Structure of Dental Undergraduate Programme
The Faculty of Dentistry provides a four-year undergraduate
dental course leading to the Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS)
degree. The selection of candidates for the course is stringent
and those seeking admission require good grades in Chemistry,
either Biology or Physics, and a third subject at the Singapore-Cambridge
‘A’ levels General Certificate of Examination.
The candidates are also required to have good grades for their
General Paper and second language as well as the Scholastic
Aptitude Test. There is also a manual dexterity test and an
interview for candidates who are short-listed for the course.
The BDS course comprises two pre-clinical and two clinical
years. In the pre-clinical years (Year 1 & 2), dental
undergraduates share some common core subjects with medical
students such as Anatomy, Biochemistry, Physiology, Dental
Anatomy & Histology, Pharmacology, Microbiology (including
Immunology) and Pathology. This is to ensure dental students
acquire the essential basic science knowledge needed for clinical
practice. They also receive extensive pre-clinical training
in dentistry. The methods of instruction include lectures,
tutorials, seminars, laboratory sessions and technique work.
In the clinical years (Year 3 & 4), students manage
and treat their own patients under supervision. It is here
that they apply the theory and skills acquired previously
in the various disciplines. The programme is rigorous with
comprehensive didactic and clinical sessions. A multidisciplinary
approach to solving problems is emphasised, thus encouraging
the undergraduates to integrate and fully understand management
and treatment modalities. Courses such as General Practice
Management, Behavioural Science and Problem-based Learning
(PBL) have been added to the curriculum to prepare the student
for the demands of clinical practice upon graduation.
The dental curriculum is competency-based, with emphasis
in imparting basic skills essential to the practice of dentistry.
The didactic programme teaches relevant knowledge and skills
necessary to train a competent general dental practitioner.
Clinical competency tests have replaced the schedule-based
clinical assessment. A student will sign up for competency
tests for different procedures after he or she has adequate
exposure to basic clinical competency. This will allow the
more clinically-competent students to progress at a faster
rate. At the same time, students who may need remedial help
can be identified.
Since dental students have to accomplish so much in such
limited time, it is important for them to be able to learn
effectively and efficiently. They spend many hours taking
part in clinics and attending didactic sessions, approximately
40 hours a week in the faculty, and even longer hours in the
laboratory after school, preparing for their clinical cases.
The aim of this preliminary study was to investigate the students’
perception of the effectiveness of teaching methods, the teaching
staff and how they cope with the pressures of their dental
Subjects and Methods
During March 2003, a questionnaire was distributed to 48
clinical year students (15 Year 3 and 33 Year 4) who were
assured that their responses would be kept anonymous and confidential.
This questionnaire assessed, on a 4-point Likert scale, the
methods of teaching that they found effective, their methods
of learning, the people that support their learning, their
time for social activities and how they coped with the pressures
of their studies.
A total of 37 students (11 Year 3 and 22 Year 4) completed
the questionnaire giving a response rate of 77%.
- Helpful teaching methods
More than 75% of the dental students agreed that mass lectures,
tutorials and class lectures were helpful teaching methods
in their learning process. A mixed response of agreement
was found for group projects/assignments. A high proportion
agreed that individual and group laboratory/practical work
was helpful. About 85% of the students agreed that PBL was
Table 1. Helpful teaching methods
Figure 1. Helpful teaching methods
- Effective study methods
Slightly more than two-thirds of the students found that
group study was an effective method in their learning. 94%
preferred to study alone. The use of internet was found
to be an effective study tool in 85% of the sample. All
the dental students in this sample agreed that understanding
concepts was important for effective studying. The need
to memorise facts was found to be an effective study method
in 75% of the students. About one-third of the sample found
that studying with music or TV on to be effective. Less
than a third of the sample agreed that tape-recorded lectures
were effective in their learning.
Table 2. Effective study methods
Figure 2. Effective study methods
- People who are helpful in learning process
Subject lecturers and tutors were found to be most helpful
in the learning process by the dental students. Laboratory
technicians were also found to be helpful as reflected by
the 82% response rate. Head of department was found to be
helpful in 75% of the sample. Classmates (76%) and representatives
(67%) were also found to be helpful people. Library staff
and administrative personnel played a lesser role in assisting
the learning process.
Table 3. People who are helpful in learning process
Figure 3. People who are helpful in learning process
- Spending less time with family and friends
About two-thirds of the students agreed that they had less
time for family and friends outside university. Slightly
more than half of the students agreed that they spent less
time with friends of either or both sexes, foreigners in
Singapore and people overseas.
Table 4. Spending less time with
family and friends
Figure 4. Spending less time with family and friends
- Coping with pressures
More than two-thirds of the students coped with pressures
of student life by taking part in leisure activities such
as sports and movies. Majority of the students preferred
to confide in their family and friends when under stress.
The students were more likely to confide in their friends
outside university than their classmates. The majority of
the students (82%) would not confide with the teachers.
A minority of the students (30%) would go out for drinks
with their friends as a means of stress relief.
