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From the professor’s perspective: Strategies for success

Nov. 19, 2019
You can do it, and these strategies can help.

Courtney E. Vannah, IPDH, MS, MPH

Let’s get real about one thing: dental hygiene school is hard. I’m sure by now you’ve realized that your friends in other programs are enjoying the good life: sports events, social outings, weekend gatherings, and all that a typical undergraduate college experience encompasses. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, you’re grueling over oral anatomy and desperately trying to grasp the physics of radiation. And your “outsider” friends? They don’t get it. They don’t understand why you’re not at the social gathering of the century, and they certainly don’t understand why you’re choosing to study infection control on a Saturday night over a date with that cutie who just asked you out.

But here’s the deal: In the midst of all this, you’re entering a sisterhood/brotherhood that will last a lifetime. The gals/guys sitting next to you ... they get it! Drudging through this challenge together bonds us in ways that will connect us indefinitely, but first, we need to survive! So here are some strategies for academic success, from the professor’s perspective:

Read the text. Read your text assignments before coming to class. Think of the overwhelming abundance of knowledge you are required to know for your national board exams as pieces of information needing to be organized and filed in your brain. Before you can file a piece of information, you need a file folder to put it in. Reading the text before coming to class creates a file folder in your brain to place that class period’s learned knowledge in. You can then spend your class time focusing on decoding/understanding the information, rather than simultaneously trying to create a mental file folder in your mind.

Take notes with a pencil and paper. There is evidence that supports the notion that students actually retain information better and longer when they handwrite class notes. Thanks to the advent of technology, it has become more common practice to either take notes electronically or just rely on class slides as notes, and we’ve all but lost the art of traditional note-taking. However, going back to basics with a pencil and paper has been an effective means of committing information to long-term memory for decades. Once starting a professional education program, gone are the days of cramming for the exam and then forgetting everything you learned for that one event. You’ll need the information you’re learning today in your hygiene classes for a lifetime. Adopting strategies proven to help commit information to long-term memory is essential, and this is one of them.

Ask for help. For many, dental hygiene school is the first time they will struggle academically. Many of us arrived with a high GPA, maybe even in the top of our class in our former academic adventures. Then we took our first dental hygiene exam and bombed miserably. If you’re a student, like me, to whom academics always came easy, you might not possess the skills to navigate out of academic failure simply because you’ve never experienced it. Seek out your institution’s academic support resources. Ninety-five percent of the time, when I see students struggle it is for one of two reasons: study skills or test-taking skills (sometimes both). Your school’s academic support team is expertly qualified to help you in both of these areas. My suggestion? Don’t wait for that first exam failure; meet with them early and often to support your continued success ... even if it’s just bumping that B+ to an A-.

Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself. Ultimately, whether the grade came in exactly where you wanted it or not, it is whether you learned that matters most. In a health profession program, we’re no longer learning solely for the purpose of boasting a perfect GPA; we’re learning to improve the health of human beings throughout our careers. The more you learn, the better equipped you’re going to be to do just that. You can’t expect yourself to be an expert health-care provider on day one of dental hygiene school. Give yourself a break, and focus on your learning.

And probably most importantly, get to know and rely on your professors. Remember, your professors are part of the same sisterhood/brotherhood you’re now being inducted into. They’re on your team and they get it!

Courtney E. Vannah, IPDH, MS, MPH, is a veteran dental hygienist from the midcoast area of Maine. She developed a love for the field of dentistry at the age of 16 as a dental assistant. Courtney completed her undergraduate degree in dental hygiene and a master’s degree in public health at the University of New England, as well as a master’s degree in dental hygiene at the University of Texas, Health Science Center, San Antonio. After a varied career in many practice areas of dentistry, including oral surgery, cosmetic dentistry, and general practice, she turned her focus to public health as the founding director of the University of New England Children’s Outreach Program. She is now a full-time professor at the University of New England. Courtney can be reached at [email protected].