Co-learning integrated into dentistry curriculum

1 December 2021

What started out as a pilot project for a possible solution to a COVID-related clinical challenge, is now being permanently integrated into the dentistry curriculum at the School of Dentistry.

The School of Dentistry Oral Health Dental Clinic, facing the challenge of continuing to provide patient care while providing clinical learning experiences for students during the pandemic, was finding that there was a very limited number of registered dental assistants who could provide chairside suctioning using HVE (High Volume Evacuation) for aerosol generating procedures (AGPs).

To solve the problem, a four-handed dentistry approach was implemented where first- and second-year dental students became co-learners and provided chairside assistance for the third- and fourth-year dental students in the Oral Health Clinic, Kaye Edmonton Clinic.

“When the pandemic arrived, in order for our students to continue to have clinical experiences and to maintain patient care,  we needed a way for the senior students to  have chairside support,” says Anthea Senior, Associate Chair, DDS Clinical Education . “The co-learning opportunities benefitted students in all years of the program,” says Senior. “Our junior students got to go to the clinic right from  the first month of first year, and our senior students were able to graduate on time.”

Clinical co-learning happened from September 2020 to July 2021. Each first- and second-year student was assigned two or three clinical co-learning sessions per week. In the end, 64 junior and 87 senior students co-learned together for about 50 clinics each. Pre-COVID, junior students were only scheduled to shadow senior students three or four sessions per academic year.

“Patients also enjoyed the chance to chat with the co-learners chairside, and appreciated the students putting them at ease,” says Senior. “The co-learning pilot had a lot of moving parts and so a big shout out to all the faculty and support staff in the clinic that were able to make it happen.”

Second-year dentistry student Giulia Suriano says to have the patient interaction and experience of how the dental school clinic operates from the start of dental school is invaluable.

“Co-learning sessions have already had a profound impact on my education and interpersonal skills. Not only do we build our skills with patient interactions, but we also learn from our senior peers,” says Suriano. “Being in a patient-care setting with the guidance of more experienced students has improved my confidence immensely and will allow for a smooth transition when I move into the treatment provider role in the future.”

The co-learning experience was recently published in the article Surviving the pandemic: Dental students co-learning together to provide patient care, authored by Drs Anthea Senior, Hollis Lai, Doris Lunardon and Steven Patterson. The hands-on learning and enriched clinical experiences in the article were described as “surviving the pandemic with style” by the manuscript reviewers.