An experiential service-learning project on oral health examination and education | BMC Medical Education

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Experiential service-learning is a pedagogical approach that connects theory and practice by giving students the opportunity both to participate in a service that meets community needs and to reflect on the experience in class in order to gain a deeper understanding of the course content [7]. It is becoming increasingly popular and has been applied in many fields of higher education such as public health [2–3, 8], nursing education [9], engineering education [10], hospitality education [11] and so on. This project presents an example of the experiential teaching approach of service-learning in dental education. In fact, there were numerous service-learning applications in the field of dental hygiene [12,13,14], such as “Oral Health on Wheels” [12]. Different from other oral health education programs [12,13,14], this project integrated theoretical learning, dental epidemiological investigations, data analysis, creation of scientific oral health education materials and oral health education. Students used the data they collected to identify the oral problems encountered by children in kindergarten and their knowledge of oral health. They learned how to perform oral health surveys, provide oral health education, and apply the knowledge learned in the theoretical class to actual practice throughout the project. This program not only improved the students’ community service ability but also their ability to create scientific oral health education materials.

A previous study reported that experiential service-learning can result in substantial changes in students’ comprehension of specialized knowledge [7]. Similar to previous research, these findings also demonstrate that experiential service-learning enhances students’ comprehension of specialized knowledge and improves their theoretical performance. This phenomenon can be explained by two reasons. Firstly, service-learning engages students in active learning. They learned by participating in this project and reflecting on their experiences, which can be more effective than traditional methods such as lectures or readings [15]. Secondly, experiential service-learning provides students with the ability to apply their knowledge and skills to real-world situations and offers them the opportunity to serve their community and make a positive impact, which can be beneficial to their understanding of the relevance and practical application of their coursework in addition to providing a rewarding and meaningful experience.

Experiential service learning not only helps students develop a variety of professional and personal skills, including communication, problem solving, leadership, and teamwork that are of great value in various career and life contexts, but also enhances the faculty‒student relationship [8, 16,17,18]. Currently, the proportion of dentists and residents in China is approximately 1:8000 [19], which is far lower than the WHO-recommended approximately 1:5000 in developing countries [20], suggesting that China’s oral health resources are insufficient. Additional prevention measures are needed, and oral diseases prevention or oral health promotion work should be strengthened. Oral health education helps the public form good oral health habits, and oral examination can find problems early and deal with them in time. Therefore, oral health examination and education are effective means to prevent oral diseases. Through Oral Health Examination and Education programs, students can not only master oral epidemiology knowledge but also improve their oral examination skills and cultivate their concept of the public health service.

Although experiential service-learning is a powerful teaching method with many benefits for students, some potential shortcomings or challenges exist. Inequality of experiences and potential risks may be an obvious shortcoming of experiential service-learning teaching method [21]. Some students may have more access to opportunities for meaningful experiential service-learning due to their extroversion. In addition, experiential service-learning depends on external partners, such as communities, which can be another challenge if these partnerships are not well established or fail to satisfy the demands of the students. There are several shortcomings in the study. Firstly, the dental students did not perform the consistency check on site, which may affect the reliability of the caries data. Secondly, the questionnaire for three grades were completely consistent, which may be unreasonable. The children in the junior classes may not fully understand the meaning of some questions, such as “can I avoid dental caries by sealing the pits and fissures”. Thirdly, the project did not make any evaluation, so the effect of the improvement about the achievements with the intervention for the preschool children was unknown.

There are several suggestions for the Oral Health Examination and Education project. First, a major challenge was the communication with the community. The course had to be rescheduled several times, which inevitably affected students’ practical learning. Therefore, communicating with the community to confirm the visiting time before creating the schedule is necessary. Moreover, the establishment of multiple community partners and the preparation of alternatives before class can function as effective ways to deal with the problems of postponing classes. Another challenge was that the students were not skilled enough to check all the children’s oral cavities in a limited time. Additionally, according to the students’ feedback, they expected to receive preview materials before the theoretical class to deepen their understanding of the course and improve their efficiency. Therefore, preview materials such as videos and interactive tutorials on oral cavity examination should be distributed before the theoretical class. Furthermore, hands-on training should be provided before students go into the community, such as simulated clinical practice, with the aim of helping them develop necessary skills required in the oral examination and the confidence to perform oral health examinations on children.

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