Table 5. Coping with pressures
Figure 5. Coping with pressures
The teaching methods that dental students found most helpful
were lectures and tutorials. These results suggest that the
students in this sample had not totally steered away from
the influence of the pre-university educational system that
is very much a teacher-centred approach rather than student-centred.
However, a majority of the students (85%) found Problem-based
Learning to be effective in helping them to learn. This finding
is indicative of the educational value to the students with
the introduction of PBL modules into the dental curriculum
to complement the traditional teaching methods. The dental
course is compact and rigorous with new clinical and scientific
information being introduced daily. Thus it was not surprising
to find that the dental students still preferred the top down
approach in their learning as it would reduce the time needed
to gather and assimilate relevant information at the expense
of appreciating the learning process of attaining knowledge.
Group assignment/project was not found to be a teaching method
that was as effective as group or individual lab/practical
work. This could be due to the fact that dental training is
very much a practical course that requires hands-on approach
in the learning. It could be speculated that group assignment/projects
that were didactic or research in nature were not valued as
much as practical training by the students. The assumption
made was that the dental students considered group assignments/projects
to be a separate entity from PBL when answering the questionnaire.
Moreover, there is currently no peer appraisal system in the
evaluation of dental students. As such, group assignments/projects
that did not have an impact on the overall performance rating
would be considered less useful. The nature of dentistry is
one that requires independent practical training. Thus it
was not surprising to find that teaching methods that require
individual ownership of the training and performance to be
considered highly useful by dental students.
A majority of the dental students preferred to either study
alone or in groups. These findings suggest that both independent
and interdependent learning played an important role in the
learning process despite the fact that the nature of dental
training could be individualistic at most times. The competitive
nature of the dental course could also motivate students to
study alone. Further investigation will be necessary to determine
whether independent or interdependent learning is more effective
and constructive during the course of training. A majority
of the students found that memorising facts was also a helpful
study method. This finding was typical with any medical or
dental training whereby certain basic clinical or scientific
information must be committed to memory for efficient clinical
application. In addition, all students in this survey agreed
that understanding concepts was important to help them study.
This finding might be reflective of a level of maturity in
the thinking of these students. More information will be needed
to find out if understanding concepts is able to better assist
in memorising factual information at university level of education.
Subject lecturers and tutors were most influential in helping
the students to learn. In the present dental curriculum, heads
of department are also involved in teaching both didactic
and clinical subjects. Lesser teaching contact time could
be a possible reason for the perceived lesser attention felt
by the students given to them by the heads of department.
Two-thirds of the sample agreed that classmates were helpful
in the course of learning. This finding reflected the need
of interdependent learning among the students. However, which
aspect of the learning process dental students need to rely
on one another will require further investigation. Laboratory
technicians were also found to be helpful by the students.
As mentioned previously, a significant part of the dental
curriculum consists of practical training that includes laboratory
work. Thus this finding validated the importance of having
quality dental technicians to assist the students in their
learning process. Administrative personnel and library staff
had lesser influence on the learning process. However, this
finding does not mean that they are not important. It might
merely indicate that the students had lesser contact with
these people who did not have a clear and immediate educational
impact on their learning process.
Dental students generally agreed that they spent less time
with family and friends outside dentistry. This was to be
expected due to the long hours of the dental course. Staying
in student hostels might also contribute to the lesser time
spent with family. However, slightly more than half of the
students did not find that the educational process had reduced
their contact time with friends, presumably within the same
course. This finding reflected the close-knit environment
unique to the dental course.
Two important finding with regards to how dental students
cope with pressures was that 82% of the students would occasionally
or seldom/never confide their problems to the teachers and
48% would frequently keep the problems to themselves. These
findings could mean that dental teachers were approachable
and effective for educational purposes only. Further investigation
will be required to determine the perception of dental students
towards their teachers’ ability to help them cope with
pressures from other aspects of life that may affect their
educational performance. In addition, a great proportion of
dental students would rather confide their problems to friends
unrelated to the dental course. This might be indicative of
the highly competitive nature of the local dental undergraduate
One of the limitations of this study was the small sample
size. As such, the use of statistical analysis would not be
meaningful and appropriate. The sample included only students
in the clinical years. A larger sample consisting of both
pre-clinical and clinical students is necessary for future
studies. However, this study has provided a broad spectrum
of potential areas for future educational research in dentistry.
Greater refinement of the questionnaires that address specific
issues of the dental education is proposed.
The following conclusions could be drawn from this study:
- Lectures and tutorials were preferred teaching methods.
- PBL was found to be helpful in the learning process.
- Individual/group, practical/lab work was more helpful
than group assignment/project.
- A majority of the dental students studied in groups or
- Understanding concepts was unanimously agreed to be helpful
in the learning.
- Subject lecturers and tutors were most helpful in the
- Dental students spent less time with family and friends
- Dental students rather confide in family/friends than
Dental education is both science and art amalgamated into
a rigorous course that requires clinical proficiency and discipline
from dental students through both didactic and practical training.
The final outcome of the dental course is to produce clinically
competent dentists who are independent performers, critical
thinkers and long-term learners. A successful dental curriculum
will need to address the many facets of the course that will
impact the learning process.