy that also applies to newly minted dentists for the first two years after they graduate. A requirement that students attend the annual American Student Dental Association (ASDA) Steel City Dental Expo, at which an outside speaker gives an educational presentation on a topic selected by the ASDA officers, further underlines the notion that students should take advantage of CE opportunities. 

Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL™), another pedagogical approach that engages students in self-directed learning at Pitt SDM, calls for students within a larger classroom to work in small groups facilitated by an instructor. The POGIL method is based on research confirming that students who are actively engaged in an interactive learning environment are better able to retain knowledge and take ownership of their own learning than they are when information is delivered in a traditional lecture format. 

“POGIL emphasizes active learning through understanding, rather than memorization,” Dr. Horvath explains. “This helps students organize new knowledge in a way that facilitates retention and the ability to apply knowledge to real situations.” 

In the POGIL classroom, students work with highly structured materials and interpret them using questions designed to both address course objectives and help students reach their own valid conclusions. “The instructor’s role is to monitor and facilitate the learning process by intervening to address students’ questions and to allow for the sharing of results across the groups within the classroom,” Dr. Horvath says. “It helps students develop for themselves the most important concepts being covered in the course.”

Pitt SDM students also have had the opportunity to prepare for lifelong learning through an innovative extracurricular offering, Writing for Healers, which draws on the emerging discipline of narrative medicine. “A growing body of research suggests that teaching reading and reflective writing can help clinicians improve their ability to provide patient-centered care,” Dr. Horvath says, adding, “After an interaction with a patient, you have to be able to evaluate what went well, what you need to change next time, and so on. This kind of reflection is a crucial component of lifelong learning.”  

She admits that some students are a bit resistant to reflecting on their practice at first. “Especially in the first two years, they’re so overwhelmed with the demands of the basic science curriculum that they don’t always see the value in it. But we have them practice it even if at the moment it doesn’t seem the most important thing to them. With time, they come to appreciate it.”

An additional benefit of Pitt SDM’s pervasive emphasis on self-directed learning is that some students enjoy the process so much they develop an interest in pursuing academic dental careers. (The school has a program for those students as well.) Meanwhile, all Pitt SDM students benefit because they are likely to find their careers more rewarding—no matter which path they choose—if they continue to engage in learning throughout the years. 

Dr. Horvath refers to the case of a colleague who practices dentistry full time and teaches at Pitt SDM one day a week. “She says for her it’s like a weekly CE course built into her life. She sees students and residents, sees what they’re doing, bounces ideas back and forth with colleagues. She feels like this really enriches her professional life.” 

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