How Embedded Assessment Can Help Your Dental School Measure Critical Thinking

November 9, 2016 Kristen Hicks

Your students need a lot of knowledge to be good dentists, but knowledge alone won’t be enough for them to serve their patients well. Dentists don’t merely need to be equipped with an extensive list of facts about dental health; they need to know how to think critically and deal with patients respectfully and effectively.

That part is arguably harder to teach, and definitely harder to test, than straight knowledge, but it’s not impossible. Dental school educators have to make critical thinking an important part of their students’ skill sets.

Why Critical Thinking Is Important in Dentistry

Any job that involves dealing with people means having to consider a lot of complicated factors to reach a reasonable conclusion. The most common or obvious cause for a problem isn’t always the one you’re faced with, and if a dentist doesn’t take the time to talk patients through what they’re experiencing, the dentist faces a high risk of misdiagnosing issues and failing to provide the right treatments.

A good dentist knows that working with and understanding people is as much a part of the job as cleaning teeth or filling cavities. You’re not just treating sets of teeth; there’s an entire person connected to every mouth you work on.

Students need to learn how to determine the right questions to ask when faced with a wide range of patients and dental issues. They need to be able to carefully consider multiple possibilities based on the knowledge they have. Only once they’ve developed those critical-thinking skills will they be capable of making the best decisions in the field.

How to Bring Critical Thinking into the Classroom

The American Dental Education Association recommends a number of different tactics and approaches to teach critical thinking in class. All of them focus on challenging students to actively solve problems and think through solutions, instead of just demonstrating their ability to memorize facts.

A few good techniques to implement in your courses include:

  • Case-based scenarios—Clinicals and assignments that present students with specific scenarios they’re likely to encounter give them a chance to work through the kinds of decisions their careers—and more importantly, the dental health of their patients—will depend on once they start working as dentists.

  • Group work—Working with a group to tackle assignments gives students a chance to bounce their ideas off of other people and have their perspectives challenged. Having a number of viewpoints to consider before landing on a decision can help students get outside of their own heads and improve their skill of empathizing with people who have different experiences than their own.

  • Follow-up discussions—When a student provides an answer, the discussion shouldn’t stop. Ask students what the evidence for their approach is. Talk about other factors that might change what the best answer is. Your students have chosen a field in which the right answers aren’t simple black-and-white solutions; demonstrate that in the way you discuss topics in class.

Teaching critical thinking is one part of the job, but you also want to make sure your students are effectively learning it.

How to Use Embedded Assessment to Measure Critical Thinking

When you work regular assessments into your curriculum to check on student progress, you get a much clearer idea of where your students are in their learning at any given point in the semester. By including questions on your exams that measure critical thinking as well as knowledge and switching between objective exams and subjective assignments, you can ensure you better measure the full breadth of skills your students need to learn.

Multiple-choice questions can be written in ways that challenge students to compare different treatment options and predict how each will play out. You can add even more critical-thinking measurement to your exams by including short-answer components alongside your multiple-choice questions that give students the chance to explain their thinking for the answer they chose—that makes it harder for them to take the test on autopilot and ensures they’re thinking through their answers.

With ExamSoft’s rubrics, you can apply the same tagging system and measurement process to subjective assessments as you do to objective exams. Rubrics make it easier to grade clinicals and other types of subjective assignments, and they produce assessment data that show you how a student’s performance on each assignment relates to his or her overall progress for the semester.

In other words, embedded assessment doesn’t have to be all about exams. You can bring in a mix of assignment types that are specifically designed to provide students with more experience in critical thinking and use those same assignments as part of your assessment data collection to track student progress throughout the semester.

Your dental students are taking your lead. If the curriculum they face in dental school is predominantly focused on learning facts by rote memorization, they’ll go out into the world thinking that’s enough. If their instructors make it clear that addressing the individual needs of each patient and thinking through complex problems are part of the job as well, both your students and their future patients will be much better off for it.


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