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Starting Off Right

Generally, the best way to begin planning for a teaching assignment is to reread current dental textbooks as well as overview articles and handouts on the subject from continuing-education courses. You might also consider calling your alma mater or a local dental school to seek the insight of professors in the field of which you intend to focus. Clinical professors will surely be pleased to help a volunteer plan a lecture in their subject area. They may even provide some teaching aids such as slides, Power Point presentations, or handouts.

As dental professionals acquire a great deal of dental knowledge and skill through small-group interactions and mentoring at the chairside, it is wise for volunteer teachers to duplicate that system as much as possible using demonstrations in a clinical setting and by allowing learners to participate as much as possible. The aim is to teach small amounts of information each time. Planning instruction that follows logical steps allows you to assess how well your teaching is registering with learners and relating to their everyday practice. For example, if a clinical subject is being taught, the steps that a clinician would take to obtain a diagnosis and treatment plan should be explained. The differential diagnosis and treatment rationale should be communicated so that learners can understand what clinicians do in practice and why. That method provides a great deal of clinical relevance, which can facilitate an understanding of the concepts. It also puts teaching on a personal level, which is preferable to a review from a textbook. Such a process can also make teaching more interesting and can actually help volunteers in their own clinical practices at home.

Teaching should be as active as possible. Adults learn best by actively doing things rather than listening to lectures. The following statement in many ways sums up the learning process.

  • If I hear it, I forget it. If I see it, I remember it.
  • If I do it, I know it. If I discover it, I own it.

Teaching clinical skills requires an especially active form of teaching. One of the best methods is facilitating practice by small-group learners on typodonts and patients under close, direct supervision—usually in a facility similar to that of a dental school with equipment that is available. While demonstrating the techniques that have been discussed can also be helpful, it is not as effective as hands-on instruction. The same can be said of videotapes, CD-ROMs, and visual teaching aids. Although these are less effective than hands-on instruction, they tend to be more easily understood than the traditional lecture model.

A lecture is traditionally used for teaching knowledge rather than skills. To be most successful, lectures should be kept simple, essential, and relevant; use simple language that a learner understands; remain focused on the information at hand and avoid digressions; and be assessed frequently to see if the information being taught is being understood. In small, informal groups discussions occur much more freely and, unlike lectures, there is a greater feeling of working with a local audience rather than teaching down to them. In fact, it is in this setting that volunteers are often surprised to learn of novel or unusual approaches to problem solving that local professionals have depended on. This direct discourse can be a great help in bringing people and learning together.