The Mindset to Successful Learning

The Mindset to Successful Learning

Several things happened this week that made me smile.  My colleague and I were reviewing some cases with a student and I remembered him as a bright student asking really good questions from my lectures.  And he came to us with well mounted models, waxed up teeth and ready to pick our brains about so many things.  I see a really enthusiastic student who is just eager to learn.  And this is precisely  what I wish the students to be: hungry for knowledge and willing to learn.

Unfortunately, I know from experience, the dental school setting has a way to demoralize us, strip our energy with so many policies to follow, and manuals and manuals to read and that COVID restrictions have not helped at all. I have been to three different dental schools and they are all the same.  The pure volume of students and patients that the institute has to support means it is easier to put all the work and responsibilities on the students for a lot of the mundane things.   And after following through policies, there is hardly energy left to do and learn dentistry.   In spite of that, the dental students are really the cream of the crop, they are all managing and coping with this environment and doing their best.

I didn’t come from a family of dentists and so no one told me how to survive this environment.  I had a hard time in dental school.  I felt that following order and policies got me no where in dental school.  But after going through three different dental schools, by the time I was in graduate school, I learned to develop a mindset to help me get through the years and ensured I learned what I wanted to learn.

Every year, I created a list of things I wanted to learn.  I ask myself how I can make it happen.  My list of things may change but these are objectives I can identify.  For most dental students, your objectives are to meet or exceed your clinical requirements.  At my graduate program, there were no clinical requirements but the program director will review our productions.  Some residents will take and pick their cases and get through the program as they see fit.  For me, I tried to learn as much as I can.  I didn’t want to graduate the program with cases that were just landed onto me.  Instead, I wanted to ensure that I learn the things I wanted to learn.  This can be in the form of reading, watching co-residents do the actual work or I doing the dentistry myself.  Of course, the last one is always the best experience.  But it doesn’t always happen.  For my first year, I wanted to ensure I read at least one text book in each discipline.  Be really comfortable with all the clinical and laboratory steps in basic removable prosthodontics and be able to place some dental implants. By second year, by looking at my list, I felt that I had made progress and then I will revise my list of objectives and identify other areas that require improvement.   I will add and remove based on my clinical and didactic experience from each year.  By having the list, I feel I am in control of my learning, rather than being a puppet being thrown into a clinic and to do all kinds of mundane things that may not help with my clinical dentistry.   Honestly, I felt that I really got what I wanted after three years in the program.  I felt that I had to work to make it happen.  I felt I got my money’s worth.

The reality is that there will be hurdles.  Common barriers may be the patients not following through treatment, insurance issues, faculty disapproval of treatment plan.  Whatever it is, recognize it and see if you can remove the obstacles.  Sometimes it means following up on insurance issues, reviewing the case with the patients or talking to another faculty member to see if this plan can work.  Keep looking for things to do.  Even the process of talking to a faculty member and showing a genuine interest, he or she will be willing to work with you for the sake of dental education.  I remember a senior oral surgery resident once taught me that even if you have done a simple extraction, ask the attending if you can throw in a stitch for the sake of learning and experience.  Most faculty will understand and allow you to have the experience from the learning objective.  Most faculty will know that because you are motivated to learn, he or she will allow you to do more than normally indicated.

The mindset is that I am in the drivers’ seat.  Yes, there will be tons of distractions…I can still hear these voices: “you have to return all the instruments on time, you haven’t completed your forms, you have not signed off on this”….and the list goes on and on.  But these become distractions that no longer drain my energy as I learn to focus on my learning objectives.  This mindset allowed me to  stay focused on my objectives and continue to learn the dentistry that I wanted to learn. I hope you find this post helpful. Thanks for reading.